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Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).  The Divine Comedy.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Purgatory
 
Canto X
 
 
ARGUMENT.—Being admitted at the gate of Purgatory, our Poets ascend a winding path up the rock, till they reach an open and level space that extends each way round the mountain. On the side that rises, and which is of white marble, are seen artfully engraven many stories of humility, which whilst they are contemplating, there approach the souls of those who expiate the sin of pride, and who are bent down beneath the weight of heavy stones.
 
 
WHEN we had passed the threshold of the gate,
(Which the soul’s ill affection doth disuse,
Making the crooked seem the straighter path,)
I heard its closing sound. Had mine eyes turn’d,
For that offence what plea might have avail’d?        5
  We mounted up the riven rock, that wound
On either side alternate, as the wave
Flies and advances. “Here some little art
Behoves us,” said my leader, “that our steps
Observe the varying flexure of the path.”        10
  Thus we so slowly sped, that with cleft orb
The moon once more o’erhangs her watery couch,
Ere we that strait have threaded. But when free,
We came, and open, where the mount above
One solid mass retires; I spent with toil,        15
And both uncertain of the way, we stood,
Upon a plain more lonesome than the roads
That traverse desert wilds. From whence the brink
Borders upon vacuity, to foot
Of the steep bank that rises still, the space        20
Had measured thrice the stature of a man:
And, distant as mine eye could wing its flight,
To leftward now and now to right despatch’d,
That cornice equal in extent appear’d.
  Not yet our feet had on that summit moved,        25
When I discover’d that the bank, around,
Whose proud uprising all ascent denied,
Was marble white; and so exactly wrought
With quaintest sculpture, that not there alone
Had Polycletus, but e’en nature’s self        30
Been shamed. The Angel (who came down to earth
With tidings of the peace so many years
Wept for in vain, that oped the heavenly gates
From their long interdict) before us seem’d,
In a sweet act, so sculptured to the life,        35
He look’d no silent image. One had sworn
He had said “Hail!” for she was imaged there,
By whom the key did open to God’s love;
And in her act as sensibly imprest
That word, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,”        40
As figure seal’d on wax. “Fix not thy mind
On one place only,” said the guide beloved,
Who had me near him on that part where lies
The heart of man. My sight forthwith I turn’d,
And mark’d, behind the Virgin Mother’s form,        45
Upon that side where he that moved me stood,
Another story graven on the rock.
  I past athwart the bard, and drew me near,
That it might stand more aptly for my view.
There, in the self-same marble, were engraved        50
The cart and kine, drawing the sacred ark,
That from unbidden office awes mankind.
Before it came much people; and the whole
Parted in seven quires. One sense cried “Nay,”
Another, “Yes, they sing.” Like doubt arose        55
Betwixt the eye and smell, from the curl’d fume
Of incense breathing up the well-wrought toil.
Preceding the blest vessel, onward came
With light dance leaping, girt in humble guise,
Israel’s sweet harper: in that hap he seem’d        60
Less, and yet more, than kingly. Opposite
At a great palace, from the lattice forth
Look’d Michol, like a lady full of scorn
And sorrow. To behold the tablet next,
Which, at the back of Michol, whitely shone,        65
I moved me. There, was storied on the rock
The exalted glory of the Roman prince,
Whose mighty worth moved Gregory 1 to earn
His mighty conquest, Trajan the Emperor.
A widow at his bridle stood, attired        70
In tears and mourning. Round about them troop’d
Full throng of knights; and overhead in gold
The eagles floated, struggling with the wind.
The wretch appear’d amid all these to say:
“Grant vengeance, Sire! for, woe beshrew this heart,        75
My son is murder’d.” He replying seem’d:
“Wait now till I return.” And she, as one
Made hasty by her grief: “O Sire! if thou
Dost not return?”—“Where I am, who then is,
May right thee.”—“What to thee is other’s good,        80
If thou neglect thy own?”—“Now comfort thee;”
At length he answers. “It beseemeth well
My duty be perform’d, ere I move hence:
So justice wills; and pity bids me stay.”
  He, whose ken nothing new surveys, produced        85
That visible speaking, new to us and strange,
The like not found on earth. Fondly I gazed
Upon those patterns of meek humbleness,
Shapes yet more precious for their artist’s sake;
When “Lo!” the poet whisper’d, “where this way        90
(But slack their pace) a multitude advance,
These to the lofty steps shall guide us on.”
  Mine eyes, though bent on view of novel sights,
Their loved allurement, were not slow to turn.
  Reader! I would not that amazed thou miss        95
Of thy good purpose, hearing how just God
Decrees our debts be cancel’d. Ponder not
The form of suffering. Think on what succeeds:
Think that, at worst, beyond the mighty doom
It cannot pass. “Instructor!” I began,        100
“What I see hither tending, bears no trace
Of human semblance, nor of aught beside
That my foil’d sight can guess.” He answering thus:
“So curb’d to earth, beneath their heavy terms
Of torment stoop they, that mine eye at first        105
Struggled as thine. But look intently thither;
And disentangle with thy laboring view,
What, underneath those stones, approacheth: now,
E’en now, mayst thou discern the pangs of each.”
  Christians and proud! O poor and wretched ones!        110
That, feeble in the mind’s eye, lean your trust
Upon unstaid perverseness: know ye not
That we are worms, yet made at last to form
The winged insect, 2 imp’d with angel plumes,
That to Heaven’s justice unobstructed soars?        115
Why buoy ye up aloft your unfledged souls?
Abortive then and shapeless ye remain,
Like the untimely embryon of a worm.
  As, to support incumbent floor or roof,
For corbel, is a figure sometimes seen,        120
That crumples up its knees unto its breast;
With the feign’d posture, stirring ruth unfeign’d
In the beholder’s fancy; so I saw
These fashion’d, when I noted well their guise.
  Each, as his back was laden, came indeed        125
Or more or less contracted; and it seem’d
As he, who show’d most patience in his look,
Wailing exclaim’d: “I can endure no more.”
 
Note 1. “Gregory.” St. Gregory’s prayers are said to have delivered Trajan from hell. See Paradise, Canto xx. 40. [back]
Note 2. “The winged insect.” The butterfly was an ancient and well-known symbol of the human soul. [back]
 

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