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ClassicsOnline Home » DANTE: Divine Comedy (The) - 2. Purgatory (Unabridged)
Now of that second kingdom I shall sing where human souls are purified of sin and made worthy to ascend to Heaven’ Purgatory is the second part of Dante’s Divine Comedy ascending the terraces of the Mount of Purgatory inhabited by those doing penance to expiate their sins on earth. There are the proud—forced to circle their terrace for aeons bent double in humility; the slothful—running around crying out examples of zeal and sloth; while the lustful are purged by fire. Though less well-known than Inferno, Purgatory has inspired many writers including, in our century, Samuel Beckett, and has played a key role in literature.
Purgatory from The Divine Comedy
The Divine Comedy is an epic poem in three
parts, describing the poet’s imagined journey
through Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, and
culminating in his vision of God.
To this extent it has much in common with the
epic masterpieces of Homer and Virgil whose roots
are in history and myth; but the ‘Commedia’ is
also an allegory, dealing with nothing less than
man’s relationship with and place within the
universe. Dante’s universe was, of course, a
medieval one in which the sun and stars revolved
around the Earth, and while the ‘Commedia’ takes
account of contemporary science in minute detail,
his vision of the way in which the regions of the
afterworld might be contained within this
framework is brilliant in its originality. Hell (the
Inferno) is conceived as a tapering funnel
plunging down into the earth beneath the
Northern hemisphere. At its deepest point a
passage leads out into the Southern hemisphere,
where Mount Purgatory—its shape mirroring that
of Hell—tapers upwards towards Heaven. Paradise
itself is conceived as a series of ten ‘spheres’
encircling the Earth, with God somewhere beyond
the tenth, merely glimpsed by Dante as
consciousness ebbs from him.
This colossal construction is subdivided to
create a zone for every facet of human nature. In
Hell and Purgatory a place is allotted for every sin
and foible which exists within the world, while in
Paradise the pure and just, the saints and the Holy
Trinity are arranged in a strict hierarchy. Dante peoples each region with figures from literature,
history and from his own contemporary society.
This allows him to comment on issues of morality
not in merely abstract terms, but in relation to
actual people and events, many of them of
titillating contemporary relevance. Because of this
many of the names encountered mean nothing to
modern readers, and this is one of the reasons
why most editions of Dante incorporate many
pages of notes for each page of text (a practice
which began, incidentally, within a few years of
the poem’s first publication). The main purpose,
however, is not to point the finger or poke fun at
friends and enemies (though there is undoubtedly
an element of this), but to examine the reality of
man’s human and spiritual nature in all its various
and complex manifestations.
Dante calls the three books of The Divine
Comedy ‘canzoni’. Each contains 33 chapters or
‘cantos’, except Inferno which has an additional
introductory canto—making 100 cantos in all.
Each canto contains roughly 150 lines composed
according to a strict metrical and rhyme scheme.
The language of the poem is, importantly, not
Latin (as was customary for high art in Dante’s
day) but the language used by educated people in
14th century Florence. In addition Dante made
liberal use of archaic language and regional
dialects, all of which makes life very difficult for
the modern translator. But Dante’s purpose was to
make his work readable by the ‘ordinary’ reader—not merely clerics and academics—for despite its lofty theme and layers of symbolism, The Divine
Comedy is intended to speak to us directly
through the power of Dante’s imagery and
This work has not only endured, but has
exerted a powerful influence on Western thought
for almost seven centuries, especially perhaps the
Inferno, whose characters and images can be
found peppered throughout literature and art
right up to the present day. Tchaikowsky’s
Francesca da Rimini and Puccini’s Gianni Schicci
are borrowed from it. Illustrations for Dante
editions inspired well known masterpieces by
Botticelli, Blake and Doré, while the Pre-Raphaelite
painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti (his first name an
obvious choice for a father who was a Dante
scholar and reputedly able to recite the entire
‘Commedia’ from memory) returned time and
again to Dante for inspiration, notably in the
enigmatic “Beata Beatrix”.
Samuel Beckett’s plays and novels are full of
allusions to both Inferno and Purgatory—shades
walking slowly weighed down by leaden cloaks
(Inf. Canto XXIII), creatures swimming in mud
poking and whistling at one another (Inf. Canto
XXII), and indolent characters with little inclination
to struggle any further (Purg. Canto IV). Indeed,
the character Belacqua who Dante encounters
here is the primary source for all those later
Beckett characters who might say: “what’s the
good in climbing?”
