At last, the poets find a narrow way that allows them to climb up to the path that winds around the mountain. The way is steep, and Dante is on the point of giving up and demanding rest when they finally reach the path. He asks Virgil:
"But if it please you, I should like to know
How far we have to travel, for the hillside
Leaps up higher than my eyes can reach."
And he told me, "This mountain is such that
Always at the start the climb is the hardest,
But the higher that one mounts the less one tires.
"Therefore, when it seems to you so gentle
That walking up is just as easy for you
As riding down a river in a boat,
"Then you will be at the end of this path:
There you can hope to rest from your fatigue.
I say no more, but this I know is true."
(Purg. IV, 85-96;)
In the Inferno, Dante had to learn to reject sin. But he has not yet learned to work hard towards virtue. Thus, his first steps up the mount of Purgatory are difficult in the extreme.
On the path, sheltering from the sun behind a boulder, Dante meets another old friend: Belacqua, a Florentine maker of musical instruments known for his laziness. He and others among the slothful who did not repent of their sins until the last moment are waiting outside the gates of Purgatory proper, where they must be for as many years as they delayed in life. He, like Manfred, asks for the prayers of Dante and others to speed his journey. But Virgil is already pressing on up the path that winds around the mountain, and Dante must run to catch up.
Further up they meet another group among the late repentant, who (after marvelling that Dante is in the realms of the dead while still alive, and thus casting a shadow with his mortal body) beseech Dante:
"O soul, who move ahead to be made blessed
In the same limbs you had when you were born,"
They came crying, "a short while stay your steps!
"Look if you ever have seen one of us
That you may carry news of him back there.
Ah, why press on? Ah, why not stop right here?
"All of us shades met with a violent death
And remained sinners up to our last hour.
The light of heaven then had so forewarned us
"That we, by true repenting and forgiving,
Came out of our life, our peace made with the God
Who fills our hearts with longing to see him."
(Purg. V, 46-57;)
We have now seen three groups among the late repentant: Those who, like Manfred, died separated from the Church but sought God's forgiveness; those like Belacqua were simply lazy in life, and did not seek forgiveness until their last days; and now these who were killed before their time, but repented of their sins even in the moment of their deaths.
Several of these souls tell Dante the story of their violent deaths, and others are listed briefly -- all with the request that Dante's readers pray for their souls. The catalog of betrayals, unmarked graves, even a woman killed by her own husband underline the often chaotic and violent background of the art and literature that Renaissance Italy poured out. Dante meditates on his troubled country:
Ah, slavish Italy, hostelry for griefs,
Ship without a captain in huge storms,
No madam of the provinces but of brothels!
That noble spirit was so eager-hearted,
Just at the sweet sound of his city’s name,
To welcome there his fellow-citizen —
And now all those who dwell within you live
In war; enclosed by one same wall and moat,
One person gnaws away at another!
(Purg. VI, 76-84;)
Night is falling, and a Mantuan poet who has befriended them explains that it is not possible to continue climbing the mountain once darkness falls. Thus, he takes them to a sheltered valley in which they can stay for the night. There he points out to them a veritable who's who of 13th century European rulers: kings of England, France, Germany.
As darkness falls, these former wielders of power fall silent and, looking upwards toward the heavens, sing the Te lucis ante from compline, and two angels descend from heaven to guards the valley during the night.
These rulers were not necessarily late in their repentance, as the other souls whom Dante has met outside the gates of purgatory proper, but they were (by the nature of their positions are worldly rulers) focused on things other than the search for holiness during life. Though they may have, within their lives as rulers, tried to follow the path of virtue, they allowed too much of their attention to focus on the world, and not enough on God. Now they, like the late repentant, must spend a time on purgatory's threshold learning to pursue God alone and shun the power and glory that were for so long their focus.
When morning comes, Virgil leads Dante to St. Peter's Gate, where the souls ready to embark upon the final path towards holiness set out. The angel inscribes seven P's on Dante's forehead, and tells him:
"From Peter I keep these keys, and he told me
Rather to err in opening than in closing
If souls but cast themselves down at my feet."
Then he pushed the sacred portal open
And said, "Enter, but I would have you know
Those who look back return outside once more."
And when the pivots of that holy entrance,
Which were round rods of ringing and strong steel,
Turned within the sockets of their hinges,
They made a louder and more resonant clangor
Than Tarpeia did, when the good Metellus
Was snatched from it, the treasure gone forever.
I turned around at the first thundering sound
And thought I heard "Te Deum: Praise to God"
Chanted by voices mixed with that sweet strain.
The notes I heard conveyed to me the same
Exact impression which we have at times
When people sing in concert with an organ
And now and then we just make out the words.
(Purg. IX, 127-145;)
Note the chant of joy that goes up as Dante passes into Purgatory. While hell is typified by the loneliness of sin, purgatory has a strong sense of the Body of Christ, the union of all believers. Souls work together to purge themselves of their attachment to vice, celebrate each others progress on the road to final bliss.
I also think the echo of the classical myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is interestingly used. The angel at St. Peter's gate will let any soul pass that asks, but if the soul turns back (metaphorically longing for the hesitance to pursue God that for so long kept him from the path towards heaven) he will immediately return to the vestibule of purgatory.
But while Orpheus was told to prove his strength of will and faith by walking out from the underworld without looking back to see if Eurydice was following him -- the souls who pass St. Peter's Gate are told they must walk ever towards their goal, never taking their eyes off it. Orpheus was told he had to believe that Eurydice was following him, even though his senses gave no confirmation of it. The souls in purgatory must continue ever upwards towards the goal they can see, rather than allowing themselves to be turned aside by other concerns.
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum
And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.