“Here let death’s poetry arise to life, / O Muses sacrosanct whose liege I am! / And let Calliope rise up and play / her sweet accompaniment in the same strain / that pierced the wretched magpies with the truth / of unforgivable presumptuousness.” Thus was Dante’s opening prayer as he entered Purgatory and prepared to climb the seven-story mountain of love. Dante’s Divine Comedy is more than just a Florentine’s fantasy of revenge and poetic allegory of the Christian faith. In many ways it was an epic paying homage to The Book—interweaving, however, the history of love from the pen of mortals to be concurrent with the drama of salvation revealed in Sacred Scripture.
Dante wandering in a dark wilderness for having “wandered off from the straight path” prefigures, and foreshadows, what the rest of the 100 cantos of the poem will deal with: Fleeing from that dark wilderness and returning to the straight and true. By wandering from the straight and true Dante had strayed from Love, and by finding himself in a dark wilderness, a dark forest, a blackened environ which blinds him, he had flung himself into hell by his aimless wandering. Sent by Beatrice, Dante’s love, Virgil rescues him and the two begin their infamous journey to hell and back. It is noteworthy to recognize that a poet comes to guide him back to the straight and true.
There are many figures whom Dante meets and converses with throughout the Divine Comedy. Why Virgil? Why Beatrice? Why Statius? Why St. Bernard of Clairvaux? There is also much symbolism in the imagery of the Dante’s descent through hell and ascent into heaven. Why a hell that is cold and dark? Why is Purgatory a place that has light? Why is heaven the realm of the white rose? Here we shall briefly explore these questions.
There is a poetic genius to Dante’s journey through hell and up Mount Purgatory. As to why Dante would choose Virgil to guide him through hell and most of Purgatory should be clear enough: Virgil was the great Roman poet of love. Omnia vincit amor. “Love conquers all.” Additionally, the Aeneid is a grand tale of love where Aeneas embodies the love for family and fatherland through his arduous and painstaking journey to Lavinian shores. Aeneas’ love for his father, his gods, and his countrymen drives him onward.
The relationship between Virgil and Dante is one of the most important developments for the reader to notice over the course of the epic. Virgil meets Dante under the direction of Beatrice. He serves as a functionary more than a friend and father figure in the opening cantos. When they begin their descent into hell Virgil has a short temper with Dante and answers Dante’s questions with a frank coldness reminiscent of the place they are descending into. “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.”
Moving beyond the realm of the neutrals into Limbo, Dante is present with the great poets of antiquity. Hell begins with the poets, but the poets of love and of ancient lore have done enough to keep themselves from the punishment of what lay beyond Limbo. As Virgil and Dante descend through the remaining circles of hell, their relationship is tested, strained, but also transformed.
Hell is a loveless place. This is the primary reason why Dante constructs a cold and dark hell, and why it gets progressively colder and darker as they moved into “a place where no light is.” Dante’s facial complexion changes too to symbolize the reality of entering the inferno of death: He becomes paler and paler. But as the two poets of love pilgrimage through hell and descend into the dark abyss which is Satan’s domain, it is the love of Dante and Virgil that enables them to proceed in their journey; they become the only shining conduits of lights in a place “where no light is.”
Dante and Virgil bond with each other and the two grow intimately connected to each other as they proceed down the circles of the abyss. In order to continue the journey through the loveless pit that is hell, they need to embody the love that is lacking from all the circles of hell. Virgil’s concern for Dante is revealed when he shields Dante from the head of Medusa—his actions, though loving, reflect a lack of trust between the two. That lack of trust is what must be overcome in the sixth through ninth circles of hell where a definitive rejection of truth, and trust, is what permeates these lower circles of the cold and dark pit.
