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Dante's Purgatorio: Canto X
The Needle’s Eye. The First Circle: The Proud. The Sculptures on the Wall.
When we had crossed the threshold of the door
Which the perverted love of souls disuses,
Because it makes the crooked way seem straight,
Re-echoing I heard it closed again;
And if I had turned back mine eyes upon it, 5
What for my failing had been fit excuse?
We mounted upward through a rifted rock,
Which undulated to this side and that,
Even as a wave receding and advancing.
"Here it behoves us use a little art," 10
Began my Leader, "to adapt ourselves
Now here, now there, to the receding side."
And this our footsteps so infrequent made,
That sooner had the moon's decreasing disk
Regained its bed to sink again to rest, 15
Than we were forth from out that needle's eye;
But when we free and in the open were,
There where the mountain backward piles itself,
I wearied out, and both of us uncertain
About our way, we stopped upon a plain 20
More desolate than roads across the deserts.
From where its margin borders on the void,
To foot of the high bank that ever rises,
A human body three times told would measure;
And far as eye of mine could wing its flight, 25
Now on the left, and on the right flank now,
The same this cornice did appear to me.
Thereon our feet had not been moved as yet,
When I perceived the embankment round about,
Which all right of ascent had interdicted, 30
To be of marble white, and so adorned
With sculptures, that not only Polycletus,
But Nature's self, had there been put to shame.
The Angel, who came down to earth with tidings
Of peace, that had been wept for many a year, 35
And opened Heaven from its long interdict,
In front of us appeared so truthfully
There sculptured in a gracious attitude,
He did not seem an image that is silent.
One would have sworn that he was saying, "Ave;" 40
For she was there in effigy portrayed
Who turned the key to ope the exalted love,
And in her mien this language had impressed,
"Ecce ancilla Dei," as distinctly
As any figure stamps itself in wax. 45
"Keep not thy mind upon one place alone,"
The gentle Master said, who had me standing
Upon that side where people have their hearts;
Whereat I moved mine eyes, and I beheld
In rear of Mary, and upon that side 50
Where he was standing who conducted me,
Another story on the rock imposed;
Wherefore I passed Virgilius and drew near,
So that before mine eyes it might be set.
There sculptured in the self-same marble were 55
The cart and oxen, drawing the holy ark,
Wherefore one dreads an office not appointed.
People appeared in front, and all of them
In seven choirs divided, of two senses
Made one say "No," the other, "Yes, they sing." 60
Likewise unto the smoke of the frankincense,
Which there was imaged forth, the eyes and nose
Were in the yes and no discordant made.
Preceded there the vessel benedight,
Dancing with girded loins, the humble Psalmist, 65
And more and less than King was he in this.
Opposite, represented at the window
Of a great palace, Michal looked upon him,
Even as a woman scornful and afflicted.
I moved my feet from where I had been standing, 70
To examine near at hand another story,
Which after Michal glimmered white upon me.
There the high glory of the Roman Prince
Was chronicled, whose great beneficence
Moved Gregory to his great victory; 75
'Tis of the Emperor Trajan I am speaking;
And a poor widow at his bridle stood,
In attitude of weeping and of grief.
Around about him seemed it thronged and full
Of cavaliers, and the eagles in the gold 80
Above them visibly in the wind were moving.
The wretched woman in the midst of these
Seemed to be saying: "Give me vengeance, Lord,
For my dead son, for whom my heart is breaking."
And he to answer her: "Now wait until 85
I shall return." And she: "My Lord," like one
In whom grief is impatient, "shouldst thou not
Return?" And he: "Who shall be where I am
Will give it thee." And she: "Good deed of others
What boots it thee, if thou neglect thine own?" 90
Whence he: "Now comfort thee, for it behoves me
That I discharge my duty ere I move;
Justice so wills, and pity doth retain me."
He who on no new thing has ever looked
Was the creator of this visible language, 95
Novel to us, for here it is not found.
While I delighted me in contemplating
The images of such humility,
And dear to look on for their Maker's sake,
"Behold, upon this side, but rare they make 100
Their steps," the Poet murmured, "many people;
These will direct us to the lofty stairs."
Mine eyes, that in beholding were intent
To see new things, of which they curious are,
In turning round towards him were not slow. 105
But still I wish not, Reader, thou shouldst swerve
From thy good purposes, because thou hearest
How God ordaineth that the debt be paid;
Attend not to the fashion of the torment,
Think of what follows; think that at the worst 110
It cannot reach beyond the mighty sentence.
