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Dante's Purgatorio: Canto VIII
The Guardian Angels and the Serpent. Nino di Gallura. The Three Stars. Currado Malaspina.
'Twas now the hour that turneth back desire
In those who sail the sea, and melts the heart,
The day they've said to their sweet friends farewell,
And the new pilgrim penetrates with love,
If he doth hear from far away a bell 5
That seemeth to deplore the dying day,
When I began to make of no avail
My hearing, and to watch one of the souls
Uprisen, that begged attention with its hand.
It joined and lifted upward both its palms, 10
Fixing its eyes upon the orient,
As if it said to God, "Naught else I care for."
"Te lucis ante" so devoutly issued
Forth from its mouth, and with such dulcet notes,
It made me issue forth from my own mind. 15
And then the others, sweetly and devoutly,
Accompanied it through all the hymn entire,
Having their eyes on the supernal wheels.
Here, Reader, fix thine eyes well on the truth,
For now indeed so subtile is the veil, 20
Surely to penetrate within is easy.
I saw that army of the gentle-born
Thereafterward in silence upward gaze,
As if in expectation, pale and humble;
And from on high come forth and down descend, 25
I saw two Angels with two flaming swords,
Truncated and deprived of their points.
Green as the little leaflets just now born
Their garments were, which, by their verdant pinions
Beaten and blown abroad, they trailed behind. 30
One just above us came to take his station,
And one descended to the opposite bank,
So that the people were contained between them.
Clearly in them discerned I the blond head;
But in their faces was the eye bewildered, 35
As faculty confounded by excess.
"From Mary's bosom both of them have come,"
Sordello said, "as guardians of the valley
Against the serpent, that will come anon."
Whereupon I, who knew not by what road, 40
Turned round about, and closely drew myself,
Utterly frozen, to the faithful shoulders.
And once again Sordello: "Now descend we
'Mid the grand shades, and we will speak to them;
Right pleasant will it be for them to see you." 45
Only three steps I think that I descended,
And was below, and saw one who was looking
Only at me, as if he fain would know me.
Already now the air was growing dark,
But not so that between his eyes and mine 50
It did not show what it before locked up.
Tow'rds me he moved, and I tow'rds him did move;
Noble Judge Nino! how it me delighted,
When I beheld thee not among the damned!
No greeting fair was left unsaid between us; 55
Then asked he: "How long is it since thou camest
O'er the far waters to the mountain's foot?"
"Oh!" said I to him, "through the dismal places
I came this morn; and am in the first life,
Albeit the other, going thus, I gain." 60
And on the instant my reply was heard,
He and Sordello both shrank back from me,
Like people who are suddenly bewildered.
One to Virgilius, and the other turned
To one who sat there, crying, "Up, Currado! 65
Come and behold what God in grace has willed!"
Then, turned to me: "By that especial grace
Thou owest unto Him, who so conceals
His own first wherefore, that it has no ford,
When thou shalt be beyond the waters wide, 70
Tell my Giovanna that she pray for me,
Where answer to the innocent is made.
I do not think her mother loves me more,
Since she has laid aside her wimple white,
Which she, unhappy, needs must wish again. 75
Through her full easily is comprehended
How long in woman lasts the fire of love,
If eye or touch do not relight it often.
So fair a hatchment will not make for her
The Viper marshalling the Milanese 80
A-field, as would have made Gallura's Cock."
In this wise spake he, with the stamp impressed
Upon his aspect of that righteous zeal
Which measurably burneth in the heart.
My greedy eyes still wandered up to heaven, 85
Still to that point where slowest are the stars,
Even as a wheel the nearest to its axle.
And my Conductor: "Son, what dost thou gaze at
Up there?" And I to him: "At those three torches
With which this hither pole is all on fire." 90
And he to me: "The four resplendent stars
Thou sawest this morning are down yonder low,
And these have mounted up to where those were."
As he was speaking, to himself Sordello
Drew him, and said, "Lo there our Adversary!" 95
And pointed with his finger to look thither.
Upon the side on which the little valley
No barrier hath, a serpent was; perchance
The same which gave to Eve the bitter food.
'Twixt grass and flowers came on the evil streak, 100
Turning at times its head about, and licking
Its back like to a beast that smoothes itself.
I did not see, and therefore cannot say
How the celestial falcons 'gan to move,
But well I saw that they were both in motion. 105
Hearing the air cleft by their verdant wings,
The serpent fled, and round the Angels wheeled,
Up to their stations flying back alike.
The shade that to the Judge had near approached
When he had called, throughout that whole assault 110
Had not a moment loosed its gaze on me.
"So may the light that leadeth thee on high
Find in thine own free-will as much of wax
As needful is up to the highest azure,"
Began it, "if some true intelligence 115
Of Valdimagra or its neighbourhood
Thou knowest, tell it me, who once was great there.
