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.Perhaps still in shock or fright at the great earthquake and shout that ended the previous canto, Dante is dying to know their causes. Nothing like this has happened so far on his journey. With … Continue reading
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.Here again, referring to a famous Gospel story from St. Luke (24:13-35), Dante tells us that a soul was following him and Virgil as they carefully made their way among the prostrate souls there on … Continue reading
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.”This is a wonderfully gracious reply on Virgil’s part, and his candor grips us as it contrasts with the assurance of eternal salvation shared by all the souls in Purgatory, including this one. Note … Continue reading
“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?”This is clever. Earlier it was (and still is) Dante who doesn’t understand. Now it’s the new soul. First of all, it appears that Virgil’s response has been taken by the stranger to mean that … Continue reading
“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.As he did for Cato’s questions in Canto 1, so Virgil now answers the questions of the unidentified soul. Three P’s still remain on Dante’s forehead–one each for Avarice, Gluttony, and … Continue reading
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.Before answering Virgil’s questions–answers for which Dante has been “thirsting,” the stranger-soul provides the two travelers with a goodly amount of meteorological information about the … Continue reading
“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.We still do not have the identity of this mysterious soul, but he has, nevertheless, told us a lot about himself and how the Mountain works. Moving backwards, the earthquake and the shout happen when … Continue reading
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.”Having answered all his questions but one, the “wise” Virgil politely pursues the soul’s still-illusive identity. Moreover, the fact that this soul has been here for five hundred years surely … Continue reading
“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.”The mystery-soul nearly identifies himself, but not before a bit more history. He begins with a mention of the Emperor Titus who, when he was a general, destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 70AD. This … Continue reading
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.”Following on the heels of such gracious adulation, the great balloon of poetic praise bursts and leaves us laughing at what has to be the most comical scene in the entire Poem! All the more so … Continue reading
“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.”Dante’s readiness to impart something “even more amazing” prepares Statius to see and respond to the “miracle” that is revealed to him, and his kneeling to embrace Virgil is a humble … Continue reading
By now, it is clear (as it would also be from the introduction to this canto), that the main character in this canto is the Roman poet Statius. In my opening remarks at the beginning of this canto, I … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Perhaps still in shock or fright at the great earthquake and shout that ended the previous canto, Dante is dying to know their causes. Nothing like this has happened so far on his journey. With Aristotle’s Metaphysics in mind (1:1), his thirst for knowledge here is “natural,” he tells us, but his immediate allusion to the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman in St. John’s Gospel (4:4-26) is far from obvious, and Dante draws this “natural desire to know” into the realm of faith. In that story, Jesus and his disciples were traveling in the territory of the Samaritans, whom the Jews despised. Left alone at the famed Jacob’s Well while his disciples go for food, Jesus has a long conversation with a Samaritan woman who comes to draw water and is surprised that he, a Jew, should ask her for a drink. He tells her that if she really knew who he was she would have asked for “living water,” suggesting eternal salvation. As it turns out, he stays for several days among this “heathen” people and many come to believe in him. The point of the story leads to a common theme in the Gospels: Jesus’ message is for everyone, not just the “chosen” people. Commentators note that in the Gospel, St. John uses the word mulier (woman) for the Samaritan, whereas Dante uses the word feminetta, a diminutive form of the word to indicate that she is ordinary–like us–in her desire for hope and salvation. In a moment, we will meet the man who is the focus of this canto and obviously the person who exemplifies the significance of this story.
The reader will not have missed how quickly Dante the Pilgrim moves from his mental struggle to understand the nature of the earthquake and the shout to the Samaritan woman to his feelings of grief for the prostrate sinners he is still walking among. This is the Poet’s way of illustrating the Pilgrim’s inner struggle and agitation.
|↑2||Here again, referring to a famous Gospel story from St. Luke (24:13-35), Dante tells us that a soul was following him and Virgil as they carefully made their way among the prostrate souls there on the Terrace of Avarice. And, according to Ronald Martinez, this is the only time in the Purgatorio where the risen Christ is compared with a shade.
As it happened, in the Gospel story, it was the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, and two of his disciples were on their way to a town called Emmaus, not far from Jerusalem. They had been discussing the events of the previous days, during which Jesus had been arrested, crucified, and apparently arisen from the dead. Jesus came along and joined them, but they didn’t recognize him. Feeling their grief, he began to explain to them the deeper significance of what had happened. When they reached Emmaus, Jesus made as though he would be traveling on, but the disciples prevailed on him to stay with them. While they were at dinner, Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them, and with that they recognized him and he disappeared.
