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Monday, February 25, 2008

Lenten Meditations on Purgatorio: Wrath

Having left behind them the terrace of Envy, the poets are now confronted with the "whip" of Wrath: a set of images which exemplify wrath's opposite virtue, gentleness.

There it seemed that I was all at once
Caught up into an ecstatic vision
And saw a temple filled with crowds of people

And saw a woman there about to enter,
With a mother’s tender attitude,
Saying, "My son, why have you done this to us?

"See how your father and I have sought for you,
Sorrowing." And as she then was silent,
That which at first appeared there, disappeared.

Another woman then appeared to me,
With her cheeks drenched by water grief distills
When it arises out of deep resentment,

And she spoke, "If you are lord of the city
Whose naming was debated by the gods,
And which beams with all knowledge everywhere,

"Take your revenge against those brazen arms
Which embraced our daughter, O Pisistratus!"
And her lord seemed to me gentle and kind

In answering her with a temperate look,
"What shall we do to one who wants to hurt us
If we condemn someone who shows us love?"

Then I saw people fired up with anger
Stoning a young man to death, and loudly
Clamoring to each other, "Kill! Kill!"

And I saw him sink down, since death already
Weighed heavily upon him, toward the ground,
But ever he made his eyes gates for heaven,

Praying to the high Lord in such pain
That He show pardon to his persecutors,
With that look which unlocks true compassion.

When my mind turned again to outward things
Which, independent of it, still are real,
I recognized the truth within my errors.
(Purg. XV, 85-117)

The whip of Pride features sculpture, the whip of Envy, words. On the terrace of wrath, Dante experiences a sort of living dream in which he witnesses scenes of gentleness and restraint. In the second image, drawn from Athenian civic mythology, the tyrant Pisistratus (who was a ruler of Athens from the period before democracy) was reputed to have refused to use his civic power to punish a young man who (though Pisistratus had warned him against wooing her) was seen kissing his daughter.

The last stanza provides an interesting comment on reality and art. Caught up in the vision, Dante had for the duration of it taken what he saw to be reality. Now, his mind turns back to the things which exist beyond his experience of them: the "real world" outside him. And yet, while turning to the outside world, he recognizes as equally real the truths which his brief vision conveyed to him.

Proceeding along the terrace as the sun begins to set, the poets see before them a dark cloud of smoke. As they enter it, Dante finds it stings his eyes so intensely that he is forced to close them, and follow along with his hand on Virgil's shoulder like a blind man being led.

Voices I heard and each one seemed to pray
The Lamb of God who takes away our sins
To grant his mercy to us and his peace.

"Agnus Dei" their response began,
As if one word and measure were in all
So that full harmony appeared among them.

"Are those whom I am hearing, master, spirits?"
I asked. And he told me, "You grasp the truth,
And they go loosening the knot of anger."
(Purg. XVI, 16-24)

Each terrace in Purgatory has its own assigned prayer acclamation, and here it is the Agnus Dei. The souls call upon Christ by His title as the Lamb of God, conquering through gentleness. One of the souls among the smoke hears Dante speaking to Virgil and asks who he is and how he comes, while living, to be among the joyful sufferers in Purgatory. Dante explains his journey and asks the soul, who identifies himself as Marco of Lombardy (not a known historical figure outside the Commedia), something that has been troubling him: Why does the world (circa 1300) seem to be so nearly bereft of any virtue?

Marco first, as does every soul in Purgatory, asks Dante to remember him in his prayers, and then expounds at length on man's condition as a creature with free will, and but a dim understanding of the true good.

"If, then, the world today has gone astray,
In you the cause lies, in you it’s to be sought!
And now I’ll prove a true informant for you.

"From out the hands of Him who fondly loves her
Before she comes to be, there issues forth,
Like a child at play in tears and laughter,

"The simple soul without a shred of knowledge,
Except that, springing from a joyous Maker,
Willingly she turns to what delights her.

"With trifles she first satisfies her taste:
She is beguiled and gambols after them
Unless a guide or bridle bend her love.

"Therefore, law was needed as a curb,
And needed also was a king who could
Discern at least the tower of the true city.
(Purg. XVI, 82-96)

However, this guidance has been sadly lacking of late, Marco observes, with the papacy and many other clerics too much taken up with politics and power, and not enough with providing men with moral teaching. His own region in Lombardy, says Marco, is safe now for all men but good ones, due to the constant wars between the Papal States and Holy Roman Empire.

Leaving Marco behind, the poets soon emerge from the cloud of smoke, and blink for a moment in the light. The sun is just setting behind Mr. Purgatory, and yet its final rays are nearly blinding to the poets after being in the choking darkness for so long. Just then the three images of wrath which form the bridle of that vice come upon Dante:

The impious act of her who changed her form
Into the bird that most delights in singing
Appeared to shape in my imagining.

And here my mind was so withdrawn within
Upon itself that nothing from the outside
Could have come then to be admitted in it.

Then there rained down within my heightened fancy
A figure crucified, scornful and fierce
In his look, exactly as he died.

Around him stood the great Ahasuerus,
Esther his wife, and the just Mordecai
Who showed integrity in word and deed.

And as this image burst all by itself,
Just like a bubble when the water runs
Out from under where the film has formed,

There rose into my vision a young girl
Bitterly weeping, and she said, "O Queen,
Why in your anger did you slay yourself?

"You took your life to keep Lavinia:
Now you have lost me! I am one who mourns,
Mother, more for your ruin than another’s."

As sleep is broken when all of a sudden
New light strikes upon unopened eyes
And, broken, flickers before it fully dies,

So my imagining fell straight away
As soon as light, more intense by far
Than what we are inured to, struck my eyes.
(Purg. XVII, 19-45)

The first of these is Procne from Greek mythology. Procne was married to the king of Thrace, but her husband developed an overpowering lust for her sister, Philomela. He raped Philomela, and then cut out her tongue so that she could not tell what had been done to her. However, Philomela wove a tapestry which told her sister what had happened to her. Procne then flew into such a rage that she killed her son and served him to her husband in order to get revenge. It is this sort of blinding wrath (however justified by other evils) which the smoke on the terrace of wrath symbolizes. And it is, similarly, the blind intensity of such wrath which causes people to hurt others indiscriminately when they have been wronged -- as Procne killed her innocent son in order to avenge the wrong committed by her husband.

As these visions pass, they reach the angel who guards the passage to the next terrace, and another P is wiped from Dante's forehead as another acclamation is chanted: Beati pacifici, blessed are the peacemakers.

Thanks to:

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.

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