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NA431612 - DANTE: Divine Comedy (The) - 2. Purgatory (Unabridged)
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in three parts, describing the poet’s imagined journey through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, and culminating in his vision of God.
To this extent it has much in common with the epic masterpieces of Homer and Virgil whose roots are in history and myth; but the ‘Commedia’ is also an allegory, dealing with nothing less than man’s relationship with and place within the universe. Dante’s universe was, of course, a medieval one in which the sun and stars revolved around the Earth, and while the ‘Commedia’ takes account of contemporary science in minute detail, his vision of the way in which the regions of the afterworld might be contained within this framework is brilliant in its originality. Hell (the Inferno) is conceived as a tapering funnel plunging down into the earth beneath the Northern hemisphere. At its deepest point a passage leads out into the Southern hemisphere, where Mount Purgatory—its shape mirroring that of Hell—tapers upwards towards Heaven. Paradise itself is conceived as a series of ten ‘spheres’ encircling the Earth, with God somewhere beyond the tenth, merely glimpsed by Dante as consciousness ebbs from him.
This colossal construction is subdivided to create a zone for every facet of human nature. In Hell and Purgatory a place is allotted for every sin and foible which exists within the world, while in Paradise the pure and just, the saints and the Holy Trinity are arranged in a strict hierarchy. Dante peoples each region with figures from literature, history and from his own contemporary society. This allows him to comment on issues of morality not in merely abstract terms, but in relation to actual people and events, many of them of titillating contemporary relevance. Because of this many of the names encountered mean nothing to modern readers, and this is one of the reasons why most editions of Dante incorporate many pages of notes for each page of text (a practice which began, incidentally, within a few years of the poem’s first publication). The main purpose, however, is not to point the finger or poke fun at friends and enemies (though there is undoubtedly an element of this), but to examine the reality of man’s human and spiritual nature in all its various and complex manifestations.
Dante calls the three books of The Divine Comedy ‘canzoni’. Each contains 33 chapters or ‘cantos’, except Inferno which has an additional introductory canto—making 100 cantos in all. Each canto contains roughly 150 lines composed according to a strict metrical and rhyme scheme. The language of the poem is, importantly, not Latin (as was customary for high art in Dante’s day) but the language used by educated people in 14th century Florence. In addition Dante made liberal use of archaic language and regional dialects, all of which makes life very difficult for the modern translator. But Dante’s purpose was to make his work readable by the ‘ordinary’ reader—not merely clerics and academics—for despite its lofty theme and layers of symbolism, The Divine Comedy is intended to speak to us directly through the power of Dante’s imagery and narrative skill.
This work has not only endured, but has exerted a powerful influence on Western thought for almost seven centuries, especially perhaps the Inferno, whose characters and images can be found peppered throughout literature and art right up to the present day. Tchaikowsky’s Francesca da Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicci are borrowed from it. Illustrations for Dante editions inspired well known masterpieces by Botticelli, Blake and Doré, while the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (his first name an obvious choice for a father who was a Dante scholar and reputedly able to recite the entire ‘Commedia’ from memory) returned time and again to Dante for inspiration, notably in the enigmatic “Beata Beatrix”.
Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels are full of allusions to both Inferno and Purgatory—shades walking slowly weighed down by leaden cloaks (Inf. Canto XXIII), creatures swimming in mud poking and whistling at one another (Inf. Canto XXII), and indolent characters with little inclination to struggle any further (Purg. Canto IV). Indeed, the character Belacqua who Dante encounters here is the primary source for all those later Beckett characters who might say: “what’s the good in climbing?”
One of the principal characters in The Divine Comedy (though she does not actually appear in the Inferno) is Beatrice, whose significance in Dante’s life needs to be understood. Dante first met and fell in love with Beatrice Portinari when she was eight and he nine years old. He worshipped her from afar until her early death at the age of twenty four. (The full story of this strange ‘love affair’ is told by Dante in his La Vita Nuova). Beatrice then came to symbolise for Dante all that is pure and worthy. In the ‘Commedia’ it is Beatrice who sends the poet Virgil to guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory. In Purgatory she herself assumes responsibility for his journey of discovery, and it is she who later reveals to him the splendours of Paradise, leading him eventually to “that love that moves the Sun and other stars.”
