Dante and Virgil begin the difficult ascent up the mountain. When they stop to rest they meet and talk with the lazy Belacqua.
When one of our senses experiences intense pleasure or pain, the soul focuses on that one sense alone, not paying attention to its other powers. The fact that this happens contradicts Plato’s belief that there is more than one soul within our body. And when we see or hear something that strongly captures our attention, we easily lose all sense of time, which is different from the soul’s other powers. I myself had experienced this, having been completely absorbed in Manfred for almost three hours until the souls we were with cried out together: “Here’s the path you’re looking for.”Until Dante tells us so, it’s amazing to think that his amazing encounter with Manfred in the previous canto lasted so long. The length of time might be a literary exaggeration to signify the deep … Continue reading
In late summer when the grapes are ripe, a farmer might plug a hole in his hedge with a handful of thorny branches. Well, the narrow gap through which Virgil and I had to enter–by ourselves now–was no larger than that hole! You know how the towns of San Leo and Noli and the top of Mount Bismantova are difficult to reach by foot. Here the climb was so steep we might as well have been birds! And I was a bird with wings of great desire as I followed Virgil who gave me hope and light as we began to climb.Having been told where they can begin to climb, Dante and Virgil now commence their adventure in Purgatory by actually grappling physically with the mountain itself. But not before Dante returns to … Continue reading
There we were, struggling upward by hand and foot, as we squeezed ourselves between the rocky walls of that narrow passage. Once we reached a place where that cleft opened more I said to Virgil: “Master, now where do we go?”
He replied: “Keep going straight upward and stay close behind me until we find someone who knows this mountain better than I.”
The summit was so high I couldn’t see it. Not only that, the slope we climbed was virtually upright–more than perpendicular! Feeling every ounce of my strength leaving me, I called out: “O sweet father, stop for a moment and look at me. If you don’t slow down I fear you’ll lose me right here.”
Looking back from up above, he replied: “My son, keep going–just to that spot there,” as he pointed to a ledge right above me that seemed to encircle the mountain. His encouragement helped me as I struggled upward behind him, crawling finally onto that ledge.Recall that it was Virgil who asked the group of sheep-like souls for directions. When they all reached the place to begin climbing–with Virgil in the lead, they told him this was it. … Continue reading
At last, we both sat down to rest.Soon enough, we’re going to meet a humorous and very lazy soul who is the main character of this canto. It’s also humorous that all Dante can think about is stopping to rest! We were facing east, and as we looked far down to where we had started to climb our spirits were lifted. As I scanned the distant shoreline below us, I was amazed when I looked up and saw the sun now on our left. Virgil, seeing that I was confused that the sun moved between us and the north, explained: “If the sun were in the company of Castor and Pollox instead of Aries as it is now, you’d see it moving even farther north in closer company with the Bears; unless, of course, it were to wander from its usual path.
Perhaps this will help you understand more clearly. Imagine that Jerusalem and this Mountain, which are on opposite sides of our globe, are aligned in such a way that, while they’re in different hemispheres, they still share the same horizon. If you think about it carefully, you’ll see that on our side the sun appears to pass in this direction, while on that side, it appears to pass in the opposite direction.”
“Master,” I replied at once, “you are correct, and now I understand clearly what confused me before. Between the Ecliptic and the Zodiac lies the Equator, and the Equator always lies between winter and summer. And thus it lies as far north from where we are now as the ancient Hebrews saw it to the south.Now that the two climbers have reached a ledge on which to rest, it’s also time for Dante to take stock of where they are, and to give us another “slice” of astronomy. Sometimes, students of … Continue reading But tell me now, how much more climbing lies before us, because the top of this mountain soars far beyond what my eyes can see.”
“Unlike other mountains,” he began, “this one is most difficult to climb at the start. But the more one climbs upward, the easier it becomes. You will know that you have arrived at the top when climbing upward becomes effortless, like a boat floating downstream. At that point, you can rest. And that’s all I can tell you–and it’s true.”This is an unusual mountain, to be sure, and Virgil’s answer about the nature of this place–one of its rules or features–highlights its mystical and spiritual significance. The Mountain of … Continue reading
No sooner had Virgil stopped than we heard a voice nearby quip: “Yes, but you’ll probably feel like stopping before you get there!” Startled by this, we looked around to find that voice. A huge boulder that we hadn’t noticed before was there to our left. As we walked toward it, we noticed a lazy-looking group of people sprawled out in the shade behind it. One in particular you could tell was exhausted. He sat there with his arms around his knees and his head drooping between his legs.The last thing one might expect in Purgatory is eaves-dropping, particularly after two major (and public) encounters with groups of newly-arrived souls. But we’ve been focused on the steepness of … Continue reading
“Oh, Master, look at that one there,” I said. “He couldn’t look lazier than if it were written on him!” Then the one I mocked slowly turned his head toward us and said: “If you’re so full of energy, why are you stopping here!”