As they descend the two grow in trust and love of each other. Descending into the third bolgia, Virgil helps to carry an exhausted Dante down the mountainside to converse with a damned soul (revealed to be Pope Nicholas III), “If you want to be carried down / along that lower bank to where he is, / you can ask him who he is and why he’s there.” This is a touching moment in the growing relationship between Virgil and Dante because it represents a moment of self-giving by Virgil and receptivity to that self-giving love by Dante. “Then he took hold of me with both his arms, / And when he had me firm against his breast, / He climbed back up the path he had come down.”
Building on this transformation in their relationship, Virgil opens up to Dante about his home—revealing a sense of trust and friendship that eventually becomes a father-son relationship especially by their entry to, and journey up, Mount Purgatory. While love and trust grows between the two, which stands in stark contrast to the pits of hell where no love and trust exist, the final barrier for them to overcome—forgiveness—is what they must manifest to journey into the final circle of hell. Virgil, fed up with Dante’s dallying, barks at him. Realizing he has wronged Dante, Virgil asks Dante’s forgiveness in the final symbolic act of their union together as companions and the necessary act of loving forgiveness to proceed into the ninth circle of hell.
Virgil’s asking for forgiveness and Dante’s granting of forgiveness is the only moment of forgiveness in Inferno. Love consummated itself in that act of forgiveness whereby the two pilgrim poets can venture into the loveless and unforgiving lair of Lucifer and all those human souls who malevolently betrayed the trust and love of others. The genius of Dante is fully revealed in this brief but touching, indeed, human scene in the journey through hell. It is as if there was a moral, hidden, unseen, barrier that the two needed to cross before descending into the final dark hole of the abyss. Without that consummated love through forgiveness, Virgil and Dante would have been stuck in the eighth circle of hell forever.
It was in hell, and through hell, that Dante learned love. He learned the bonding nature of love—that it is not good to be alone (as he was when we first met him wandering alone in the wilderness). He learned, through that bonding nature of love, that love requires relationships. He learned that love requires trust, which was exhibited with the trust built between Virgil and Dante. He also learned that love requires forgiveness, realized in that final and most touching—most human—episode in the thirtieth canto between Virgil and Dante which opened up the final circle of hell to them where their love conquered death and allowed them to slip down the body of the beast and wind up at the base of Mount Purgatory, the Mountain of Love connecting the human world with the celestial realm of complete and total love.
Ascending Mount Purgatory is a grueling task for Dante. He is proud and therefore weighed down by his pride. Mount Purgatory has the most human of characteristics for it is the most human of the realms. Where hell saw the rejection of humanness through the corruption of love (in the circles of lust through wrath) and the formal rejection of truth and love (all the rungs of hell inside the city of Dis), Mount Purgatory is the place where love is nurtured, directed, and eventually realized at the top of the mountain. Through this realization of love the opening up the gates of heaven for all the pilgrims of love to enter commences.
St. Thomas Aquinas argued that the soul is potentiality moving to actualization. In that actualization, which is found in agency, the understanding of the good, true, and beautiful which all souls are directed to realizes itself in the freedom to choose the good, true, and beautiful. Of course, what is that force, that reality, which moves the soul to actualization and the choosing of God’s goodness and beauty? It is love. “Love is called the unitive force,” the angelic doctor explained in the Summa Theologiae. Love is that force that binds all things together in unitive harmony.
It is important to recognize that while hell was cold and dark Mount Purgatory is a place where light and warmth is found. The sun appears where it had no appearance in hell. Moreover, it is equally important to realize that the souls make their progress up the Mountain of Purifying Love during sunlight. That sunlight is symbolic of love and wisdom; the light which draws burning hearts after it. St. Paul teaches that God is an all-consuming fire, and when the consuming fire of God is visible and beautifies the world of Purgatory, the souls—moved by that love—ascend closer to paradise before being able to pass from the earthly Jerusalem to the celestial Jerusalem.