And it is in Purgatory that Dante gives us the nub of the problem. The lengthy discourse on love and free will (in Canto XVIII) prepares us for Dante’s meeting with his idealized love and for her unexpected reprimands (Canto XXX). She argues that at her death Dante might have dedicated his great talents to her (to purity, to wisdom and to truth) but that he allowed himself to be turned away and thus wasted himself. Her purpose in revealing the Divine order to him is to restore him to the true path.
The almost cinematic splendour of Beatrice’s appearance at the head of a fantastic allegorical procession provides a stunning climax to this second book of the trilogy.
Notes by Roger Marsh
Dante and Virgil emerge from Hell just before Dawn on Easter Sunday. They meet Cato of Utica, guardian of the shores of Purgatory who challenges them as fugitives from Hell. They explain their mission.
four stars: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and
Dante observes a strange object crossing the water—the Angel boatman ferrying souls from their gathering place at the mouth of the Tiber to Purgatory’s shore.
Casella: a musician-singer friend of Dante’s.
They race on. At the base of the cliff they meet the first Late Repentants; souls who put off desire for grace and must wait for purgation. The Contumacious, here, died excommunicated but surrendered their souls to God at the point of death. They must wait thirty times the period it took them to repent, their contumacy.
Brindisi: Virgil’s body was taken from Brindisi to
Naples in 19 BC.
They reach the opening in the cliff face and begin the climb. Dante flags but Virgil urges him to the next level of the Late Repentants: the ledge of the Indolent. Virgil explains that the beginning of the ascent (turning from Sin to True Repentance) is the hardest, but the higher one goes the easier it becomes.
more than one soul: Plato claimed we have
three souls, each with a specific function, the
vegetative, the emotional and the intellectual.
Dante’s shadow creates excitement among the souls of the next level, those who died by violence without last rites. Since their lives were cut short they did not have the chance to repent fully, and so are placed higher than the Indolent.
Miserere: Psalm 51, which asks for forgiveness
and purification of the soul.
The souls of those who died by violence continue to press around Dante. He promises to bear word of them back to the world, but does not pause. Virgil speaks of the power of prayer to shorten time in Purgatory but tells Dante to wait for Beatrice to explain. They come upon Sordello, a Mantuan like Virgil.
Sordello: a troubadour poet of the early
Sordello pays homage to Virgil and offers to guide the poets to St Peter’s Gate. He explains that none may climb during sunset, and shows them a flowering valley to rest in. They observe the Negligent Rulers of the Late Repentants, to whom personal satisfaction was more important than public duty.
snubnose: Philip III of France, the lily is the symbol
Canto VIII The hour of evening worship arrives. The souls gather and sing the evening Compline hymn asking for protection in the night. Two angels descend from heaven and take their posts one on each side of the valley. The poets join the souls.
Te lucis ante terminum: ‘To thee before the ending of the light’, the opening lines of the Compline hymn.
Dante falls asleep. He dreams he is clasped in the talons of an eagle and raised into an orb of fire. When he wakes he is alone with Virgil, further up the mountain, at the portals of Purgatory itself. The angel inscribes seven P’s on his forehead (for peccatum—sin) representing seven deadly sins to be purged.
Tithonus: husband of Aurora, for whom she
gained the gift of eternal life but not eternal
youth. He grew old and decrepit beside his ageless
bride, who eventually turned him into a cicada.
The door clangs shut behind them, and they are faced by narrow fissure to climb. Three hours later they come to the first terrace. On one side is a precipice, on the other a frieze of marble reliefs. Virgil asks Dante to observe the penitents of this level bent double under the weight of boulders—the proud brought low.
Polycletus: A fifth century sculptor unsurpassed
in carving images of men. ‘ecce ancilla Dei’:
behold the hand maid of the Lord, the words of
the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. (Luke 1:38)
The proud souls, bent double, speak a version of the Lord’s Prayer interceding for the living and those still in Purgatory.
Oderisi glory of Gubbio: an illuminator of
manuscripts who in life boasted he had no equal
Virgil bids Dante straighten up, but then asks him to observe the relief beneath his feet, with depictions of great pride from Lucifer to the story of Troy; the Reign of Pride. They reach the angel guiding the next terrace, who erases the symbol of pride from Dante’s forehead.
Briareus: one of the giants who challenged
The next terrace is apparently deserted, but as Dante and Virgil walk on they hear voices crying out examples of great love for others. These voices are the Whip of Envy. The souls, when they see them, have their eyes sealed, until their envious looks are cured. The examples are of charitable concern for others.