Right then I knew exactly who he was. As tired as I was, and out of breath, I managed to get over to him. When I got there, he looked up at me and said: “Are you quite sure you now understand why the sun is moving to your left?”This repartee is quick and humorous, and another clever reversal of the laziness that seems to prevail here. But, of course, it creates a space where the recognition can take place.
I smiled at the sarcasm of this lazy soul and answered: “Belacqua! I was worried about your fate, and seeing you here brings an end to my grief. But why are you just sitting here? Are you waiting for someone to guide you upward, or are you just being your lazy self?”Note how long it’s taken Dante (the Poet) to finally reveal Belacqua’s name. This slow recognition fits in with the theme of tiredness and laziness, and it’s humorously counterbalanced by the … Continue reading
“My brother,” he replied, “climbing won’t do me any good. The angel who guards the gate will not let me in so I can begin my penance. Before I can get in, I have to wait as many years as I lived because I put off my repentance till the very end. Of course, prayers from a worthy heart would shorten that time–the rest would be useless.”Again, consistent with the slow theme of laziness here, it’s only at the very end of this canto that we actually learn more about the nature of the purgation here on the Mountain. This group of … Continue reading
By now, Virgil had already started to climb again. “Let’s start,” he said. “Look how the sun has risen to noontime. It’s already dusk in Morocco.”Virgil has been present during this entire scene with Belacqua but said nothing. And note that the focus of Belacqua’s remarks has been entirely on Dante. He never mentions or refers to Virgil. As … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Until Dante tells us so, it’s amazing to think that his amazing encounter with Manfred in the previous canto lasted so long. The length of time might be a literary exaggeration to signify the deep importance of their conversation for understanding the nature of Purgatory. Or it may be an opportunity to show off some of Dante’s philosophical knowledge as he debunks what is known as Plato’s doctrine of multiple souls. Actually, it’s both. All things considered, the breadth of Dante’s learning was nothing short of spectacular and it shows itself (as here) from one end of the Comedy to the other. I like to describe the Poem to my students as a great layered cake in which we eat morsels of this broad learning as we read–various layers like philosophy, theology, astronomy, astrology, geography, mathematics, history, literature, etc. What a cake!
To state the matter briefly, Plato claimed that humans have three different souls which control various operations of our lives. Among these three, the lowest is the vegetative soul, seated in the liver. It’s the basic “life” common to plants and animals. Next is the sensitive soul. It is situated in the heart and controls the ability to sense and feel. It is possessed by all animals. The highest of the three is the intellectual soul, situated in the brain and possessed only by humans. This trinity of souls, as it were, was rejected in Christian theology. Dante followed St. Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle who claimed that humans posses only one soul, but that it has three different functions: the vegetative power which deals with growth, the sensitive power that operates one’s feelings and senses, and the intellective power which deals with our ability to think and reason. What Dante wants us to consider is, in fact, what we often experience if we stop long enough to explore that experience. When we are fully engaged in one activity, we tend to be insensate to all (or most of) our other bodily or mental functions that are happening at the same time. Since we live on a continuum of time, it’s hard to imagine being conscious of all our bodily and mental functions at the same time. When all is said and done here, Dante wants us to consider that he (and Virgil) were so distracted by Casella in Canto 2 and by Manfred in Canto 3 that he completely lost sight of his purpose and forgot what he was supposed to be doing. Viewing this on the spiritual level for a moment, it’s easy to see what Dante wants us to consider–namely, how easy it is to be distracted by the things of this world which cause us to lose sight of our ultimate goal. Purgatory will be filled with souls who suffered from distractions on their journey to God and all of them are here to have their compasses realigned.
