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Dante's Purgatorio: Canto IX
Dante’s Dream of the Eagle. The Gate of Purgatory and the Angel. Seven P’s. The Keys.
THE concubine of old Tithonus now
Gleamed white upon the eastern balcony,
Forth from the arms of her sweet paramour;
With gems her forehead all relucent was,
Set in the shape of that cold animal 5
Which with its tail doth smite amain the nations,
And of the steps, with which she mounts, the Night
Had taken two in that place where we were,
And now the third was bending down its wings;
When I, who something had of Adam in me, 10
Vanquished by sleep, upon the grass reclined,
There were all five of us already sat.
Just at the hour when her sad lay begins
The little swallow, near unto the morning,
Perchance in memory of her former woes, 15
And when the mind of man, a wanderer
More from the flesh, and less by thought imprisoned,
Almost prophetic in its visions is,
In dreams it seemed to me I saw suspended
An eagle in the sky, with plumes of gold, 20
With wings wide open, and intent to stoop,
And this, it seemed to me, was where had been
By Ganymede his kith and kin abandoned,
When to the high consistory he was rapt.
I thought within myself, perchance he strikes 25
From habit only here, and from elsewhere
Disdains to bear up any in his feet.
Then wheeling somewhat more, it seemed to me,
Terrible as the lightning he descended,
And snatched me upward even to the fire. 30
Therein it seemed that he and I were burning,
And the imagined fire did scorch me so,
That of necessity my sleep was broken.
Not otherwise Achilles started up,
Around him turning his awakened eyes, 35
And knowing not the place in which he was,
What time from Chiron stealthily his mother
Carried him sleeping in her arms to Scyros,
Wherefrom the Greeks withdrew him afterwards,
Than I upstarted, when from off my face 40
Sleep fled away; and pallid I became,
As doth the man who freezes with affright.
Only my Comforter was at my side,
And now the sun was more than two hours high,
And turned towards the sea-shore was my face. 45
"Be not intimidated," said my Lord,
"Be reassured, for all is well with us;
Do not restrain, but put forth all thy strength.
Thou hast at length arrived at Purgatory;
See there the cliff that closes it around; 50
See there the entrance, where it seems disjoined.
Whilom at dawn, which doth precede the day,
When inwardly thy spirit was asleep
Upon the flowers that deck the land below,
There came a Lady and said: 'I am Lucia; 55
Let me take this one up, who is asleep;
So will I make his journey easier for him.'
Sordello and the other noble shapes
Remained; she took thee, and, as day grew bright,
Upward she came, and I upon her footsteps. 60
She laid thee here; and first her beauteous eyes
That open entrance pointed out to me;
Then she and sleep together went away."
In guise of one whose doubts are reassured,
And who to confidence his fear doth change, 65
After the truth has been discovered to him,
So did I change; and when without disquiet
My Leader saw me, up along the cliff
He moved, and I behind him, tow'rd the height.
Reader, thou seest well how I exalt 70
My theme, and therefore if with greater art
I fortify it, marvel not thereat.
Nearer approached we, and were in such place,
That there, where first appeared to me a rift
Like to a crevice that disparts a wall, 75
I saw a portal, and three stairs beneath,
Diverse in colour, to go up to it,
And a gate-keeper, who yet spake no word.
And as I opened more and more mine eyes,
I saw him seated on the highest stair, 80
Such in the face that I endured it not.
And in his hand he had a naked sword,
Which so reflected back the sunbeams tow'rds us,
That oft in vain I lifted up mine eyes.
"Tell it from where you are, what is't you wish?" 85
Began he to exclaim; "where is the escort?
Take heed your coming hither harm you not!"
"A Lady of Heaven, with these things conversant,"
My Master answered him, "but even now
Said to us, 'Thither go; there is the portal.'" 90
"And may she speed your footsteps in all good,"
Again began the courteous janitor;
"Come forward then unto these stairs of ours."
Thither did we approach; and the first stair
Was marble white, so polished and so smooth, 95
I mirrored myself therein as I appear.
The second, tinct of deeper hue than perse,
Was of a calcined and uneven stone,
Cracked all asunder lengthwise and across.
The third, that uppermost rests massively, 100
Porphyry seemed to me, as flaming red
As blood that from a vein is spirting forth.
Both of his feet was holding upon this
The Angel of God, upon the threshold seated,
Which seemed to me a stone of diamond. 105
Along the three stairs upward with good will
Did my Conductor draw me, saying: "Ask
Humbly that he the fastening may undo."
