To race for safer waters, the small ship
Of my poetic powers now hoists sail,
Leaving in her wake that cruel sea.
And I shall sing this second kingdom where
The human spirit purifies itself,
Becoming fit to mount up into heaven. ...
Soft coloring of oriental sapphire,
Collecting in the calm face of the sky,
Clear right up to the edge of the horizon,
Brought back delight again into my eyes
As soon as I stepped out from the dead air
Which overburdened both my sight and breast.
(Purg. I, 1-6; 12-18)
The Purgatorio opens with quietly beautiful imagery. Both the reader and Dante the character are exhausted and mentally bruised from the harrowing sights of the pit of hell. At the end of Inferno, Dante and Virgil emerged from the underground passage leading up from Hell into the starlit night, and compared to the sights they had but recently seen even the dim starlight gave the impression of coming out into the light after a long, dark journey.
Now the first rays of sunrise are breaking of the island of Purgatory. It is Easter morning, 1300 -- a jubilee year declared by the pope, and on the morning of Christ's triumph over sin and death, Dante escapes the realm of sin and eternal death into the land of those who suffer cheerfully, in the knowledge that they are preparing themselves for eternal bliss.
Soon they are confronted by Cato, the guardian of Purgatory. Cato is an interesting figure in Dante's imagery because he is both a pagan and a suicide. Living in the last days of the Roman Republic, as civil war tore the empire apart and Julius Caesar rose to prominence, Cato had the reputation of being an "old Roman" who cared first and foremost about law and virtue. When Caesar seized control of the empire and Cato was ordered to submit to him, he committed suicide instead. As someone who valued virtue and freedom more than life, Dante makes him the guard at the entrance to Purgatory, one of the few pagans not confined to Limbo.
Cato asks the poets the nature of their journey, and once satisfied that it is ordained by Heaven, allows them to continue, but commands Dante to cleanse his face of the dust and tears of Hell. Dante does so, washing his face with the fresh dew on the grass. Then, in the distance, he and Virgil see a boat approaching with great speed.
Among these newest among the saved, Dante meets a friend of his, Casella, a musician and singer who set several of Dante's poems to music. The old friends talk, and sing several of Casella's songs, until Cato comes upon the group of newly disembarked souls milling on the shores and chastises them for wasting time. At this the souls head off for the mountain at a run, leaving Dante and Virgil to follow at a slower pace.
As they circle the mountain, looking for a place where they can start on the path they see spiraling around its steep sides, the poets come upon a large group of souls walking slowly along the shore. These, they discover, are the late repentant: souls who persisted in grave sin until the very moment of their death, and then repented, commending their souls to God. Now they must circle Mt. Purgatory for thirty times as long as they persisted in sin -- unless the prayers of those still living help to shorten their time of waiting.
Among these souls, Dante meets King Manfred, a political hero of Dante's.
Then added with a smile, "I am Manfred,
The grandson of the glorious Empress Constance,
And so I plead that you on your return
"Visit my lovely daughter, mother of
The crowns of Sicily and Aragon,
And whatever else is said, tell her the truth:
"After I had my body riven through
By two mortal thrusts, I gave up my soul
Weeping to Him who pardons willingly.
"Horrible was the depth of my transgressing,
But infinite goodness has its arms so wide
That it embraces all who turn to it.
(Purg. III, 112-123)
After telling how he was buried in unconsecrated ground because he died while fighting in a civil war that put him on the opposite side of Italian politics from the pope, Manfred begs that Dante tell his relatives of his place in purgatory and ask them for their prayers. This will be a continuing theme through the Purgatorio. While the souls of the damned sometimes asked for fame, and other times asked to avoid it, the souls in purgatory at interested primarily in the prayers that will aid their swift ascension to the heavenly spheres, rather than any sort of earthly fame.
Another thing to note here is that Dante shows even those souls whose repentance was truly at the moment of their deaths -- without the chance to receive absolution. The middle ages are at times accused of a magic-like understanding of confession, which failed to take into account heartfelt repentance unaided by the sacraments. However Dante, certain the high point and summation of medieval thought on matters of salvation from an artistic point of view, definitely understands that even such personal contrition directly to God can save. Nonetheless, he holds these late repenting souls accountable for not having repented earlier and sought sacramental absolution, which would have allowed them to avoid this thirty-fold period of waiting.
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.