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Dante's Purgatorio: Canto XII
The Sculptures on the Pavement. Ascent to the Second Circle.
Abreast, like oxen going in a yoke,
I with that heavy-laden soul went on,
As long as the sweet pedagogue permitted;
But when he said, "Leave him, and onward pass,
For here 'tis good that with the sail and oars, 5
As much as may be, each push on his barque;"
Upright, as walking wills it, I redressed
My person, notwithstanding that my thoughts
Remained within me downcast and abashed.
I had moved on, and followed willingly 10
The footsteps of my Master, and we both
Already showed how light of foot we were,
When unto me he said: "Cast down thine eyes;
'Twere well for thee, to alleviate the way,
To look upon the bed beneath thy feet." 15
As, that some memory may exist of them,
Above the buried dead their tombs in earth
Bear sculptured on them what they were before;
Whence often there we weep for them afresh,
From pricking of remembrance, which alone 20
To the compassionate doth set its spur;
So saw I there, but of a better semblance
In point of artifice, with figures covered
Whate'er as pathway from the mount projects.
I saw that one who was created noble 25
More than all other creatures, down from heaven
Flaming with lightnings fall upon one side.
I saw Briareus smitten by the dart
Celestial, lying on the other side,
Heavy upon the earth by mortal frost. 30
I saw Thymbraeus, Pallas saw, and Mars,
Still clad in armour round about their father,
Gaze at the scattered members of the giants.
I saw, at foot of his great labour, Nimrod,
As if bewildered, looking at the people 35
Who had been proud with him in Sennaar.
O Niobe! with what afflicted eyes
Thee I beheld upon the pathway traced,
Between thy seven and seven children slain!
O Saul! how fallen upon thy proper sword 40
Didst thou appear there lifeless in Gilboa,
That felt thereafter neither rain nor dew!
O mad Arachne! so I thee beheld
E'en then half spider, sad upon the shreds
Of fabric wrought in evil hour for thee! 45
O Rehoboam! no more seems to threaten
Thine image there; but full of consternation
A chariot bears it off, when none pursues!
Displayed moreo'er the adamantine pavement
How unto his own mother made Alcmaeon 50
Costly appear the luckless ornament;
Displayed how his own sons did throw themselves
Upon Sennacherib within the temple,
And how, he being dead, they left him there;
Displayed the ruin and the cruel carnage 55
That Tomyris wrought, when she to Cyrus said,
"Blood didst thou thirst for, and with blood I glut thee!"
Displayed how routed fled the Assyrians
After that Holofernes had been slain,
And likewise the remainder of that slaughter. 60
I saw there Troy in ashes and in caverns;
O Ilion! thee, how abject and debased,
Displayed the image that is there discerned!
Whoe'er of pencil master was or stile,
That could portray the shades and traits which there 65
Would cause each subtile genius to admire?
Dead seemed the dead, the living seemed alive;
Better than I saw not who saw the truth,
All that I trod upon while bowed I went.
Now wax ye proud, and on with looks uplifted, 70
Ye sons of Eve, and bow not down your faces
So that ye may behold your evil ways!
More of the mount by us was now encompassed,
And far more spent the circuit of the sun,
Than had the mind preoccupied imagined, 75
When he, who ever watchful in advance
Was going on, began: "Lift up thy head,
'Tis no more time to go thus meditating.
Lo there an Angel who is making haste
To come towards us; lo, returning is 80
From service of the day the sixth handmaiden.
With reverence thine acts and looks adorn,
So that he may delight to speed us upward;
Think that this day will never dawn again."
I was familiar with his admonition 85
Ever to lose no time; so on this theme
He could not unto me speak covertly.
Towards us came the being beautiful
Vested in white, and in his countenance
Such as appears the tremulous morning star. 90
His arms he opened, and opened then his wings;
"Come," said he, "near at hand here are the steps,
And easy from henceforth is the ascent."
At this announcement few are they who come!
O human creatures, born to soar aloft, 95
Why fall ye thus before a little wind?
He led us on to where the rock was cleft;
There smote upon my forehead with his wings,
Then a safe passage promised unto me.