One of the principal characters in The Divine
Comedy (though she does not actually appear in
the Inferno) is Beatrice, whose significance in
Dante’s life needs to be understood. Dante first met and fell in love with Beatrice Portinari when
she was eight and he nine years old. He
worshipped her from afar until her early death at
the age of twenty four. (The full story of this
strange ‘love affair’ is told by Dante in his La Vita
Nuova). Beatrice then came to symbolise for
Dante all that is pure and worthy. In the
‘Commedia’ it is Beatrice who sends the poet
Virgil to guide Dante through Hell and Purgatory.
In Purgatory she herself assumes responsibility for
his journey of discovery, and it is she who later
reveals to him the splendours of Paradise, leading
him eventually to “that love that moves the Sun
and other stars.”
And it is in Purgatory that Dante gives us the
nub of the problem. The lengthy discourse on love
and free will (in Canto XVIII) prepares us for
Dante’s meeting with his idealized love and for her
unexpected reprimands (Canto XXX). She argues
that at her death Dante might have dedicated his
great talents to her (to purity, to wisdom and to
truth) but that he allowed himself to be turned
away and thus wasted himself. Her purpose in
revealing the Divine order to him is to restore him
to the true path.
The almost cinematic splendour of Beatrice’s
appearance at the head of a fantastic allegorical
procession provides a stunning climax to this
second book of the trilogy.
Notes by Roger Marsh
Dante and Virgil emerge from Hell just before
Dawn on Easter Sunday. They meet Cato of Utica,
guardian of the shores of Purgatory who
challenges them as fugitives from Hell. They
explain their mission.
four stars: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and
Cato: guardian of the island-mountain. An
opponent of Caesar and a suicide, but also a
symbol of devotion to freedom, for which he died.
At the foot of Purgatory he is on the highest rung
of natural virtues, and the lowest of godly virtues.
Magpies: Pierus, king of Emathia, had nine
daughters who unwisely challenged the Muses to
a contest of song. Defeated, they were changed
into magpies for their presumption
Dante observes a strange object crossing the
water—the Angel boatman ferrying souls from
their gathering place at the mouth of the Tiber to
Casella: a musician-singer friend of Dante’s.
all who wish to cross: Boniiface VIII declared a
Jubilee Year from Christmas 1299 to Christmas
1300 extending plenary indulgence to all pilgrims
to Rome, believed to extend to the dead.
They race on. At the base of the cliff they meet
the first Late Repentants; souls who put off desire for grace and must wait for purgation. The
Contumacious, here, died excommunicated but
surrendered their souls to God at the point of
death. They must wait thirty times the period it
took them to repent, their contumacy.
Brindisi: Virgil’s body was taken from Brindisi to
Naples in 19 BC.
Manfred: King of Sicily, opposed by the Papacy.
They reach the opening in the cliff face and begin
the climb. Dante flags but Virgil urges him to the
next level of the Late Repentants: the ledge of the
Indolent. Virgil explains that the beginning of the
ascent (turning from Sin to True Repentance) is the
hardest, but the higher one goes the easier it
more than one soul: Plato claimed we have
three souls, each with a specific function, the
vegetative, the emotional and the intellectual.
Belacqua: a Florentine lutemaker and friend of
Dante’s famed for indolence.
Dante’s shadow creates excitement among the
souls of the next level, those who died by violence
without last rites. Since their lives were cut short
they did not have the chance to repent fully, and
so are placed higher than the Indolent.
Miserere: Psalm 51, which asks for forgiveness
and purification of the soul.
Buonconte: the son of Guido da Montefeltro, in Hell as an evil counsellor. Buonconte was killed at
the battle of Campaldino. Giovanna was his wife.
Pia: traditionally Pia de’ Tolomei of Siena, whose
jealous husband suspected her of adultery and
threw her from a window to her death.
The souls of those who died by violence continue
to press around Dante. He promises to bear word
of them back to the world, but does not pause.
Virgil speaks of the power of prayer to shorten
time in Purgatory but tells Dante to wait for
Beatrice to explain. They come upon Sordello, a
Mantuan like Virgil.