|↑2||Having been told where they can begin to climb, Dante and Virgil now commence their adventure in Purgatory by actually grappling physically with the mountain itself. But not before Dante returns to his down-to-earth images (no pun intended). To protect his ripe vineyard, a farmer plugs a hole in his hedge-fence with branches from thorny bushes to keep out thieves–both animal and human. As it turns out, however, our Pilgrims’ way upward is no bigger than a small gap in that hedge. The cleft or chute they must climb is exceedingly narrow and almost perpendicular. Dante quips that he and Virgil might as well have been birds if they wanted to make any progress upward. To emphasize this, he complements the homey image of the farmer and the hedge with three geographical allusions that his contemporary readers would have recognized by their likeness to this almost impossible climb. He refers first to San Leo, just to the west and south of the Republic of San Marino. Climbing up to this mountain town was exceedingly difficult. Noli is about 30 miles to the west of Genoa on the Ligurian coast. In Dante’s time, one could only get there by the sea or by a precipitous climb down from the mountainous region above it. Mount Bismantova is most likely a reference to what is called the Rock of Bismantova, southwest of the city of Reggio Emilia about 25 miles. It is an immense, tall, flat-topped up-cropping (mesa) whose cliff sides would have been perfect images for the initial climb upward in Purgatory. And with this bit of geography out of the way, Dante becomes a bird again, this time with wings fueled by his great desire to move upward. Virgil leads the way.
On the spiritual level, Dante the Poet clearly has in mind here–both for himself and for his reader–the famous passage from St. Matthew’s Gospel (7:13-14) about the narrow gate. Jesus tells his followers: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few.”
|↑3||Recall that it was Virgil who asked the group of sheep-like souls for directions. When they all reached the place to begin climbing–with Virgil in the lead, they told him this was it. Interestingly, there is no further mention of that earlier group who, like Manfred, might be wandering at the base of the mountain. As the two Pilgrims climb, Virgil is still in the lead, though he admits he doesn’t really know the way and defers to anyone who can tell them. This makes sense if we remember that Virgil has never been in Purgatory. And more to the point, he lacks the “spiritual” credentials to be here since he is not a Christian. Nevertheless, he is definitely humble in his willingness to ask for directions.
Meanwhile, Dante is having a terrible time of it. Virgil, of course, is a spirit, and this climb, almost impossible for the embodied Poet, is easy for him. Probably frightened out of his wits at what seems to be a “more than perpendicular” climb, the possibility of falling is another horror he faces as he begins to lose both his strength and his resolve. In a very real sense, the Poet conveys in this scene the difficulty souls still face when they have decided to enter into the narrow way that leads to salvation. In more colloquial terms, it’s much the same as going on a diet. Not long after we begin, our bodies (and minds) send us (false) messages that we’re going to die if we continue! But this is the moment for strength and resolve to continue. At the same time, we know that setting out on a life-changing path–even as mundane as a diet–is so much easier when we have a companion to share the experience with. In our day, there are life coaches, diet and health coaches, and athletic trainers, to name a few who, often for a fee, contract to help, advise, and encourage us on our paths. And, of course, Virgil has been that person for Dante from the beginning of the poem.
Dante’s plea for help elicits a tender response from Virgil, who gently guides him to a ledge where he can rest and regain his resolve. We also have here an echo from Canto 24 in the Inferno when Dante and Virgil are climbing out of the pit of the hypocrites over the rockslide from the broken bridge above them. Virgil, being weightless, gently guides Dante upward, pointing out where to step and where to grab hold. Dante, of course, is exhausted by this and wants to stop. But Virgil reminds him that no one becomes famous by sitting down.
|↑4||Soon enough, we’re going to meet a humorous and very lazy soul who is the main character of this canto. It’s also humorous that all Dante can think about is stopping to rest!|
|↑5||Now that the two climbers have reached a ledge on which to rest, it’s also time for Dante to take stock of where they are, and to give us another “slice” of astronomy. Sometimes, students of Dante think that the Mountain of Purgatory rises out of the South Pole, probably because they don’t quite understand “the world” as Dante wants us to understand it–and as it was understood at the time he wrote the Poem. Much of the globe in Dante’s time was terra incognita–unknown and unexplored. For example, he was only 6 years old when Marco Polo set out from Venice to explore the Far East, but it would be more than a hundred years after Dante died that explorers from the Mediterranean world opened and introduced the rest of the world to Europe. Jerusalem was the center of the Christian world (which means much of the Mediterranean world). So, in the Christian world (if you look at maps of the time) Jerusalem could be understood as the “North Pole”–the center.
