Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Book Two: Purgatory, translated by Clive James (Picador 2013)
The devil gets all the best lines in Paradise Lost, and the Inferno gets the best press in The Divine Comedy. I don’t know that I’ve ever read anything at all about Purgatorio, so as I began reading it, I was wondering if an obscure sense of duty was a good enough reason to keep going. Was I hoping for any reward beyond being able to say I’d read it?
It turns out I enjoyed it a lot. Partly I think that was because of a weird sense of privilege. Thanks to my pre–Vatican Two Catholic childhood and a young adulthood in a religious order just as things were changing, much of the theology that underpins the Purgatory is as familiar to me as gum trees. I didn’t need footnotes to explain the idea of the living praying for the dead ‘that they may be loosed from their sins’: we offered up our family Rosary each evening ‘for the Pope the poor, the sick, the dying, the suffering souls in Purgatory, for Aunty Hilda and Uncle Jack’s souls’. I recognised most of the Latin hymns that are sung in Purgatory, and can still hum a few bars of some of them. I have a passing acquaintance with the Thomistic philosophy that Virgil explains to Dante, most notably in Canto 17, where the notion contention that all virtue and all sin come from love might otherwise sound like intellectual play for its own sake. Even some fragments of the pervasive Church history/gossip rings a bell. What’s more, thanks to my parents giving me Kingsley’s Heroes and my membership of the Argonauts Club (I was Lebedos 5), not to mention 5 years studying Latin at school and university, not all of the classical allusions pass me by (though, for example, I hadn’t heard the rumours that Julius Caesar was gay until I read Canto 26).
I feel like a privileged dinosaur.
All the same, I confess to reading pages at a time enjoying the verse, the surface level of the narrative, and the imagery, but not having a clue what it all meant. In particular there’s an elaborate procession in the Garden of Eden in the last couple of Cantos, in which various maidens, mythological beasts, birds, trees and vehicles are clearly intended to carry allegorical meanings. Even Clive James’s kind practice of incorporating an occasional explanatory phrase into the text, and Dante himself explicating some of it left me bewildered. At base, for all my familiarity with elements of it, I found this a deeply alien text. To read it properly – to understand it – would take a lot of study, and I guess I’m lazy enough to be content with what I’ve got.
Plot summary (don’t read if you’re worried about spoilers): Guided by the great Roman poet, Virgil, Dante continues his exploration of the afterlife . He climbs the seven circles of Purgatory, each circle inhabited by the souls of dead people expiating one of the seven deadly sins – pride, anger, envy, sloth, lust, gluttony, avarice. At the start Dante has seven Ps branded on his forehead by the touch of an angel’s wing, one of which disappears with each level passed. Virgil and Dante are joined by the poet Statius, whose time in Purgatory is up, but who elects to spend time talking shop with Virgil rather than rushing off to heaven. Finally, they reach a version of the Garden of Eden where the aforementioned allegorical procession happens, Virgil says he can go no further, and Dante’s great love, Beatrice, gives him a piece of her mind. Led by maiden named Matilda, Dante and Statius head for the mountain of heaven under a sky full of stars.
A nice bit of the translation: At the end of Canto 22, in the circle where souls of gluttons are suffering, Clive James has:
As beautiful as gold was the First Age:
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.
That sent me hunting the original of those last four lines, which I found at Canto 22, lines 151–154:
Mele e locuste furon le vivande
che nodriro il Batista nel diserto;
per ch’elli è glorioso e tanto grande
quanto per lo Vangelio v’è aperto.
(Honey and locusts were the aliments
That fed the Baptist in the wilderness;
Whence he is glorious, and so magnified
As by the Evangel is revealed to you.)
So James isn’t the most subservient of translators, and isn’t above inserting little anachronisms like ‘Less is more’. Purists would probably object, but it keeps his readers on our toes, and deters us from thinking we’ve actually read the original.
The best bit: I knew that Beatrice replaces Virgil as Dante’s guide in Heaven, because Virgil, having died before Christ, is stuck in Limbo. But I was quite unprepared for the intensity of the scene where Dante and Beatrice meet in Canto 30. She is the great love of his life, and he knows that it is thanks to her that he is being taken on this grand tour of the afterlife. She turns up at a moment when I was feeling that Clive James and I were doing our best to get through some impenetrable mediaeval allegorising with the least possible pain – and everything changes. Dante is thrilled to see her. But instead of embracing him warmly and joyously, she goes for him:
Yet royally, like one with the design
Of holding back the heat her words might mean
While speaking, said this: ‘Look. Look at me well,
For I am Beatrice indeed. How do
You dare approach this mountain. Can you tell?
For man is happy here, yet here are you.’
He responds incoherently, provoking her to increasingly vehement reproach for having fallen away from the paths of virtue after her death. It’s electrifying, and it feels as if all the preceding theology and inventiveness and sheer genius creation exist as scaffolding for this moment when Dante (and Clive James?) writes with authentic passion about the experience of being found deeply wanting by the woman he loves.
There are lots of other good bits, but that’s the one that takes the cake for me.
PS: I’ve just seen that this is my 777th post on this blog – very appropriate, I thought, as I’m about to head off to Heaven.