Purgatorio – Canto 1
Dante and Virgil emerge from Hell. They meet Cato of Utica who questions them. After Virgil explains their journey thus far, Cato sends them off to the shore so that Virgil can clean the dirt of Hell off Dante and bind him with a reed that grows there.
Having escaped from that bitter world of eternal pain, I’m going to steer my story in a more hopeful direction now and tell you about that second realm–where our souls go to make themselves pure and so become worthy of Heaven.Right away, Dante tells us where we are and the purpose of this second realm. We will do well to keep this purpose in mind as we continue reading. The idea of Dante “steering” his story indicates … Continue reading From now on, with you, sacred Muses as my guides, let my story of death rise to new life.This last phrase will take on even greater significance when we learn that this is early in the morning of Easter Sunday. Accompany my words, O Calliope, with the same lovely music you used to silence the daughters of King Pierus by turning them into magpies for their presumption!By now, we are accustomed to the Poet’s frequent mythological references, which both amplify the point being made and relate this poem to its great classical cousins. The invocation of the sacred … Continue reading
Emerging from the realm of eternal darkness the contrast was breath-taking. It was that still moment of the dawn when the entire sky takes on the hue of deepest sapphire and one can almost see forever. Free at last from the air of death that weighed so heavily upon me, I breathed deeply the cool freshness of that morning I shall not soon forget, and let my eyes feast on the sparkling delights of the heavens as they gave way to that luminous morning of eternal hope. Venus, who alights our hearts with love, suffused the eastern sky with the light of her smile which caused the great Fish to shimmer within the train of her delicate veil.Recalling that the last word of the Inferno was “stars,” these lines of striking beauty make a perfect segue from the stifling darkness of Hell. Unlike the pit of Hell, which took our poets to … Continue reading
As if this weren’t enough, I turned right to scan the other pole, and there I beheld those four great stars that Adam saw, but no one after him. O widowed heavens of the North, who never see the glory of their light!Recall that we are only at the base of the Mountain of Purgatory. If the entrance to Hell was at or near Jerusalem, the exit would be on the other side of the world–the antipode–which would place … Continue reading
And glancing back northward for a moment, where the Great Dipper was no longer visible, I saw very close-by an ancient man standing there all by himself. There was a dignity about his peaceful face that commanded the reverence due an aged father by his loving son. His long beard was streaked with white; and his hair, streaked the same way, fell in two long tresses upon either side of his chest. His face was so radiant with the light of those four stars it was as though the sun itself shone upon him.Although this dignified elder is not named, Dante will subtly disclose his identity as Cato of Utica. He is the guardian of the lower region of Purgatory. Ancient Utica (now in ruins) was located … Continue reading
But then, turning his benignant gaze on us, he questioned us sternly: “Who are you two who followed the hidden stream and escaped from the eternal prison below? Who guided you? What light enabled you to see through Hell’s eternal blackness? Are the laws of God which govern that Abyss now cast aside? Have new laws been made in Heaven that you, though damned, may now come up here?”This series of severe questions offer a stark contrast to the literally “glowing” image of Cato given us just moments ago, and before that the description of the glorious Easter dawn just now … Continue reading
No sooner had this elder spoken than my dear Virgil, by various words and signs, had me kneel and pay reverence to that commanding presence. Then Virgil himself spoke: “I do not come to this place on my own. A heavenly lady has commissioned me to guide this man here who pays his respects to you. And since you ask how it is that we have come here, let me fulfill your request. This man is still alive. Unfortunately, his foolish ways brought him so close to death that there was hardly any time for him to turn around. So, it was I who was sent to rescue him. There was no other way to save his soul except by guiding him through the depths of Hell below. Cato’s challenge, with his rapid-fire questions, reminds us of another crisis moment when the travelers were rudely denied entrance into the City of Dis in Canto 9 of the Inferno. Had it not been … Continue reading