Sitting on a ledge of the Mountain of Purgatory, Dante wants us to understand that Purgatory is a physical place antipodal or directly opposite the city of Jerusalem on the globe. This would put it somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between Santiago, Chile and Sydney, Australia, but still some 4-5 thousand miles north of the South Pole. Understand, of course, that the southern hemisphere was understood to be almost completely covered with water. Dante explained this in Canto 34 of the Inferno. And earlier, in Canto 26, the encounter with Ulysses had him telling the two travelers that he and his men sailed down the west coast of Africa until the northern stars had disappeared. Obviously, he had crossed the equator and kept going until he approached this same mountain, from which a great wind came and sank his ship, killing him and his comrades. Tragically, Ulysses approached the Mountain filled with hubris and pride and not the humble spirit so necessary in this place of repentance and purgation.
Back to the ledge. Dante and Virgil are facing east, the direction they started from, and from which they watched the glorious sunrise upon their emergence from the darkness of Hell. Dante is scanning the landscape to give us a sense of their position. Looking down, it’s clear that they have climbed quite a distance, the shore seems far away, but the sun–now to their left (north)–is not where Dante thought it would be. Recall that he had been talking with Manfred for three hours before he began to climb, which itself has taken some time. Being from the northern hemisphere, he’s obviously used to seeing the sun rise in the east to his right. Virgil (actually the Poet) will “clear up” his companion’s confusion with some rather “opaque” observations. Since Jerusalem and Purgatory are on opposite sides of the globe, they share a common horizon no matter which way they look. But in the northern hemisphere, the sun will always be south of the observer, and in the southern horizon, the sun will always be north of the observer. Right now, it is the beginning of spring, Virgil reminds Dante, and the sun is in Aries. But as the months move toward summer, Aries will give way to Gemini and the sun will be farther north, etc. Dante’s mention of the Ecliptic, the Zodiac, and the Equator here are a bit “over the top,” and in a way confuse the issue. Virgil, it would seem, said the same thing. Dante, signifying that he understands Virgil, not-so-simply does so by using the astronomical terms for what his mentor explained quite clearly with the shared horizon.
All this while, let us not forget that this is the morning of Easter Sunday. One needs to mention here the spiritual and mystical significance of the direction east. In the Christian tradition Sunrise symbolizes the Resurrection, The Sun represents God and the light of God which is reflected in and sustains all of creation. Early Christian tradition has it that Jesus will return in glory from the east at his second coming. In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the Garden of Eden was planted in the east. To pray toward the east is to gaze into Paradise. Early Christians prayed toward Jerusalem in the east, and later, where and when it was possible, cathedrals and churches were built so that the altar and the congregation faced east. This was often the case with the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages.
Finally, at the risk of TMI (too much information), I cannot omit an item of fascination at this point on the part of my students. They understand that the Mountain of Purgatory is not situated at the South Pole when I explain Dante’s mention of the antipode of Jerusalem noted above. However, Dante’s almost constant mention of direction in the Purgatorio spurs one or more students to ask: How would you determine direction at the South Pole? On the one hand, the answer is quite simple. All directions point north. But using what is called “grid north” based on movement clockwise or counterclockwise from the prime meridian–0̊ longitude–(which begins at the North Pole and down through Greenwich (London), etc. one can easily determine direction at the poles. Remember, though, none of this would have been known in Dante’s time. As it turns out, it may have been a lucky accident that Dante didn’t situate the Mountain of Purgatory at the South Pole.