"Master," began I, "that which I behold
Moving towards us seems to me not persons,
And what I know not, so in sight I waver."
And he to me: "The grievous quality 115
Of this their torment bows them so to earth,
That my own eyes at first contended with it;
But look there fixedly, and disentangle
By sight what cometh underneath those stones;
Already canst thou see how each is stricken." 120
O ye proud Christians! wretched, weary ones!
Who, in the vision of the mind infirm
Confidence have in your backsliding steps,
Do ye not comprehend that we are worms,
Born to bring forth the angelic butterfly 125
That flieth unto judgment without screen?
Why floats aloft your spirit high in air?
Like are ye unto insects undeveloped,
Even as the worm in whom formation fails!
As to sustain a ceiling or a roof, 130
In place of corbel, oftentimes a figure
Is seen to join its knees unto its breast,
Which makes of the unreal real anguish
Arise in him who sees it, fashioned thus
Beheld I those, when I had ta'en good heed. 135
True is it, they were more or less bent down,
According as they more or less were laden;
And he who had most patience in his looks
Weeping did seem to say, "I can no more!"
1 - 1
In this canto is described the First Circle of Purgatory, where the sin of Pride is punished.
14 - 14
It being now Easter Monday, and the fourth day after the full moon, the hour here indicated would be four hours after sunrise. And as the sun was more than two hours high when Dante found himself at the gate of Purgatory (Canto IX. 44), he was an hour and a half in this needle's eye.
30 - 30
Which was so steep as to allow of no ascent; dritto di salita being used in the sense of right of way.
32 - 32
Polycletus, the celebrated Grecian sculptor, among whose works one, representing the body-guard of the king of Persia, acquired such fame for excellence as to be called “the Rule.”
33 - 33
With this description of the sculptures on the wall of Purgatory compare that of the shield which Vulcan made for Achilles, Iliad, XVIII. 484, Buckley's Tr.: –
“On it he wrought the earth, and the heaven, and the sea, the unwearied sun, and the full moon. On it also he represented all the constellations with which the heaven is crowned, the Pleiades, and Hyades, and the strength of Orion, and the Bear, which they also call by the appellation of the Wain, which there revolves, and watches Orion; but it alone is free from the baths of the ocean.
”In the likewise he wrought two fair cities of articulate speaking men. In the one, indeed, there were marriages and feasts; and they were conducting the brides from their chambers through the city with brilliant torches, and many a bridal song was raised. The youthful dancers were wheeling round, and among them pipes and lyres uttered a sound; and the women standing, each at her portals, admired. And people were crowded together in an assembly, and there a contest had arisen; for two men contended for the ransom- money of a slain man: the one affirmed that he had paid all, appealing to the people; but the other denied, averring that he had received naught: and both wished to find an end of the dispute before a judge. The people were applauding both, supporters of either party, and the haralds were keeping back the people; but the elders sat upon polished stones, in a sacred circle, and the pleaders held in their hands the staves of the clear-voiced heralds; with these then they arose, and alternately pleaded their cause. Moreover, in the midst lay two talents of gold, to give to him who should best establish his claim among them. But round the other city sat two armies of people glittering in arms; and one of two plans was agreeable to them, either to waste it, or to divide all things into two parts, – the wealth, whatever the pleasant city contained within it. They, however, had not yet complied, but were secretly arming themselves for an ambuscade. Meanwhile, their beloved wives and young children kept watch, standing above, and among them the men whom old page possessed. But they (the younger men) advanced; but Mars was ther leader, and Pallas Minerva, both golden, and clad in golden dresses, beautiful and large, along with their armor, radiant all round, and indeed like gods; but the people were of humbler size. But when they now had reached a place where it appeared fit to lay an ambuscade, by a river, where there was a watering-place for all sorts of cattle, there then they settled, clad in shining steel. There, apart from the people, sat two spies, watching when they might perceive the sheep and crooked-horned oxen. These, however, soon advanced, and two shepherds accompanied them, amusing themselves with their pipes, for they had not yet perceived the stratagem. Then they, discerning them, ran in upon them, and immediately slaughtered on all sides the herds of oxen, and the beautiful flocks of snow-white sheep; and slew the shepherds besides. But they, when they heard the great tumult among the oxen, previously sitting in front of the assembly, mounting their nimble-footed steeds, pursued; and soon came up with them. Then, having marshalled themselves, they fought a battles on the banks of the river, and wounded one another with their brazen spears. Among them mingled Discord and Tumult, and destructive Fate, holding one alive recently wounded, another unwounded, but a third, slain, she drew by the feet through the battle; and had the garment around her shoulders crimsoned with the gore of men. But they turned about, like living mortals, and fought, and drew away the slaughtered bodies of each other.
