As Canto XXII opens, the poets have just ascended from the terrace on which greed and prodigality (both unbalanced loves of material possessions) are purged, and the angel who guards the pass has wiped another P from Dante's forehead. Virgil and the second century Roman poet Statius are deep in conversation. Virgil asks Statius how it is that he came to be a Christian.
And he told him, "You were the first to send me
Toward Parnassus to drink within its caves,
And you the first to light my way to God.
"You were like one who, traveling by night,
Carries the torch behind — no help to him —
But he makes those who follow him the wiser,
"When you announced, ‘The ages are made new:
Justice returns and the first world of man,
And a new progeny comes down from heaven.’
"Through you I was a poet, through you a Christian.
(Purg. XXII, 64-73)
Statius paraphrases, in Dante's Italian, several of the most famous lines from Virgil's 4th Eclogue. The poem talks about the coming of a new golden age, started by a man sent down from heaven:
Now the last age by Cumae's Sibyl sung
Has come and gone, and the majestic roll
Of circling centuries begins anew:
Justice returns, returns old Saturn's reign,
With a new breed of men sent down from heaven.
Only do thou, at the boy's birth in whom
The iron shall cease, the golden race arise,
Befriend him, chaste Lucina; 'tis thine own
Written during the Augustan peace, the 4th Eclogue is a "prophecy" to the consul during whose period in office Augustus had been born, and it describes the new Golden Age which will unfold when this child comes to reign over the world. However, since the poem was written shortly before the birth of Christ, and Virgil was revered as the greatest Latin poet throughout the Middle Ages, Virgil's poem was often interpreted by Medieval Christians as being an unknowing prophecy of the coming of Christ. Dante uses that mythology surrounding Virgil to provide an example of how non-Christian art can nonetheless powerfully guide people towards Christian truth -- because Truth itself is one. He imagines Statius, who revered Virgil deeply, to have come across the early Christian community in Rome and immediately seen them to be the coming of the new age into the world which Virgil had foretold. And thus we get this beautiful (though in a sense tragic) image of Virgil bearing a light behind him which for others illuminates the path of truth, but which Virgil himself cannot see. Although the truth of Virgil's poetry helped guide Statius into the Church, Virgil himself is relegated to the Limbo of the virtuous pagans, an afterlife like heaven as these pagans had imagined it (with green grass, white marble buildings, and good company) yet without that greatest happiness of which they had had no knowledge, the beatific vision of the infinite God.
Statius then goes on to describe how he long admired the Christians as they suffered persecution, and at last was baptized, though he kept up an outward show of paganism to avoid sharing in their persecution and for this failing spent many centuries farther down the mountain on the terrace of sloth.
Their conversation ended, they set off along the new terrace they have reached. Soon the poets come upon a tree in the path, with a stream of clear, cool water cascading down upon it from above. A voice from within the tree tells them that they must not eat of the tree or drink of the spring, and then recites a series of examples of fasting or abstinence from the Bible and antiquity.
They are about to move on when they hear a psalm called out from behind them:
And suddenly in tears and song we heard
"Open my lips, O Lord," sung in such tones
That it gave birth to gladness and to grief.
"O gentle father, what is this I hear?"
I wondered; and he: "Shades who journey on,
Perhaps loosening the knot of their bad debt."
Like pilgrims who go wrapped in pious thought
And, overtaking strangers on the road,
Turn toward them but do not stop to talk,
So from behind us, moving faster, coming
And passing by, there gazed at us in wonder
A throng of spirits, silent and devout.
The eyes of each were dark and hollowed-out,
Their faces pale and they so shriveled up
That their skin took its contour from their bones.
(Purg. XXIII, 10-24)
One of these spirits hurrying by slows to speak to Dante, and reveals himself to be Forese Donati -- a long time friend, fellow poet. Dante, who had not recognized him in his emaciated form, greets him joyfully. Forese asks about how Dante comes to be there with his companions, and then tells them about the plight of the souls on this terrace:
"All these people who in weeping sing
Resanctify themselves in thirst and hunger
For having followed appetite too much.
"Craving for food and drink is kindled in us
By the fragrance wafted from the fruit
And from the water splashed on the green leaves;
"And not just once while we walk round this road
Is our ordeal renewed — I say ordeal
And yet I ought to say our consolation,
"For that same will that leads us to the tree
Led Christ in gladness to call out ‘Eli,’
When he delivered us with his own blood."
(Purg. XXIII, 64-75)
It's important to consider the difference between this terrace of purgatory and the circle of gluttony in Inferno, because it tells us something important about Dante's understanding of Purgatory, and how the sufferings of these souls (though often severe) are not mere punishments. In the Inferno, the gluttonous wallow in a muddy swamp with rain beating down on them. The ever-hungry Cerberus runs throughout the circle, biting and snapping at the damned with this three heads. The punishment is the sin exemplified. When we give ourselves up to gluttony we wallow in consumption while at the same time being chased by hunger. We eat or drink compulsively, not because we need to, but because the appetite drives us to dig ourselves in deeper and deeper. Indulgence enfolds us like the swamp, yet even so the appetite remains. We want more because we have given in so completely to the habit of consumption. We hunger because we are eating, and eat because we hunger.
The souls here did not give themselves in completely to appetite -- however much they indulged in gluttony they kept their central desire for God. But they allowed their wills to be weakened through so often giving in and making consumption a little god. Now they are purifying their wills by remaining intent upon their eternal goal despite deprivation. They hurry constantly round the terrace, racing along the path towards God, while foregoing the refreshing water and fruit they see before them. Their bodies as seen in Purgatory do not require rest and sustainance -- they are not being damaged by their hunger and constant hurry -- but what they are suffering is the denial of will.
In Lent, this is a good point to consider. We never seek to hurt ourselves through Lenten sacrifices. The purpose of penance is not to suffer, but rather to accustom ourselves to mastering our appetites and wills. For most healthy adults in modern occupations, giving up food for a day (partially or even completely) will not harm us in any real way. But the difficulty of overcoming that natural desire to eat (and the confidence of seeing that we can do it) helps us to own ourselves more fully and see how we can do what we believe is right or necessary even in difficult circumstances.
Dante compliments Forso Donati on having got so far up Mt. Purgatory in the mere four years since his death, and Forso explains that this is due in great part to the prayers of his wife (still living) and his sister (dead and in heaven.) He then points out several people whom Dante knows or has heard of, including Pope Martin IV, who died after overindulging in eels.
At last, Forso can hold back from his purpose no longer, and runs off to catch up with the other penitents. The poets continue on, and shortly reach another tree where they hear examples of the suffering brought on by gluttony. After an angel has wiped one more P from Dante's forehead, they poets begin their ascent to the next terrace.
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by AllenMandelbaum
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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