Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 22–24 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 22–24

Our guiding angel who had led us here
To the sixth circle, we had left behind.
One of my scars he’d made to disappear
From my face, and, as matter for the mind,
He had declared to us that those who thirst
Sufficiently for righteousness are blessed,
His message terminating with the first
Word of the verse, pronounced without the rest:
Just sitiunt, “they thirst.” And I went on
10 Lighter than in the other stairwells. I
Followed the swift souls up where they had gone
Without much work. I hardly had to try.
And Virgil said “Love, lit by one virtue,
Always ignites another, though its flame
Appear only without. And thus it’s true
That from the moment Juvenal in fame
Came down to Limbo and made known to me
Your fondness, Statius, my own goodwill
Towards you had a reciprocity
20 As great as ever possibly could fill
The heart of one for one unknown. So now
These stairs, to me, will seem short. But pray tell—
And as a friend forgive my nerve for how
I wax familiar—just how it befell
Your breast was occupied with avarice
As well as all the wisdom your zeal brought?”
In the beginning Statius smiled at this,
And then replied: “In truth, one would have thought—
Though your each word makes my heart more content
30 As token of your love—things sometimes seem
To give false matter for bewilderment
Because their cause is hidden. Thus I deem
Your question to me makes plain your belief
That I was grasping in the other life,
Doubtless because that sad flaw was the chief
Mark of my circle here. Yes, it was rife.
Know, then, my vice was just the opposite.
I was a prodigal, and this excess
Thousands of moons have punished. Done with it,
40 I can say now that I first found redress
For my bad habits when I read those lines
Where you, deploring human nature, cried
‘Thrice-cursed gold-hunger, to what dark designs
Do you not drive men to be satisfied?’
Had I not read that, I’d be rolling weights
And jousting dismally. I learned our hands
Can spread like wings, and spending dissipates,
And I repented, as of the demands
Of other sins. Many will rise again
50 With cropped hair, who have lost through ignorance
Their due repentance. They shall live, as men,
Their last hour playing games with their last chance.
Know, too, that each sin’s counter-sin is here,
Keeping the vigil with its opposite,
Consumed by its own juice. Though I appear
To be among the avaricious, it
Is not for that I weep like them. I fear
It’s for the contrary that I grieve so.”
“Now when you sing,” the poet said who wrote
60 The Bucolics, “about Jocasta’s woe
Caused by two warring sons, there’s not a note
Lent to you there by history’s muse, Clio,
That indicates the one faith was yet yours
Without which mere good deeds are not enough.
If that be so, what brought you to the shores
Of light—what sacred sun or earthly stuff
That makes a candle—so that you could raise
Your sails and steer behind the fisherman?”
And the other: “It was you that turned my gaze
70 Towards Parnassus so that I began
To drink in its cool caves. Yes, it was you,
First after God, that set my mind alight.
You were the guide whose lamp shows the way through
To those behind him as he goes by night:
Not for himself, but to make others wise,
He shines. ‘The age,’ you said, ‘turns new again.
Justice returns, the first days take fresh guise,
And out of Heaven a new race of men
Descends.’ A poet and a Christian, I,
80 Because of you. But to be clear just how,
I’ll set my hand to stir a deeper dye
And colour in my outline for you now.
The waiting world was pregnant everywhere
With the true faith, sown by the messengers
From the eternal realm. Your words were there—
The ones I spoke—and so in tune with theirs
I formed the habit of frequenting these
New preachers. In my eyes they came to seem
So holy that Domitian’s cruelties
90 Against them saw me trying to redeem
Their tears with mine. While I was there beyond,
I helped them. Their straight ways made me deplore
All other sects. So moved, I pledged my bond.
I’d been baptized, in secret, well before
I brought the Greeks to threaten, in my lines,
The Theban rivers. But, for fear, I hid,
A closet Christian making pagan signs,
And this lukewarmness about what I did
Earned me four hundred long years without cease
100   Of touring the fourth circle. Tell me, then—
You that first raised the curtain to release
My vision of the good—of those four men,
I named, Caecilius and Varius,
Terence and Plautus. Are they damned to Hell?
If so, in which part? This we must discuss
While we ascend this hill.” “Those four, as well
As Persius and I,” my Leader said,
“Are with the Greek most favoured by the milk
Of the Muses, in the first ring of the dead
110   Blind prison, where the elders of our ilk,
The ones that raised us, proudly we invoke:
Them and their singing mountain. In that place
With us—and I can’t name them at a stroke,
They are too many—you can see the face
Of Antiphon, and know Euripides,
Simonides and Agathon, each Greek
Whose brow wore laurels once. To please
You more, I’ll mention those of whom you speak:
Ismene and Antigone. Thetis . . .”