Currado Malaspina was I called;
I'm not the elder, but from him descended;
To mine I bore the love which here refineth." 120
"O," said I unto him, "through your domains
I never passed, but where is there a dwelling
Throughout all Europe, where they are not known?
That fame, which doeth honour to your house,
Proclaims its Signors and proclaims its land, 125
So that he knows of them who ne'er was there.
And, as I hope for heaven, I swear to you
Your honoured family in naught abates
The glory of the purse and of the sword.
It is so privileged by use and nature, 130
That though a guilty head misguide the world,
Sole it goes right, and scorns the evil way."
And he: "Now go; for the sun shall not lie
Seven times upon the pillow which the Ram
With all his four feet covers and bestrides, 135
Before that such a courteous opinion
Shall in the middle of thy head be nailed
With greater nails than of another's speech,
Unless the course of justice standeth still."
1 - 1
Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica, III. 302: –
“It was the hour when every traveller And every watchman at the gate of towns Begins to long for sleep, and drowsiness Is falling even on the mother's eyes Whose child is dead.”
Also Byron, Don Juan, III. 108: –
“Soft hour! which wakes the wish and melts the heart Of those who sail the seas, on the first day When they from their sweet friends are torn apart; Or fills with love the pilgrim on his way, As the far bell of vesper makes him start, Seeming to weep the dying day's decay. Is this a fancy which our reason scorns? Ah! surely nothing dies but something mourns!”
4 - 4
The word “pilgrim” is here used by Dante in a general sense, meaning any traveller.
6 - 6
Gray, Elegy: –
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”
13 - 13
An evening hymn of the Church, sung at Complines, or the latest service of the day: –
“Te lucis ante terminum, Rerum creator, poscimus Ut pro tua clementia Sis presul ad custodiam.
”Procul recedant somnia Et noxium phantasmata, Hostemque nostrum comprime, Ne polluantur corpora.
Presta, Pater piissime, Patrique compar Unice, Cum Spiritu Paraclito Regnans per omne saeculum.“
This hymn would seem to have no great applicability to disembodied spirits; and perhaps may have the same reference as the last petition in the Lord's Prayer, Canto XI. 19: –
”Our virtue, which is easily o'ercome, Put not to proof with the old Adversary, But thou from him who spurs it so, deliver. This last petition verily, dear Lord, Not for ourselves is made, who need it not, But for their sake who have remained behind us.“
Dante seems to think his meaning very easy to penetrate. The commentators have found it uncommonly difficult.
26 - 26
Genesis iii. 24: ”And he placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubims, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to keep the way of the three of live.“
27 - 27
Justice tempered with mercy, say the commentators.
28 - 28
Green, the color of hope, which is the distinguishing virtue of Purgatory. On the symbolism of colors, Mrs. Jameson, Sacred and Legendary Art, Introd., says: –
”In very early Art we find colors used in a symbolical or mystic sense, and, until the ancient principles and traditions were wholly worn out of memory or set aside by the later painters, certain colors were appropriated to certain subjects and personages, and could not arbitrarily be applied or misapplied. In the old specimens of stained glass we find these significations scrupulously attended to. Thus: –
“WHITE, represented by the diamond or silver, was the emblem of light, religious purity, innocence, virginity, faith, joy, and life. Our Saviour wears white after his ressurection. In the judge it indicated integrity; in the rich man, humility; in the woman, chastity. It was the color consecrated to the Virgin, who, however, never wears white except in pictures of the Assumption.
”RED, the ruby, signified fire, divine love, the Holy Spirit, heat, or the creative power, and royalty. White and red roses expressed love and innocence, or love and wisdom, as in the garland with which the angel crowns St. Cecilia. In a bad sense, red signified blood, war, hatred, and punishment. Red and black combined were the colors of purgatory and the Devil.
“BLUE, or the sapphire, expressed heaven, the firmament, truth, constancy, fidelity. Christ and the Virgin wear the red tunic and the blue mantle, as signifying heavenly love and heavenly truth. [In the Spanish schools the color of our Saviour's mantle is generally a deep rich violet.] The same colors were given to St. John the Evagelist, with this difference, – that he wore the blue tunic and the red mantle; in later pictures the colors are sometimes red and green.
”YELLOW, or gold, was the symbol of the sun; of the goodness of God; initiation, or marriage; faith, or fruitfulness. St. Joseph, the husband of the Virgin, wear yellow. In pictures of the Apostles, St. Peter wears a yellow mantle over a blue tunic. In a bad sense, yellow signifies inconstancy, jealousy, deceit; in this sense it is given to the traitor Judas, who is generally habited in dirty yellow.
“GREEN, the emerald, is the color of spring; of hope, particularly hope in immortality; and of victory, as the color of the palm and the laurel.
”VIOLET, the amethyst, signified love and truth; or, passion and suffering. Hence it is the color often worn by the martyrs. In some instances our Saviour, after his resurrection, is habited in a violet, instead of a blue mantle. The Virgin also wears violet after the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene, who as patron saint wears the red robe, as penitent wears violet and blue, the colors of sorrow and of constancy. In the devotional representation of her by Timoteo della Vite, she wears red and green, the colors of love and hope.
