The Divine Comedy Cantica II: Purgatory by Dante.

Dante con in mano la Divina Commedia (Dante and His Poem) by Domenico di Michelino (1465).
Hell is depicted on the left of the painting, Purgatory behind, and Paradise in the sky.

It's been five months since I decided to revisit Dante's Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia; 1308-21), reading the first portion of the poem Hell or The Inferno at it is also known back in October. Next comes Purgatory (Purgatorio) in which Dante, guided by Virgil, climbs up the mountain of Purgatory in the Southern Hemisphere of Oceans. The poem begins,
To run on better water now, the boat
Of my invention hoists its sails and leaves
Away to stern that cruel stretch of sea;
And I will sing if this second kingdom
In which the human spirit cures itself
And becomes fit to leap up into heaven.
But here dead poetry rises again,
O holy Muses, since I am your own,
And here let Calliope rise a little,
Following my song with that sound from which
The pitiful Magpies felt so sharp a blow
That they despaired of ever being pardoned.
Sweet colour of oriental sapphire,
Which gathered in the clear face of the sky,
Right to the very edge of the first circle,
Restored to my eyes the touch of pleasure,
As soon as I issued from the dead air
Which had saddened my eyes and my heart...
Dante is on the shores of the island of Purgatory, and he encounters an old man who questions how it is he has escaped Hell. Virgil explains, and then identifies the man as Cato the Younger (95 - 46 B.C.), a Stoic and Roman statesman. Cato allows them to pass and they prepare for their journey through the Seven Terraces of Suffering, each associated with the Seven Deadly Sins: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth.

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things [Death of the Sinner, Judgment, Hell and Glory] by Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1500). 

They meet an angel who is guiding souls over the sea to the island, and they are singing In exitu Israel de Aegypto (During the departure of Israel from Egypt; from Psalm 114). Here Dante meets Casella, an Italian composer who died in 1299, and Casella explains how he has waited for some time before being picked by the Angel to cross over from Ostia to Purgatory. Next they meet Manfred, who tells them of how, though on his death he repented, he was excommunicated by Pope Clement IV and thus has to wait before he may climb the mountain.

Finally, Dante and Virgil begin to climb the mountain.

Ante-Purgatory (Cantos I - IX)

This part may divided into three: the first is the shore of the Island, which I've briefly written about above, the second deals with the Excommunicate, and the third the Late-Repentant.

As Dante and Virgil begin to climb the mountain they soon are in need of a rest. They find themselves surrounded by naked men and women lying against a great boulder. Here Dante meets Belacqua (most likely Duccio di Bonavia, another musician). Like Manfred he must wait for thirty years before he may enter into Purgatory and relies on the prayers of living people to speed up the process. Dante and Virgil continue and reach what is called the 'second spur', which are made up by people who died before receiving their last rites. Here they meet Buonconte da Montefeltro who died during the battle of Campaldino (between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, 1289). He did not receive his rites nor a proper burial.

Later they encounter Sordello (Sordello da Goito, another composer) who, once night has passed, guides them to the path to enter Purgatory. They pass by many monarchs (known as the Valley of Rulers) before finally crossing the gate into the First Terrace.

The First Terrace: Pride (Cantos X - XII)

Vanity by Frank Cadogan Cowper (1907).
From crossing the gate they follow a rocky and difficult path. Dante notices there is another path so beautiful it's almost overwhelming. There are sculptures of the Angel Gabriel and religious paintings so real Dante can hear the choirs singing from one of them. He then sees other images, including one of the Emperor Trajan (98 - 117 A.D.). As they continue they see lost souls bearing heavy weights as their penance, and in doing so they continue to praise God. One man, Omberto (the son of Guiglielmo Aldobrandesco) explains that he took an excessive pride in his family. He then describes the sinful pride of artists and army generals. Onward Virgil and Dante go and see more sculptures of the proud: Mars, Pallas, Niobe and others, and they next see an Angel who guides them into the next terrace.

The Second Terrace: Envy (Cantos XIII - XIV)

The poets enter the Second Terrace, inhabited by the envious. There we learn that the opposite of envy is love, and the souls cry out to the Virgin Mary and others. They wear cilices or hairshirts as part of their repentance, and their eyelids are sewn together rendering them blind. Dante talks to some of them, for example Guido del Duca and Rinieri da Calboli, and they also see Aglaulus, daughter of Cecrops, who was turned to stone (this story is told in Book II of Ovid's Metamorphoses) and she is there to remind the envious to continue to repent or else suffer her fate.