120   The list was long, but finally the two
Poets were silent. Well content with this
Exchange, from having talked as poets do,
They took the chance to look around them, freed
From climbing and the walls. The hours that drew
The sun, one handmaid always in the lead
Each hour, were four down, and the fifth was in
The harness, burning horn upright. “I think,”
My Leader said, “the best way to begin
Is with our right side outward to the brink,
130   And then bear left as usual round the wall.”
Just so our habit served there as a rule,
And off we went with scarce a doubt at all,
Because that soul from the elected school
Agreed with us. Those two walked on ahead,
Talking of poetry and how it’s made.
I walked behind and drank in what they said,
But soon their pleasant talk about our trade
Was interrupted by a tree that stood
Square in the way, and it was full of fruit,
140   And all the fruit smelled sweet as it looked good.
And as a fir, scanned upward from the root,
Tapers from branch to branch toward the tip,
So this tree tapered downward, so that none,
I think, should climb it. Some high lip
Of the cliff that walled our pathway spilled and spun
A fall of clearest water, which dispersed
Among the leaves above. The two approached
The tree, and from among its boughs there burst
A warning voice, as if they had encroached:
150   “You may not eat this food!” Then it went on:
“Mary dwelt more upon the marriage feast—
Its honour and completeness—than upon
Her own mouth, which up here has never ceased
To intercede for you. In times long gone,
A thirsty Roman woman was content
With water. Nor did Daniel eat his fill,
But spurned the king’s feast always, and this meant
He gained in wisdom by his frugal will.
As beautiful as gold was the First Age:
160   Hunger made acorns tasty, thirst made sweet
Nectar of every brook, so you can gauge
How satisfied the Baptist was to eat
The locust and sip honey. Every page
About this in the Gospel shows, therefore,
His greatness and his glory. Less is more.”
While through the tree’s green leaves I strained my eyes
As one who watches hawks and sees them waste
His life, my more-than-father was more wise:
“Come, son, for only so much time is placed
At our disposal. We must use it well.”
I turned my face—and turned, at the same speed,
My steps—after the sages and the spell
Of what they said and, having that to heed,
The going cost me nothing. Then “O Lord,
10 Open my lips” we heard in Latin, wept
And sung in tones that brought, with one accord,
Delight and grief. And I said as we stepped
“Sweet father, what is this I hear?” And he:
“Perhaps shades, who, while going, loose the knot
Of debt.” As when, absorbed in reverie,
A group on foot will not ease by a jot
Their speed when overtaking strangers (see
Them turn their heads and look, but keep their pace),
Just so a crowd of souls came from behind
20 Quicker than us, yet silent, with the face
Of piety, although they seemed to find,
In us, the cause of wonder. Each was dark
And hollow in the eyes, and pale of cheek:
So wasted that the withered skin took stark
Shape from the bone. What once had bloomed was bleak.
I don’t believe even Erysichthon,
Punished by Ceres with a raging lust
To eat and eat till all the food was gone,
Looked quite so haggard when he realised just
30 One source of meat was left to fall upon.
He waited, starving, till he was the crust
That he could not resist. “Now see,” I said
Within myself, “There is Jerusalem
Revenged, which went for months on end unfed,
And one called Mary set a mark for them
By eating her own child.” Their eye-pits were
Like settings on a ring without the gem,
And he who thinks those sockets can confer
The letter M on faces would have found
40 OMO, to mean a man, stamped loud and clear
On each of theirs, the deep signs of a sound.
And who could know, who had not been up here,
How just a hint of water and mere scent
Of fruit, by the sheer craving they instilled,
Could bring about such grave disfigurement?
Keen curiosity was unfulfilled
Regarding what had starved them. Why were they
So lean? And I did not yet know the cause
Of their sad scurf. But one shade stared my way
50 From deep inside his head without a pause,
And then cried: “I’m in luck! What can I say?”
By looks alone I never would have known
Who this one was, but in his voice was plain
What in his face was shrivelled to the bone.
That spark revived the knowledge in my brain
Of his changed features, and I recognised
Forese, fellow sonneteer and friend.
He said “Try not to be too long surprised
By this tight scab that works to make an end
60 Of my skin’s colour, or by how my flesh
Is lacking, but just tell me about you.
And if the news is true, it will be fresh.
And these who go with you, who are these two?
Speak now.” And I: “Your face, for which I wept
When it was dead, now gives me no less grief,
Seeing how very little has been kept
Of what I knew, that there seems no relief
From the distortion. Tell me, in God’s name,
What is it wastes you? Do not make me speak
70 While I so marvel, for the tongue falls lame
Whose mind is elsewhere.” And he: “From the peak
We call God’s will eternal, virtue falls
As water to the tree we left back there
Whose fragrance is so sweet it cruelly galls
The famished body that you see I wear.