As on the right hand, to ascend the mount 100
Where seated is the church that lordeth it
O'er the well-guided, above Rubaconte,
The bold abruptness of the ascent is broken
By stairways that were made there in the age
When still were safe the ledger and the stave, 105
E'en thus attempered is the bank which falls
Sheer downward from the second circle there;
But on this, side and that the high rock graze.
As we were turning thitherward our persons,
"Beati pauperes spiritu," voices 110
Sang in such wise that speech could tell it not.
Ah me! how different are these entrances
From the Infernal! for with anthems here
One enters, and below with wild laments.
We now were hunting up the sacred stairs, 115
And it appeared to me by far more easy
Than on the plain it had appeared before.
Whence I: "My Master, say, what heavy thing
Has been uplifted from me, so that hardly
Aught of fatigue is felt by me in walking?" 120
He answered: "When the P's which have remained
Still on thy face almost obliterate
Shall wholly, as the first is, be erased,
Thy feet will be so vanquished by good will,
That not alone they shall not feel fatigue, 125
But urging up will be to them delight."
Then did I even as they do who are going
With something on the head to them unknown,
Unless the signs of others make them doubt,
Wherefore the hand to ascertain is helpful, 130
And seeks and finds, and doth fulfill the office
Which cannot be accomplished by the sight;
And with the fingers of the right hand spread
I found but six the letters, that had carved
Upon my temples he who bore the keys; 135
Upon beholding which my Leader smiled.
1 - 1
In the first part of this canto the same subject is continued, with examples of pride humbled, sculptured on the pavement, upon which the Proud are doomed to gaze as they go with their heads bent down beneath their heavy burdens,
“So that they may behold their evil ways.”
Iliad, XIII. 700: “And Ajax, the swift son of Oïleus, never at all stood apart from the Telamonian Ajax; but as in a fallow field two dark bullocks, possessed of equal spirit, drag the compacted plough, and much sweat breaks out about the roots of their horns, and the well-polished yoke alone divides them, stepping along the furrow, and the plough cuts up the bottom of the soil, so they, joined together, stood very near to each other.”
3 - 3
In Italy a pedagogue is not only a teacher, but literally a leader of children, and goes from house to house collecting his little flock, which he brings home again after school.
Galatians iii. 24: “The law was our schoolmaster (Paidagogos) to bring us unto Christ.”
17 - 17
Tombs under the pavement in the aisles of churches, in contradistinction to those built aloft against the walls.
25 - 25
The reader will not fail to mark the artistic structure of the passage from this to the sixty-third line. First there are four stanzas beginning, “I saw”; then four beginning “O”; then four beginning “Displayed”; and then a stanza which resumes and unites them all.
27 - 27
Luke x. 18: “I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven.”
Milton, Parad. Lost, I. 44: –
“Him the almighty Power Hurled headlong flaming from the ethereal sky, With hideous ruin and combustion, down To bottomless perdition, there to dwell In adamantine chains and penal fire, Who durst defy the Omnipotent to arms.”
28 - 28
Iliad, I. 403: “Him of the hundred hands, whom the gods call Briareus, and all men AEgaeon.” Inf. XXI. Note 98.
He was struck by the thunderbolt of Jove, or by a shaft of Apollo, at the battle of Flegra. “Ugly medley of sacred and profane, of revealed truth and fiction!” exclaims Venturi.
31 - 31
Thymbraeus, a surname of Apollo, from his temple in Thymbra.
34 - 34
Nimrod, who “began to be a mighty one in the earth,” and his “tower whose top may reach unto heaven.”
Genesis xi. 8: “So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth, and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”
See also Inf. XXXXI. Note 77.
36 - 36
Lombardi proposes in this line to read “together” instead of “proud”; which Biagioli thinks is “changing a beautiful diamond for a bit of lead; and stupid is he who accepts the change.”
37 - 37
Among the Greek epigrams is one on Niobe, which runs as follows: –
“This sepulchre within it has no corse; This corse without here has no sepulchre, But to itself is sepulchre and corse.”
