At the shore, Dante and Virgil see a boat guided by an angel and filled with souls bound for Purgatory. Dante meets his dear friend, Casella. Cato rebukes the souls for wasting time.
At that moment, the sun was just beginning to slip above the horizon, making it midnight at the Ganges and sunset in Jerusalem. Being springtime, it was no longer Libra but Aries that greeted this morning’s sun. And ever so subtly, the face of Aurora changed from deep vermilion to a luminous glowing gold.Throughout his Comedy, Dante often tells time by means of elaborate astronomical images involving the planets and constellations, and sometimes needing more than elementary calculation to figure them … Continue reading
Pilgrims still, with our thoughts already ahead of our bodies, we were standing there along that mystic shore wondering what path we should follow. Soon enough, however, looking out over that vast and empty sea, I saw a great reddish glow that reminded me of Mars – and I truly hope to see that sight again. It moved toward us from the west at such an amazing speed I turned in awe toward Virgil. When I looked back, that reddish light had grown in size and brilliance. And now on either side of it I could make out a definite whiteness but not yet the form of it.Cato had told Virgil and Dante that the sun would show them the place to begin their climb. But they don’t seem to be in a great hurry. And if their thoughts about moving on are ahead of their … Continue reading
The whole time, Virgil was silent. But when that whiteness – closer still – took the form of great wings, and he saw who it was guiding that boat, he cried out: “Fall to your knees! Quickly…kneel! Fold your hands and behold – the Angel of the Lord. He is the first, and from now on you can expect to see many more ministers like him. Look there how he needs no compass, or oars, or sails – only his wings to guide that boat between such distant shoes. Pointing them upwards toward the heavens, he fans the air with immortal plumes that do not molt like those of birds.”As the great light gets even closer, it is Virgil who first recognizes the boat and the angel who guides it, and it is he who describes them, not Dante. I owe the following insight to the great … Continue reading
Closer and closer to the shore that heavenly bird brought his boat. He radiated such divine brilliance that I couldn’t bear to look and bowed my head. So deftly did he steer that boat, so swiftly and lightly, that there was no wake to be seen upon the waters. With heavenly blessedness upon his face, that glorious pilot stood astern while all the souls he ferried – at least a hundred – sang together In exitu Israel de Aegypto.Dante can now see the boat clearly along with its many passengers. The benignant angel pilot, though, radiates such a blinding light that Dante must look away. (Recall the last – fallen – … Continue reading
When they had sung that Psalm through to the end, that blessed angel made the sign of the cross on each of them as they quickly left the ship. Then, as quickly as it had arrived, that boat disappearedContinuing with the contrast between the crossing of the Acheron in canto 3 of the Inferno and the scene here, note how, before the souls disembark, the angel blesses each one of them. At the … Continue reading
Those newly-arrived souls were obviously strangers to this place, and looking everywhere, they roamed here and there, trying to understand their new surroundings. By now, the sun had risen fully and its glorious rays chased the sight of Capricorn from the sky. When the new souls caught sight of Virgil and I, they called out: “If you know where the road is up this mountain, please show us.”Think back for a moment on the wonderful experiences Dante the pilgrim (and we, the reader) has had since he emerged from Hell: the glorious sunrise, the encounter with Cato, his baptism and cording, … Continue reading
Virgil replied: “You probably think we know this place, but like all of you, we too are pilgrims here. We arrived shortly before you, but the road we traveled by was so rough and harsh that climbing this mountain will be like child’s play.”Travelers sometimes like to outdo each other in sharing experiences of a new place. Virgil and Dante arrived here first, and their journey through Hell was definitely “rough and harsh.” The … Continue reading
As Virgil spoke, the souls who saw me breathing turned pale in amazement, realizing that I was very much alive. And just as a crowd will surround a messenger, hungry for news, crowding in among each other, just so all these happy souls stared at me with awe, forgetting for a moment their purpose to make themselves beautiful for the glories of Heaven.Here is another first – in Purgatory: the newly arrived souls almost immediately recognize that Dante is alive. This will happen several more times. There’s great excitement, but the truth of … Continue reading
One of those joyful spirits made his way through that crowd, arms outstretched in eagerness to embrace me; and likewise, I moved with affection toward him. But…it was not to be. Those human forms seemed real, but they were just empty shades. Three times I tried to hug that happy soul, and three times my arms came back against my chest! I’m sure I looked surprised as he moved back, smiling. As I began to move toward him again, he gently made it clear that our affection expressed that way would not work. Then I recognized his voice and knew my old friend immediately. I begged him to stay and speak, and so he did. “As much as I loved you when I was alive, I love you still,” he said. “Yes, I will stay with you. But tell me, why are you here?”