All those who gave way to their appetite
Beyond all reason, and so now must weep
As they go singing, here hope that they might,
Through thirst and hunger, once more get and keep
80 Their holiness. The sweet scent of the fruit
And of the spray spread over the green leaves
Can only make the craving more acute
To eat and drink. And anyone who grieves
Will do so often as he goes around
This level, with its other trees of pain—
Or let’s say solace, for it will be found
How that desire will lead us to the main
Tree of them all, the one that made Christ cry
The name of God, when from his every vein
90 The blood that freed us poured. He cried ‘Eli!’ ”
And I to him: “Forese, not five years
Have passed since you exchanged your life on Earth
For something better, and you’re here, in tears.
If your sin’s power died before the birth
Of penitence—the good grief that weds men
Again to God—I thought to find you in
The first part of this hill, there where, again,
Time is made good by time, and they can win,
Those waiting, recompense for tardiness.”
100   Then he to me: “It is my Nella brings
Me here so soon to drink—and, drinking, bless—
Sweet wormwood of the torments. She does things—
She prays, she sighs, she weeps floods—that have set
Me free from those first circles, from the slope
Where all must wait. As deep as love can get
Was my love for my widow, now my hope,
And she is loved by God now all the more
For being, in her good deeds, so alone—
For, in Sardinia, there’s a running sore,
110   Barbagia, whose women are less prone
To rank immodesty than in the pit
I left her in, our Florence, yours and mine.
Brother, what words of mine would you think fit?
A time that soon must come I can divine,
When from the pulpit it shall be declared
That brazen women of our native town
Must not go walking with their nipples bared.
Did ever law need to be handed down
That barbarous women, even Saracens,
120   Should cover themselves up? Some code of fear
On which a simple sense of shame depends?
But had our shameless creatures an idea
Of how swift Heaven has prepared their fate,
Their mouths already would be open wide,
All set to howl, for if I estimate
The prospects rightly, they will meet a tide
Of sorrow before he who now is lulled
To sleep with song can show a hairy jowl.
But, brother, you by whom the sun is dulled,
130   At you we gaze. Your news, please, fair or foul.
Not only I, but all of us, ask this.”
And I to him: “Recall what you once were
With me, and I with you. I’d be remiss
To overlook the way we used to stir
A mess of bad taste. It was my Guide turned
Me from that life. The other day, it was,
When that one’s sister (where the high sun burned
I pointed) here shone full. It is because
Of him that I came through the deep dark night
140   Of all the truly dead with my real form
That follows him. He drew me to the light,
And his attentions, generous and warm,
Have brought me up this hill that sets you right,
You that the world made crooked. On this climb
Around the mountain, he will be with me,
He promises, always until the time
That I see Beatrice. There I’m bound to be
Without him. It is Virgil who thus speaks
To me (I pointed), and this other one
150   Is he for whom the slopes and troughs and peaks
Of this your kingdom shook as they’ve just done—
Because the mountain knew, deep in its heart,
Another soul was ready to depart.”
The going did not slow the talk, the talk
Slowed not the going. Saying what we said,
We went on with a rapid, buoyant walk
Like ships in a fair wind. They looked twice dead,
The shades that drew amazement at me through
Their deep eye-ports, aware I was alive.
I went on with my talk, referring to
The shade of Statius. “He will arrive
On high,” I said, “more slowly than he could,
10 Perhaps, because of Virgil. But now tell
Me of Piccarda. Also if I should
Take note of any among these, so well
Equipped to gaze at me.” “More fair than good,
More good than fair? My sister is on high,
Triumphant in Olympus, glory-crowned.”
He said first that, then this: “Here we must try
To name names when we can, our faces ground
To dust with fasting, drained completely dry.
That one is Bonagiunta, who made rhymes
20 In Lucca, and beyond him, one who held
The whole Church in his arms in recent times,
Martin of Tours, a great heart too impelled
By greed, and so his face, more than the rest,
Is seamed, and he must fast to purge the eels
Of Lake Bolsena that he thought the best,
And drowned in wine and roasted. The mind reels.”
And many others he named one by one,
And none of them seemed displeased to be named:
Not one dark look while this was being done,
30 For if I, in the world, could make them famed
For being saved, then harm there would be none.
Ubaldin della Pila I saw chew
On emptiness because he’d lingered so,
And Bonifazio, archbishop, who
Pastured his flocks high up, and, as we know,
Set his expenses higher. I saw, too,
Forlì’s fine man Marchese, who had space
Down there to drink with far more thirst than here,
And yet he never drank his fill. The place
40 Was full of them, yet, as one does with sheer
Numbers, I noticed some above the crowd,
And so returned to Bonagiunta. He
Seemed most to want to know me, and, aloud,
But only just, he muttered this for me:
“Gentucca,” meaning “little folk.” The word
Barely emerged from where he felt the pain
Of justice most, his throat. But, having heard,
I spoke, believing he might brave the strain.
