Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 31

Beatrice continues to rebuke Dante in order to move him to admit his guilt and repent. He admits that after she died he allowed other things to become the focus of his ideals. Finally, under great emotional stress from more heavy interrogation, Dante’s spirit is broken and he faints. When he recovers, he realizes that the young lady he met in the forest is walking him through the waters of Lethe. Once he has drunk from that water, he comes ashore purified and is brought to the four dancing ladies. They bring him to stand in front of the griffin and gaze at Beatrice, who is also looking at the griffin. Dante sees its dual nature reflected in her glorious eyes. After this, the three ladies on the right side of the chariot beg Beatrice to unveil herself completely so Dante can see her entire face. She does this and, Dante, stunned by her heavenly beauty, is at a loss to describe her.

            She was only beginning her tirade, and her words continued to slice at me like a sword. “You, there, standing beyond this sacred stream. Speak up! Say that I have told the truth about you. Speak, now! Confess and admit the charges I make against you!” But I could only stand  there mute, paralyzed by shame and confusion. And though I struggled to speak, not a single word escaped from my mouth. So she kept up her barrage of wounding words. “Tell me,” she called from the chariot, “what are you thinking about? Give me an answer! Your memories of unhappy times have not yet been erased by the waters of this stream.”

            If you pull too hard on a crossbow, it will break and the arrow will barely reach its target. I was that crossbow, and with tears and sighs, I broke down in the face of her relentless interrogation. Confusion and fear forced a wretched “yes” from my mouth that was barely audible.

            And she continued: “In your desire for me, which led you to seek the Good which stands above all other things a man might hope to attain, what caused you to lose faith in reaching your goal? What was it that attracted you away from the right path? What promises lured you to spend your time in other pursuits?”

            Sighing deeply, I could hardly find my voice to make an answer. Weeping bitterly, I told her: “When I could no longer look upon your face, I allowed the things of the world to lead me astray with their false promises of happiness.”

            “If you had said nothing,” she said, “or denied what you just confessed, God would still know your guilt. But in our heavenly court, when a sinner condemns his own sin, the grindstone moves the other way and dulls the blade of punishment. Nevertheless, you must truly feel the shame of your many sins, so that you will be stronger the next time the Sirens tempt you. So compose yourself now, and listen carefully to what I will tell you, so you can learn how even my buried body could have led you down a different path.

            “Never before did Nature or Art set before you such beauty as there was within my living form, which is now simply dust. But if such beauty vanished when I died, how could some other worldly thing become the object of your love? When you were tempted, you should have quickly followed me in spirit to higher things. You should not have allowed your wings to be weighed down by some pretty girl or some other fleeting attraction – leaving you weak to resist their snares. A young bird might hesitate to take to flight, but not one that is mature. That one will see the net, or avoid the arrow.”

            Well, all I could do was stand there like a scolded child, silent, ashamed, with my head bowed, admitting I was wrong, and deeply sorry for what I had done. But she wasn’t finished. “If simply listening to my words can cause you such anguish, then I will give you more. Raise your beard now, and look at me!”

            It was easier for a great oak tree to be uprooted by the wind than it was for me to follow that deeply hurtful command that I look up at her. She called my face my “beard”! What venom there was in those words. And when I was finally able to raise my head, I couldn’t look at her. I looked at the angels instead – their rain of flowers had stopped.

            When I slowly turned my gaze toward her, I saw that she was now facing the griffin – a single creature but with two natures. Although she was covered by that white veil and on the opposite shore, she, who was the most beautiful person I had ever seen when she was alive, now surpassed every other beauty. Suddenly, I was overcome with such a terrible remorse. I once loved so many things that were not her. Those I now hated the most!

            At that moment, I was so completely undone by the bitter recognition of my guilt, that I fainted. Only Beatrice knows what happened next. But when I revived, I realized that I was being led into the stream by that lovely lady whom I had first seen walking alone in the forest. “Hold on to me now,” she said tenderly as she led me into the water up to my neck – she floating easily across the surface like a small boat.

            Already midstream, I heard Asperges me being sung with such heavenly beauty that I cannot put it into words. Ever so gently, the lovely lady dipped my head into the stream a bit so that I could drink of its waters. Then, cleansed of my sins, she led me to where the four lovely ladies were dancing. They gladly raised their arms and joined their hands over me and sang this song: “In this place we are nymphs. But in the heavens, we are stars. Before Beatrice was born, we were ordained to be her handmaids. We will bring you to her eyes. The other three see more deeply, and they will sharpen your sight as you look upon her beauty.” Then, they took me over in front of the griffin while Beatrice looked forward from the chariot.

            “Gaze, now, as deeply as you can into her eyes,” they said. “You can see those emeralds from which Love once sent shot his arrows at you.” A thousand flames of desire held my gaze upon those shining eyes that looked upon the griffin. They were like mirrors reflecting the sunlight as the twofold beast reflected in turn his two natures into them. Can you imagine my amazement at seeing that great creature standing there as one being, but  reflecting its two natures in Beatrice’s eyes!

            There I was, filled with awe and joy, tasting food that both satisfies and makes one hungrier at the same time. And then the other three ladies, more noble in bearing, came to me dancing to an angelic song. “Turn, Beatrice,” they sang, “turn your saintly eyes upon your faithful one, who has traveled so very far to see you! Grant us this great favor: unveil your mouth now, and let him see that second beauty which you’ve hidden from him.”

            O splendor of heaven’s living light! Which poet, having drunk from the waters of Parnassus could, even then, at the height of his powers, find words that could describe you standing there under that canopy of heavenly streamers – when, at last, you unveiled yourself to me?