“Along the way, I have shown him all the damned, and now I will escort him through your realm and show him all those who purge themselves in anticipation of Heaven. We do not have the time to explain how we came here, but know that it is by Heaven’s power that he comes here now to see and hear you. Please make him welcome because he searches for freedom, and a man who’s willing to die for it knows how dear that freedom is. You yourself know this, Cato, for you chose death for freedom’s sake in Utica. On the Last Day, the robes of life you left there will come back to you radiant with new beauty.Bringing us to the shore of Purgatory, it is fitting that the Poet (through Virgil) give us a summary of the journey so far. Note also how Virgil makes a direct appeal to the virtues Cato was willing … Continue reading
“We haven’t broken any of Heaven’s laws. As I said, this man is still alive and Minos has not judged me. Actually, I come from where your sweet Marcia still pleads for your soul to hold her close to you. In the name of your love for her, please allow us to continue upward through your seven realms and I, in turn, will tell her of your great kindness–if you will permit me to speak your name in that place of sighs.”Continuing to exonerate Dante and himself, Virgil, attempts to make it clear to Cato that they haven’t broken any laws to get here by reminding him that Dante is alive and that he, Virgil, has not … Continue reading
“In my eyes, Marcia was so lovely,” he answered, “there wasn’t a single wish of hers I would not have granted while I lived. But now she lives in the darkness of the underworld and her pleas no longer concern me. This is the law that separates us from the souls there. Furthermore, if a heavenly lady has commissioned you, why do you attempt to win me by flattery? You need only make your request in her name, nothing more.Following a lovely glimmer of tenderness, Cato’s almost brutal rigidity here is stunning. But Dante may have had in mind Cato’s reputation for integrity which eventually led him to take his own … Continue reading
“Now then, go with this man you guide down there to the water. Wrap a smooth reed around his waist and make sure you wash every bit of Hell’s filth from his face. It would be unseemly that he present himself before Heaven’s ministers with his sight still dimmed by Hell’s darkness. You’ll find the reeds growing in the soft sand along the shore of this island, near where the waves break. Except for those reeds that bend without breaking, no other plant that produces hard leaves or stalks could survive down there. Then, when the two of you are ready to start climbing this mountain, don’t return this way; the rising sun will light the place where you can begin the ascent.”Understanding that Virgil and Dante in fact have the credentials to enter his realm, Cato’s tone changes from that of protector to priest, as he now directs Virgil to perform two rituals with deep … Continue reading
Instantly, he vanished. Quietly, I got up from my knees and looked at Virgil as I moved closer to him. “Follow in my footsteps,” he said. “We need to go back to where this plain slopes gently toward the shore.”
Night was on the run as the glorious dawn made the landscape before us clearer, and I could now see in the distance the rippling waters on the surface of the sea. We walked along the empty plain like two lost men, impatient till the right path be found again. And when we reached a shaded place where the soft grass was still wet with the morning’s dew, Virgil bent down and ran his outstretched hands through the grass. I knew what he was doing and I offered him my stained and dirty face. Wiping it with his wet hands, he cleansed and restored it from the sooty grime of Hell.With Cato’s duty done he disappears and leaves Virgil to conduct the required rituals on Dante. The sun has not quite risen yet, but the two travelers can see quite a distance as they search for … Continue reading
We then continued quietly along that lonely shore. No one has ever sailed those waters and returned to tell the story of their journey to this place. There, as Cato had directed him, Virgil plucked a reed out of the sand and wrapped it around my waist. And here was a miracle! No sooner had he pulled up that reed than a second one sprang up immediately from where the first one was!Dante has not forgotten his encounter with Ulysses in Canto 26 of the Inferno, and he most likely has that in mind as he scans the sea before him. No one has sailed this sea and come back to tell … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Right away, Dante tells us where we are and the purpose of this second realm. We will do well to keep this purpose in mind as we continue reading. The idea of Dante “steering” his story indicates his mastery over his material. But, as we have already seen from his Inferno, and will continue to see from now to the end of the poem, Dante will liken his Commedia to a great ship which will take all his poetic power to steer and guide to its spectacular conclusion in the Paradiso. We are subtly reminded here that both we and Dante the pilgrim are not “along for the ride”–we are participants. The virtues of hope and humility will power this ship all through this second Canticle.|
|↑2||This last phrase will take on even greater significance when we learn that this is early in the morning of Easter Sunday.|
