Saturday, July 2, 2016

Purgatorio, Song I

The story thus far: Dante, a poet and town prior in Florence, finds himself on a dark road of the soul. Before his spirit can fall to its ruin, he encounters Virgil, the greatest poet of classical Rome. Virgil, at the behest of Beatrice, a woman who was Dante's inspiration in life, offers Dante a journey through the realms of the afterworld, through which Dante may find his soul's salvation. He shall travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, with Virgil as his guide through the first two. Dante accepts Virgil's offer, and they embark. After descending through the myriad levels of Hell, they come to the other side of the center of the Earth. From there, they make their way back to the world above.

Dante and Virgil look out upon the morning sky

My sails lift to cross better waters
Now. The skiff of my talent
Leaves behind the sea so cruel.

And I will sing of that second kingdom
Where the human spirit is purged of sin
And becomes worthy of ascent to Heaven.

But let my poetry here rise again from the dead,
O holy Muses, since I am yours.
And here let Calliope rise for a time,

Accompanying my song with the melody
That made the wretched Pierides feel
Such guilt they despaired of forgiveness.

The lovely color of the eastern sapphire,
Gathering in the serene face of the sky
From its unsullied heights to the horizon,

Once again delighted my eyes
As I exited from the dead air
That had afflicted my eyes and breast.

The beautiful planet who comforts with love
Made all the eastern skies laugh.
Pisces was veiled in her wake.

I turned to my right, and set my attention
On the other pole. I saw four stars
Not seen by humanity since the earliest people.

Heaven seemed to rejoice in their glow.
O northern hemisphere, bereft
Because you are denied that sight!

After I shifted my gaze from them,
I turned a little towards the other pole,
Where the Big Dipper had already disappeared.

Near me I saw an elderly man alone,
His bearing worthy of such reverence
That more could not be owed to a father by a son.

His beard was long, with white streaks.
His hair was the same,
And fell on his breast in two tresses.

The rays of the four holy stars
So brightened his face with light
That I saw him as if he had been preceded by the sun.

“Who are you that rising against the hidden river
You have escaped the eternal prison?”
He said, shaking those honorable braids.

“Who led your way? Who was your light
In escaping from the deepest night
That keeps the valleys of Hell in constant dark?

Are the laws of the abyss now broken?
Or has a new decree in Heaven changed things
So, being damned, you come to my rocky bluffs?”

My master then took hold of me,
And with words and hands and gestures
Made me reverent in knees and brow.

He then replied, “I do not come on my own behalf.
A lady descended from Heaven, and her prayers led to
My guiding this man through my companionship.

But since your wish is for a fuller account
Of our condition and the truth of it,
Mine cannot be refusing you.

This man has yet to see his final evening,
But through his folly he was so near
That little time was left to turn things around.

As I said, I was sent to him
For his salvation, and there was no other way
But this one I have set out on.

I have shown him the people of sin.
I now intend to show him those spirits
Who purify themselves under your rule.

How I have brought him along would take too long to tell.
Virtue from on high has aided me
In guiding him to this place to see and hear you.

May it please you to welcome him now.
He seeks deliverance, which is so dear,
As he knows of the one through whom life was given for it.

You know this, since bitterness did not attend
Your death in Utica, where you left
The trappings that on the great day shall be so bright.

The eternal edicts are not undone for us.
This man is of the living, and I am not bound by Minos.
But I am of the circle where resides the chaste eyes

Of your Marcia, who in her looks still prays for you,
O holy breast, to hold her as your own.
For her love, then, yield to us.

Allow us to go through your seven kingdoms.
I will report your kindness to her
If you deign to be mentioned in the place below.”

“Marcia so pleased my eyes
While I was on the other side,” he then said,
“That whatever kindness she wished of me, I did.

Now that she dwells beyond the river of evil,
She can no longer move me, by the law
That was made when I crossed over.

But if a lady from Heaven moves you, reigning
As you say, then flattery is unnecessary.
It is enough for you to ask me on her behalf.

Go then. Gird him
With a pure green reed, and wash his face
So all filth is removed.

It would not be appropriate for one’s eye to be dimmed
By any fog when one goes before the first
Custodian angel among those in Paradise.

This small island, round about its base,
Down where the waves break,
Has reeds upon the soft mud.

No other plant that makes leaves
Or becomes wood can live there,
Since they cannot withstand the buffeting of the water.

Afterwards, do not make your return by this way.
The sun, which is now rising, will show you where
To climb the mountain more easily.”

With that, he vanished. I rose
Without speaking, and retraced my steps back
To my leader, upon whom I then set my eyes.

He began, “Follow my steps.
Let us turn back. From this point there is a slope along
The plain down to its lower end.”

The dawn was overtaking the morning hour
That fled before it, so that from far away
I could recognize the trembling of the sea.

We made our way across the lonely plain
Like a man who turns back to a road he has lost,
And, until he finds it, seems to be walking about in futility.

When we reached the time when the dew
Battles the sun, and the place where, being in the
Shade, little evaporates,

My Master gently spread out
Both his hands upon the grass.
Then I, knowing what he was up to,

Presented my tear-stained cheeks to him.
There he uncovered all
The color that Hell and its residue had concealed.

We then came to the desert shore
That had never seen its waters navigated by
A man whom afterwards had returned from whence he came.

There my master girded me as the other had wanted.
O what a marvel! After he had plucked
The humble plant, another sprung up

Immediately from where he had taken it.