‘Vinum non habent’: they have no wine, an
allusion to the wedding feast at Cana, where Mary
solicits Christ’s first miracle.
Two speakers begin to discuss Dante as though he were as deaf as they are blind. When Virgil and he move on Dante is struck with terror by two disembodied voices that break over them like thunder—the Rein of Envy. Circe: an enchantress, with the power to turn men into beasts.
It flows on: Guido describes the nature of the
inhabitants of the various towns of the Arno
The travellers have rounded a quarter of the mountain and now face the sun setting in the north. Dante is dazzled by the Angel of Caritas, who passes them on to the next ledge. The Angel sings the fifth beatitude as they enter the Third Cornice—the Wrathful. The visions that entrance Dante are the Whip of Wrath, extolling the virtue of Meekness.
the more each posesses : sharing love does not
diminish but increases the quantity of it.
Dante is blinded by smoke that purifies the wrathful, and clings to Virgil. He hears their voices singing Agnus dei, the lamb of God symbol of the meekness of divine love. They sing with one voice for Wrath is the sin that breeds division among men.
From the fond hands of God: Marco has said that if the world has gone astray it is man’s fault, not the stars. But the state of the world is not caused by depravity inherent in human nature—the soul is innocent but in need of guidance. The lack of guidance has brought the present corrupt state about.
Emerging from the smoke Dante sees the visions that make the rein of Wrath. The Angel of Meekness calls them to the next level, but it is dark and the Poets must rest. Virgil explains Purgatory.
I saw the cruelty of one: Procne, angered by her
husband’s rape of her sister killed her own son in
wrath and fed him to his father. She was turned
Dante enquires more about the nature of love. Virgil explains warning that he must seek the final answer from Beatrice. A train of souls come running round the mountain—the slothful, now in too much of a hurry to stop and talk.
Ismenus and Asopus: Boetian rivers, near
Dante dreams of the Siren, hideous in her true form but who grows irresistible as men stare on her. Virgil, prompted by a Heavenly lady strips the Siren, exposing her deformities. Dante awakes and they continue to the fifth cornice of the Avaricious—the hoarders and spendthrifts.
the sweet Siren: represents the vices of Avarice,
Gluttony and Lust which will be purged on the
upper three terraces.
The Poets find the ledge so crowded with sinners there is only a narrow path left to walk. Dante hears a soul cry out the Whip of Avarice. The sinner proceeds to denounce the Capetian dynasty, which he founded, then offer exampla of the Rein of Avarice. The mountain is shaken as if by an earthquake.
how poor then you were: the blessed poverty
A newcomer explains why the mountain appeared to shake. It is Statius an admirer of Virgil’s work and a poet himself.
she who sits spinning: Lachesis, who spins the
thread of a man’s life from the measure of wool
her sister Clotho puts on the distaff. Atropos the
third sister cuts the thread when it is finished.
Statius explains how he became a Christian, and inquires after his favourite poets of aniquity. Statius’ besetting sin was prodigality. They come to a tree laden with fruits, and from within the foliage a voice cries out exempla for the whip of Gluttony.
Jocasta: the mother of Oedipus, whom she later
unwittingly married. Her two sons Eteocles and
Polynices killed each other, the subject of Statius
The three poets hear Psalm 51, and a band of emaciated spirits come from behind them—the Gluttonous. Dante recognises one by his voice, his features are so changed by starvation. Forese Donati although a late repentant, has moved up the mountain because of his widow’s prayers.
Labis Mea Domine: ‘Open my lips O lord, and
my mouth shall sing your praises,’the prayer of the
Forese identifies many of the Gluttonous. They come to the Tree of Knowledge and having skirted it meet the Angel of Abstinence who shows them to the ascent.
Piccarda: Forese’s sister, who took vows but was
forced into a political marriage.
Dante wonders how purely spiritual beings can feel hunger and thirst. Statius explains and he finishes as they arrive at the seventh and last terrace.
Meleager: was fated to live as long as a piece
of wood on his mother’s hearth remained
unconsumed. She kept it from the fire until in
revenge for the death of her brothers, whom he
killed, she burned it. As it was consumed, he died.
They proceed avoiding the flames. A conversation begins between Dante and some souls, but is interrrupted by another group of souls rushing in the opposite direction. The two groups greet each other, then shout exempla of Lust.