The most important person Virgil and Dante meet in their pilgrimage up Mount Purgatory is the poet Statius. Statius was the author of the epic poem Thebaid, the second greatest Latin epic poem only after Virgil’s Aeneid. Statius serves many purposes in the poem. He is the heir of Virgil. And he was, according to Dante, a secret convert to Christianity. As such, not only is he the heir to Virgil (poetically and historically) he is the heir to Virgil as the poet instructor of love to Dante as they reach the top of Mount Purgatory. In that ascent the poets all converse with one another about love, about the only thing that matters in life.
Statius is also the bridge connecting pagan Rome to Christian Rome. Statius represents the supersession of Virgil into the baptizing waters of Christianity. Dante pays the great poet his homage by including him in the moving entourage of love poets—now numbering, symbolically, three—as they progress ever closer to the celestial realm of love which they had all written about in their own ways. The three poets of love, in Purgatorio, are burning and sojourning hearts of love who also engage in face to face conversations with one another (again, sacramentally and symbolically prefiguring the Trinity). They are, then, the poetic manifestation of the Trinity; for they are in a loving union with each other and engaged in acts of speech with one another.
Statius becomes the poet who symbolizes the passing of the torch of love poetry to Dante just as he took up the torch from Virgil and now, with Virgil and Statius having traveled with Dante, and Virgil having returned to Limbo, that great flame passes to the immortal Florentine as they prepare to enter the realm of the White Rose. Dante’s inclusion of Statius in the pilgrimage is, therefore, theological and poetic. As mentioned, there are three poets journeying together up the mountain to enter the realm of the Trinity. Virgil may be relieved by Beatrice, thus keeping the pilgrim group at three, but the number three becomes a central guiding spirit in Purgatorio. Additionally, that all three are poets, and all three Romans, allows Dante to communicate the power and directionality of poetry.
Moreover, Dante’s inclusion of many poets, some famous and others largely lost to history, is equally deep and essential to the movement of the Divine Comedy. If Dante’s epic is the story of the drama of salvation—the greatest drama and story ever told—it is also a story of the history of love poetry from Hesiod and Homer (whom we met in Limbo) through Virgil and Statius, up to Arnaut Daniel, Guido Guinizelli, Bonagiunta Orbicciani, and Dante. “Here from the dead let poetry rise up, O sacred Muses, since I am yours” as Dante poetically and magically began.
Dante opened Purgatorio by brilliantly prefiguring what the journey up Mount Purgatory reveals (just as he had done in the opening lines of Inferno where he cried out to muses for help, “O muses! O high genius! Help me now!”). He is also informing his reader that poetry can lead to conversion and turn the human gaze up to heavenly things. In fact, without poetry—without love—we cannot ascend. That is the fundamental message of Purgatorio just as it was in Inferno. Paradise, then, is the land to which all poetry directs the human heart and mind and, in another sense, is the land of poetic abundance where poetry (love) never ceases.
It is fitting that Dante’s epic of love has the poets and theologians of love (who are poets in their own right) guiding him into the land of the white rose (the very flower of love). Where the poets directed Dante to the celestial sphere, it is Beatrice who teaches Dante to always love God and the great mystic theologian St. Bernard of Clairvaux who explains to Dante the love of God which guides Dante through the heavenly spheres of love itself. Love literally carried Dante through hell. Love called Dante up Mount Purgatory. Love then instructed Dante in the cardinal and theological virtues.
We find, then, that Dante learned love to escape hell. In Purgatory he is guided and ordered by love to ascend toward the heavenly realm. In Heaven he is guided and transfigured by love to meet Love’s face.
Having ordered his love, and guided by poetry, Dante is ready to enter the realm of the white rose. The stars are once more the luminaries of beauty that capture his eyes while also reminding us of new growth. “From those holiest waters I returned / to her reborn, a tree renewed, in bloom / with newborn foliage, immaculate, / eager to rise, now ready for the stars.”
Author’s Note: All citations are from Mark Musa’s translation of the Divine Comedy.
This was originally published with the same title in The Imaginative Conservative on December 11, 2019.