Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 21

Following the earthquake and the great shout, Dante is beside himself with curiosity, when suddenly a shade appears behind them. Virgil’s greeting confuses the shade, who wonders how they could have come so far up the mountain if they had been condemned. Virgil explains and asks about the earthquake and the shout. The shade first explains that there is no weather or effects of weather beyond the Gate far below them. Then he explains how souls are freed from Purgatory and why the mountain shook and the souls cried out. Finally, he identifies himself as the Roman poet Statius, who died after Virgil. In glowing terms he praises Virgil as his inspiration and says that he would spend another year on the mountain if he could only have lived while Virgil lived. In a humorous moment, this brings a quick smile to Dante’s face, but Virgil’s glance makes him stop. Then Dante explains that his guide is Virgil.

            I was tormented by the natural thirst that nothing will satisfy, except that water the Samaritan woman begged from Christ in the Gospel of St. John. And as I walked along that path crowded with prostrate souls, I was also feeling some of the grief they felt as they wept for their sins.

            But all of a sudden, a shade appeared, just as St. Luke records that Christ, risen from the tomb, appeared to two men on the way to Emmaus. Until he spoke up, we were not aware that he was there behind us because we were trying not to step on the shades as we made our way along the path. “Brothers! May God give you peace,” he said.

            Hearing that, we quickly turned around, and Virgil said in reply: “May the blessed Court of Heaven, which banished me eternally, bring you into the company of the holy saints.”

            “I don’t understand,” he said as we continued to move along the path. “How could you climb this far up the mountain if you are souls whom God has condemned?”

            “Look at the marks the angel made on his brow,” Virgil told him. “This should show you that he is destined to live among the blest. Not only that, he is still alive. However, his soul, which is your sister and mine, could not make this journey by itself, because it can’t see as we do. For that reason I was called up from Hell to be his guide, and I will lead him as far as my own knowledge will allow. But tell me, please, why did the mountain just now shake so violently, and why did every soul on it sing out as one voice?”

            Virgil’s question was exactly what I wanted to hear, and I was eager to have the thirst of my curiosity quenched.

            The soul replied: “According to the sacred laws that govern this place, nothing happens here by chance, and there is no change, except what Heaven orders. Beyond the gate with the three steps below, where St. Peter’s angel sits, there is no rain, hail, snow, or frost. There are no clouds, no lightning, no rainbows, no dry vapors. Down below, there may be tremors caused by winds hidden in the earth – which I don’t understand, but they have never reached up this far.

            “At these heights, the mountain trembles when a soul feels itself purified enough to stand up or to start climbing. That’s when the shout comes. The fact that the will determines to rise up, that alone proves the soul’s purity. And so, once the soul is freed from its debt, it then wills to climb. It wanted to climb before, but it was not ready. Instead, divine justice prompted it to suffer, just as it once wanted to sin. I have laid here in pain for more than five hundred years, and only now have I finally felt the will to rise up. That explains why you felt the great earthquake, and why you heard all the souls sing praise to God. In His mercy, may He call all of them to be with Him soon!”

            His explanation filled me with great joy; and as the saying goes: the greater the thirst, the more enjoyable the drink.

            My wise guide then replied: “Now I understand what holds you bound here, how one is freed, why the mountain shakes, and why everyone shouts for joy. But, if you don’t mind, I’d like to ask who you were, and hear from you why you’ve laid here for such a long time.”

            “When Titus, assisted by the heavenly King, avenged the death of Him sold by Judas, I was given the most honored and enduring title of poet. Though I had fame, I did not yet have the faith. My poetry was so highly praised that I was called from my home in Toulouse to Rome, where I was acclaimed with the crown of myrtle leaves.

            “Statius is my name, and I am still admired on earth. I wrote the epic of Thebes, and later wrote of Achilles’ exploits, but I didn’t live long enough to finish it. The spark that lit the fire of my love for poetry came from a sacred flame that set more than a thousand poets on fire: I speak of the Aeneid. That grand epic was the very mother of my verse, who suckled me at her worthy bosom. Without that poem, everything I wrote would have been worthless. Let me tell you: I would gladly have spent another year on this mountain if only I could have lived when Virgil lived.”

            Well, at this, Virgil turned to me. Without saying a word, his look said: “Don’t you dare!” But sometimes the will is completely powerless – the smallest of smiles flew across my face and disappeared. It’s not unusual that laughter or tears will follow the emotions that cause them, and the more sincerely one struggles to control them, the less they obey. But now the shade had paused and stared straight into my eyes, where the soul’s secrets can be seen.

            “May your journey upward come to a good end,” he said, “but why did that smile come and go so quickly?”

            Of course, now I was trapped between them: one commanded silence, and the other speech. All I could do was sigh, and Virgil, who knew what I was going through, smiled at me and said: “Do not be afraid. Speak up and tell him what he is so anxious to hear.”

            “Perhaps you’re wondering why I smiled,” I said. “But let me tell you something even more amazing: this spirit here who guides me on my way to Heaven – this is Virgil! It is he who empowered you to sing of gods and men. I smiled because your gracious words were so true.”

            But already he was kneeling down to embrace Virgil’s feet, and my poet said to him: “My brother, no, do not do this! You and I are both shades.”

            “Now it should be clear to you,” he said to Virgil, “how deep my love burns for you – that I should forget that we are shades and embrace you as though we had substance.”