|↑3||By now, we are accustomed to the Poet’s frequent mythological references, which both amplify the point being made and relate this poem to its great classical cousins. The invocation of the sacred Muses is a standard device used by classical poets seeking the guidance of these sacred sisters and as an act of dedication to them. Recall that Dante invoked them near the beginning of the Inferno in Canto 2. And Dante himself is recalling how his poetic mentors (Virgil in Book IX of the Aeneid, and Ovid in Book V of his Metamorphoses) refer to the Muses. After invoking the aid of Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry, Dante refers to Ovid’s story of King Pierus of Macedonia who had nine daughters. Unwisely, he named them after each of the Muses. In their pride they challenged the Muses to a singing contest. Chosen by the Muses to represent them, Calliope defeated the nine foolish daughters of the king and turned them into magpies–a fitting punishment for their pride. By using this particular story, Dante the Poet humbly begs the patronage and inspiration of this Muse of epic poetry to support him in his own epic undertaking–imagining, perhaps, what a squawking failure it might be without divine assistance.|
|↑4||Recalling that the last word of the Inferno was “stars,” these lines of striking beauty make a perfect segue from the stifling darkness of Hell. Unlike the pit of Hell, which took our poets to the center of the earth, Dante conceives of Purgatory as a great mountain near the South Pole which must be climbed. One could imagine this paragraph describing a view at the top of this mountain, but we have not even begun to climb and such a magnificent vista is already laid out before us at its base! The Poet is not creating a fantasy here. Such a sight can be seen by anyone; but after what Dante has witnessed in Hell, his description of this particular sunrise and his reaction to it portend even more amazing things to come. He breathed the putrid air of death as he traveled down through the realm of death. Now, freed from the weight of that experience, he breathes deeply the air of freedom as he delights in all he sees. The thick darkness of the underworld is replaced by an almost infinite view of the sapphire sky. This is a fitting start to Easter – the celebration of resurrection, of hope, and of eternal life. The presence of Venus reminds us of love, the most precious of the virtues; and the mention of sapphire reminds us of the precious stone and Medieval symbol of heaven in this cosmic display of eternal Love. Finally, as though to symbolize our having done with the realm of sin and death, Venus, representing Love, rises with the constellation of Pisces, the last of the twelve signs of the Zodiac, and outshines it. In a moment, the Sun will rise in Aries on the first day of Spring.|
|↑5||Recall that we are only at the base of the Mountain of Purgatory. If the entrance to Hell was at or near Jerusalem, the exit would be on the other side of the world–the antipode–which would place the mountain somewhere in the middle of the lower Pacific Ocean between Santiago, Chile and Sidney, Australia, not at the South Pole. In the previous paragraph, Dante was facing east and looking toward the north (on his left). Now, he turns right toward the south and observes four great stars in that part of the sky. He tells us that the only human ever to see them, up to this point, was Adam (and, by association, Eve). After the Fall, we must assume that they lived in the northern hemisphere. In Dante’s time, it was known that the earth was round, but the southern regions had not yet been explored. And this is not the constellation of the Southern Cross. Although (did Dante forget this?) Ulysses and his sailors most likely came close to the Mountain of Purgatory in Canto 26 of the Inferno before they were killed. So, while Dante is creating a kind of fiction here, his purpose is to highlight these glorious stars, which commentators have always associated with the four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. Though the northern heavens are “widowed” by the absence of this virtuous constellation, the virtues they represent have always been highlighted and admired in human history and will continue to be in this place.|
|↑6||Although this dignified elder is not named, Dante will subtly disclose his identity as Cato of Utica. He is the guardian of the lower region of Purgatory. Ancient Utica (now in ruins) was located near Carthage in present day Tunisia in Northern Africa. When it was founded by the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC, it was then a coastal city. It eventually came into the Roman Empire with its defeat by the forces of Julius Caesar. Refusing to submit to the tyranny of Caesar, Cato committed suicide in 46 BC. Dante admired this ancient Roman for his integrity, his virtuous character, and as a champion of freedom and liberty. It is, perhaps, in the context of this admiration that the Poet actually “saves” this noble pagan suicide and describes the travelers’ first encounter with him in such a striking manner. He is distinguished not only by his graying hair and beard but also by the light of the four stars (Cardinal Virtues) which illuminate his countenance. Although Cato’s face is lighted from the outside, the symbolism of virtue at work here clearly implies that it also enlightens one from within. Furthermore, as Dante states at the outset of this Canticle, all who come to Purgatory will strive to clear the darkness of sin within their souls so that the Divine Light can shine through them.|
