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.