Sordello: a troubadour poet of the early
Justinian: emperor of Constantinople 527–565,
author of the code of Roman law, ‘the bridle’.
Marcellus: a Roman senator who opposed Caesar
but was forgiven by him.
Sordello pays homage to Virgil and offers to guide
the poets to St Peter’s Gate. He explains that none
may climb during sunset, and shows them a
flowering valley to rest in. They observe the
Negligent Rulers of the Late Repentants, to whom
personal satisfaction was more important than
snubnose: Philip III of France, the lily is the symbol
kindly features: Henry of Navarre, reportedly
suffocated by his own fat.
France’s Plague: Philip IV of France, whose
misrule unites him with his father and father-in-law
Henry of Navarre.
robust soul, handsome nose: former enemies,
Pedro III of Aragon and Charles I of Anjou. Pedro
was responsible for the massacre of the French in
the ‘Sicilian Vespers’ of 1282.
young man: Alfonso III, the Magnificent, King of
Aragon who died in 1291 without heirs.
Henry [III] of England: a pious but slothful king
whose son, Edward I, was an improvement.
William, Marquis: of Montferrat, was captured
quelling a rebellion in Alessandria and displayed in
an iron cage until his death. The Alessandrians
invaded Montferrat and Canovese.
The hour of evening worship arrives. The souls
gather and sing the evening Compline hymn
asking for protection in the night. Two angels
descend from heaven and take their posts one on
each side of the valley. The poets join the souls.
Te lucis ante terminum: ‘To thee before the
ending of the light’, the opening lines of the
Dante falls asleep. He dreams he is clasped in the
talons of an eagle and raised into an orb of fire.
When he wakes he is alone with Virgil, further up
the mountain, at the portals of Purgatory itself.
The angel inscribes seven P’s on his forehead (for peccatum—sin) representing seven deadly sins to
Tithonus: husband of Aurora, for whom she
gained the gift of eternal life but not eternal
youth. He grew old and decrepit beside his ageless
bride, who eventually turned him into a cicada.
we reached the steps: the three stages of
repentance. White for sincerity, black and rough
for contrition and sorrow for sin, red for penance
and the ardour that leads to good works.
Seven P’s: the sins of Pride, Envy, Wrath, Sloth,
Avarice, Gluttony and Lust.
Te Deum laudamus: ‘We praise thee O God’
The door clangs shut behind them, and they are
faced by narrow fissure to climb. Three hours later
they come to the first terrace. On one side is a
precipice, on the other a frieze of marble reliefs.
Virgil asks Dante to observe the penitents of this
level bent double under the weight of boulders—the proud brought low.
Polycletus: A fifth century sculptor unsurpassed
in carving images of men. ‘ecce ancilla Dei’:
behold the hand maid of the Lord, the words of
the Virgin Mary at the Annunciation. (Luke 1:38)
the humble psalmist: King David, dancing in
humility before the Ark of the Covenant. (11 Sam.
6:1–17) Michal his wife was punished with sterility
for her scorn.
The proud souls, bent double, speak a version of the Lord’s Prayer interceding for the living and
those still in Purgatory.
Oderisi glory of Gubbio: an illuminator of
manuscripts who in life boasted he had no equal
Cimabue: a great Florentine master c. 1240–1302
who broke from the Byzantine tradition of art with
a more natural style.
Giotto: a pupil of Cimabue who went on to
surpass his master.
Virgil bids Dante straighten up, but then asks him
to observe the relief beneath his feet, with
depictions of great pride from Lucifer to the story
of Troy; the Reign of Pride. They reach the angel
guiding the next terrace, who erases the symbol of
pride from Dante’s forehead.
Briareus: one of the giants who challenged
Thymbraeus: another name for Apollo.
Niobe: the mother of seven sons and seven
daughters who claimed her superiority over
Latona, who had only two. These were Apollo and
Diana, who killed her sons and daughters
respectively. Niobe was turned to stone, and left
to weep stone tears.
Arachne: challenged Minerva to a weaving
contest, and won, but was turned into a spider.
Tomyris: a Scythian queen who decapitated her
son’s murderer, Cyrus, Emperor of the Persians,
and threw his head into a vessel of blood, urging
him to drink.
