Classics Literature Theology

Understanding Dante’s Purgatorio

“Here let death’s poetry arise to life, / O Muses sacrosanct whose liege I am! / And let Calliope rise up and play / her sweet accompaniment in the same strain / that pierced the wretched magpies with the truth / of unforgivable presumptuousness.” Thus was Dante’s opening prayer as he entered Purgatory and prepared to climb the seven-story mountain of love. Dante’s Divine Comedy is more than just a Florentine’s fantasy of revenge and poetic allegory of the Christian faith. In many ways it was an epic paying homage to The Book—interweaving, however, the history of love from the pen of mortals to be concurrent with the drama of salvation revealed in Sacred Scripture.

Dante wandering in a dark wilderness for having “wandered off from the straight path” prefigures, and foreshadows, what the rest of the 100 cantos of the poem will deal with: Fleeing from that dark wilderness and returning to the straight and true. By wandering from the straight and true Dante had strayed from Love, and by finding himself in a dark wilderness, a dark forest, a blackened environ which blinds him, he had flung himself into hell by his aimless wandering. Sent by Beatrice, Dante’s love, Virgil rescues him and the two begin their infamous journey to hell and back. It is noteworthy to recognize that a poet comes to guide him back to the straight and true.

There are many figures whom Dante meets and converses with throughout the Divine Comedy. Why Virgil? Why Beatrice? Why Statius? Why St. Bernard of Clairvaux? There is also much symbolism in the imagery of the Dante’s descent through hell and ascent into heaven. Why a hell that is cold and dark? Why is Purgatory a place that has light? Why is heaven the realm of the white rose? Here we shall briefly explore these questions.

There is a poetic genius to Dante’s journey through hell and up Mount Purgatory. As to why Dante would choose Virgil to guide him through hell and most of Purgatory should be clear enough: Virgil was the great Roman poet of love. Omnia vincit amor. “Love conquers all.” Additionally, the Aeneid is a grand tale of love where Aeneas embodies the love for family and fatherland through his arduous and painstaking journey to Lavinian shores. Aeneas’ love for his father, his gods, and his countrymen drives him onward.

The relationship between Virgil and Dante is one of the most important developments for the reader to notice over the course of the epic. Virgil meets Dante under the direction of Beatrice. He serves as a functionary more than a friend and father figure in the opening cantos. When they begin their descent into hell Virgil has a short temper with Dante and answers Dante’s questions with a frank coldness reminiscent of the place they are descending into. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”

Moving beyond the realm of the neutrals into Limbo, Dante is present with the great poets of antiquity. Hell begins with the poets, but the poets of love and of ancient lore have done enough to keep themselves from the punishment of what lay beyond Limbo. As Virgil and Dante descend through the remaining circles of hell, their relationship is tested, strained, but also transformed.

Hell is a loveless place. This is the primary reason why Dante constructs a cold and dark hell, and why it gets progressively colder and darker as they moved into “a place where no light is.” Dante’s facial complexion changes too to symbolize the reality of entering the inferno of death: He becomes paler and paler. But as the two poets of love pilgrimage through hell and descend into the dark abyss which is Satan’s domain, it is the love of Dante and Virgil that enables them to proceed in their journey; they become the only shining conduits of lights in a place “where no light is.”

Dante and Virgil bond with each other and the two grow intimately connected to each other as they proceed down the circles of the abyss. In order to continue the journey through the loveless pit that is hell, they need to embody the love that is lacking from all the circles of hell. Virgil’s concern for Dante is revealed when he shields Dante from the head of Medusa—his actions, though loving, reflect a lack of trust between the two. That lack of trust is what must be overcome in the sixth through ninth circles of hell where a definitive rejection of truth, and trust, is what permeates these lower circles of the cold and dark pit.

As they descend the two grow in trust and love of each other. Descending into the third bolgia, Virgil helps to carry an exhausted Dante down the mountainside to converse with a damned soul (revealed to be Pope Nicholas III), “If you want to be carried down / along that lower bank to where he is, / you can ask him who he is and why he’s there.” This is a touching moment in the growing relationship between Virgil and Dante because it represents a moment of self-giving by Virgil and receptivity to that self-giving love by Dante. “Then he took hold of me with both his arms, / And when he had me firm against his breast, / He climbed back up the path he had come down.”

Building on this transformation in their relationship, Virgil opens up to Dante about his home—revealing a sense of trust and friendship that eventually becomes a father-son relationship especially by their entry to, and journey up, Mount Purgatory. While love and trust grows between the two, which stands in stark contrast to the pits of hell where no love and trust exist, the final barrier for them to overcome—forgiveness—is what they must manifest to journey into the final circle of hell. Virgil, fed up with Dante’s dallying, barks at him. Realizing he has wronged Dante, Virgil asks Dante’s forgiveness in the final symbolic act of their union together as companions and the necessary act of loving forgiveness to proceed into the ninth circle of hell.

Virgil’s asking for forgiveness and Dante’s granting of forgiveness is the only moment of forgiveness in Inferno. Love consummated itself in that act of forgiveness whereby the two pilgrim poets can venture into the loveless and unforgiving lair of Lucifer and all those human souls who malevolently betrayed the trust and love of others. The genius of Dante is fully revealed in this brief but touching, indeed, human scene in the journey through hell. It is as if there was a moral, hidden, unseen, barrier that the two needed to cross before descending into the final dark hole of the abyss. Without that consummated love through forgiveness, Virgil and Dante would have been stuck in the eighth circle of hell forever.

It was in hell, and through hell, that Dante learned love. He learned the bonding nature of love—that it is not good to be alone (as he was when we first met him wandering alone in the wilderness). He learned, through that bonding nature of love, that love requires relationships. He learned that love requires trust, which was exhibited with the trust built between Virgil and Dante. He also learned that love requires forgiveness, realized in that final and most touching—most human—episode in the thirtieth canto between Virgil and Dante which opened up the final circle of hell to them where their love conquered death and allowed them to slip down the body of the beast and wind up at the base of Mount Purgatory, the Mountain of Love connecting the human world with the celestial realm of complete and total love.

Read the rest here, from my literary column with TIC: Ascending the Mountain of Love (11 Dec. 2019)

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