Devoutly at the holy feet I cast me,
For mercy's sake besought that he would open, 110
But first upon my breast three times I smote.
Seven P's upon my forehead he described
With the sword's point, and, "Take heed that thou wash
These wounds, when thou shalt be within," he said.
Ashes, or earth that dry is excavated, 115
Of the same colour were with his attire,
And from beneath it he drew forth two keys.
One was of gold, and the other was of silver;
First with the white, and after with the yellow,
Plied he the door, so that I was content. 120
"Whenever faileth either of these keys
So that it turn not rightly in the lock,"
He said to us, "this entrance doth not open.
More precious one is, but the other needs
More art and intellect ere it unlock, 125
For it is that which doth the knot unloose.
From Peter I have them; and he bade me err
Rather in opening than in keeping shut,
If people but fall down before my feet."
Then pushed the portals of the sacred door, 130
Exclaiming: "Enter; but I give you warning
That forth returns whoever looks behind."
And when upon their hinges were turned round
The swivels of that consecrated gate,
Which are of metal, massive and sonorous, 135
Roared not so loud, nor so discordant seemed
Tarpeia, when was ta'en from it the good
Metellus, wherefore meagre it remained.
At the first thunder-peal I turned attentive,
And "Te Deum laudamus" seemed to hear 140
In voices mingled with sweet melody.
Exactly such an image rendered me
That which I heard, as we are wont to catch,
When people singing with the organ stand;
For now we hear, and now hear not, the words. 145
1 - 1
“Dante begins this canto,” says Benvenuto da Imola, “by saying a thing that was never said or imagined by any other poet, which is, that the aurora of the moon is the concubine of Tithonus. Some maintain that he means the aurora of the sun; but this cannot be, if we closely examine the text.” This point is elaborately discussed by the commentators. I agree with those who interpret the passage as referring to a lunar aurora. It is still evening; and the hour is indicated a few lines lower down.
To Tithonus was given the gift of immortality, but not of perpetual youth. As Tennyson makes him say: –
“The woods decay, the woods decay and fall, The vapors weep their burthen to the ground, Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath, And after many a summer dies the swan. Me only cruel immortality Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms. Here at the quiet limit of the world, A white-haired shadow roaming like a dream The ever silent spaces of the East, Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.”
2 - 2
Don Quixote, I. 2: “Scarcely had ruddy Phoebus spread the golden tresses of his beauteous hair over the face of the wide and spacious earth, and scarcely had the painted little birds, with the sweet and mellifluous harmony of their serrated tongues, saluted the approach of rosy Aurora, when, quitting the soft couch of her jealous husband, she disclosed herself to mortals through the gates and balconies of the Manchegan horizon.”
5 - 5
As the sun was in Aries, and it was now the fourth day after the full moon, the Scorpion would be rising in the dawn which precedes the moon.
8 - 8
This indicates the time to be two hours and a half after sunset, or half past eight o'clock. Two hours of the ascending night are passed, and the third is half over.
This circumstantial way of measuring the flight of time is Homeric. Iliad, X. 250: “Let us be going, then, for the night declines fast, and the morning is near. And the stars have already far advanced, and the greater portion of the night, by two parts, has gone by, but the third portion still remains.”
10 - 10
Namely, his body.
12 - 12
Virgil, Sordello, Dante, Nino, and Conrad. And here Dante falls upon the grass and sleeps till dawn. There is a long pause of rest and sleep between this line and the next, which makes the whole passage doubly beautiful. The narrative recommences like the twitter of early birds just beginning to stir in the woods.
14 - 14
For the tragic story of Tereus, changed to a lapwing, Philomenia to a nightingale, ad Procne to a swallow, see Ovid, Metamorph., VI.: –
“Now, with drawn sabre and impetuous speed, In close pursuit he drives Pandion's breed; Whose nimble feet spring with so swift a force Across the fields, they seem to wing their course. And now, on real wings themselves they raise, And steer their airy flight by different ways; One to the woodland's shady covert hies, Around the smoky roof the other flies; Whose feathers yet the marks of murder stain, where stamped upon her breast the crimson spots remain. Tereus, through grief and haste to be revenged, Shares the like fate, and to a bird is changed; Fixed on his head the crested plumes appear, Long is his beak, and sharpened like a spear; Thus armed, his looks his inward mind display, And, to a lapwing turned, he fans his way.”
See also Gower, Confes. Amant., V.: –
“And of her suster Progne I finde How she was torned out of kinde Into a swalwe swift of wing, Which eke in winter lith swouning There as she may no thing be sene, And whan the world is woxe grene And comen is the somer tide, Then fleeth she forth and ginneth to chide And chitereth out in her langage What falshede is in mariage, And telleth in a maner speche Of Tereus the spouse breche.”
