Readers of The Divine Comedy who get stuck in Inferno and see this as the place where all the action happens, have a long way to go. It is a common response for a novice to conclude that Dante equals Inferno. But Inferno is a dead-end ultimately without an understanding of what happens next. Indeed, Purgatorio is the poem that helps us better appreciate what is going on in Inferno. Here are some contrasts in Dante’s presentation of the two places that help our reading of both Inferno and Purgatorio.
1. The word ‘peregrin’ (pilgrim) first appears in the Divine Comedy in Canto 2 of Purgatorio. For the first time in the poem we are on pilgrimage, we are on the way to learning about ourselves. Inferno was not a pilgrimage. How do we describe Inferno? An endurance test, a wakeup call, a warning, a place of no exit for its inhabitants. But an early sign that the infernal state has been escaped is the use of ‘peregrin’. It is behind us. While on pilgrimage we are not in a burning hurry, we can stop when we like, we make conversation as we wish, we have time to reflect on ourselves and others, what we have been and who we are now and what we can be in the future. None of that is possible in Inferno, which is somewhere passed through in haste, as quickly as possible in order to get out of there. Inferno is not even really much of a journey, it is not a tourist destination. Pilgrimage is a medieval business, a way of finding the Way. Pilgrimage is what we do on earth in our allotted time, which may be why Purgatorio is for many readers the most accessible and recognisable of the three places in Dante’s poem. Pilgrimage is a way of reconciling things in our own life: it is a ‘little life’ within the larger span of our life. We may also choose to remember the poem is set in 1300 that, coincidentally or not, was the first Holy Year of the Western Church. It was a Jubilee that was, in this case, a chance for sins to be pardoned if the penitent took a pilgrimage to Rome.
2. ‘Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci / da l’infernali! ché quivi per canti / s’entra, e là giù per lamenti feroci,’ Dante observes in Canto 12, rendered by W.S. Merwin thus: ‘Oh how different are these openings / from those in Hell. Here one enters to singing / and there below to fierce lamentations.’ (Lines 112-114) XII.’ Those in Purgatorio sing, an expression not to be heard in Inferno. In Inferno there is weeping, howling, groaning and lamenting sounds. The contrast is powerful. Singing is a natural human activity indicative of a listener, of belief in the future, of hope. The human noises in Inferno are the opposite, they are negative and painful sounds, the sounds of enduring suffering and irreversible loss. Almost every canto of Purgatorio mentions singing. It is the singing of psalm lines, in particular, for the psalms were the commonly held poetry of the Mediterranean world of Dante. They were known to educated and uneducated alike. The role of the psalms and their meaning in the context of different cantos deserves an entire essay of their own.
3. All of which affirms the central fact about Purgatorio, that there is hope. The script at the gate of Inferno famously warns those entering to abandon all hope. A complete absence of hope is a definition of Hell. Those in Inferno are fixed at the stage where they come to a realisation of the sins they have committed. Such a moment of painful realisation in real life can be like hell, which is one way of appreciating why Dante places them there: as a warning. We have to consider the idea that people in Inferno have no wish to be free of their sin and that hope itself is not on their list of possibilities. While Purgatorio offers the possibility of moving out of that fixity, of finding a solution to the mistakes in life, of learning to overcome past errors.
4. Penance, for this reason, is central to an understanding of the first two books of the Divine Comedy. Repentance and the possibility of being forgiven seem not to be available to those in Inferno. Almost the entire reason for Purgatorio is repentance and forgiveness and reparation. The condition of those in Inferno is a warning to the reader about the pitfalls of committing those things, with the certain implication that we are in fact capable of doing such things. Inferno is at least realistic in forwarding the view that humans are quite capable of mistakes, crimes, and evil, and that we have to start by examining our own selves. Purgatorio is the option where that examination of self is on offer. Each individual in Purgatorio is going through some kind of penitential test, with the aim of future personal restoration.
5. Heaviness is a condition of Inferno. Lightness is a feature of Purgatorio. This contrast only becomes apparent once we read Purgatorio, where as each encounter passes Dante feels himself lightened of a burden. Sometimes he talks about a weight being lifted from his shoulders. The first third of Purgatorio is a physical, emotional and intellectual effort of overcoming the experience of Inferno. The recent memory stays in the present. We are made to sense its presence, even though Inferno, it has been established, is behind us. Gradually, the sense of being freed from the infernal state of mind is described by Dante. Purgatorio appears to be the place where both gravity and grace are at work, unlike Inferno where only gravity operates, and Paradiso, where we are drawn into another place altogether, one only possible through the operations of grace.
6. Similarly, falling and rising, descent and ascent are contrasts made between Inferno and Purgatorio. In Inferno we not only descend physically into more extreme conditions, but the descent is one of increasingly intolerable scenes of sin and punishment. Dante himself literally falls down on a number of occasions. Whereas Purgatorio is on the up and up. Here the climb is increasingly easy (not always what we feel when we actually climb a mountain, by the way) and Dante is not prone to the same collapses as reported from the previous place. The further away from Inferno we find ourselves, the lighter we feel.