Ovid, Metamorph., VI., Croxall's Tr.: –
“Widowed and childless, lamentable state! A doleful sight, among the dead she sate; Hardened with woes, a statue of despair, To every breath of wind unmoved her hair; Her cheek still reddening, but its color dead, Faded her eyes, and set within her head. No more her pliant tongue its motion keeps, But stands congealed within her frozen lips. Stagnate and dull, within her purple veins, Its current stopped, the lifeless blood remains. Her feet their usual offices refuse, Her arms and neck their graceful gestures lose: Action and life from every part are gone, And even her entrails turn to solid stone; Yet still she weeps, and whirled by stormy winds, Borne through the air, her native country finds; There fixed, she stands upon a bleaky hill, There yet her marble cheeks eternal tears distil.”
39 - 39
Homer, Iliad, XXIV. 604, makes them but twelve. “Twelve children perished in her halls, six daughters and six blooming sons; these Apollo slew from his silver bow, enraged with Niobe; and those Diana, delighting in arrows, because she had deemed herself equal to the beautiful-cheeked Latona. She said that Latona had borne only two, but she herself had borne many; nevertheless those, though but two, exterminated all these.”
But Ovid, Metamorph., VI., says: –
“Seven are my daughters of a form divine, With Seven fair sons, an indefective line.”
40 - 40
1 Samuel xxxi. 4, 5: “Then said Saul unto his armor-bearer, Draw thy sword and thrust me through therewith, lest these uncircumcised come and thrust me through and abuse me. But his armor-bearer would not, for he was sore afraid; therefore Saul took a sword, and fell upon it. And when his armor-bearer saw that Saul was dead, he fell likewise upon his sword, and died with him.”
42 - 42
2 Samuel i. 21: “Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew, neither let there be rain upon you.”
43 - 43
Arachne, daughter of Idmon the dyer of Colophon, Ovid, Metamorph., VI.: –
“One at the loom so excellently skilled, That to the goddess she refused to yield. Low was her birth, and small her native town, She from her art alone obtained renown. ..... Nor would the work, when finished, please so much, As, while she wrought, to view each graceful touch; Whether the shapeless wool in balls she wound, Or with quick motion turned the spindle round, Or with her pencil drew the neat design, Pallas her mistress shone in every line. This the proud maid with scornful air denies, And even the goddess at her work defies; Disowns her heavenly mistress every hour, Nor asks her aid, nor deprecates her power. Let us, she cries, but to a trail come, And if she conquers, let her fix my doom.”
It was rather an unfair trial of skill, at the end of which Minerva, getting angry, struck Arachne on the forehead with her shuttle of box-wood.
“The unhappy maid, impatient of the wrong, Down from a beam her injured person hung; When Pallas, pitying her wretched state, At once prevented and pronounced her fate: 'Live; but depend, vile wretch!' the goddess cried, 'Doomed in suspense forever to be tied; That all your race, to utmost date of time, May feel the vengeance and detest the crime,' Then, going off, she sprinkled her with juice Which leaves of baneful aconite produce. Touched with the poisonous drug, her flowing hair Fell to the ground and left her temples bare; Her usual features vanished from their place, Her body lessened all, but most her face. Her slender fingers, hanging on each side With many joints, the use of legs supplied; A spider's bag the rest, from which she gives A thread, and still by constant weaving lives.”
46 - 46
In the revolt of the Ten Tribes. I Kings xii. 18: “Then King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was over the tribute; and all Israel stoned him with stones, that he died, therefore King Rehoboam made speed to get him up to his chariot, to flee to Jerusalem.”
50 - 50
Amphiaraus, the soothsayer, foreseeing his own death if he went to the Theban war, concealed himself, to avoid going. His wife Eriphyle, bribed by a “golden necklace set with diamonds,” betrayed to her brother Adrastus his hiding-place, and Amphiaraüs, departing, charged his son Alcmeon to kill Eriphyle as soon as he heard of his death.
Ovid, Metamorph., IX.: –
“The son shall bathe his hands in parent's blood, And in one act be both unjust and good.”