“My dear Casella, I make this journey now in hopes that I will return here again one day,” I told him. “But tell me, why did it take you so long to get here?”What a delightful and even humorous scene of reunion this is. Dante is recognized by his dear friend, Casella, a Florentine musician who set some of his poems to music. After three unsuccessful … Continue reading
“Well,” he answered, “I cannot complain if He who chooses His passengers willed justly that I should wait longer before I sailed. However, these past several months He has delightedly taken anyone who wished to cross. So, I went to Ostia, where the Tiber meets the sea and, happily, He took me aboard. As you saw, the angel has flown back to that port where all the dead gather, except for those who meet on Acheron’s dismal shore.”Dante, had asked Casella why it took him so long to get here. We know that the Poem is set in the Spring of 1300, and, though little is known about his life, Casella seems to have died at some time … Continue reading
Happy to know now why he was delayed, I asked Casella, “If no law here prevents the singing of one of your love songs that used to bring me such peace in the world, please sing one now because my journey here has exhausted me.”Dante is correct here, there is no “law” against singing in Purgatory. As a matter of fact, there will be a lot of it. But it won’t be love songs, and Cato’s questions about law-breaking in … Continue reading
In a moment he began to sing that sweet song which brought such refreshment to my soul: Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona. Virgil and I and all those newly-arrived souls gathered around, lost in deep joy, as if that song were all that existed at that moment. But, as we stood there entranced, the beauty of that music was disrupted: “What’s this lingering about? You lazy souls!” It was the Old Man, Cato, who now chided us: “What delinquence to loiter here like this! For shame! Such negligence is evidence of the sloth that prevents you from seeing God! To the mountain! Off with you all!”Casella sings from the second canzone of Dante’s Convivio – “Love that speaks to me in my mind…” This entire canto has been growing like a great balloon which has to pop. Cato gave … Continue reading
Like a flock of pigeons feeding contentedly in a field, once startled, will abandon their meal in fright, so that flock of souls fled from their musical feast toward the mountainside, hoping they would find there the path they should have sought upon their arrival. Like them, Virgil and I were just as quick to flee!
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Throughout his Comedy, Dante often tells time by means of elaborate astronomical images involving the planets and constellations, and sometimes needing more than elementary calculation to figure them out. One of the tasks of commentators over the centuries has been first, to understand Dante’s imagery and, second, to explain it clearly to readers. With tongue in cheek, I announce to you that it is 6:00 am on the shore of Purgatory as Dante and Virgil watch the sun rise over the sea on Easter morning, March 21, 1300. Arriving at this simple explanation takes a bit more time (pun intended!). Keep in mind that Hell and Paradise are eternal, but Purgatory exists in time. And according to Dante’s geography, we are to understand that the southern hemisphere (except for Purgatory) is completely covered with water, uninhabited, and unexplored. The reason for this is explained in the notes for Inferno 34. Furthermore, only half of the northern hemisphere (the known world) is land: think of a circle with Jerusalem at its center, the River Ganges at its farthest eastern point, and Gibraltar at its farthest western point. Because the city is directly connected to the death and resurrection of Jesus, Jerusalem is at the “center of the world.” The mountain of Purgatory is antipodal to Jerusalem – that is, directly opposite on the other side of the globe. Thus, the time of day in Purgatory is directly opposite that in Jerusalem. Dante also embellishes his time notation here by reference to the Zodiac. As noted in the previous canto, it is the first day of Spring, and at the point of sunrise here on the island of Purgatory, the constellation of Libra disappears and Aries takes its place. As Dante describes this moment in Italian, Libra slips from the hands of night. Finally, as though to affirm Dante’s “baptism” at the end of the previous canto, the face of Aurora, the goddess of dawn, has changed from deep sapphire to a luminous gold.|