Beati paupares spiritu: the first beatitude.
Blessed are the poor in spirit; in praise of humility.
The next terrace is apparently deserted, but as
Dante and Virgil walk on they hear voices crying
out examples of great love for others. These voices
are the Whip of Envy. The souls, when they see
them, have their eyes sealed, until their envious
looks are cured. The examples are of charitable
concern for others.
‘Vinum non habent’: they have no wine, an
allusion to the wedding feast at Cana, where Mary
solicits Christ’s first miracle.
‘I am Orestes’: Orestes was condemned to
death for avenging the murder of his father,
Agammemnon. Pylades pretended to be Orestes
to save his friend’s life, but Orestes would not
allow it and asserted his identity. Each declared
‘I am Orestes’.
Two speakers begin to discuss Dante as though he
were as deaf as they are blind. When Virgil and he
move on Dante is struck with terror by two
disembodied voices that break over them like
thunder—the Rein of Envy. Circe: an enchantress,
with the power to turn men into beasts.
It flows on: Guido describes the nature of the
inhabitants of the various towns of the Arno
valley. ‘I shall be slain’: the voice is of Cain facing
God’s punishment ‘I shall be a fugitive and a
wanderer on the earth and who ever finds me will kill me.’ (Gen 4: 13–14)
I am Aglauros: the second example of Envy.
Aglauros, daughter of the king of Athens. tried
out of jealousy to prevent a meeting between her
sister and Mercury, and so was turned to stone.
The travellers have rounded a quarter of the
mountain and now face the sun setting in the
north. Dante is dazzled by the Angel of Caritas,
who passes them on to the next ledge. The Angel
sings the fifth beatitude as they enter the Third
Cornice—the Wrathful. The visions that entrance
Dante are the Whip of Wrath, extolling the virtue
the more each posesses : sharing love does not
diminish but increases the quantity of it.
‘why have you done this to us’: the words of
Mary when she finds Jesus in the temple are
meek, despite her distress at losing him.
‘If you are ruler of this city’: the allusion is
to Athens, over which Neptune and Athena
contested. Pisistratus, its benevolent tyrant was
famous for turning away anger with a soft answer.
stoning a boy to death: St Stephen, the first
Dante is blinded by smoke that purifies the
wrathful, and clings to Virgil. He hears their voices
singing Agnus dei, the lamb of God symbol of the
meekness of divine love. They sing with one voice
for Wrath is the sin that breeds division among
From the fond hands of God: Marco has said
that if the world has gone astray it is man’s fault,
not the stars. But the state of the world is not
caused by depravity inherent in human nature—the soul is innocent but in need of guidance. The
lack of guidance has brought the present corrupt
Emerging from the smoke Dante sees the visions
that make the rein of Wrath. The Angel of
Meekness calls them to the next level, but it is
dark and the Poets must rest. Virgil explains
I saw the cruelty of one: Procne, angered by her
husband’s rape of her sister killed her own son in
wrath and fed him to his father. She was turned
a figure who was crucified: Haman, minister of
Ahasuerus, king of Persia, enraged that the Jew
Mordecai refused to do him homage persuaded
the king to crucify all the Jews. Esther convinced
Ahasuerus of Haman’s wickedness and the
minister was crucified instead.
O my queen: Amata wife of Latinus and mother
of Lavinia, hoped Turnus would marry her
daughter and kill Aeneas, the invader. Amata
killed herself in a rage after hearing a rumour of
Turnus’ death. Her crime was against herself and
God’s will however because Aeneas was chosen
by God to found Rome and the Empire.
Dante enquires more about the nature of love.
Virgil explains warning that he must seek the final
answer from Beatrice. A train of souls come
running round the mountain—the slothful, now in
too much of a hurry to stop and talk.
Ismenus and Asopus: Boetian rivers, near
Barbarossa: Emperor Frederick I, who destroyed
Milan in 1162.
one foot in the grave: Alberto dell Scala, Lord of
Verona, who died in 1301; the year is presently
Dante dreams of the Siren, hideous in her true
form but who grows irresistible as men stare on
her. Virgil, prompted by a Heavenly lady strips the
Siren, exposing her deformities. Dante awakes and
they continue to the fifth cornice of the Avaricious—the hoarders and spendthrifts.
the sweet Siren: represents the vices of Avarice,
Gluttony and Lust which will be purged on the
upper three terraces.