7. Falling asleep is one way of dealing with trauma, with shocking sights not previously thought imaginable. Sleep is one way of dealing with pain and in Purgatorio Dante reports on several occasions how he goes to sleep. In Inferno there is much fainting and swooning, where Virgil is there to pick Dante up and keep him on track. Perhaps after Inferno Dante was suffering from sleep deprivation and Purgatorio is a kind of catch-up. No one is going to be caught napping in Inferno and when Dante does sleep in Inferno it is sudden and deep, as when he loses consciousness after witnessing Paolo and Francesca in Canto 5. This year a professor in Bologna has offered the theory that Dante himself had narcolepsy. Retrospective diagnosis based on a literary text is fraught with risk. Certainly Dante is fascinated with the process of falling asleep and describes it more than once in beautiful detail. Some critics of the narcolepsy theory say that Dante describes the poetic state of reverie attendant upon the creative act. Others that Dante the person in the poem falls asleep at those moments of the day, evening in fact, when the body would fall asleep naturally, and that this is Dante’s way of indicating time passing, in places where clock time is redundant. Whether or not the poet was narcoleptic, the theory draws attention to the sleep patterns through the poem and the poet’s acknowledgement of dream states as part of human experience, a source of the poetic muse.
8. A noticeable contrast when we enter Purgatorio is improved inter-personal communication and human contact between Dante and those he meets. Contact is suddenly real, not just a matter of observation, a quick hello (if that) and then moving on, as we know it in Inferno. Words are no longer delivered under duress. Instead of briefings from Virgil about the circle we now find ourselves in, a change happens in Purgatorio. People are allowed to share their experiences. They no longer stand as examples of what we don’t want happening to us, but as people who by their actions show us what we can do in our own lives. This is why Purgatorio is the critical book in the Divine Comedy, it is the main access to the meaning of everything else we read about here. It is the book of examples, it is ‘Life, a User’s Manual’.
9. The artificial landscapes of pitted circles (Inferno) and a terraced mountain (Purgatorio) serve artistic and theological ends for Dante. But truer to our own experience of this one world of the Earth (and Italy and southern France, in particular) are the landscapes through which Dante and his companion travel. Inferno opens in a dark wood, Purgatorio on a rushy island shore, and while both of these landscapes serve as picture places of psychological awareness, we know they must be descriptions of places Dante knew about. But where? Both Inferno and Purgatorio include landscapes that his readers would have known intimately, and the delicacy with which he describes them, either literally or when they appear in his analogies, tells us that he is being more than generic, that he has very definite places in mind. We cannot locate many if any of these today, but we know we are in Italy and France because that is the circumference of Dante’s world. The dark wood usually reminds me (Philip) of the wilds of Tuscany, the rushy island of somewhere on the tranquil Po delta around Ravenna, but that’s just what I see. All of Dante’s nature descriptions of trees, birds, creatures and so forth are likewise redolent of the northern Mediterranean and Adriatic. To return to the lines quoted before, ‘Ahi quanto son diverse quelle foci / da l’infernali!’ (‘Oh how different are these openings / from those in Hell.’) Dante focuses attention on landscape and how different the landscape of Purgatorio is from that of Inferno. Inferno is a place of stone, streams, and darkness. It is rough and disorganised. There is no fiery lava because Dante had never seen a volcano. There are manmade landscapes in Inferno, notably in Malebolge, and we wonder what constructions Dante knew from life that correlate to these fearsome ditches. Purgatorio is a place of increasing interestingness, as for example in our quote where entrance into a new place is something surprising, something to look forward to. At each step of the way, landscape is increasingly inviting, there is improvement, there is promise.
10. Companionship is vital to our reading of the Divine Comedy. Without Virgil we could not traverse Inferno. I say ‘we’ because the opening line of the poem (‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita’) must not be translated ‘In the middle of my life’ but quite explicitly ‘In the middle of our life’. Brilliantly and subtly, Dante involves us, any reader of his poem, from line 1 as a fellow traveller along the way. So right away we too trust Virgil and treat his every word and action with respect and expectation. In fact we too can only survive Inferno by going along with Virgil. This relationship of utter dependence changes in Purgatorio. By contrast, in this other place Dante meets up with other guides who have special things to relate to us. The poets Sordello and Statius, for example, act as temporary leaders who help Dante elucidate pressing questions. In Purgatorio our sense of learning directly from other people is opened up, while in Inferno we were locked into witnessing shocking things with only one person to help us through, and even then Virgil was not always 100% communicative. Inferno is a single interface, Purgatorio several interfaces.
These contrasts are one result of the creative conversations between Will Johnston and Philip Harvey on the writings of Dante, made during 2013 and 2014. Source of quotes: Purgatorio : a new verse translation by W.S. Merwin. New York, Knopf, 2000.