|↑2||Cato had told Virgil and Dante that the sun would show them the place to begin their climb. But they don’t seem to be in a great hurry. And if their thoughts about moving on are ahead of their bodies this will soon change. Having finished the two rituals the old man had enjoined on them and witnessed the miracle of the reed, the travelers continue to watch the sun rise in the east when they are astounded by a great red light that moves rapidly across the sea toward them from the west – the opposite direction from the sunrise. Having already mentioned Venus and the stars of Libra and Aires when he first arrived at Purgatory, Dante thinks of Mars here as another morning star, which it really isn’t. Musa, in his commentary here, remarks that Dante “opposes Mars to the morning star but makes it subject to the morning, lending a mystical power to the figure emerging out of the sea.” And though he already knows what the light is, Dante tantalizes us by telling us that he hopes to see this light again: a reminder that his Commedia happens in the here-and-now as we read it, but it is also the narration of a great experience he’s already had. Time is passing, remember. The vision is still not clear as the light gets closer, but Dante now sees a whiteness on either side of it.|
|↑3||As the great light gets even closer, it is Virgil who first recognizes the boat and the angel who guides it, and it is he who describes them, not Dante. I owe the following insight to the great commentators: in his Italian, although Dante hasn’t quite gotten to the point where he uses the word “boat,” he calls the angel pilot of this boat a galeotto. This might seem strange to us if we recall that in canto 5 of the Inferno, Francesca called the book she and Paolo were reading when they committed adultery a galeotto. And in canto 8, Phlegyas is also called a galeotto. In Francesca’s case, Dante stretched the meaning of the word to mean something like a pimp or go-between in the context of a tryst. It is in Boccaccio’s later commentary that he corrects the usage and tells us that the word means a boatman, or a rower on a galley. Using the word here, for the third time in his Comedy, the context demands that there be a boat. And what a boat it is.
When Virgil realizes what he is seeing, he does what he did not long before this at the appearance of Cato: almost urgently he tells Dante to kneel down and assume an attitude of prayerful respect. This the first angel Dante will encounter in Purgatory, and there will be many more. The aura of the supernatural about this boat is enhanced by the fact that it has no evident mechanical means of propulsion and no instruments of guidance like a compass, only the angel’s great wings. If we take the wide view of this scene and then cast our minds back to canto 26 in the Inferno Dante would have us enjoy the contrasts at work here. We already know that this sea and the mountain of Purgatory have never been explored by anyone who returned to tell about it. In canto 26, Ulysses told Virgil that he and his men made a “mad flight” to see what lay at the other side of the world. But when they came within sight of the mountain, a great wind rose up and sank their ship and all hands were drowned. Tragically, his fatal adventure was fueled by his pride. Recall his pep-talk to his sailors: “Consider that we are Greeks. We were not made to live like brutes, but rather for the pursuit of virtue and knowledge.” Ironically, the souls who come to Purgatory the “right” way also come in pursuit of virtue and knowledge, but in a spirit of humility, not pride. Humility saves the souls who arrive here as we shall see in a moment; pride kills the rest before they can reach the shore. Finally, we can contrast the boat so gracefully propelled only by the angel’s great wings with Ulysses’ boat where “we made our oars our wings in that mad flight.”
|↑4||Dante can now see the boat clearly along with its many passengers. The benignant angel pilot, though, radiates such a blinding light that Dante must look away. (Recall the last – fallen – angel he saw at the bottom of Hell.)