“GRAY, the color of ashes, signified mourning, humility, and innocence accused; hence adopted as the dress of the Franciscans (the Gray Friars); but it has since been changed for a dark rusty brown.
”BLACK expressed the earth, darkness, mourning, wickedness, negation, death; and was appropriate to the Prince of Darkness. In some old illuminated MSS., Jesus, in the Temptation, wears a black robe. White and black together signified purity of life, and mourning or humiliation; hence adopted by the Dominicans and the Carmelites.“
50 - 50
It was not so dark that on a near approach he could not distinguish objects indistinctly visible at a greater distance.
53 - 53
Nino de' Visconti of Pisa, nephew of Count Ugolino, and Judge of Gallura in Sardinia. Dante had known him at the siege of Caprona, in 1290, where he saw the frightened garrison march out under safeguard. Inf. XXI. 95. It was this ”gentle Judge,“ who hanged Friar Gomita for peculation. Inf. XXII. 82.
71 - 71
His daughter, still young and innocent.
75 - 75
His widow married Galeazzo de' Visconti of Milan, ”and much discomfort did this woman suffer with her husband,“ says the Ottimo, ”so that many a time she wished herself a widow.“
79 - 79
Hamlet, IV. 5: –
”His obscure funeral, No trophy, sword, or hatchment o'er his grave.“
80 - 80
The Visconti of Milan had for their coat of arms a viper; and being on the banner, it led the Milanese to battle.
81 - 81
The arms of Gallura. ”According to Fara, a writer of the sixteenth century,“ says Valery, Voyage en Corse et en Sardaigne, II. 37, ”the elegant but somewhat chimerical historian of Sardinia, Gallura is a Gallic colony; its arms are a cock; and one might find some analogy between the natural vivacity of its inhabitants and that of the French.“ Nino thinks it would look better on a tombstone than a viper.
89 - 89
These three stars are the Alphae of Euridanus, of the Ship, and of the Golden Fish; allegorically, if any allegory be wanted, the three Theological Virtues, Faith, Hope, and Charity. The four morning stars, the Cardinal Virtues of active life, are already set; these announce the evening and the life contemplative.
100 - 100
Compare this with Milton's description of the serpent, Parad. Lost, IX. 434, 496: –
”Nearer he drew, and many a walk travèrsed Of stateliest covert, cedar, pine, or palm; Then voluble and bold, now hid, now seen, Among thick-woven arborets, and flowers Imbordered on each bank. .....
Not with indented wave, Prone on the ground, as since; but on his rear, Circular base of rising folds, that towered Fold above fold, a surging maze! his head Crested aloft, and carbuncle his eyes; With burnished neck of verdant gold, erect Amidst his circling spires, that on the grass Floated redundant: pleasing was his shape And lovely; never since of serpent-kind Lovelier, not those that in Illyria changed Hermione and Cadmus, or the god In Epidaurus; nor to which transformed Ammonian Jove or Capitoline was seen, – He with Olympias, this with her who bore Scipio, the height of Rome. With tract oblique At first, as one who sought access, but feared To interrupt, sidelong he works his way. As when a ship, by skilful steersman wrought Nigh river's mouth or foreland, where the wind Veers oft, as oft so steers, and shifts her sail; So varied he, and of his tortuous train Curled many a wanton wreath in sight of Eve. ..... Oft he bowed His turret crest, and sleek enamelled neck, Fawning; and licked the ground whereon she trod.“
114 - 114
In the original al sommo smalto, to the highest enamel; referring either to the Terrestrial Paradise, enamelled with flowers, or to the highest heaven enamelled with stars. The azure-stone, pierre d'azur, or lapis lazuli, is perhaps a fair equivalent for the smalto, particularly if the reference be to the sky.
116 - 116
The valley in Lunigiana, through which runs the Magra, dividing the Genoese and Tuscan territories. Par. IX. 89: –
”The Magra, that with journey short Doth from the Tuscan part the Genoese.“
118 - 118
Currado or Conrad Malaspina, father of Marcello Malaspina, who six years later sheltered Dante in his exile, as foreshadowed in line 136. It was from the convent of the Corvo, overlooking the Gulf of Spezia, in Lunigiana, that Frate Ilario wrote the letter describing Dante's appearance in the cloister. See Illustrations at the end of Vol. I.
131 - 131
Pope Boniface the Eighth.
134 - 134
Before the sun shall be seven times in Aries, or before seven years are passed.
137 - 137
Ecclesiastes, xii. II: ”The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies.“
139 - 139
With this canto ends the first day in Purgatory, as indicated by the description of evening at the beginning, and the rising of the stars in line 89. With it closes also the first subdivision of this part of the poem, indicated, as the reader will not fail to notice, by the elaborate introduction of the next canto.