The stranger from behind them greets the travelers with a blessing of peace, not unlike Jesus’ words, “Peace be with you (Lk 24:36),” when he appeared to his apostles in the upper room later that same evening. Like the Gospel story, neither Dante nor Virgil recognize the mysterious traveler, and he doesn’t immediately identify himself. The appearance of this unknown soul, attached, in Dante’s mind, to the Gospel story of the post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus, along with the recent earthquake and shout, all add to the building tension that energizes the first part of this canto. All the while, we can see Dante and Virgil stepping carefully among the crowds of prostrate sinners as they make their way toward an exit from this terrace.
|↑3||This is a wonderfully gracious reply on Virgil’s part, and his candor grips us as it contrasts with the assurance of eternal salvation shared by all the souls in Purgatory, including this one. Note also how Virgil’s reference to the “Court of Heaven” may mean all of Paradise, or a judicial court that has sentenced him to Limbo for all eternity.|
|↑4||This is clever. Earlier it was (and still is) Dante who doesn’t understand. Now it’s the new soul. First of all, it appears that Virgil’s response has been taken by the stranger to mean that both he (Virgil) and Dante are shades, and that they are condemned. Furthermore, since they’re on the shady (no pun intended) side of the Mountain (it’s mid-morning), Dante doesn’t cast a shadow, so the stranger doesn’t know that he’s actually alive. The stranger’s question is also an echo of Cato’s questions to the two travelers when they met him in Canto 1 after their escape from Hell. Basically, “What are you doing here?”|
|↑5||As he did for Cato’s questions in Canto 1, so Virgil now answers the questions of the unidentified soul. Three P’s still remain on Dante’s forehead–one each for Avarice, Gluttony, and Lust. It seems that these are intended to be enough proof that Dante is not damned, but rather the recipient of some heavenly favor and a blessed destiny. (As it happens, there is some disagreement among commentators as to whether all the souls in Purgatory proper have P’s on their foreheads or just Dante. Most fall down on the side of Dante alone.)
Furthermore, Virgil explains that Dante is, in fact, still alive and that the three of them share at least one thing in common: a soul. However, Virgil also informs the stranger about his own presence: since Dante is still alive, his soul does not have the powers of souls like theirs in the afterlife. Dante is on a journey and Virgil has been called (from Hell) to be his guide as far as his own knowledge will take him/them. Remember that he represents the light of natural reason–as far as it can go.
Interestingly enough, for all his questions about the earthquake and the shout from “every soul” on the Mountain, it isn’t Dante who gets to ask them. Perhaps to show that he is “in charge,” as it were, it’s Virgil who asks the burning questions. And Dante is delighted. This, then, leads both to the answers and the identity of this mysterious soul.
|↑6||Before answering Virgil’s questions–answers for which Dante has been “thirsting,” the stranger-soul provides the two travelers with a goodly amount of meteorological information about the Mountain of Purgatory above the Gate at Canto 9. Quite a list of no’s: rain, hail, show, frost, clouds, lightning, rainbows, dry vapors, and tremors (earthquakes). In other words, once we pass through the Gate of Purgatory, we leave the material world of “things” like weather, and enter the realm of heavenly influences where nothing happens by chance. That Gate is more significant than we might have realized earlier. We know that all souls in Purgatory are guaranteed entrance into Heaven. It seems that the higher part of the Mountain beyond the Gate is already a part of Paradise. This may be why the soul tells Dante and Virgil that earthquakes–which, he admits, he doesn’t understand, do not happen above the Gate. All of which may sound confusing at this point because we have just experienced a significant quake. But an explanation will be forthcoming.
Now, a weather report is not really what they were interested in, but it provides the reader–and the travelers–with useful information. And all of this is preliminary to the “real” answers that will come soon. In other words, in order to understand the earthquake and the shout, the soul tells Dante and Virgil that it’s necessary to understand certain principles of the Mountain first. In the Italian, when the stranger-soul refers to “the sacred laws which govern this place,” Dante writes “la religïone de la montagna,” the “religion” of the mountain. Charles Singleton notes in his commentary here: “Religione, in early Italian, can mean “convent” or “monastery,” but it can also mean legge, “law.”
A note about earthquakes: First, there are several quakes or mention of them in the Poem so far. The first was at the end of Canto 3 in the Inferno, accompanied by a great flash of light. At which point Dante fainted. The second was at the great landslide in Inferno 12, caused by the earthquake at Jesus’ death and his harrowing of Hell. Another is related to the same event, this time noted with the fallen bridge over the circle of the hypocrites in Inferno 23.
As for earthquakes themselves, Dante follows the Medieval view that earthquakes were caused by wind trapped within the earth. I refer here to John Ciardi’s commentary for an excellent explanation of all this meteorology:
“When the heat of the sun enters into the body [of the earth], which has to resolve the humidity into vapor, it dries the humidity of the earth, which then becomes a windy vapor…and it [the windy vapor] can also be moved by virtue of the heavens; whereupon, since it cannot remain still, it fights with the earth, to get out. If it finds the earth hard and solid, it moves it up and down and makes it tremble” (Della composizione VII, IV, 6).