18 - 18
Pope, Temple of Fame, 7: –
“What time the morn mysterious visions brings, While purer slumbers spread their golden wings.”
22 - 22
30 - 30
To the region of fire. Brunetto Latini, Tresor, Ch. CXIII., says: “After the environment of the air is seated the fourth element; this is an orb of fire, which extends to the moon and surrounds this atmosphere in which we are. And how that above the fire is in the first place the moon, and the other stars, which are all of the nature of fire.”
37 - 37
To prevent Achilles from going to the siege of Troy, his mother Thetis took him from Chiron, the Centaur, and concealed him in female attire in the court of Lycomedes, king of Scyros.
53 - 53
As Richter says: “The hour when sleep is nigh unto the soul.”
55 - 55
Lucia, the Enlightening Grace of heaven. Inf. II. 97.
58 - 58
Nino and Conrad.
63 - 63
Ovid uses a like expression: –
“Sleep and the god together went away.”
94 - 94
The first stair is Confession; the second, Contrition; and the third, Penance.
97 - 97
Purple and black. See Inf. V. Note 89.
105 - 105
The gate of Paradise is thus described by Milton, Parad. Lost, III. 501: –
“Far distant he descries, Ascending by degrees magnificent Up to the wall of heaven, a structure high; At top whereof, but far more rich, appeared The work as of a kingly palace gate, With frontispiece of diamond and gold Imbellished; thick with sparkling orient gems The portal shone, inimitable on earth By model or by shading pencil drawn. The stairs where such as whereon Jacob saw Angels ascending and descending, bands Of guardians bright, when he from Esau fled To Padan-Aram in the field of Luz, Dreaming by night under the open sky, And waking cried, 'This is the gate of heaven.' Each stair mysteriously was meant, nor stood There always, but drawn up to heaven sometimes Viewless; and underneath a bright sea flowed Of jasper, or of liquid pearl, whereon Who after came from earth sailing arrived, Wafted by angels; or flew o'er the lake, Rapt in a chariot drawn by fiery steeds.”
112 - 112
The Seven Sins, which are punished in the seven circles of Purgatory; Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Lust.
118 - 118
The golden key is the authority of the confessor; the silver, his knowledge.
132 - 132
Luke ix. 62: “No man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” And xvii. 32: “Remember Lot's wife.”
Boëthius, Cons. Phil., Lib. III. Met. 12: –
“Heu! noctis prope terminos Orpheus Eurydicen suam Vidit, perdidit, occidit. Vos haec fabula respicit, Quicumque in supertum diem Mentem ducere quaeritis, Nam qui Tartareum in specus Victus lumina flexerit, Quicqid praecipuum trahit, Perdit, dum videt inferos.”
136 - 136
Milton, Parad. Lost, II. 879: –
“On a sudden open fly With impetuous recoil and jarring sound The infernal doors, and on their hinges grate Harsh thunder.”
138 - 138
When Caesar robbed the Roman treasury on the Tarpeian hill, the tribune Metellus strove to defend it; but Caesar, drawing his sword, said to him, “It is easier to do this than to say it.”
Lucan, Phars., III.: –
“The tribune with unwilling steps withdrew, While impious hands the rude assualt renew: The brazen gates with thundering strokes resound, And the Tarpeian mountain rings around. At length the sacred storehouse, open laid, The hoarded wealth of ages past displayed; There might be seen the sums proud Carthage sent, Her long impending ruin to prevent. There heaped the Macedonian treasures shone, What great Flaminius and AEmilius won From vanquished Philip and his hapless son. There lay, what flying Pyrrhus lost, the gold Scorned by the patriot's honesty of old: Whate'er our parsimonius sires could save, What tributary gifts rich Syria gave; The hundred Cretan cities' ample spoil; What Cato gathered from the Cyprian isle. Riches of capitive kings by Pompey borne, In happier days, his triumph to adorn, From utmost India and the rising morn; Wealth infinite, in one rapacious day, Became the needy soldiers' lawless prey: And wretched Rome, by robbery laid low, Was poorer than the bankrupt Caesar now.”
140 - 140
The hymn of St. Ambrose, universally known in the churches as the Te Deum.
144 - 144
Thomson, Hymn: –
“In swarming cities vast Assembled men to the deep organ join The long-resounding voice, oft breaking clear At solemn pauses through the swelling bass, And, as each mingling flame increases each, In one united ardor rise to heaven.”