‘I was Peter’s successor’: Pope Adrian V, of the
counts of Lavagna, the river mentioned.
The Poets find the ledge so crowded with sinners
there is only a narrow path left to walk. Dante
hears a soul cry out the Whip of Avarice. The
sinner proceeds to denounce the Capetian dynasty, which he founded, then offer exampla of
the Rein of Avarice. The mountain is shaken as if
by an earthquake.
how poor then you were: the blessed poverty
Fabricius: the honourable poverty of a Roman
Consul who refused to deal in bribes, and died so
poor the state buried him.
(Saint) Nicholas: bishop of Myra in Lycia, whose
generosity saved an impoverished nobleman from
turning his daughters to a life of sin through lack
evil past and future may seem less: refers to
Philip the Fair’s attack on Boniface VII in 1303. He
was threatened with execution and died of
‘hysterical seizures.’ The crime, to Dante, dwarfed
all else. Pygmalion: a king of Tyre Achan: stole
some of the consecrated spoils of Jericho. Joshua
had him stoned to death with his family.
A newcomer explains why the mountain appeared
to shake. It is Statius an admirer of Virgil’s work
and a poet himself.
she who sits spinning: Lachesis, who spins the
thread of a man’s life from the measure of wool
her sister Clotho puts on the distaff. Atropos the
third sister cuts the thread when it is finished.
Thaumus daughter: Iris, personification of the
tremors: for Dante, earthquakes were caused by
winds trapped underground.
worthy Titus: emperor from 79–81 AD, destroyed
Statius: the major poet of the Silver Age of Latin
literature. He never completed his second major
work the Achilleid. His first is the Thebaid.
Statius explains how he became a Christian, and
inquires after his favourite poets of aniquity.
Statius’ besetting sin was prodigality. They come
to a tree laden with fruits, and from within the
foliage a voice cries out exempla for the whip of
Jocasta: the mother of Oedipus, whom she later
unwittingly married. Her two sons Eteocles and
Polynices killed each other, the subject of Statius
many of your people: characters from Statius
works. a tree that blocked our path: small
branches at the bottom, growing larger at the top,
make the fruit unattainable.
Daniel: spurned meat and drink of the king’s
table and was given the gift by God of
interpreting visions and dreams.
The three poets hear Psalm 51, and a band of
emaciated spirits come from behind them—the
Gluttonous. Dante recognises one by his voice, his
features are so changed by starvation. Forese
Donati although a late repentant, has moved up
the mountain because of his widow’s prayers.
Labis Mea Domine: ‘Open my lips O lord, and
my mouth shall sing your praises,’the prayer of the
Erysichthon: commited an outrage by cutting
down the trees in a grove sacred to Ceres. She
afflicted him with ravenous hunger, which led him
to eat his own flesh.
OMO: a medieval notion that God had signed his
handiwork, OMO dei, man [is] of God. The eye
sockets form the O’s and the brows nose and
cheekbones the M.
Eli: Eli, eli, lema sabachthani, my God my god
who hast thou forsaken me. (Matthew 27:46).
Barbagia women: famous for being lascivious
Forese identifies many of the Gluttonous. They
come to the Tree of Knowledge and having skirted
it meet the Angel of Abstinence who shows them
to the ascent.
Piccarda: Forese’s sister, who took vows but was
forced into a political marriage.
Bonagiunta of Lucca: poet and orator of repute,
but a famous glutton and drinker too.
one behind him: Pope Martin IV, a good pope, if
Take heart: Forese’s prophecy of the downfall of
Corso Donati, his brother.
Dante wonders how purely spiritual beings can feel
hunger and thirst. Statius explains and he finishes
as they arrive at the seventh and last terrace.
Meleager: was fated to live as long as a piece
of wood on his mother’s hearth remained
unconsumed. She kept it from the fire until in
revenge for the death of her brothers, whom he
killed, she burned it. As it was consumed, he died.
Summus Deus clementia: God of supreme
clemency, the hymn of the Lustful, asking God to
banish Lust from their hearts.