“On it he also placed a soft fallow field, rich glebe, wide, thrice-ploughed; and in it many ploughmen drove hither and thither, turning round their teams. But when, returning, they reached the end of the field, then a man, advancing, gave into their hands a cup of very sweet wine; but they turned themselves in series, eager to reach the other end of the deep fallow. But it was all black behind, similar to ploughed land, which indeed was a marvel beyond all others.
”On it likewise he placed a field of deep corn, where reapers were cutting, having sharp sickles in their hands. Some handfuls fell one after the other upon te ground along the furrow, and te binders of sheaves tied others with bands. Three binders followed the reapers, while behind them boys gathering the handfuls, and bearing them in their arms, continually supplied them; and among them the master stood by the swath in silence, holding a sceptre, delighted in heart. But apart, beneath an oak, servants were preparing a banquet, and, sacrificing a huge ox, they ministered; while women sprinkled much white barley on the meat, as a supper for the reapers.
“On it likewise he placed a vineyard, heavily laden with grapes, beautiful, golden; but the clusters throughout were black; and it was supported throughout by silver poles. Round it he drew an azure trench, and about it a hedge of tin; but there was only one path to it, by which the gatherers went when they collected the vintage. Young virgins and youths, of tender minds, bore the luscious fruit in woven baskets, in the midst of whom a boy played sweetly on a shrill harp; and with tender voice sang gracefully to the chord; while they, beating the ground in unison with dancing and shouts, followed, skipping with their feet.
”In it he also wrought a heard of oxen with horn erect. But the kine were made of gold and of tin, and rushed out with a lowing from the stall to the pasture, beside a murmuring stream, along the breeze-weaving reeds. Four golden herdsmen accompanied the oxen, and nine dogs, swift of foot, followed. But two terrible lions detained the bull, roaring among the foremost oxen, and he was dragged away, loudly bellowing, and the dogs and youths followed for a rescue. They indeed, having torn off the skin of the great ox, lapped up his entrails and black blood; and the shepherds vainly pressed upon them, urging on their fleet dogs. These however refused to bite the lions, but, standing very near, barked, and shunned them.
“On it illustrious Vulcan also formed a pasture in a beautiful grove full of white sheep, and folds, and covered huts and cottages.
”Illustrious Vulcan likewise adorned it with a dance, like unto that which, in wide Gnossus, Daedalus contrived for fair-haired Ariadne. There danced youths and alluring virgins, holding each other's hands at the wrist. These wore fine linen robes, but those were dressed in well-woven tunics, shining as with oil; these also had beautiful garlands, and those were golden swords, hanging from silver belts. Sometimes, with skilful feet, they nimbly bounded round; as when a potter, sitting, shall make trial of a wheel fitted to his hands, whether it will run: and at other times again they ran back to their places through one another. But a great crowd surrounded the pleasing dance, amusing themselves; and among them two tumblers, beginning their songs, spun round through the midst.
“But in it he also formed the vast strength of the river Oceanus, near the last border of the well-formed shield.”
