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Un cammino attraverso la Commedia (Purg. 1-8)

This weekend has been crazier than I thought it would be. Even though I'm up to date with the reading, I haven't had time to put together a post on the beginning of the Purgatorio. I wanted to write about Cato, Virgil, and Sordello, and how each of them carries themes we have seen in the Inferno into the Purgatorio. Dante's journey through Hell was marked by fear and despair. His journey thus far in Purgatory has been marked by hope. Instead of putting all my thoughts together, I've decided to quote two scholars whose insights far exceed mine. My friend Grace sent me the following paragraph from Dorothy Sayers's 1957 introduction to her translation of the Purgatorio.

"Of the three books of the Commedia, the Purgatorio is, for English readers, the least known, the least quoted and the most beloved. It forms, as it were, a test case. Persons who pontificate about Dante without making mention of his Purgatory may reasonably be suspected of knowing him only at second hand, or of having at most skimmed through the circles of his Hell in the hope of finding something to be shocked at. Let no one, therefore, get away with a condemnation - or for that matter a eulogy - of Dante on the mere strength of broiled Popes, disembowelled Schismatics, grotesque Demons, Count Ugolino, Francesca da Rimini, or the Voyage of Ulysses, even if backed up by an erotic mysticism borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelites, and the line 'His will is our peace' recollected from somebody's sermon. Press him, rather, for an intelligent opinion on the Ship of Souls and Peter's Gate; on Buonconte, Sapia, and Arnaut Daniel; on the Prayer of the Proud, the theology of Free Judgement, Dante's three Dreams, the sacred Forest, and the symbolism of the Beatrician Pageant. If he cannot satisfy the examiners on these points, let him be to you as a heathen man and a publican. But if he can walk at ease in death's second kingdom, then he is a true citizen of the Dantean Empire; and though he may still feel something of a stranger in Paradise, yet the odds are he will come to it in the end. For the Inferno may fill one with only an appalled fascination, and the Paradiso may daunt one at first by its intellectual severity; but if one is drawn to the Purgatorio at all, it is by the cords of love, which will not cease drawing till they have drawn the whole poem into the same embrace."

And my friend Anthony, a familiar presence on dotCommonweal, sent me a link to an interview Clive James gave to NPR about his recent translation of the Commedia.

"I think I always wanted to translate Dante, but I always knew there was a problem," James tells NPR's Scott Simon, "which is that, of the three books of the Comedy -- that's 'Hell,' 'Purgatory' and 'Heaven -- 'Hell' is the most fascinating, in the first instance, cause it's full of action, it's got a huge three-headed dog, it's got a flying dragon, it's got men turning into snakes and vice versa, it's got centaurs beside a river of blood; you name it, 'Hell' has got it. But 'Purgatory' and 'Heaven' have mainly just got theology. And the challenge for the translator is to reproduce Dante's fascination with theology, which for him was just as exciting as all that action that he left behind in 'Hell.'" "I can say this much for sure, for certain, right here on the air," James continues. "There is no young man's version of this translation. I couldn't have done it when I was younger. I had the energy, but not the knowledge, and not the knowledge of myself, because Dante is worried about himself. Dante is in a spiritual crisis, and I think you have to have been in one of your own to understand what he's talking about. He's seeking absolution, redemption and certainty. He's seeking a knowledge that his life has been worthwhile. Which I still am."

On Wednesday or Thursday I'll write up a post that covers the first 14 or 16 cantos of the Purgatorio. With the Purgatorio we are in territory both more strange and more familiar, between the despair of Hell and the joy of Heaven. We are pulled, as Sayers says, by the cords of love, seeking with Dante, as James notes, a knowledge that our lives have been worthwhile.Please feel free to comment on what you found interesting at the beginning of the Purgatorio. I'll try to incorporate those thoughts into my next post.

[For our discussion of the Inferno see here.]

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I'm not even up to canto 8 yet, but of the five I've read, I'd say these are the issues that most interest me:1. The poetry itself. My Italian isn't nearly good enough to make any intelligent observations about the original, but the translations (and Hollander's prefatory note) suggests some real changes in the language and texture of the verse. It's really quite lovely, and more poetic in its imagery and so forth--among other things, I think (although I haven't double-checked) that there are more pastoral similes in the Purgatorio than in the Inferno. I'd love to hear more about this from anyone who's read the poem more attentively and/or who has better Italian than I.2. The changing nature of Dante and Virgil's relationship. It's very clear that Virgil is more diminished and less authoritative here, but the relationship also seems rather warmer. Their use of epithets like "father" and "son" (rather than "master") really struck me. 3. Cato! What on earth is Cato doing here? And why is Cato saved if Virgil is not?4. Related to #3, I find the poem really moving in its generosity and, as Scott says, its hopefulness. If Dante's decisions about whom to assign to hell (and to specific circles of hell) in the Inferno occasionally make him seem like the most arbitrary of gods, his decisions about whom to save reflect the mysterious grace and mercy of God.

In these opening cantos of the Purgatory I notice that Dante refers to singing several times three times a psalm and one time a hymn to Mary. These chants/hymns are still sung today in our liturgies and the Divine Office. Contrasting with the horrible sounds in Hell, it is a welcome relief. In fact I went to YouTube to hear these chants/hymns so that I could get a taste of what Dante says he heard. I dont think it is possible to describe fully a sound in writing. It has to be heard. I have just become aware of the fact that I wrote get a taste in reference to music. Ill be on the lookout for any mention of the sense of taste in the next cantos. Dante, however, does mention the sense of smell - the horrible stench in Hell and the beautiful odors in Limbo (Canto VII). In Canto 2 of Purgatory Dante meets a friend, a musician from Florence, Casella, who sings to Dante. Dante must have enjoyed singing and composing music. My text says that Casella is singing one of Dantes poems. It is much easier to describe a scene that the eyes can see. In Canto VII Dante recreates for us a scene that describes the colors of Nature in a beautiful garden. He says that the people there are singing a hymn to Mary, Salve Regina. (I am reminded of May Processions dedicated to Mary in my youth.) This is Limbo, the place of earthly bliss where the unbaptized virtuous people and innocent babies reside after death. In the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) there is no mention of limbo. It says that infants who die without baptism are entrusted by the Church to the mercy of God. In other words, weve evolved. I think that Dante would approve.

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About the Author

Scott D. Moringiello is a Lawrence C. Gallen fellow in the Humanities at Villanova University, where he teaches the Augustine and Culture Seminar and courses in the theology department.