We also want to pay close attention to the hymn Dante hears the souls singing as they approach the shore. He gives us the opening line – in Latin – of Psalm 114: “When Israel came out of Egypt.” This first of many hymns that he will hear on his journey upward through Purgatory is fundamental to our understanding of the nature and significance of this Canticle. The text of this Psalm is brief; let me quote all of it here:
When Israel came forth from Egypt,
We have here a kind of cosmic celebration of the Exodus, Israel’s miraculous escape from centuries of slavery in Egypt. The many stories surrounding this event, contained in the Bible’s Book of Exodus, became for Israel a kind of Declaration of Independence. It’s an epic story that binds the people of Israel together as a nation. History, certainly classical ancient history, is filled with these epics (e.g., the great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid, and many others). The Exodus is the story of a grand journey from slavery to freedom and, quite simply put, so is Dante’s Purgatorio. It is the soul’s journey from the bondage of sin to the ultimate freedom of Paradise. Along the way, miraculous things happen as the souls are purged of sin, just as the Israelites were purged of, and sometimes punished for, their memories on slavery.
We should also take note of the Liturgical significance of this Psalm as part of the Christian cycle of Psalms known as the Divine Office, the official prayer of the Church. Each day of the week is divided into sections, starting at dawn and ending at dusk, and as these sections of the day cycle through each week, all 150 Psalms are prayed or sung – mostly in monastic settings. This particular Psalm, part of the Sunday service of Vespers, would be sung in the late afternoon/early evening. Ronald Martinez notes in his commentary something we might otherwise miss: In Jerusalem, exactly opposite from where Dante and Virgil are watching this scene, it is 6:00 pm, the time of Vespers when this Psalm would be sung.
Another item of significance we should touch on at this point is that in his Letter to Can Grande (his patron while he was in Verona, and to whom he dedicated the Paradiso), Dante uses this verse to explain the four ways his poem can be interpreted: literally or the text as it reads; allegorically or symbolically, where we seek the deeper truth in the text; morally or how the text might guide the choices we make; and mystically, where the text might guide us spiritually.
Lastly, note that Dante tells us all the souls in the boat were singing together. This sense of unity and community will continue throughout the Purgatorio and stand in marked contrast to the chaos of Hell. And if we compare the crossing of the sea here with the crossing of the Acheron in canto 3 of the Inferno, this tranquil scene is so very different the one in Hell where the souls at the shore there, realizing their eternal damnation, curse God, their parents, the world, etc. And reading how lightly the boat floated across the water here, we are reminded of Charon’s reluctance to take Dante aboard, telling him: “By other ways, by other ports you will come ashore, but not here. A lighter vessel will carry you.”
|↑5||Continuing with the contrast between the crossing of the Acheron in canto 3 of the Inferno and the scene here, note how, before the souls disembark, the angel blesses each one of them. At the Acheron, Charon beat the damned souls with his oar as he herded them into his boat, shouting: “Woe to you, perverted souls!” And note that at the Acheron, the condemned souls rushed to board Charon’s boat, while here, the souls quickly disembark.|
|↑6||Think back for a moment on the wonderful experiences Dante the pilgrim (and we, the reader) has had since he emerged from Hell: the glorious sunrise, the encounter with Cato, his baptism and cording, and his seeing the angel and watching the ship of souls arrive. The Poet started at the very shore of Purgatory and has left nothing out. Now he and we watch as the newly arrived and confused souls try to get their bearings. Since the sun has risen (note how time has passed and note the subtle hunting theme: the rays/arrows of the Sun have driven the constellations of Libra, Aries, and now Capricorn out of the morning sky) it’s easy to see, and the strangers do what any one of us might do in a new place – ask someone for directions. There’s a certain humor to this because Dante and Virgil are also new to this place, as Virgil will soon explain. And everyone knows that they have to climb the mountain. Purgatory isn’t the shore, as we will also soon discover.|
|↑7||Travelers sometimes like to outdo each other in sharing experiences of a new place. Virgil and Dante arrived here first, and their journey through Hell was definitely “rough and harsh.” The souls, on the other hand, arrived smoothly by boat. Though they’ve virtually all arrived at the same time, and are equal as pilgrims, note how Virgil makes a point of his and Dante’s harder journey, and how he literally boasts (perhaps a bit immaturely) that after their hard trip climbing the mountain will be a piece of cake. On a deeper level, however, Virgil’s point can be interpreted as the soul’s arduous journey from sin to salvation.
