Dante and Virgil emerge from hell and begin the ascent of mount purgatory
So now we entered on that hidden Path,
my Lord and I, to move once more towards
a shining world. We did not care to rest.
We climbed, he going first and I behind,
until through some small aperture I saw
the lovely things the skies above us bear.
Now we came out, and once more saw the stars.
To race now over better waves, my ship
of mind -alive again- hoists sail, and leaves
behind its little keel the gulf that proved so cruel.
And I’ll sing, now, about the second realm
where human spirits page themselves from stain,
becoming worthy to ascend to Heaven.
Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.
for now, you secret Muses, I am yours…
Dawn was defeating now the last hours sung
by night, which fled before it. And far away
I recognised the tremblings of the sea.
Alone, we walked along the open plain,
as though, returning to a path we’d lost,
our steps, until we came to that, with vain.
Then, at a place in shadow with the dew
still fought against the sun and, cooled by breeze,
had scarcely yet been send out into vapour,
my master placed the palms of both his hands,
spread wide, likely and gently on the tender grass.
And I, aware of what his purpose was,
offered my tear-stained cheeks to meet his touch.
At which, he made once more entirely clean
the colour that the dark of Hell had hidden.
(The Divine Comedy, I Inferno, lines 133−end, and II Purgatorio, lines 1−8 and 115−29)
When someone says ‘I’ve been through hell’ we at once relate to their suffering (for we all suffer) but we likewise acknowledge the pain which is uniquely their own. We struggle for words of comfort and encouragement. Beyond eloquence, the gift of presence is needed most as we figuratively and literally wipe away their tears.
In today’s selection from The Word in the Wilderness, we encounter Dante and Virgil as they emerge from hell and begin their journey through purgatory. Malcolm Guite describes the scene:
So Dante and Virgil emerge at last, under the clear shining stars, and all their powers and hopes revive. As Dante says at the very beginning of his second book ‘the Purgatorio’:
Here, too, dead poetry will rise again.
For now, you secret Muses, I am yours …
The two poets emerge onto a beautiful little island in the ‘Antipodes’ the other side of the world, and there, Virgil, seeing Dante’s face all stained with tears and smeared with the grime of Hell, does a beautiful thing. He stoops down and washes Dante’s face with the clear morning dew.
How has another person helped you through a time of great suffering?
And be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.
D i g D e e p e r
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), Italian poet and philosopher. Little is known of his early life except that he was born in Florence, lost his parents before he was 18, was betrothed at the age of 12 and married in 1293. In 1274 he first met his Beatrice (prob. Bice Portinari, the daughter of a Florentine citizen and wife of Simone dei Bardi), and he became her poet nine years later. Her death in 1290 led to a crisis, resolved by writing the Vita nuova (prob. in 1292, possibly later) in which he promised her a poem ‘such as had been written for no lady before’, a promise fulfilled in the *Divina Commedia. He then turned to the study of philosophy, prob. under the *Dominicans at Florence, and wrote a series of allegorical Canzoni or odes on the Lady Philosophy and literal ones on Courtesy, Nobility, Liberality, and Justice. In 1294 he entered politics but, having supported the opponents of Pope *Boniface VIII, he was exiled from Florence in 1301 and travelled widely in Italy. He returned to the study of philosophy and wrote the incomplete De Vulgari Eloquentia in Latin and began the Convivio (Banquet), which was designed to comment freely on his earlier philosophical Canzoni. In the course of the fourth book he became aware of the significance of the Roman Empire; the appearance of the Emp. Henry VII in Italy at the same time (1310) converted Dante into an ardent supporter of the Emperor, for whom he wrote in Latin the treatise De Monarchia (1312–14?). This work, which was condemned as heretical (*Averroist) in 1329, argued the need for a universal monarchy to achieve the temporal happiness of mankind and the independence of the Empire from the Pope and the Church, which should abandon all temporal authority and possessions and concentrate on happiness in the world to come. Dante’s political prospects were shattered by the death of Henry VII in 1313, and in 1315 his native city of Florence renewed its sentence against him. He spent some years at *Verona and from c. 1316 lived at *Ravenna, where he died. The last period of his life was devoted to the completion of the Divina Commedia (q.v.), which established him as one of the few poets who belong to all times and all nations.
Malcolm Guite is poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College Cambridge, but he often travels round Great Britain, and to North America, to give lectures, concerts and poetry readings. For more details of these and other engagements go to his Events Page.
For every day from Shrove Tuesday to Easter Day, the bestselling poet Malcolm Guite chooses a favourite poem from across the Christian spiritual and English literary traditions and offers incisive seasonal reflections on it.
Lent is a time to reorient ourselves, clarify our minds, slow down, recover from distraction and focus on the values of God’s kingdom. Poetry, with its power to awaken the mind, is an ideal companion for such a time. This collection enables us to turn aside from everyday routine and experience moments of transfigured vision as we journey through the desert landscape of Lent and find refreshment along the way.
Following each poem with a helpful prose reflection, Malcolm Guite has selected from classical and contemporary poets, from Dante, John Donne and George Herbert to Seamus Heaney, Rowan Williams and Gillian Clarke, and his own acclaimed poetry.
Art:Domenico di Michelino – Dante and his Poem – Santa Maria del Fiore, Florence – c1465
This painting by Domenico di Michelino is one of the most famous depictions of Dante and the three realms he wrote about: Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso. These are, of course, the three canticles that together constitute Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Central in the painting is the poet Dante, holding in one hand the Divine Comedy on its opening page (you can make out the first line of text) and with the other hand pointing at hell (Inferno). Right behind Dante is mount Purgatory: the region where the penitent toil for their sins. At the right side of the work the city of Florence is depicted. Dante was born a Florentine but in 1302 he was exiled from his native city during the civil war between Guelfs and Ghibellines. You can see Brunelleschi’s 15th century dome of the Santa Maria del Fiore, which did not yet exist in Dante’s time (he lived from c. 1265 until 1321).
The sky depicts the realm of paradise. The bright star on the right is the sun, it occupies the fourth sphere (counting from below). At the top left you can just make out the eighth sphere of the fixed stars.