This is a very beautiful Canto, and unless we have just come from reading Inferno, we might miss a lot of what’s different, instantly, between the world of perpetual punishment and the betweenworld of Purgatorio.
Throughout Inferno, the landscape is tortured and malevolent. Even distance itself is sick, occluded, interrupted, shadowy, riddled with reminders of the utter fallenness of all about us. But in Purgatorio . . . beginning, I believe, with the quality of the verse itself . . . we have a different feeling, a sense of an availing vista, a promise of progression.
Whereas Inferno was a terrible pit, Purgatorio is the reverse, a terraced, graduated mountain. Things shine into, project into, or fly through the air. The first words of Canto II are Giá era il sole, “Already was the sun,” so we begin with light, which is immediately, already, right on top of us, and the Aurora of the dawn, and then the distant light Dante sees approaching, which launches him into an ecstatic simile, again of dawn. As the Angel approaches, the impression is of un non sapeva che bianco, “an I-didn’t-know-what of white.” The energy – already – is different from anything experienced in Inferno.
When the Angel gets closer, and its magnificence begins to burn, indeed very sunlike, Virgil cries, “From now on you shall see / many such ministers in the high kingdoms.” We have come to the realm in which there may be angels, not punishing angels, but angels as harbingers and workers of divine mercy. The new arrivals to Purgatory, the recently dead, are singing “When Israel came out of Egypt,” a Psalm of rescue and ransom, just as they are being rescued from anguished perpetuity by God’s mercy. The sun is “on every hand . . . shooting forth the day.” So, although we may be in a strange and disturbing place, there are plenty of signs of divine love, mercy, and redemption all around us, even if Dante doesn’t recognize them.
As a musician, I’m especially excited to note that the Canto rests on two songs. The already-mentioned Psalm 114 would have been very familiar to Dante’s readers. It sets a tone we see here, also, in Canto II, and with it a theme: God’s rescue renovates all creation. Mercy changes everything. Here’s the rest of that Psalm:
The sea looked an fled; the Jordan turned back.
The mountains skipped like rams, the hills like lambs.
Why, sea, did you flee? Why turn back, O Jordan?
Why, mountains, skip like rams? Why, hills, like lambs?
Tremble, Earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob
Who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs.
God can do anything, make the least availing circumstance – rock – into the most – water. At God’s presence, creation rejoices.
I’m not saying Purgatorio is a place of rejoicing. But in Canto II, with little daubs here and there, Dante lets us know everything is different here, and prefigures the issues of Divine Mercy and rejoicing to come.
The second song, performed by Dante’s just-dead friend Casella, is “Amor che ne la mente mi ragiona,” “Love, which in my mind reasons with me,” the second canzone from Dante’s Convivia. I don’t think this poem, although possibly well known, would have been as readily familiar as Psalm 114. It, too, locks into the work of establishing what Purgatorio is and prefiguring what’s at stake and what’s to come. The canzone – an incredible piece of poetic structure, with an intricate rhyme and verse scheme – praises a beloved lady, explores her perfections, and declares her goodness is beyond the intellect. As always, when Dante is discussing the lady love, and how mind contends with her beauties, he’s always also invoking the same set of propositions between us and the Divine – God is worthy of praise, excels all others, is the soul and type of goodness and love themselves, and exceeds the intellect’s power to grasp. She is a portal of divinity that implies a pathway to God: “In her aspect appear things/ that show the pleasure of Paradise . . . They overcome our intellect just as a sunray beggars the vision.” That’s what love is, and love is beyond the intellect, just as, in this Canto, as the angel “closed the distance between us, he grew brighter and yet brighter / until I could no longer bear the radiance, / and bowed my head.” Virgil, and now the very brightness of the approaching Angel, compel Dante to bow, to show he is not worthy, not adequate.
Casella sings Dante’s song, and “My Guide and I and all those souls of bliss / stood tranced in song” – a little piece of self-advertisement, but also a reminder of how overcoming and ecstatifying music (and love) can be.
This isn’t Kansas – and it certainly isn’t Inferno, either. Purgatorio is a place of wrenching, rending frustration, of delay and regret, hazards and obstacles. Dante doesn’t step back from any of that, but in this Canto he’s trying to wake us up to how far everything has moved, and changed.