|↑7||This series of severe questions offer a stark contrast to the literally “glowing” image of Cato given us just moments ago, and before that the description of the glorious Easter dawn just now breaking. And yet, they are appropriate “guardian questions.” As we will see soon enough, our two travelers have not arrived at Purgatory the “right” way, which leads Cato to suspect that they are escapees. Furthermore, his concern about the laws of God being broken might seem odd to those of us who have already read the Inferno, because we know from Canto 2 of that Canticle that this journey is, in fact, undertaken with a divine mandate. But if we recall that Cato was revered for his stern adherence to moral and ethical principles, and how much Dante admired him for that, these questions take on a different character. And not to take all of this lightly, but one can imagine that Cato’s severity stems from the fact that he’s been fooled, as it were, because we already know the answers to his questions.|
|↑8||Cato’s challenge, with his rapid-fire questions, reminds us of another crisis moment when the travelers were rudely denied entrance into the City of Dis in Canto 9 of the Inferno. Had it not been for the appearance of the angel who opened the gates to the city, their journey would have been stopped. So, here, they have been stopped at another major transition point in the poem. Virgil has had to explain the purpose of their journey before, and he proceeds to answer each of Cato’s questions, but not before he quickly makes Dante kneel down as a sign of submission and respect. Though he is clearly in charge, by virtue of his heavenly mandate, Virgil’s answers are both respectful and informative. As he offers his explanations, it is curious, however, that he sees the need to tell Cato that Dante is alive. One would think that Cato would have seen or known the difference between them already. As Virgil continues, though, he makes it abundantly clear that Dante was on the verge of moral death, and that he (Virgil) was sent to rescue him at the last minute. Guiding him through the depths of Hell and showing him the consequences sin was the only way to save him – a kind of moral shock therapy. Recall how, at the beginning of the Inferno, Dante had hoped to escape from the (his) moral wilderness, symbolized by the dark forest, by climbing the sun-lit mountain (of Purgatory?)–only to be driven back down by the three beasts of pride (the leopard), violence (the lion), and lust (the she-wolf). Virgil told him the only way climb out of his moral darkness was to go down into the depths of that darkness and face his sins head-on so that he could arrive here on the shore of Purgatory with a new moral purpose.|
|↑9||Bringing us to the shore of Purgatory, it is fitting that the Poet (through Virgil) give us a summary of the journey so far. Note also how Virgil makes a direct appeal to the virtues Cato was willing to die for by comparing Dante’s quest for freedom to Cato’s own quest–at the cost of his life. And in the last sentence here, Dante the Poet makes it perfectly clear with Virgil’s words that Cato, this pagan suicide, will be saved.|
In his translation of the Purgatorio (Canto 1), Mark Musa offers these excellent insights: “How can one justify the appropriateness of Cato’s presence on the shores of Purgatory and of his role as guardian of the repentant souls newly arrived to begin, in time, the process of purgation? As for the fact of Cato’s suicide, it will become clear from Virgil’s words to him later that Dante, like Cicero, viewed this idealistically–not as an act meriting punishment but as a supreme reaffirmation of the great Stoic’s love of freedom. Not only was Dante ready to judge the pagans on the terms of their own moral code, he may even have looked upon Cato’s death as reflecting the sacrificial death of the Savior. (In early illustrations of the Commedia, Cato is sometimes shown with a radiating nimbus.) At any rate, it could be argued that since the labors of the souls in Purgatory are devoted to the pursuit of ultimate spiritual freedom, and since Cato died for the sake of political freedom, he could most fittingly be conceived of as their guardian if we remember that throughout the Purgatorio we are offered an ideal, a blend of civil and moral liberty.”
|↑10||Continuing to exonerate Dante and himself, Virgil, attempts to make it clear to Cato that they haven’t broken any laws to get here by reminding him that Dante is alive and that he, Virgil, has not been judged by Minos. Recalling the structure of upper Hell, the souls are judged by Minos at the beginning of Canto 5. Virgil, however, resides in Limbo (along with Marcia), which is in Canto 4. And here, perhaps, he treads on thin ice in his attempt to move Cato by appealing to Cato’s love for his second wife, Marcia.