See also Virgil's description of the Shields of AEneas, AEneid, VIII., and of the representations of the walls of the Temple of Juno at Carthage, AEneid, I. Also the description of the Temple of Mars, in Statius, Thebaid, VII., and that of the tomb of the Persian queen in the Alexandreis of Philip Gualtier, noticed in Mr. Summer's article, Atlantic Monthly, XVI. 754. And finally “the noble kerving and the portreitures” of the Temples of Venus, Mars, and Diana, in Chaucer's Knightes Tale: –
“Why shulde I not as wel eke tell you all The portreiture that was upon the wall Within the temple of mighty Mars the Rede? ..... ”First on the wall was peinted a forest, In which ther wonneth neyther man ne best; With knotty, knarry, barrein trees old, Of stubbes sharpe, and hidous to behold; In which ther ran a romble and a swough, As though a storme shuld bresten every bough. And, dounward from an hill, under a bent, Ther stood the temple of Mars Armipotent, Wrought all of burned stele; of which th'entree Was longe and streite, and gastly for to see, And therout came a rage an swiche a vise, That it made all the gates for to rise. The northern light in at the dore shone; For window, on the wall, ne was ther none, Thurgh which men mighten any light discerne. The dore was all of athamant eterne; Yclenched, overthwart and endelong, With yren tough. And, for to make it strong, Every piler the temple to sustene Was tonne-gret, of yren bright and shene. “Ther saw I, first, the derke imagining Of felonie, and alle the compassing; The cruel ire, red as any glede; The pikepurse; and eke the pale drede; The smiler, with the knif under the cloke; The shepen brenning, with the blake smoke; The treson of the mordring in the bedde; The open werre, with woundes all bebledde; Conteke, with blody knif and sharp menace: All full of chirking was that sory place. The sleer of himself, yet, saw I there, His herte-blood hath bathed all his here, The naile ydriven in the shode anyght, The colde deth, with mouth gaping upright.”
40 - 40
Luke i. 28: “And the angel came in unto her and said, Hail, thou that art highly favored, the Lord is with thee.”
44 - 44
Luke i. 38: “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord.”
57 - 57
2 Samuel vi. 6, 7: “And when they came to Nachon's threshing-floor, Uzzah put forth his hand to the ark of God, and took hold of it; for the oxen shook it. And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah, and God smote him there for his error; and there he died by the ark of God.”
65 - 65
2 Samuel vi. 14: “And David danced before the Lord with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod.”
68 - 68
2 Samuel vi. 16: “And as the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal, Saul's daughter, looked through a window and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart.”
73 - 73
This story of Trajan is told in nearly the same words, though in prose, in th Fiore di Filosofi, a work attributed to Brunetto Latini. See Nannucci, Manuale della Letteratura del Primo Secolo, III. 291. It may be found also in the Legenda Aurea, in the Cento Novelle Antiche, Nov. 67, and in the Life of St. Gregory, by Paulus Diaconus.
As told by Ser Brunetto the story runs thus:
“Trajan was a very just Emperor, and one day, having mounted his horse to go into battle with his cavalry, a woman came and seized him by the foot, and, weeping bitterly, asked him and besought him to do justice upon those who had without cause put to death her son, who was an upright young man. And he answered and said, 'I will give thee satisfaction when I return.' And she said, 'And if thou dost not return?' And he answered, 'If I do not return, my successor will give thee satisfaction.' And she said, 'How do I know that? and suppose he do it, what is it to thee if another do good? Thou art my debtor, and according to thy deeds shalt thou be judged; and is a fraud for a man not to pay what he owes; the justice of another will not liberate thee, and it will be well for thy successor if he shall liberate himself.' Moved by these words the Emperor alighted, and did justice, and consoled the widow, and then mounted his horse, and went to battle, and routed his enemies. A long time afterwards St. Gregory, hearing of his justice, saw his statue, and had him disinterred, and found that he was all turned to dust, except his bones and his tongue, which was like that of a living man. And by this St. Gregory knew his justice, for this tongue had always spoken it; so that then he wept very piteously through compassion, praying God that he would take this soul out of Hell, knowing that he had been a Pagan. Then God, because of these prayers, drew that soul from pain, and put it into glory. And thereupon the angel spoke to St Gregory, and told him never to make such a prayer again, and God laid upon him as a penance either to be two days in Purgatory, or to be always ill with fever and side-ache. St. Gregory as the lesser punishment chose the fever and side-ache (male di fianco).”
75 - 75
Gregory's “great victory” was saving the soul of Trajan by prayer.
124 - 124
Jeremy Taylor says: As the silk-worm eateth itself out of a seed to become a little worm; and there feeding on the leaves of mulberries, it grows till its coat be off, and then works itself into a house of silk; then, casting its pearly seeds from the young to breed, it leaveth its silk for man, and dieth all white and winged in the shape of a flying creature: so is the progress of souls.“
127 - 127
Goer, Confes. Amant.,: –
”The proude vice of veingloire Remembreth nought of purgatoire.“
And Shakespeare, King Henry the Eighth, III. 2: –
”I have ventured, Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders, This many summers in a sea of glory.“