“Spirit that seems so eager to be freed
50 To tell me something,” I said, “have a care
To say it plainly and thus meet the need
Of both yourself and me.” “Back there,”
He said, “a woman’s born who will indeed
Bear glowing fruit, though she does not yet wear
The wimple of the wed. And she will make
My city please you. Armed with this forecast
You go your way again, and if you take
A wrong turn from my muttering, at last
The facts will make all clear. But now reveal
60 If you I see before me really made
The new rhyme, lyrical as well as real—
The craft of language at its highest grade—
Beginning with ‘You ladies who know love’?”
And I to him: “Yes, I am one that when
Inspired by love, notes what is spoken of
Within, and makes it sing to other men.”
“Brother,” he said, “now I can see the knot
That held back Jacopo and all the school
Of Sicily; Guittone and his lot
70 Of Tuscans who wrote verse to the old rule;
And kept me, too, short of the Sweet New Style
I hear now. I see well how love dictates
The movement of your pen, which, all the while
The heart speaks, follows close, and never waits.
It’s certain this was far from true for us,
And anyone who sets out to detect
A difference, will find no more to discuss
Between our style and yours but that aspect:
The things we hinted at, you said outright.”
80 And he was silent, as if satisfied
With his analysis. As cranes in flight
Along the Nile in winter make a wide
Array sometimes, and sometimes pull in tight
To get more speed by going one behind
The other, so these people faced around
And quickened step as if all of one mind,
By leanness and the wish to cover ground
Made light of foot. Like one who cannot find
More breath to run and lets his fellows pass
90 And walks until his chest no longer heaves,
Forese waved away that holy class
And stayed with me, and as to one who leaves
Too soon to suit us, spoke. “How long before
I see you here again?” And I: “How long
Am I to live? I don’t know. Yet this shore
I’d sooner see again than know the wrong
Of where I have been put to live, which more
And more divests itself of good from day
To day, with ruin waiting down the trail.”
100   “And I,” he said, “can see now who will pay
For that disaster. Dragged by a beast’s tail
Towards the valley out of which no way
Leads back again, my brother Corso’s drawn
Faster with every foul step of the beast
Until he is dashed down and left there, torn
Revoltingly to pieces, a crows’ feast.
These wheels”—he pointed upwards—“will not turn
Too often before what I have to tell
Will be more plain than I can say. You’ll learn:
110   But now I have to leave you. A short spell
Of time is precious here. I lose too much
By lingering.” And as a horseman rides
Out at a gallop, proud of losing touch
With his brigade, and goes to where resides
The glory of the first encounter, just
That way he went from us with longer strides,
And back on earth we would have eaten dust,
I and the two great worldlings. We remained,
And when he was so far ahead my eyes
120   Lost sight of him no matter how they strained—
As my mind lost his words—to my surprise
The branches of another tree appeared
As we came round the bend, and it was full
Of fruit, and green, and I saw, as we neared,
People beneath it lift, as if to pull
Fruit free, their hands towards the foliage,
Crying I know not what, as children do
Who, thoughtless, beg, and get into a rage
Of begging when the thing they beckon to
130   Unbidden, is held up to make them keen.
Then off they went as if they realised
How futile all their clamouring had been,
And to the tree that held the things they prized
We came, the mighty tree which can withstand
So many prayers and tears. “Do not come close.
Pass on, for far above, and not at hand,
There is the tree Eve ate of for her dose
Of knowledge, and this one is just a sprig
From that.” Emerging from the leaves’ green shrouds
140   The hidden voice went on. “Recall how, big
With food and wine, those creatures of the clouds,
The cursed centaurs, reeled under the blows
Of Theseus when they chased women. Keep
Also in mind the Hebrew soldiers: those
Who at the fountain drank themselves to sleep
So Gideon, when he took Midian,
Left them behind.” So, passing on, we kept
To the wall side, regaled with tales of men
And gluttony, and what it earned. We stepped,
150   Spread out, a thousand steps along
The lonely road, each wrapped in silent thought,
Concerned with appetite, its right and wrong.
A sudden voice said “Give me your report
Of what you think of as you go, you three
All by yourselves.” I started, as do scared
And timid beasts. I raised my head to see
Who this was. Never in a furnace flared
Metal or glass so glowing red as he.
The angel said “If up high you would climb
160   Here you must turn to find the peaceful sky.”
His aspect stole my eyesight for a time
So that I trailed my teachers only by
My hearing. And just as the breeze of May,
Dawn’s herald, when it stirs, gives out perfume
So full of grass and flowers, in that way
I felt a wind, fanned by each fluttering plume
Of his wing, strike my brow, and I could sense
The odour of ambrosia. “How blessed
They are who are lit up by such intense
170   Grace that the appetite within their breast
Stirs not the fumes of a too great desire,
But just the hunger justice might require.”