Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 26

It is late in the afternoon and the three travelers continue walking carefully along the edge of the seventh terrace. Dante is conscious of spirits within the flames commenting on his living body, and one of them comes close to the edge of the flames to ask him how he could be here and still be alive. Before he can answer, another group of spirits comes from the opposite direction. At once both groups of souls quickly embrace and kiss. Then, as they move on they shout out their sins. Dante explains how he comes to be here, and asks the spirit he is talking with to tell him who the spirits were who just rushed off, and to identify himself as well. After explaining how their punishment works, the spirit identifies himself as the poet Guido Guinizelli. Dante is stunned with admiration to meet a man he holds in such high esteem. Before he recedes back into the flames, Guido introduces the famed Provençal poet, Arnaut Daniel, who explains why he is here and asks Dante to pray for him when he reaches heaven.

            We continued walking single file along the edge of that high cliff, Virgil reminding me now and then to be careful. The late afternoon sun shone to my right now, and the blue sky was slowly becoming paler. I could also see that my shadow against the flames made them darker, and it made the souls within more curious as they passed by me.

            I heard someone say: “That one there seems to be alive.” Then more of them moved toward me, careful to remain within the flames. One of them spoke to me: “O you there, walking behind those two – out of reverence, I’m sure – would you mind stopping to speak with me as I suffer thirst and these flames? As it happens, all of us here are thirsting to hear your words – thirsting more than those who crave a cool drink in India or Ethiopia. Please let us know how it is that you’ve avoided death and come here among us very much alive.”

            I was ready to explain myself, but another unusual sight caught my eye. Coming down the middle of that road of flames was another group of souls approaching those who had spoken to me. As I watched, both groups rushed to greet each other with a brief hug and kiss. I was reminded of how ants nose up to each other when they meet, as though to find out which way to go, or how they have fared. So it was with these souls, and after they shared greetings each group shouted at the other. Those who had just arrived shouted: “Sodom and Gomorrah!” The ones who were already there responded: “Pasiphaë enters the false cow so that the bull might satisfy her lust!”

            Then, like cranes in flight, one group heading for the Riphean mountains, and another heading toward the desert, so these two groups of souls went off in opposite directions. In tears, they began their hymns and chants again, fitting for their different atonements.

            Those who had questioned me earlier now came near again to hear my reply, their faces red from the flames. And knowing what they wished to hear, I began: “O fiery souls, certain of attaining Heaven’s glory at the appointed time, I didn’t die and leave my flesh on earth below. No, I am here before you alive – flesh and blood and bones. I climb to be healed of my blindness because a blessed lady has gifted me with the grace to travel through your world with my living body. But tell me, please, so that you may quickly find yourself within the loving realm of Heaven, who are you? Tell me, also, who those were who ran off in that other group. I will write what you say in my book.”

            Hearing my reply, those burning spirits stood there amazed, like a rustic from the mountains who comes to town and gapes at everything he sees. But when their amazement passed, which lasts only a short time in noble hearts, that soul who had spoken to me at first spoke again. “You are indeed blessed, for you can take back what you have learned up here and later die a holier death. To answer your first question, those souls who came and left us quickly were sodomites. They suffer here for the same sin that caused Caesar to be called ‘Queen’ as he passed along in triumph. That is why you heard them reproach themselves, crying out “Sodom!” as they ran off. They burn with shame to quicken their burning within the flames.

            “Unlike them, the nature of our sin was hermaphroditic, because in yielding to lust, we behaved more like animals than men and women. And so, when we encounter the other group, in shame we shout out the name of that woman who became a beast within the wooden beast. And this is the answer to your first question. As for your second question,” he continued, “my name is Guido Guinizelli, and I’m here because I began my repentance long before I died.”

            In ancient times, King Lycurgus raved madly at the death of his young son, while the two sons of that dead boy’s nurse rejoiced to discover that she was their lost mother. And when that spirit told me his name I was likewise filled with powerful emotions because he was my poetic father, and the sire of far better poets than me who wrote that gracious poetry of love.

            For the moment, I heard nothing else, nor could I speak. I simply walked along, lost in thought, as I looked with deep affection on this spirit whom I would have embraced, but for the flames. When I had embraced him long enough with my eyes, I then told him that it was my deepest desire to be of service to him in whatever way I could.

            “What you just said,” he replied, “has touched me so profoundly that even Lethe will not wash it away. And if what you said is true, then tell me what it is that caused you to show such love for me in your looks and your words?”

            I answered: “The sweet verses that fill your poetry will make even the ink you used precious for as long as our language will be used for poems.”

            “Ah, my dear brother,” he said, pointing to another nearby spirit, “let me introduce you to an even better artist in his own mother tongue. He was the best among love poets and prose writers – better than all of them! And those who think the poet from Limoges is better are fools! They listen to hearsay and neglect the truth because they are ignorant of the rules and the principles of our art. This was the case with Guittone when so many praised him above all others. Now, though, most see the truth.

            “And so, let me end now by asking a favor. If this grace of yours should take you all the way to Heaven’s cloisters, where Christ is the Abbot of that community of the blessed, then please say an Our Father for me when you get there – at least the first part, because we are already delivered from evil.” Then, perhaps to allow someone else to take his place, he faded into the depths of those flames the way fish will fade as they seek deeper waters.

            I stayed there for a moment and then moved toward the soul he had just pointed out. Greeting him, I told him that my desire to meet him had already made him welcome in my heart. And he replied with such grace: “Your kind words please me so much that I could never hide myself from you. I am Arnaut Daniel. Like the others here, I weep and sing my way along this fiery path. I grieve for my past folly and I rejoice at what lies ahead. And so I beg you by that Power which guides you to the top of the stairs to remember the pain I suffer when you get there.” And with that, he disappeared back into the flames that refine them.