Two other things to note here: First, Virgil, though he is Dante’s guide, admits to the “newcomers” that he doesn’t know the way. We know that he’s never been to Purgatory as far back as canto 9 (ll. 16-33) of the Inferno, when he returned to Dante after having the gates to the City of Dis slammed in his face by the demons there. It seemed that their journey had come to an end. At that point, a frightened Dante questioned him whether he actually knew the way. Virgil told him that shortly after he died his soul was summoned from Limbo by the evil Thessalian witch, Erichtho, to go down to the bottom of Hell and bring up a spirit from there. And he assured Dante that he knew the way – which he did. What the reader might not know is that Dante the Poet made this story up. However, there is a similar story in Lucan’s Pharsalia (VI: 507-830) which the Poet most likely borrowed and used to good effect at this dramatic moment of interruption of the journey. It was a good way for Virgil to boost Dante’s confidence and to save face.
The second item to note here is that this is the first time Dante the Poet uses the idea that the poem is a pilgrimage and that Dante and Virgil are pilgrims. Charles Singleton treats this nicely in his commentary: “The notion of pilgrim and thus of pilgrimage here appears in the poem for the first time. Strikingly enough, it was never applied to the journey through Hell. Clearly it implies an exodus, a newness of life, a forward movement toward a promised land, and serves to make Virgil and Dante and these souls one group engaged in pilgrimage.” Note that the “exodus” theme will be highlighted every time there is mention of a pilgrimage or a journey.
|↑8||Here is another first – in Purgatory: the newly arrived souls almost immediately recognize that Dante is alive. This will happen several more times. There’s great excitement, but the truth of the matter is, as Dante states, this distraction causes everyone to forget their purpose for being here – and note how Dante states again what it is – to make oneself beautiful for God. If we interpret this through the spiritual lens, it happens that the soul, on its journey to God – its exodus – can lose sight of its goal. But we’ll soon see how these souls regain their focus.
And speaking of the Exodus, it was often the case with the Israelites that they lost sight of their goal and were sometimes severely punished as a result. At the same time, the fact that Dante is seen to be alive is an immediate affirmation for these newly-arrived souls that, no matter how long it will take them here in Purgatory, they are guaranteed Life eternal in Paradise.
Furthermore, from antiquity, and even in Dante’s time, it was customary that the bearer of good news of peace carried an olive branch (in Italian, an olivo), and we won’t be surprised to learn that this image of the crowd surrounding the bearer of news here finds its antecedents in Virgil’s Aeneid (VIII:115f and XI:100f).
|↑9||What a delightful and even humorous scene of reunion this is. Dante is recognized by his dear friend, Casella, a Florentine musician who set some of his poems to music. After three unsuccessful attempts to hug each other, Dante finally recognizes his friend when he speaks. But note how Dante was more than happy to embrace that “stranger” in this passage filled with gentle affection. The virtue of Love, earlier symbolized by the presence of the planet Venus in the pre-dawn sky, is at work even here at the very edge of Purgatory. And, yes, you guessed it! Scenes similar to this can be found in Virgil’s Aeneid (II:792ff) in the Underworld, where Aeneas tries to embrace his first wife, Creusa, three times in vain; and in VI:700ff, where he meets his father, Anchises, and also tries three times to embrace his dear father, but in vain. Precious little is known about Casella apart from what we learn here. Musa notes that a 13th century manuscript of a ballad in the Vatican Library has an annotation saying that Casella wrote the music. Musa continues: “A document dated July 13, 1282, and preserved in Siena, records that Casella once received a fine for loitering in the streets at night!” Was he singing Dante’s poems?
We already learned in the Inferno that the spirits there have a bodily form and can feel pain, etc., and can be passed through as happened while Dante and Virgil walked through the circle of the gluttons. In canto 25 of the Purgatorio, Statius will present a most creative and realistic explanation of how a shade gets its form. Here, it is clear – and odd that Dante didn’t remember this – that the shades don’t have a substantial form, though they appear to. Yet toward the end of the Inferno he could accidentally kick Bocca degli Abati in the face (XXXII:75ff) and later pull out his hair (XXXII:103ff)! But, as a consummate artist, Dante the Poet gathers his resources and arranges his materials to suit his purpose.