Statius, Theb., II. 355, Lewis's Tr.: –
“Fair Eriphyle the rich gift beheld, And her sick breast with secret envy swelled. Not the late omens and the well-known tale To cure her vain ambition aught avail. O had the wretch by self-experience known The future woes, and sorrows not her own! But fate decrees her wretched spouse must bleed,” And the son's frenzy clear the mother's deed.“
53 - 53
Isiah xxxvii. 38: ”And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer, his sons, smote him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Armenia, and Esarhaddon, his son, reigned in his stead.“
56 - 56
Herodotus, Book I. Ch. 214, Rawlinson's Tr.:
”Tomyris, when she found that Cyrus paid no heed to her advice, collected all the forces of her kingdom, and gave him battle. Of all the combats in which the barbarians have engaged among themselves, I reckon this to have been the fiercest. ....The greater part of the army of the Persians was destroyed, and Cyrus himself fell, after reigning nine and twenty years. Search was made among the slain, by order of the queen, for the body of Cyrus, and when it was found, she took a skin, and, filling it full of human blood, she dipped the head of Cyrus in the gore, saying, as she thus insulted the corse, “I live and have conquered thee in fight, and yet by thee am I ruined; for thou tookest my son with guile; but thus I make good my threat, and give thee thy fill of blood.' Of the many different accounts which are given of the death of Cyrus, this which I have followed appears to me most worthy of credit.”
59 - 59
After Judith xv. 1: “And when they that were in the tents heard, they were astonished at the thing that was done. And fear and trembling fell upon them, so that there was no man that durst abide in the sight of his neighbor, but, rushing out all together, they fled into every way of the plain and of the hill country.....Now when the children of Israel heard it, they all fell upon them with one consent, and slew them unto Chobai.”
61 - 61
This tercet unites the “I saw,” “O” and “Displayed,” of the preceding passage, and binds the whole as with a selvage.
67 - 67
Ruskin, Mod. Painters, III. 19: “There was probably never a period in which the influence of art over the minds of men seemed to depend less on its merely imitative power, than the close of the thirteenth century. No painting or sculpture at that time reached more than a rude resemblance of reality. Its despised perspective, imperfect chiaroscuro, and unrestrained flights of fantastic imagination, separated the artist's work from nature by an interval which there was no attempt to disguise, and little to diminish. And yet, at this very period, the greatest poet of that, or perhaps of any other age, and the attached friend of its greatest painter, who must over and over again have held full and free conversation with him respecting the objects of his art, speaks in the following terms of painting, supposed to be carried to its highest perfection: –
'Qual di pennel fu maestro, e di stile Che ritraesse l'ombre, e i tratti ch'ivi Mirar farieno uno ingegno sottile. Morti li morti, e i vivi parean vivi: Non vide me' di me, chi vide il vero, Quant' io calcai, fin che chinato givi.'
Dante has here clearly no other idea of the highest art than that it should bring back, as in a mirror or vision, the aspect of things passed or absent. The scenes of which he speaks are, on the pavement, forever represented by angelic power, so that the souls which traverse this circle of the rock may see them, as if the years of the world had been rolled back, and they again stood beside the actors in the moment of action. Nor do I think that Dante's authority is absolutely necessary to compel us to admit that such art as this might indeed be the highest possible. Whatever delight we may have been in the habit of taking in pictures, if it were but truly offered to us to remove at our will the canvas from the frame, and in lieu of it to behold, fixed forever, the image of some of those mighty scenes which it has been our way to make mere themes for the artist's fancy, – if, for instance, we could again behold the Magdalene receiving her pardon at Christ's feet, or the disciples sitting with him at the table of Emmaus, – and this not feebly nor fancifully, but as if some silver mirror, that had leaned against the wall of the chamber, had been miraculously commanded to retain forever the colors that had flashed upon it for an instant, – would we not part with our picture, Titian's or Veronese's though it might be?”
81 - 81
The sixth hour of the day, or noon of the second day.
102 - 102
Florence is here called ironically “The well guided” or well governed. Rubaconte is the name of the most easterly of the bridges over the Arno, and takes its name from Messer Rubaconte, who was Podesta of Florence in 1236, when this bridge was built. Above it on the hill stands the church of San Miniato. This is the hill which Michel Angelo fortified in the siege of Florence. In early times it was climbed by stairways.
105 - 105
In the good old days, before any one had falsified the ledger of the public accounts, or the standard of measure. In Dante's time a certain Messer Niccola tore out a leaf from the public records, to conceal some villany of his; and a certain Messer Durante, a custom-house officer, diminished the salt-measure by one stave. This is again alluded to, Par. XVI. 105.
110 - 110
Matthew v. 3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
It must be observed that all the Latin lines in Dante should be chanted with an equal stress on each syllable, in order to make them rhythmical.