Sodom and Gomorrah: words shouted in selfreproach
for the sin of sodomy. Pasiphae enters
the cow: the wife of Minos of Crete who Poseidon
caused to lust after a bull. She had a structure
made resembling a cow into which she climbed
and was posessed by the bull. The union produced
They meet the angel of chastity but Dante is afraid to pass through the curtain of fire. Virgil persuades him in Beatrice’s name. A chant coming from the other side guides them, sung by the Angel guardian of the Earthly Paradise. They hurry on but night overtakes them and they sleep on the steps up. Dante has a prophetic dream.
Beati mundo corde: Blessed are the pure in heart
Dante wanders at leisure in the earthly paradise until his way is blocked by the waters of Lethe. He comes across Matilda who explains the Garden to him.
a solitary lady: Matilda who symbolises the
active life of the Soul, but also the intermediary
between Human Reason and Beatrice’s various
manifestations Divine Love, contemplative life of
the soul and others.
When the lady has finished speaking, she begins to walk upstream singing, Dante keeping pace with her on the other side. A glorious light and sweet melody fills the air with rapture. Dante cries out against Eve’s daring, through which such joy was lost to mankind.
The heavenly pageant: is an allegory of the
church triumphant. The seven candlesticks and their
rainbow trails represent the gifts of the holy
spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might,
knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. The twentyfour
elders are the books of the old testament, and
the four beasts guarding the chariot, the evangelists—Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. The griffon’s dual
nature reflects the human and divine nature of
Christ. To the right of the chariot the three dancing
ladies are the theological virtues Faith, Hope and
Charity; to the left are the four cardinal virtues:
Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. The
seven men following are the remaining books of the
New Testament, the last being the Apocalypse of
Dante encounters Beatrice, feeling shame at the years he has ignored her. Dante turns to Virgil and finds he has disappeared. Beatrice reprimands Dante for having wasted his talents.
veni sponsa de Libano: ‘come my bride from
Lebanon’ from the Song of Solomon. Here the
soul is wedded to Christ.
Beatrice’s reprimand continues, forcing Dante to confess his faults until he swoons with grief and pain at the thought of his sin. He wakes in the waters of Lethe, held by Matilda.
Asperges me: Cleanse me [of sin]. Psalms Ii 7.
Matilda is performing the office of absolution after
Dante’s confession and repentance.
Beatrice unveils and for the first time in ten years he gazes on her radiance, thereby nearly losing his sight. He recovers to observe a strange metamorphosis of the chariot, an allegory of the church in terms of the misdirections and heresies it has suffered.
The tree: is an off shoot of the Tree of
Knowledge, from which Christ’s Cross was made.
The pole the Griffon is pulling and what draws the
Church (i.e.,the chariot) forward is allegorically the
true cross too.
The seven nymphs sing a hymn of sorrow for the Church. They walk on in front, with Dante Statius and Matilda behind Beatrice. She delivers an obscure prophecy regarding the church for Dante to record for the living. Dante drinks from the restoring waters of Eunoe and is ready for the stars.
Deus venerunt gentes: a lament for the
destruction of the temple of Jerusalem—‘O God,
the nations have come into your inheritance, thy
holy temple they have defiled (Psalm 78).
About the translation
Had Dante guessed at the attention posterity would give his vision, he would no doubt have set aside a special place in the lowest part of hell for translators. Some of the most famous names in literature have attempted a Divine Comedy for their time, and with the most famously awful results. His terze rima, or three-fold rhyme scheme, has tied numerous poets in English into such knots that on occasions Dante’s rhyme scheme is all that remains of the original.
But as Virgil says to the Poet, ‘ Let us not talk of them, but with a glance pass on.’ This translation was made with the listener in mind. Here, couplets and terza rima have been rejected for the clarity of blank verse. And while the purist’s lip may curl, Dante’s sometimes convoluted sentence structure has been occasionally straightened for ease of comprehension.
It may be assumed that for many of Dante’s contemporaries, The Divine Comedy will have been an aural experience. It is this pleasure of his epic as a story rather than as a classic text that this translation seeks to recapture. Conjured by the listener’s own imagination 600 years on, Hell has lost none of its terror nor Paradise its ecstasy.
Note by Benedict Flynn
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Salve Festa Dies
MACHAUT Requiem Mass
ANON Black Madonna
Music programming by Roger Marsh
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