The conversation between Casella and Dante is filled with love and happiness. Having forgotten Cato’s directions already, Dante invites Casella to stay and chat. Casella is naturally curious as to how Dante comes to be here – ahead of him, we might add, and Dante replies, in so many words, that he’s making his journey as a sort of “test-drive,” if you will. Harkening back to the drama at the gates to the City of Dis mentioned earlier, it seems as though Dante wants to make sure he knows the way back here the next time – a journey he’s putting his hopes on.
|↑10||Dante, had asked Casella why it took him so long to get here. We know that the Poem is set in the Spring of 1300, and, though little is known about his life, Casella seems to have died at some time in the previous year. But in his answer to Dante he gives us lots of fascinating information to explore. He tells Dante that he didn’t just find himself at Purgatory when he died. Rather, in the good-natured way we’ve already observed with him, he seems to indicate that God wasn’t in a great hurry with him, and he’s not complaining. Well, Dante, of course, has fabricated this scene by re-purposing one from the Aeneid (VI:315f). There Aeneas, at the shore of the Acheron, sees that the souls of the dead crowd along the bank pleading to be ferried across. But Charon the boatman doesn’t just take everyone aboard. He picks and chooses whom he will take while the rest have to wait. But recently, Casella says, God took anyone who wanted to cross, so he went to Ostia and got on the boat that has just arrived. The modern port of Rome is Civitavecchia about 20 miles to the northwest. Ostia, at the mouth of the Tiber river, was the ancient port of Rome, a large city. and an important commercial center of the empire. It is close to Rome’s international airport at Fiumicino, but it no longer serves as a seaport. The ancient city’s ruins are still a major archaeological attraction. Though we have no idea where the damned souls gathered or entered the Underworld, it seems that Ostia, being so significant to the very life of Rome, the center of the Church, came to be the place where it was believed that the souls of the saved were gathered and transported as we have seen. In the end, all of what Casella tells Dante here suggests that there is a kind of pre-Purgatory time of waiting for some souls before they actually arrive at the mountain itself.|
|↑11||Dante is correct here, there is no “law” against singing in Purgatory. As a matter of fact, there will be a lot of it. But it won’t be love songs, and Cato’s questions about law-breaking in canto 1still ring in our ears. Nevertheless, one can’t help but wonder – and probably excuse – how this arrival of new souls, particularly one of his closest friends, has caused such a distraction for all of them, including Virgil who, in Hell, was always conscious of the time. No doubt that Dante is exhausted – emotionally and physically, but he tells us much about his relationship with Casella, whose songs (Dante’s love poems?) used to bring him such comfort. On the other hand, spiritually we might ask about the extent to which the pleasure of earthly things could be a distraction to the soul on its journey to God. In Dante’s Italian, he tells how Casella’s singing soothed his restless longings. But St. Augustine reminds us in his Confessions (1.1.1) that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.|
|↑12||Casella sings from the second canzone of Dante’s Convivio – “Love that speaks to me in my mind…” This entire canto has been growing like a great balloon which has to pop. Cato gave explicit instructions to Virgil and Dante to proceed to the mountain once their ritual at the shore was complete. The souls newly arrived would seem to know that this is the task before them as well. But the arrival of Casella among them, the reunion, the singing – all this has completely distracted Dante to the point that he, and all the souls there, have simply forgotten what they were supposed to do. We all know the embarrassment of being given a task and then being caught doing something else. Cato pops the balloon with a wonderful scolding and sends the group of them scattering like a flock of birds. Once before Dante and Virgil ran away in fear and slid down an embankment – in canto 22 of the Inferno when the devils chased them. It’s humorous to imagine Dante and Virgil running away here – shame-faced. At the same time, one must admit there’s nothing to laugh at here when we consider that Dante might have lost his way to salvation again as in canto 1 of the Inferno. In canto 2, Beatrice summoned Virgil to bring Dante back to his senses. In this canto 2, it is Cato who fills that role. What does this tell us, spiritually, except that we are weak and we stray. Yet it also affirms that God comes looking for us and willingly offers us salvation.|