Completed: Purgatorio

Dante Alighieri
Allen Mendelbaum, Translator
Bantam Classic, 1984

‘But if you still persist
in letting your mind fix on earthly things,
then even from true light you gather darkness.
That Good, ineffable and infinite,
which is above, directs Itself toward love
as light directs itself to polished bodies.
Where ardor is, that Good gives of Itself,
and where more love is, there that Good confers
a greater measure of eternal worth.
And when there are more souls above who love,
there’s more to love well there, and they love more,
and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.’
Canto XV, 64-75

In some ways I definitely struggled more with Purgatorio more than I did with Inferno. The story wasn’t as compelling to me—apparently it is more exciting to read about the inventive and  grotesque punishments of Hell than the singing and repentance of Purgatory! Actually, I think for me, part of the problem lay in the fact that Purgatorio is more philosophical/theological than is Inferno. There is still the journey, still the meeting of new people (as in Inferno, mostly recent contemporaries of Dante—only now they are more likely to be friends or those he admires than those he wishes to punish), but there are also numerous instances of lectures on philosophical or theological topics. Thankfully, my edition had a decent set of end notes, or I’m not sure I would have followed the entirety of the discussion. Canto XXV’s discussion of the “generation of souls,” for example, was particularly obscure to the modern reader: our understanding of the physiology of the body is vastly different today than it was 700 years ago.

One new element I noticed, especially in the latter half of the canticle, was Dante’s frequent declaration that he needed to elevate his language:

“Reader, you can see clearly how I lift
my matter; do not wonder, therefore, if
I have to call on more art to sustain it.”
Canto IX, 70-72.

As the sights and wonders of Purgatorio become ever more grand and beautiful, culminating in Dante’s view of the unveiled Beatrice, he professed the necessity of a higher language, a more poetic and symbolic view. This is only Purgatory; I cannot begin to imagine how Dante will address the wonders of the Heavenly spheres.

This is however, still Dante. He remains full of condemnation against his homeland, both Florence and the wider Italian countryside, and continues to provide criticism of the Catholic Church, although much of it seems in a spirit of correction rather than condemnation. In some ways I found this fascinating to read. If I understand him correctly, Dante was in favor of a separation of church and state, desiring the Church to deal with spiritual matters alone, and leaving the political matters to the state—preferentially, an Emperor. Seeing this snapshot of one of the theological views and ideas at the turn of the 13th century was quite interesting.

One other aspect I found intriguing, was Dante’s acknowledgement of his sinful nature, specifically his pride. Inferno showed no end of his ego, yet in Purgatorio, he admits,

“I fear much more the punishment below;
my soul is anxious, in suspense; already
I feel the heavy weights of the first terrace.”
(Where the prideful are corrected, Canto XIII, 136-138)

With all his attempts to “elevate” his prose, however, I’m not sure he’s left his ego yet behind.

I don’t feel the pressing desire to read the next canticle as I did at the end of the Inferno, but I do have a bit of curiosity as to where Dante could lead next. If he has difficulty describing the beauty of Beatrice, how will he extol the glories of Paradisio? And of course, there’s the pressing question, how does a mortal move up the ethereal levels of the heavenly spheres?

I completed this as part 2 of Richard’s Dante Readalong.

4 thoughts on “Completed: Purgatorio

  1. I’m more curious than excited to read Paradiso as well, Amanda, so I hear you on the excitement level difference between the first two canticles! That being said, I did enjoy Dante’s change of pace in turning Purgatorio into a philosophic and religious discussion after the adventure tale beginning (the theology was hard to relate to on many levels but still interesting to me somehow). Anyhow, loved your points about Dante consciously striving to elevate his language and how his church and state thinking provides such a powerful (if not always easy to understand!) context for the rest of the poem. A very nice post, thanks!

    1. Thanks! Going into Purgatorio, I wasn’t sure if I’d find that much to write about, but I guess it was different enough from Inferno that it wasn’t a problem. I think the most interesting thing for me about the theology and philosophy of Purgatorio is considering it as a snapshot of the time. It’s relatively easy to learn what the theologians are saying today, and some of the history classes I’ve had have discussed the Reformation quite a bit, but otherwise it seems this is the easiest way to learn about a different era’s views short of picking up some very dry books on theology from the time itself. Separation of church and state is such a hot-button topic today, but I didn’t really expect a Catholic in the late Medieval/early Renaissance period to have discussed similar ideas–somehow I thought that religion was so deeply ingrained as being the authority up until the Reformation period (and even after–just different leaders to choose from) that it’s surprising to me that someone would have so publicly questioned the involvement of the Church in secular politics. I guess that’s what corruption and scandal lead to.

  2. The two biggest motifs I picked up on were the stylistic elevation you mentioned and the metamorphoses images that carried over from Inferno. Dante sure liked his Ovid.

    I’m finding Purgatorio to be an enjoyable read (especially with the notes) but it definitely lacks Inferno‘s drama. I’m wondering how Paradiso is going to turn out – these people have already reached their final goal (God) and are in Heaven so what else is there for them to do? I imagine it’s going to be even more philosophy, theology, and singing!

    1. I guess I didn’t really pick up on the metamorphoses images in Purgatorio, even though I’m pretty sure I remember the notes in my edition mentioning the theme of “renewal” a lot. And Ovid. He did seem to like Ovid.

      I mostly enjoyed Purgatorio also, but I did find the decrease in drama made it less gripping. I’m both curious and slightly concerned about what Dante’s going to cover in Paradisio and how. I suspect more of that elevated language, and I’m afraid you’re probably right that’s it going to be more “philosophy, theology, and singing,” which I find makes for slow reading. (Especially since I can’t resist the end notes.) I think I’m going to have to allow more time for reading Paradisio, but I need a little bit of a Dante break first!

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