Incidentally, recalling that Dante was the first to write his great Poem in vernacular Italian, Ristoro was the first to write a scientific work (quoted above) in vernacular Italian in 1282.
|↑7||We still do not have the identity of this mysterious soul, but he has, nevertheless, told us a lot about himself and how the Mountain works. Moving backwards, the earthquake and the shout happen when a soul’s purgation is finished and its will is joined–purified–with the Divine Will. Note that it is the joining of the wills that indicates when the soul is ready to rise into Heaven. Nothing remains of the earthly/human will that was prone to make bad choices and to sin. Instead, the will that earlier chose poorly in life now chooses its just penitence in Purgatory and intuitively knows when it is completely free of any evil inclination. At this point its purgation–however long it took for this to happen–is finished. In the case of this soul, its penitence on this particular terrace had lasted more than five hundred years!
Vividly indicating the sense of “community” shared among the penitent sinners in Purgatory, all of them shout in praise to God when one of their members is set free. This, of course, presents a problem: One can imagine that there are countless souls in Purgatory, all doing penance for different amounts of time, and all being released at different times. If this were literally true, the mountain would be shaking all the time, not to mention the shouting. Left to the imagination, however, the idea that there is such a monumental acclamation at each sinner’s release is wonderful to consider. Ronald Martinez, in his commentary, notes a passage from St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians here (12:26): “And if one member suffer anything, all the members suffer with it; or if one member glories, all the members rejoice together with it.”
|↑8||Having answered all his questions but one, the “wise” Virgil politely pursues the soul’s still-illusive identity. Moreover, the fact that this soul has been here for five hundred years surely pricks his curiosity.|
|↑9||The mystery-soul nearly identifies himself, but not before a bit more history. He begins with a mention of the Emperor Titus who, when he was a general, destroyed the city of Jerusalem in 70AD. This disastrous event was seen as a punishment for the killing of Jesus some 40 years earlier (Jesus having been betrayed into the hands of his enemies by Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples). Dante will take this theme up in great detail in Canto 6 in the Paradiso. For now, the soul merely uses Titus as a marker for something more important to him personally: being one of the more famed Roman poets of his time. Only later, he tells Virgil, did he become a Christian. And here, Dante the Poet makes a minor error that others also made: he identifies this poet-soul as coming to Rome from Toulouse. As a matter of historical fact, he came from Naples. Dante confuses him with a noted rhetorician from Toulouse, Lucius Statius Ursulus. Some commentators suggest that our poet-soul received the golden crown for poetry from the Emperor Domitian (younger brother of Titus) in the early 90sAD. And Mark Musa notes here that “the epithet ‘poet,’ in Roman times, inspired almost religious admiration – the kind of immortality Statius had.”
AND FINALLY… Publius Papinius Statius lived from 45-96AD. He is both a fascinating and important character in the Purgatorio, and will travel along with Dante and Virgil to the end of this Canticle. As we had several great poets walking and talking together in Limbo (Inf. 4), we have a kind of reprise here with these three great poets. And remember that Dante had been made one of that classical group, so he is a kind of “honorary” poetic contemporary of Virgil and Statius.
Apart from his poetry, Statius is mainly remembered for his two epics: the Thebaid about the Trojan War, and the Achilleid, which he never finished, about the life and exploits of Achilles. Mark Musa calls him “the major poet of the Silver Age of Latin literature.” Since he didn’t read Greek, Dante seems to have known Homer’s work and characters from Statius.
In his commentary here, John Ciardi gives us a broad perspective from which to view this significant character. He writes:
If, as seems likely, Dante himself invented this legend, its own elements best explain it, for so interpreted, Statius becomes a symbolic figure joining the Roman and the Christian past, a theme always dear to Dante. Thus Statius may be seen as a lesser Virgil and a greater; a less perfect writer, but a greater soul in the gift of Christ’s redemption. Thus he may be taken as springing from that cardinal point in Church history at which the greatness of the Roman past and the glory of the Christian present are joined. So Dante may now climb guided not only by Virgil (as Human Reason, Philosophy, and the Classic Virtues of Ancient Rome) but by Statius (those same qualities transformed by Faith and thus nearer to God). Between Virgil and Statius, that is, Dante now climbs in the company of the total Roman tradition.”
Statius’s praise of Virgil’s Aeneid is one of the most beautiful tributes to be found in the Commedia. He writes at the end of his Thebaid: “Live on, I pray; but do not try to compete with the divine Aeneid, rather follow always in its steps and adore it from afar. Soon every envy spreading mist before you will vanish and, when I am gone, you’ll receive such honor as is deserved.”