The Third Terrace: Wrath (Cantos XV - XVII)

As the poets leave the second terrace for the third they are almost blinded by bright light, meaning they are drawing closer to the heavens. They are guided towards to the third terrace and in this time Dante sees visions of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. They continue to walk and suddenly the light disappears, and they find themselves surrounded by black smoke. Here is where the wrathful must purge themselves of their anger, and Dante meets a man, Marco, who explains that sin and free will were intertwined, and without free will sinners could not be punished, and goes on to lament the union of the state and the church. On leaving, Dante recalls Procne, whose story is told in Book V of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Chaucer's The Legend of Good Women, and Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus and various wrathful sinners in history and literature.

The Fourth Terrace: Sloth (Cantos XVII - XVIII)

Having talked a while on the nature of love, Dante and Virgil enter the fourth terrace where the slothful are repenting their sins and being productive to right their wrongs. This is a short part of them poem, the idea being that the former-slothful ones are now too busy to talk to Dante.

The Fifth Terrace: Avarice (Cantos XIX - XXI)

The Siren by John William Waterhouse (1900).
The poets head for the fifth terrace, and Dante has more visions, this time of a siren, and she represents excessive love: avarice, gluttony, and lust. Suddenly Dante is repulsed by her and awakens. The two continue their journey and find the sinners of the fifth terrace face down crying. Dante meets Pope Adrian V, who tells the poet he was too focused on worldly things to worship God. He leaves the Pope and sees the other sinners (such as Hugh the Great, Duke of the Franks and Count of Paris) who are praising their opposites, for example Fabricius, a Roman consul who refused bribes, and Saint Nicholas. They then talk of King Midas and other avaricious figures of history and literature, and finally meet Statius, author of The Thebaid. Statius is to accompany them to the next terrace.

The Sixth Terrace: Gluttony (Cantos XXII - XXIV)

Here the gluttonous sinners are punished for forever having food out of reach. As this goes on they hear voices lecturing them on the virtue of temperance, using examples such as that of John the Baptist. There Dante is reunited with his old friend Donati Forese who re-enforces the necessity to pray for the dead.

The Seventh Terrace: Lust (Cantos XXV - XXVII)

This section begins with a (Medieval) scientific explanation of sex and how a soul is created. They go on to this final terrace where they see the sinners walking through a great wall of fire, which transfixes Dante. The sinners then talk of unnatural lusts, using as one example Sodom and Gomorrah. Towards the end they meet the Angel of Chastity, who tells Dante in order to pass through the seventh terrace he must pass through the fire. Only the promise of Beatrice waiting on the other side convinces him, and he suffers the flames.

The Earthly Paradise (Cantos XXIX - XXXIII)

Dante and Matilda (formerly called "Dante and Beatrice") by
John William Waterhouse (1914-17).
Having now passed through the seven terraces Dante enters the Early Paradise where he meets Matilda, a beautiful woman who explains to him that though man may avoid all the sins we have seen from the pit of hell to the seventh terrace, he is still born with original sin.

The Earthly Paradise is a Garden of Eden and is a place of innocence and great beauty. Dante feels anger towards Eve who essentially stole it with her arrogance from mankind. The poets see brilliant candles, and behind them the twenty-four elders along with four animals and a chariot drawn by a griffin. The chariot stops beside him and lo, it is Beatrice, Dante's great love. She berates him for his sins and takes him to the River Lethe where his memories of his past sins are erased, then later to the River Eunoe where his memories of his good deeds will be restored. Now cleansed, Dante may enter Paradise with Beatrice. Cantica II ends,
I came back from that most sacred of streams,
Made afresh, as new trees are renewed
With their new foliage, as so I was
Clear and ready to go up to the stars.
The descriptions of the Earthly Paradise are so breathtakingly beautiful I'm planning on starting the final cantica, Paradiso, this evening. I'll save any conclusions until I write my final post, but for now I'll say again - The Divine Comedy is my favourite poem.


  1. Just curious, whose translation did you read from?

    1. David H. Higgins. Really enjoyed it! First time I read it I read a very old prose translation which was a nightmare! :)

  2. I so admire you for reviewing The Divine Comedy. I wouldn't know where to begin. I hope you enjoy Paradiso! I found each "section" became more difficult as you read. I want to re-read it one day, but much more in-depth. Until then I get to enjoy your reviews!! :-)

    1. I thought of you when I was writing this! Reminded me of the Ovid days - it was tough to write this but I did it partly to get it in my head :) If you re-read it I bet I'll end up joining you - I love Divine Comedy! :D


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Getting up on Cold Mornings by James Henry Leigh Hunt.

The Prevention of Literature by George Orwell.

Moments of Being: Slater's Pins Have No Points by Virginia Woolf.