‘virum non cognosco’: ‘I know no man,’ the
reply of the Virgin Mary when she was told she
would conceive and bear a son. Diana
Diana took to the woods to preserve her virginity.
Helice one of her nymphs was seduced by Jove
They proceed avoiding the flames. A conversation
begins between Dante and some souls, but is
interrrupted by another group of souls rushing in
the opposite direction. The two groups greet each
other, then shout exempla of Lust.
Sodom and Gomorrah: words shouted in selfreproach
for the sin of sodomy. Pasiphae enters
the cow: the wife of Minos of Crete who Poseidon
caused to lust after a bull. She had a structure
made resembling a cow into which she climbed
and was posessed by the bull. The union produced
Guido Guinzelli: vernacular poet of mid 13th
Arnault Daniel: author of late 13th century
Provencal poetry, some pornographic.
They meet the angel of chastity but Dante is afraid
to pass through the curtain of fire. Virgil
persuades him in Beatrice’s name. A chant coming
from the other side guides them, sung by the
Angel guardian of the Earthly Paradise. They hurry
on but night overtakes them and they sleep on
the steps up. Dante has a prophetic dream.
Beati mundo corde: Blessed are the pure in heart
Pyramus and Thisbe: tragic lovers of Babylon. At
their rendezvous by a mulberry bush Pyramus
comes across Thisbe’s bloody scarf and assumes
she has been killed. He stabs himself, and his
blood stains the ground turning the mulberries,
hitherto white, a deep red. Thisbe whispers her
name to him as he dies.
Leah: the first wife of Jacob, Rachel his second.
Leah was fertile, Rachel sterile but with beautiful
clear eyes. They were held to be representative of
the active and contemplative life respectively.
Dante wanders at leisure in the earthly paradise
until his way is blocked by the waters of Lethe. He
comes across Matilda who explains the Garden to
a solitary lady: Matilda who symbolises the
active life of the Soul, but also the intermediary
between Human Reason and Beatrice’s various
manifestations Divine Love, contemplative life of
the soul and others.
Delectasti: from Psalm 92. ‘For thou Lord hast
made me glad through thy Work’
Lethe: classically, the river from which the souls of
the dead drink to forget their first existence.
Eunoe is Dante’s invention from the Greek for
When the lady has finished speaking, she begins
to walk upstream singing, Dante keeping pace
with her on the other side. A glorious light and
sweet melody fills the air with rapture. Dante cries
out against Eve’s daring, through which such joy
was lost to mankind.
The heavenly pageant: is an allegory of the
church triumphant. The seven candlesticks and their
rainbow trails represent the gifts of the holy
spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might,
knowledge, piety and fear of the Lord. The twentyfour
elders are the books of the old testament, and
the four beasts guarding the chariot, the evangelists—Mathew, Mark, Luke and John. The griffon’s dual
nature reflects the human and divine nature of
Christ. To the right of the chariot the three dancing
ladies are the theological virtues Faith, Hope and
Charity; to the left are the four cardinal virtues:
Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance. The
seven men following are the remaining books of the
New Testament, the last being the Apocalypse of
Three eyes: indicate Prudence’s ability to see past
present and future. Prudence is a good memory of
the past, good knowledge of the present, and
good foresight of the future.
great Hippocrates: the reference is to Luke, the
physician of the soul.
the other: St Paul. The sword represents the word
four with an humble aspect: the minor epistles
of James, Peter, John and Jude.
Dante encounters Beatrice, feeling shame at the
years he has ignored her. Dante turns to Virgil and
finds he has disappeared. Beatrice reprimands
Dante for having wasted his talents.
veni sponsa de Libano: ‘come my bride from
Lebanon’ from the Song of Solomon. Here the
soul is wedded to Christ.
Benedictus qui venis: ‘Blessed art thou that
comest’ (Matthew 21:9).
Manibus, O date lilia plenis: O, give us lilies
with full hands (Aeneid VI 883). A tribute to the
now departed Virgil. appeared a lady: Beatrice,
who in life, left Dante stupified. He would often
faint in her presence.
I know the flame of old: the words spoken by
Dido of her passion for Aeneas, which she
thought had died (Aeneid IV, 23). In te Domini
speravi: ‘In thee, O lord have I put my trust.’