Furthermore, Dante the Poet is almost over the top with affection when he has Statius say: “That grand epic was the very mother of my verse,” for in the Italian, Dante uses the word mamma. For Statius, Virgil’s Aeneid is the “mama” who suckled him at its beasts. He has such humble admiration for Virgil that without his great epic, his own writings would be worthless. And to raise his praise even higher, Statius makes daring claim: he would gladly spend another year in Purgatory if only he could have met Virgil!
At this point, with the canto nearly over, Ronald Martinez gives us another important note about Statius in his commentary here:
|↑10||Following on the heels of such gracious adulation, the great balloon of poetic praise bursts and leaves us laughing at what has to be the most comical scene in the entire Poem! All the more so because it brings the entire scene back down to earth with a situation that may well be common to most readers.
One can suppose that, since Virgil can read Dante’s mind, he has simply followed the mental lead of the Pilgrim’s curiosity and asked all of his questions for him. Statius has led him on by parceling out bits of information about himself, and in this way Dante the Poet has built up the tension surrounding this mysterious soul’s identity until, like an over-filled balloon, it bursts. And like the Pilgrim, we have been listening intently to each response until Statius unwittingly falls into the trap.
Ordinarily, we might expect that, being so wonderfully complimented by a fellow poet and near contemporary, Virgil would respond in a way that matched Statius’s own gracious praise. And Virgil must have been surprised and delighted to meet such a distinguished fellow-poet. Obviously, the severe glare at Dante was intended to make him control himself and at the same time stop him from blurting out the truth. Virgil may have had in mind a more elegant or, perhaps, a more humble way of identifying himself than his companion who, by now, had become a loose canon.
Cleverly, in light of Statius’ earlier discussion of the workings of the will, Dante gives us a situation that defies both conditional and absolute will as philosophers and moralists would ordinarily define them. Strictly speaking, one of them might posit that a person should be in such command of themselves that Dante’s tiny smile would never have happened. But, psychologist that he is, Dante tells us that he was powerless to control himself. When Statius questioned him, he tells us he was trapped between Virgil’s (silent) command and Statius’ desire to know. The game was up. Statius staring directly into Dante’s eyes reminds one of the saying that the eyes are the windows of the soul. But Virgil, the mind-reader, must also have read the emotional struggle behind Dante’s sigh, and, with a smile of his own, permitted his flummoxed companion to announce the climax of the scene. In his Convivio (III:8), Dante had written: “The soul reveals itself in the lips, like coloration behind glass. What is laughter but a glimmer of the soul’s delight, a visible glow echoing what is within?”
Robert Hollander’s own gracious commentary here is befitting of the scene at hand:
|↑11||Dante’s readiness to impart something “even more amazing” prepares Statius to see and respond to the “miracle” that is revealed to him, and his kneeling to embrace Virgil is a humble response to that revelation. As a redeemed soul, Statius’s forgetful love is characteristic of the paradise he has earned–and, in a sense, which he already possesses.
There is disagreement among some commentators about Virgil’s asking Statius not to embrace him. Most seem to agree that Virgil’s request was not because it would have been impossible for two shades to embrace–they can as we have seen earlier, but that it would have been unseemly to do so. As Mark Musa puts it: “In effect, the two poets have moved beyond worldly reverences to a plane of universal brotherhood.” Recall, also, in Canto 19 when Dante knelt by the shade of Pope Adrian, and was told by him to stand up.
|↑12||By now, it is clear (as it would also be from the introduction to this canto), that the main character in this canto is the Roman poet Statius. In my opening remarks at the beginning of this canto, I refrained from using his name so as not to spoil his own introduction later on. Now that he has identified himself, however, let me go back to the story of the Samaritan Woman for a moment and include some of Robert Hollander’s commentary on that earlier section because it gives us a possible entree into the breadth and depth of Dante’s thinking as he wrote this canto here. Hollander writes:|
“The Samaritan woman who finds Jesus, unprepared for the task of drawing water, at her well, ends up being eager to taste the ‘water’ that he offers as replacement for that which seems so necessary at noon of a warm day in the desert, for it ‘fiet in eo fons aquae salientis in vitam aeternam’ ([italics added] ‘…shall become in him a fountain of water springing up into life everlasting’). In the Vulgate the present participle salientis may refer to the water or indeed to the drinker, rising up into eternal life. It is worth keeping this potential grammatical ambiguity in mind, for that second reading applies precisely to the condition of Statius, who has just now come to that moment in his posthumous existence: he is ready to take on the life of a soul in paradise; he himself is ready to saline (rise up). In most interpretations, the water that the Samaritan woman asks for is that of eternal life, which comes alone from the grace of God.”
And Mark Musa makes an important structural note in his commentary on this canto: