Divine Comedy: Purgatorio

Divine Comedy: Purgatorio Summary and Analysis of Canto I-IV


Dante’s Purgatorio begins by looking back to the Inferno. Now out of Hell, Dante announces that he will be “leaving that cruel sea behind.” His topic is now “the second kingdom,” where “the soul of man is cleansed.” Cleansed is purga in the Italian, from which we get Purgatorio. The muses, and specifically Calliope, the ninth muse, are invoked. Dante enjoys the “sweet color” of the air, which is much less deathly than the air in Hell. He sees Venus as it rises, followed by “the Fishes” (Pisces) and “four stars / not seen but by those first on earth.” These four stars indicate that Dante is now at the antipodes of Earth, where the Garden of Eden once was, and where no living human has been since Adam and Eve’s fall.

Quickly Dante sees an old, honorable looking man with a shining face. Though he never reveals his identity, we learn through a number of select details that he is Cato of Utica, a figure of classical antiquity. Known as a strict moralist, Cato lived during the civil war and committed suicide rather than fall under Caesar’s imperial power. Cato is befuddled that Virgil and Dante have been allowed to leave Hell; Virgil speaks up to explain that Beatrice, described as a “lady descended from heaven,” has asked him to lead Dante to deliverance. He reveals that they’ve been in Hell and even gives praises to Cato’s wife, Marcia, with whom he is stuck in Limbo. Cato reproaches Virgil for trying to flatter him and suggests her beauty no longer affects him; only Beatrice need be mentioned.

Cato orders Virgil and Dante to descend to the nearby shore and “gird [Dante] / with a straight reed and bathe his face, / to wipe all traces of defilement from it.” He vanishes, and the two poets go to the shore and follow his orders. Yet, when Virgil plucks the reed, a sort of miracle occurs: another one appears immediately in its place!

The second canto begins with a moving description of the dawn. A “whiteness” appears at sea, which Virgil slowly begins to recognize as an angel. When he does, he orders Dante to “bend [his] knees!” The angel, we learn, is piloting a ship carrying the souls of the saved; they sing the Psalm of the Exodus as they arrive at the shore. When they dismount, the dead souls are amazed at Dante’s living body. A single soul comes towards Dante. Although not yet sure who the soul is, Dante tries to embrace him, but his arms wrap around nothing; each of the three times he tries to embrace him, he fails. Soon he recognizes him as his friend Casella. Dante asks him to sing, and when he does, all around are “spellbound.” Yet Cato appears to chastise the souls for their idleness. At his words, the crowd scatters like doves frightened from food.

Virgil appears “beside himself with self-reproach.” Dante discovers that Virgil has no shadow, and Virgil responds to Dante’s amazement with a comment on the vanity of attempts to understand his shadowless form; he concludes that mortals should be “content… with the quia” (Latin for because). Soon they come to a hill entirely too steep to ascend. When they ask around, none of the nearby souls know the way. The group acts as shy as a flock of sheep. Only one—who we discover is Manfred, “grandson of the Empress Constance” and seemingly once known to Dante—comes forward. Manfred asks Dante to let his daughter know that just before death, he “turned / in tears to Him who freely pardons.” God granted him forgiveness, and now, by praying for him, his daughter can reduce his time in Purgatory.

The fourth canto begins with a bit of philosophy: Dante explains that the soul will sometimes pay attention to only one faculty, like hearing or touching. At such times, all other senses will not be active. This, he asserts, is why one can listen to someone and be completely unaware of the time, not because there are multiple souls. Indeed, three hours have passed since Dante started listening to Manfred. Now the souls around them explain that they have taken Dante and Virgil to where they should ascend the mountain. The two climb through a small gap in the rock; they continue climbing upwards, though Dante quickly tires and asks for a rest. Soon they find themselves on a ledge, and Dante enjoys looking downward to see where he began the climb.

After a short astronomical discussion, Virgil tells Dante that the climb up the mount of Purgatory will only get less arduous; when the ascent becomes pleasant, Dante will know it is done. Behind them, Dante sees souls standing in the shade of a boulder. He approaches them and discovers one of the souls, “sitting with his arms around his knees, / his head pressed down between them,” is a certain Belacqua. A lazy friend of Dante’s during life, he’s fallen back into his bad habits after death. As they jab at one another, Belacqua is pensive and defeated, but Dante, goaded by Virgil, continues his ascent.


The first canto of the Purgatorio follows many of the same “epic” conventions of the Inferno, including the invocation of the muses and the immediate movement into action. But importantly, it contrasts with the Inferno’s opening by showing Dante not in a sinful haze, but rather in a moment of pleasure, enjoying the fresh air. Where he was lost at the beginning of the Inferno, now the stars above give Dante the pilgrim a sense of direction. Dante (the poet) then immediately develops the theme of deliverance by using juxtaposition; these changes from the Inferno show how Dante has begun to orient himself towards God. Dante’s tendency to look backward and forward should also remind us that, even if we are reading in an unrhymed English translation, Dante is writing in what is called terza rima, an ABA BCB CDC… PQP QRQR rhyme scheme (the number of lines before the conclusion varies). This interlocking rhyme scheme always looks forward to a new stanza and echoes the stanzas before it, creating a sense of dynamic movement that iss replicated in the narrative itself.

A few words should be said about Cato. To situate Cato among the saved would have been considered highly unorthodox in Dante’s time; a pagan and a suicide, Cato shows Dante’s willingness to make artistic choices that would have been politically and theologically unpopular. But even then, Cato’s self-sacrifice could be considered a Christ-like action. Dante also uses Cato to introduce some of the Purgatorio’s first symbols. The reed is described in similar terms to the golden bough, an important symbol from Virgil’s Aeneid. But importantly, this reed is humble and natural rather than lavish and ornate; it mirrors the qualities perceived as necessary for a good Christian life, and like Christ, it is able to resurrect itself when it reappears.

The second canto continues to introduce symbols and motifs. Dante’s attention to the dawn not only emphasizes the pleasant atmosphere of Purgatory, but it indicates the presence of Christ, who was often symbolized as the dawn. The canto also introduces the motif of music. The beauty of music contrasts with the harsh sounds of Hell, but it also reveals how even the saved must continue the process of salvation; Casella’s singing, unlike the Psalm of the Exodus, distracts the souls (and Dante) from their movement towards Heaven. This canto ensures early in Purgatorio that Dante still must work to attain salvation and shows that being out of Hell does not mean being able to leave aside temptation.

Although it may seem like something of a non-sequitur, Virgil’s discussion of the vanity of attempts at comprehensive understanding in the third canto are an important reminder of the importance of Christian theology in Dante’s poem. Rather than look towards the philosophy of Plato or Aristotle, he uses the phrase “the quia,” taken from medieval scholastic philosophy, which suggests the general Christian belief in the necessarily limited form of human knowledge. Dante’s similes, too, show the influence of Christian thinking; Christ was variously depicted in the gospels as a shepherd (John 10 and elsewhere), prompting the saved to be described as “sheep.” We are far from the largely pagan world of sin found in the Inferno.

In Canto IV, we can see how Dante uses the characters he encounters to develop the contours of his inner journey. The encounter with Belacqua is humorous and enjoyable, and it emphasizes Belacqua’s idleness and resignation. This conversation, where Belacqua’s laziness is criticized, subtly reminds us of the first half of the canto, where Dante has tried to get Virgil to slow down. By staging a conversation with Belacqua, Dante shows how he himself can be prone to laziness, while at the same time, his choice to continue ascending shows, by juxtaposition with Belacqua, how Dante has strengthened his will and his devotion to his pilgrimage.