Beatrice’s reprimand continues, forcing Dante to
confess his faults until he swoons with grief and
pain at the thought of his sin. He wakes in the
waters of Lethe, held by Matilda.
Asperges me: Cleanse me [of sin]. Psalms Ii 7.
Matilda is performing the office of absolution after
Dante’s confession and repentance.
the four women: the Cardinal virtues Justice,
Prudence, Fortitude, Temperance. here as nymphs,
but also as the stars Dante saw at the base of the
three beyond: faith hope and charity.
second beauty: i.e., salvation.
Parnassus: the fountain of Castalia. To drink from
it is to receive poetic gifts, to grow pale in its
shadow is to labour at mastering the art.
Beatrice unveils and for the first time in ten years
he gazes on her radiance, thereby nearly losing
his sight. He recovers to observe a strange
metamorphosis of the chariot, an allegory of the
church in terms of the misdirections and heresies it
The tree: is an off shoot of the Tree of
Knowledge, from which Christ’s Cross was made.
The pole the Griffon is pulling and what draws the
Church (i.e.,the chariot) forward is allegorically the
true cross too.
Syrinx: The hundred eyes of Argus, or Panoptes,
Juno’s gamekeeper set to watch Io her rival in love
for Jupiter. Mercury lulled him to sleep and
beheaded him. Juno set Argus’ eyes into the
bird of Jove: the eagle. Here its attack symbolises
the Roman persecution of early Christianity. The
ship metaphor is often used for the Church.
a fox: the heresies that threatened the early
a dragon: Satan
the seven heads: the deadly sins. Those with two horns are worst, Pride Wrath and Envy, Avarice
Sloth Gluttony and Lust have only one, as sins of
the flesh not the spirit.
ungirt whore: the corrupt papacy.
the giant: the French monarchy, especially Philip
the Fair, who forced the papacy to Avignon and
under his control.
The seven nymphs sing a hymn of sorrow for the
Church. They walk on in front, with Dante Statius
and Matilda behind Beatrice. She delivers an
obscure prophecy regarding the church for Dante
to record for the living. Dante drinks from the
restoring waters of Eunoe and is ready for the
Deus venerunt gentes: a lament for the
destruction of the temple of Jerusalem—‘O God,
the nations have come into your inheritance, thy
holy temple they have defiled (Psalm 78).
Modicum et non videbitis me: a little while and
you shall not see me, (et iterum), and again
(modicum et vos videbitis me), a little while and
you shall see me. The words of Christ regarding
his own departure and return, (John 16:16).
Tigris and Euphrates: two of the four rivers
mentioned in Genesis as watering the Earthly
About the translation
Had Dante guessed at the attention posterity
would give his vision, he would no doubt have set
aside a special place in the lowest part of hell for
translators. Some of the most famous names in
literature have attempted a Divine Comedy for
their time, and with the most famously awful
results. His terze rima, or three-fold rhyme scheme,
has tied numerous poets in English into such knots
that on occasions Dante’s rhyme scheme is all that
remains of the original.
But as Virgil says to the Poet, ‘ Let us not talk of
them, but with a glance pass on.’ This translation
was made with the listener in mind. Here, couplets
and terza rima have been rejected for the clarity of
blank verse. And while the purist’s lip may curl,
Dante’s sometimes convoluted sentence structure
has been occasionally straightened for ease of
It may be assumed that for many of Dante’s
contemporaries, The Divine Comedy will have
been an aural experience. It is this pleasure of his
epic as a story rather than as a classic text that this
translation seeks to recapture. Conjured by the
listener’s own imagination 600 years on, Hell has
lost none of its terror nor Paradise its ecstasy.
Note by Benedict Flynn
In addition to translating The Divine Comedy,
Benedict Flynn has re-told the myths of The Tale
of Troy, The Adventures of Odysseus, King
Arthur and Robin Hood for younger listeners and
edited the anthology Poems of the Orient—all
for Naxos AudioBooks.
The music on this recording is taken from the NAXOS catalogue
Salve Festa Dies
In Dulcio, Alberto Turco
MACHAUT Requiem Mass
Oxford Camerata, Jerenly Summerley
ANON Black Madonna
Music programming by Roger Marsh
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DANTE: Divine Comedy (The) - 2. Purgatory (Unabrid...