Reading Dante’s Purgatory

Mother Culture selection for March 2016

Purgatory is the mountain, or the winding ascent up the mountain, that straightens souls whom the world has made crooked (23.126). What does that mean? Dante’s imagery is not idle. It is the “straight” path that the sinner loses (Inf. 1.3), and by that word (Italian diritta, from Latin directa) we imply all of its etymological associations: it is the right path, the direct path, the way of rectitude. By contrast, the unrepentant soul grows crooked (Italian prava) or twisted, “wrong” in the moral and directional sense, awry. The mountain straightens what has gone wrong.

. . . And so, if Purgatory is a place that undoes the harm of sin, it is better thought of as an infirmary (as J. R. R. Tolkien thought of it in “Leaf by Niggle”) than as a prison, or much less, as a torture chamber. It is sin that tortures, Purgatory must de-torture or “dis-evil” as Dante puts it (13.3). It is sin that imprisons; Purgatory files the fetters off. ~ Anthony Esolen, Introduction to Purgatory

Dorothy Sayers calls Purgatory the “most human section of the Comedy,” and notes that “Hell is concerned with the fruits, Purgatory with the roots, of sin.”

Version Notes

My favorite translation is by Dorothy Sayers; I love her masterful marriage of faithful literary translation with Dante’s chosen poetic form of terza rima. Her introduction and notes at the end of each canto are helpful, but never intrusive. Anthony Esolen’s translation is also lovely. There is also a new translation by the Hollanders written in blank verse, which looks interesting. The footnotes are exhaustive. For comparison, read the text of the first pages of both in the Amazon “Look Inside” preview. If you can afford—$$-wise and time-wise—two translations, it might be fun to use both.

Reading Helps

First and foremost, enjoy reading the Purgatory as a compelling story. The ideas below for a close reading of this book build on the principles and practices detailed in my post on High School Humanities. The master aim of literature study should be to read and delight in the story. Keep these reading helps in their rightful place as servant to that master.

Background and Context

If you are not familiar with the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, research it, especially as it was understood in the Late Middle Ages. The introductions by both Sayers and Esolen at the beginning of their respective translations are very good, and either will prove a good guide to ease your path through the Purgatory. The endnotes are also very helpful. Always keep in mind, however, that you are reading a work of imagination, not a work of theology!

Once we get into Purgatory proper (beginning in about Canto X), there are several things that each cornice has in common. If these are not explicitly named by Dante, Sayers identifies them in her endnotes (some other commentators do also). They are:

  • The Penance: the punishment which the penitent sinners are undergoing. This punishment is either suffering of the natural consequences of the sin or practicing the opposite virtue; or it may be a combination of the two.
  • The Prayer: a particular prayer uttered by the penitents, usually in Latin, related to the sin of which they are being purged.
  • The Meditation, consisting of two parts: the Whip and the Bridle (or Rein). The examples for meditation are taken chiefly from the life of Mary, from classical mythology, history, or literature, from the Old or New Testament, or from early church history.
    • The Whip has examples of the opposite virtue from the sin being purged
    • The Bridle has examples of the extremes of the sin itself.
  • The Benediction is a blessing taken from the Beatitudes, also usually expressed in Latin, beginning with beati (a clue!).
  • The Angel is not always explicitly named or even mentioned by Dante; instead they are often seen in the removal of each P from Dante’s forehead. In her notes at the end of each canto, Dorothy Sayers names these angels for the opposite virtue to the sin being purged: The Angel of Humility, The Angel of Liberality, etc.

Commonplace Book Entries

(Read my series of posts on Commonplace Books here.)  Always read with a pen in hand! Mark possible passages for commonplacing at a future time. Of course, commonplacing favorite passages as you read should be a regular habit. 

Copy passages from the Inferno that

  • demonstrate apt penance for particular sins
  • spark your interest, remind you of something else, or bring up questions in your mind
  • delight you – especially figures of speech and eloquent turns of phrase
  • point you to the good, the true, and the beautiful

Reflections As You Read

In addition to the general reading journal options, there are a few specific Reading Journal assignments that may be helpful. This is not meant to be a deep analysis. Use this kind of guided journaling only as a way to enhance enjoyment of the story!

  • Note the sins Dante highlights, and fitting nature of the penance he imagines. Does the penance reflect the nature of the sin or the consequences of the sin?
  • Note the persons Dante places in Purgatory. Choose several persons, and reflect on both the literal and allegorical meaning of the representation Dante gives.
  • How does Dante represent all of mankind—how do you see yourself in Dante? How are you personally warned or encouraged by the sins and punishments portrayed? How can both the literal and allegorical sense of particular persons and their particular sins help you see yourself and others more clearly?
  • Notice how Dante reports the changes in the difficulty of the climb. How and why does it change as Dante ascends?
  • Make a chart for each cornice in your Journal, leaving a few blank pages to complete as you continue reading, noting the five common elements: Penance, Prayer, Meditation (both Whip and Bridle), Beatitude, and Blessing. Note the canto and line # where these are found, along with some notes about each.

Connections and the Great Conversation

Write a response to the reading and community discussion. What did you find most interesting (or odd, or convicting…)? Are there any common themes or ideas that you saw in your reading here and other books you have read? Are there any common themes or ideas from your Bible reading or recent sermons you have heard? Always be on the lookout for references to earlier or contemporaneous authors, ideas, and events—the ongoing Great Conversation.

  • Note the differences between Hell and Purgatory. Save a two-page spread in your journal to list these by category: the physical atmosphere (sight, smell, sounds, etc.), the people, and the relationships between the different persons and beings portrayed (i.e. realtionships between sinners sharing the same punishment vs. realtionships between sinners sharing the same penance; realtionships between the demons/beings guarding a particular part of Hell vs. realtionships between angels/beings guarding a particular part of Purgatory; realtionships between the demons in Hell and the people they guard vs. realtionships between the angels/beings in Purgatory and the people they guard, etc.)
  • Reflect on some of the literary and historical persons that Dante places in Purgatory. Are there any surprises based on your reading of other literature?

Links Worth A Look

Mother Culture Community

Mother Culture Community is an online fellowship of Christian classical home educators and other reading mothers (and aunts, and sisters, and grandmothers, and daughters), sponsored by The Reading Mother. Our mission is inspire our students in the pursuit of a life well‐read. We believe our own pursuit of a life well‐read is the best place to start.

Dante and the Divine Comedy, by Domenico di Michelino, 1465

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