Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 24

Dante continues his conversation with Forese as they walk along. When Dante asks who are some of the souls there among the gluttons, Forese points out several. Dante has a conversation about his poetry with Bonagiunta from Lucca. Later, Forese makes a dark prophecy about Florence and then runs on with the rest of the sinners. Soon, the travelers come upon another great tree in their path. It warns them away, saying it is an offshoot of the one from which Eve ate the forbidden fruit. The canto ends with Dante’s encounter with a flaming red angel who directs them to the stairs.

            We continued to talk and walk at a good pace, like ships driven by fair winds. At the same time, we passed throngs of corpse-looking shades who, with their deep-sunken eyes, stared at me – the living man.

            Continuing to answer his question about Statius, I said to Forese: “He’s probably moving more slowly because Virgil is there with him. But let me ask you, where is Piccarda, and are there any other souls I should know among those here with you?”

            “My lovely sister, who was so virtuous, is now crowned in triumph on High Olympus.” And then he added, “I see no reason why I should withhold the names of others here with me, especially since we’re all hardly recognizable.” Pointing, he continued: “Over there is Bonagiunta from Lucca. And that one behind him, with the face withered worse than everyone else – he was Pope Martin IV, a glutton for Bolsena eels cooked in Vernaccia wine.”

            After that, he named several others there, and none of them seemed to mind being identified. Two souls, Ubaldino della Pila and Archbishop Boniface, seemed to be so hungry they were chewing the air! And there were other notorious gluttons, like Milord Marchese from Forlì, whose insatiable thirst – though less than here – led him to drink constantly, saying he was never satisfied.

            Once in a while, as you know, one will take note of a particular face in a crowd. I did that here, with the shade of Bonagiunta, who appeared as though he wished to talk with me. From his thin, dry lips – made so by justice – I heard him mumble a name – it sounded like “Gentucca.” So, I said to him, “O soul, please speak to me as you wish so that we can both be satisfied.”

            “There is a young woman in my city,” he replied. “She is unmarried, and she will make my city pleasing to you, though most others revile it. Remember this. And if what I tell you now is unclear, my words will become clear in the future. But let me ask you: aren’t you the one who wrote the new poems, the first one beginning, ‘Ladies who have intelligence of Love?’”

            I replied, smiling: “When Love inspires me, I take careful note of it, and then write down what he speaks to me in my heart.”

            “Now it becomes clear to me,” he said, “what held Guittone, Lentini, and me back from writing in that sweet new style I hear. I see how the wings of your poetry follow the lead of Love, which couldn’t be said about ours. No one can see the difference between the two styles more than I.” Happy with what he said, he moved on.

            As birds that spend the winter in southern climes fly up together, but then form a single line, so that crowd of hungry shades lined up and sped away, light in their leanness and desire. But like an exhausted runner who will slow down and let the rest pass him until he recovers his breath, so Forese let that holy group run past him as he moved along at my pace.

            “When will we meet again?” he asked.

            “Well,” I replied, “I don’t know how much longer I will live. But I can tell you that my heart will have reached the shore below before I do, because my Florence, stripped of every virtue, is doomed to destroy itself.”

            “Yes,” he agreed. “And I see the one most to blame being dragged behind a beast and thrown down into Hell! That terrible creature runs faster and faster until it throws its rider off, mangled horribly!”

            Then, as he looked up into the sky, he added: “Those great wheels won’t turn much more before my dark words will be made plain for you. But now, I must depart. In this realm, time is precious to us, and I have spent too much of it just walking along with you.”

            Sometimes a horseman will rush off from his troop to have the honor of attacking the enemy first. That was Forese as he raced off, leaving me with those two great poet-souls. And when he was so far away that I couldn’t see him any better than I could make sense of what he had told me, I stopped looking.

            But then – suddenly – I realized that there was another great tree in the road ahead of us, lush and filled with fruit. Beneath it, however, I saw shades with their arms outstretched toward those loaded branches, crying out like foolish greedy children. It looked as though they were begging from someone who, instead of feeding them, held what they wanted in full view but wouldn’t give it to them. Those beggars gave up and ran off.

            As we approached that great tree, moved neither by prayers or tears, a stern voice came out from its branches, saying: “Move on! Do not come near. There is a tree farther up that gave its fruit to Eve. This is a shoot from its root.” We did what we were commanded, and moved away quickly, staying close to the wall of the cliff.

            But then the voice continued: “Remember those drunken centaurs, whose mother was a cloud, and who battled against Theseus at the wedding feast. Remember those Hebrew soldiers who abandoned caution when drinking from the river. Gideon expelled them from his army.” Thus we heard examples of gluttony as we walked on, and saw how those sinners had to pay for their sin.

            Having left the tree behind us, each of us walked on quietly, deep in our thoughts. But we hadn’t gone too far when, suddenly, a different voice called out to us: “You three there! What are you thinking as you walk along?”

            I was startled by this and looked around to see who had spoken. I cannot ever recall  seeing molten glass or metal in a furnace so brilliantly red as the one standing there, saying: “Turn here if you seek the way up. Here is the path for those who would find peace.”

            Blinded as I was by such an apparition, I turned back to my guides and walked behind them, directed by the words I had just heard. As the gentle breezes announce the dawn in May, filled with the fragrance of the grass and flowers, so I now felt that breeze against my face. And sensing the rich aroma of ambrosia, I felt myself touched by wings. Then I heard that great angel speak: “Blessed are those so filled with grace, who strive not to satisfy their appetites, but hunger instead for righteousness.”