The story of Cato and Marcia is a touching one. She was born in 80 BC, the daughter of the Roman Consul Lucius Marcius Philippus. Apparently, Cato’s first wife was unfaithful and he divorced her. He later married Marcia, a woman of great virtue. They lived happily and had two (possibly three) children. Cato’s close friend, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, was a famed orator and praised by Cicero. Following his wife’s death, and hoping to bring their families even closer, Hortensius asked Cato for his daughter’s hand in marriage. However, because there was a considerable age difference between them (nearly 40 years), Cato refused Hortensius’ request. However, not to be deterred, Hortensius asked to marry Marcia instead, on the grounds that they were close in age and that Marcia had already borne children and heirs to Cato’s name and estate. Because of their close friendship (Ronald L. Martinez refers to the virtuous Cato’s Stoic “generosity”), Cato agreed, but stipulated that Marcia’s father had to approve of the union–which he did. Hortensius died in the year 50 BC after six years of marriage to Marcia, leaving her a very wealthy woman. When the civil war broke out the following year, Marcia returned to Cato. Lucan, the famed Roman poet, writes of Marcia’s return in his epic Pharsalia (II:326-391). Dante takes Lucan’s account and creates a wonderful allegorical interpretation at the end of Book 4, Chapter 28 in his Convivio. Reading this gives us insights into how Dante thought and what was most likely his context as he wrote about Cato and the two pilgrims in this first canto of the Purgatorio:
[Italics are Dante’s] “At this stage of life [old age] the noble spirit blesses times past, and well may it do so, because by turning its thoughts to the past it recalls its own virtuous actions, without which it could not reach the harbour it approaches with such a degree of wealth and gain. It behaves like the virtuous merchant who, as he nears port, considers his profit, saying: ‘If I had not made this journey I would not have gained this wealth, nor would I have any delight to take in my city which I am nearing,’ and so he blesses the path taken. The fine poet Lucan reveals, in the second book of his Pharsalia, by way of allegory, the two things appropriate to this stage of life. He says there that Marcia in old age returned to Cato and begged him to take her back. Here Marcia signifies the noble soul. And we may translate the allegorical figure as follows. Marcia was a virgin, signifying in that state adolescence, and later married Cato, signifying in that state maturity; she then bore children, and they signify the virtues appropriate to maturity; she then left Cato and married Hortensius, signifying thus the end of maturity and the onset of old age; she also bore him children signifying the virtues appropriate to old age. Hortensius died, and Marcia having thus become a widow, by which is signified the end of old age, and the state of senility, she returned, at the commencement of her widowhood, to Cato, signifying that the noble soul returns to God at that time. What man on earth is more worthy of signifying God than Cato? None: indeed.
“What does Marcia say to Cato? ‘While there was blood in my veins,’ she says, that is, in maturity, ‘while I still had the power to bear children’, namely in old age, which is indeed the mother of the other virtues, ‘I accomplished all your commands’, that is to say the soul remained committed to worldly duty. She then says: ‘I took two husbands,’ that is, was fertile at two stages of life, ‘and now that my womb is exhausted and I have lost the capacity to bear children, I return to you, being unable to serve another spouse.’ That is to say the noble soul, on seeing that it is no longer associated with a fruitful womb (that is when the soul feels the members have grown weak), turns to God, who requires no bodily members. And Marcia says: ‘Grant me the rights of our former marital chamber, and grant me a marriage even if in name only.’ That is to say, the noble soul says to God: ‘My Lord, grant me your peace; grant that I may at least be called yours in the little life left to me.’ And Marcia says: ‘Two reasons move me to ask this: one that after death I may be said to have died as Cato’s wife; the other that after my death it may be said you did not spurn me, but out of goodwill took my hand again in marriage.’ The noble soul is moved by like reasons, and wishes to depart this life as the spouse of God, and wishes to show that its activity has been pleasing to God. O you misbegotten and unhappy beings who would depart this life under the name of Hortensius rather than that of Cato! It is good to end what I wish to say about the signs of nobility with that man’s name, because in him nobility displayed those signs at every stage of life.”
|↑11||Following a lovely glimmer of tenderness, Cato’s almost brutal rigidity here is stunning. But Dante may have had in mind Cato’s reputation for integrity which eventually led him to take his own life. And what he says about Hell is generally true, though Virgil is certainly an exception to the rule. As for the “flattery,” Virgil has been witness to any number of sinners who are in Hell because of their use or misuse of words. Any fame as a rhetorician on his part is flattened here. One will recall the specific contrapasso for the flatterers in Hell: wallowing in a cesspool besmirched with shit! In this case, his recourse to flattery actually blinded Virgil to the fact that Cato was ready to acquiesce at the mere mention of Beatrice. And now this second scene in our introduction to Purgatory is over.|
|↑12||Understanding that Virgil and Dante in fact have the credentials to enter his realm, Cato’s tone changes from that of protector to priest, as he now directs Virgil to perform two rituals with deep symbolic significance that will mark Dante’s readiness to begin the climb up the mountain. This will happen at the very end of this canto. They are to go down to the shore where they will find pliant reeds growing in the sand. Virgil will take one of the reeds and wrap it around Dante’s waist as a sign of humility and symbolic of one’s readiness to submit to the will of God. One of the marks of humility is flexibility, and note how Cato remarked on the pliant nature of this plant. Ordinarily, reed plants wouldn’t be found growing at the edge of the sea. But the harsh conditions in which these reeds flourish points to how virtue both survives and surpasses a negative environment.
Here we should recall that mysterious scene at the end of Canto 16 in the Inferno when Virgil asked Dante to give him the cord around his waist and then threw it over the cliff as a signal to summon Geryon, the monster of fraud. Dante explained that he wore the cord to protect him from the spotted Leopard (the first beast he encountered in Canto 1 and symbol of fraud). Some commentators suggest that Dante wore the cord because he may have been a Franciscan tertiary. Moving immediately after this into the realm of fraud in lower Hell, it would have made sense for Dante to be unprotected so that he could fully experience the various sins of fraud and their punishments.
|↑13||With Cato’s duty done he disappears and leaves Virgil to conduct the required rituals on Dante. The sun has not quite risen yet, but the two travelers can see quite a distance as they search for the place to start their climb. After wandering for a while, they come to a shady place where the grass is still wet with dew. The dew is an ancient and wonderful symbol of God’s grace, and Virgil performs the required baptismal rite on the willing Dante. Dante, who knew Virgil’s Aeneid like the back of his hand, fills his Comedy with frequent references to material in Virgil’s own epic poem. At several points it seems clear that Virgil’s text guides him in writing his own epic as the “real” Virgil guides him on the real journey. This scene of Virgil washing Dante’s face is reminiscent of Aeneas sprinkling fresh water over himself cleansing away the filth of the underworld before he enters the Elysian fields (Aeneid VI:635f).|
|↑14||Dante has not forgotten his encounter with Ulysses in Canto 26 of the Inferno, and he most likely has that in mind as he scans the sea before him. No one has sailed this sea and come back to tell about it. This, of course, highlights the mysterious and sacred nature of the place which, as we will soon see, can only be approached in a spirit of humility and repentance. With that in mind, we see Virgil wrap Dante with the symbolic reed. The fact that this is followed by a miracle makes clear the significance of the sacramental acts that have just been performed and the sacramental nature of both the Comedy and our journey through it. Hollander, in his commentary on this canto, quotes Silvio Pasquazi as saying that the reed “expresses the beginning of an inner renewal, through which the poet, holding to the way of humility, opens himself to a new life.” The wearing that reed will be like a “passport” for Dante as he climbs the mountain. And, as noted in the previous endnote, this miracle mirrors a similar one in the Aeneid (VI:143ff)–the story of the golden bough which Aeneas is told to pluck, upon which another will immediately take its place.|