|↑6||This is an unusual mountain, to be sure, and Virgil’s answer about the nature of this place–one of its rules or features–highlights its mystical and spiritual significance. The Mountain of Purgatory is a place of repair for souls who have been banged-up, perhaps nearly ruined, on the road of life (consider Dante’s opening lines in Canto 1 of the Inferno). The path to virtue can be a difficult one, but like many things, it becomes easier the more one practices or keeps to it. We will see how Dante will experience this as he climbs. Virgil’s rather abrupt ending might sound a bit curt, but we must remember that he’s speaking as the voice of Reason. While he understands that there is deep mystical significance to this place, he can’t go beyond reason into the realm of grace. And what Dante the Poet wants us to see is that grace is necessary fuel for the journey toward virtue and ultimate salvation.|
|↑7||The last thing one might expect in Purgatory is eaves-dropping, particularly after two major (and public) encounters with groups of newly-arrived souls. But we’ve been focused on the steepness of the climb and Dante’s strenuous exertions, such that he’s almost ready to give up. Having found a place to rest, the Pilgrims had been focused on the sea and the sky. Now they discover that they’re not alone and that close-by are a group of exhausted, lazy-looking souls sitting in the shade. We’ll learn otherwise in a moment, but now that they’ve discovered another group of souls–more exhausted–it would be natural for Dante and Virgil to surmise that they were overcome by the initial climb.|
|↑8||This repartee is quick and humorous, and another clever reversal of the laziness that seems to prevail here. But, of course, it creates a space where the recognition can take place.|
|↑9||Note how long it’s taken Dante (the Poet) to finally reveal Belacqua’s name. This slow recognition fits in with the theme of tiredness and laziness, and it’s humorously counterbalanced by the quick back-and-forth quips. Listening to their banter, it’s obvious that Dante and Belacqua were good friends, to the point that Dante actually worried about the state of his soul after he died (some time in 1302). Belacqua, like Dante, was a Florentine and apparently a maker of musical instruments. Otherwise, we don’t know much about him. Yet, he seems to fit into Dante’s framework for this part of Purgatory perfectly because it was said of him by the Anonimo Fiorentino (quoted by Ciardi) that “he was the most indolent man who ever lived.” Apparently, Dante would frequently criticize him for his laziness, and the anonymous commentator tells us that Belacqua once quoted Aristotle (Phys. 7.3.247b) back to Dante, saying:”Sitting in quietness makes the soul wise.” Dante is said to have replied: “Certainly if sitting makes one wise, no one has ever been wiser than you!” Nevertheless, he’s an endearing character and adds a definite lightness to this canto that has been quite rather sober up to this point.|
|↑10||Again, consistent with the slow theme of laziness here, it’s only at the very end of this canto that we actually learn more about the nature of the purgation here on the Mountain. This group of lazy souls waited till the very end of their lives to repent, and so their punishment is to wait the length of another lifetime before they can actually be admitted to Purgatory proper. As Ciardi notes in his commentary, he made God wait, and now God makes him wait! Yet, as Manfred stated in the previous canto, prayers from a clean heart can shorten this time.|
|↑11||Virgil has been present during this entire scene with Belacqua but said nothing. And note that the focus of Belacqua’s remarks has been entirely on Dante. He never mentions or refers to Virgil. As a matter of fact, Virgil has already started to climb before Dante and Belacqua were finished talking. For that matter, he never seems to notice that Dante is alive. Belacqua is so lazy and so overcome with sloth that he seems incapable of getting the bigger picture here. Looking back for a moment, we see the third in a series of distractions that have slowed Dante’s progress. At the same time, note the genius of the Poet’s way of structuring the protagonist’s progress up through this point on the Mountain: slow, labored, distracted. Not much different from the spiritual lives of those who populate this part of Purgatory.
Virgil, taking the lead again, brings Dante back from his distraction with Belacqua by reminding him of the time. If it’s now noon time on the Mountain of Purgatory, the Pilgrims have been here for about six hours, having emerged from Hell at sunrise. They left Manfred and began climbing about two and a half hours ago or 10:30am. The mention of dusk in Morocco (the western limit of the inhabited world) seems rather gratuitous except that it’s another way of telling Dante that it’s noon. Recalling that Purgatory is antipodal to Jerusalem, it’s midnight there and 90̊ to the west it’s 6:00pm in Morocco. All of this, of course, is designed to heighten the sense of urgency and the need to hasten toward the travelers’ goal.
Some final thoughts on Morocco lead Martinez and Durling, in their Purgatorio commentary, to note the several subtle references to Ulysses (Inferno 26) in this canto. They note Dante’s amazement at the height of the Mountain of Purgatory and Ulysses’ same observation. They contrast the “mad flight” toward the west by Ulysses and his crew with Dante and Virgil sitting on the ledge looking east. And the metaphor of flight is used again by Ulysses, who calls the oars in his boat “wings,” and Dante who tells us he and Virgil needed wings and become like birds to climb such a steep mountain face. Finally, the mention of Morocco. Ulysses passes Morocco, the western limit of the known world, the end of human habitation, and “the last shore touched by the sunlight [God] as the night moves westward.” Virgil’s mention of Morocco is not at all tragic, but simply a way of telling time–time to continue climbing the Mountain with the strength of humility in contrast to Ulysses, who thought to conquer it with his hubris and pride.