Divine Comedy: Purgatorio

Divine Comedy: Purgatorio Summary and Analysis of Canto V-VIII


As Dante leaves the crowd of souls, they chatter, amazed at his shadow. Virgil bids Dante not to be distracted by them; instead, he should “follow” and “let the people talk. / Be more like a sturdy tower / that does not tremble in the fiercest wind.” Dante follows, and soon they come on a group chanting "Miserere," the 51st Psalm. These are the late-repentant, those who repented just before death. They too are amazed at Dante’s shadow. When the group discovers his “body is true flesh,” the crowd rushes at him “like an unruly band.” They all hope Dante will bring news from them to the world of the living. Dante recognizes none of them, but one steps forward to give his story. He is Jacopo del Cassero, a Guelf who was stabbed to death by his enemies and died in a marsh.

The next to speak is Buonconte da Montefeltro, a Ghibelline whose body disappeared after the battle of Campaldino. Dante, who was present at the battle, wonders how it happened; Buonconte explains that as God’s angel took his soul to Purgatory, Satan became angered and claimed his body; he “roused the fog and wind,” caused rain, and swept his frozen corpse into the Arno river, “‘undoing at [his] chest the cross / ‘[his] arms had made.” Finally, the mysterious “La Pia” comes forward. Her short, opaque narrative ends the canto.

Canto VI begins with an extended simile comparing Dante to the winner of a dice game; the souls crowd him as if trying to get a bit of the winnings. To free himself of them, he promises that he will try to get people on Earth to pray for them. Dante lists more of the souls in the throng, and as soon as he is free of them, he asks Dante about a line from the Aeneid, which seems to contradict these souls' belief in the power of prayer to shorten their time in Purgatory. Virgil explains that “in one instant love’s bright fire” can work to change their punishment; anyway, he continues, Beatrice will clear any doubts up. Soon they see Sordello, who Virgil says will show them the way. Sordello does not speak until Virgil mentions Mantua, his birthplace. The two talk excitedly about the city, and Dante shifts gears to address contemporary Italy. He criticizes it for remaining in constant state of war and not letting “Caesar occupy the saddle;” he turns to the Holy Roman Emperor, “German Albert,” and chastises him for “abandon[ing] her / now that she’s untamed and wild.” He asks Albert to “come and see” Italy. Finally, he ironically lambasts Florence for its pride and inconstancy.

Moving back into a narrative mode in the seventh canto, Dante writes that Sordello asks Virgil for his name. Virgil reveals his identity and explains that the only reason he is not in Heaven is his “lack of faith.” Sordello is amazed, praises Virgil’s poetry, and asks where he was in Hell. Virgil paints a flattering picture of Limbo and affirms that his only sin was one of omission. At the end of the speech, he asks for Sordello’s help in entering Purgatory proper. Sordello explains that souls in this area “are set in no fixed place”; he chooses to help them as long as the sun is out, as when it goes down, the will is beset with feelings of helplessness.

Now guiding Virgil and Dante, Sordello points them to a beautiful glade where “Nature had… painted there in all her hues” and “a thousand scents” are “blended into one fragrance strange and new.” The valley, referred to as the “Valley of the Princes,” is full of those who were kings, emperors, or other rulers in life. There he sees Emperor Rudolph of Austria, Ottocar of Bohemia, Philip III of France, Henry IV of Navarre, Pedro III of Aragon, Charles I of Anjou, and Henry III of England. With each ruler he sees, Sordello comments on their reign and legacy. Finally, he describes the Marquis of Monferrato looking up in prayer.

In Canto VIII, it is “now the hour that melts a sailor’s heart” as he remembers “his beloved friends,” the house “when a traveler, starting out, / is pierced with love”; yet rather than long for his friends or memories of the past, Dante the pilgrim focuses his gaze on one before him. The figure sings "Te Lucis Ante" so sweetly that it removes any thought of himself from Dante’s mind, and the other souls join him in singing. Dante addresses the reader, asking that you “set your gaze upon the truth, for now the veil is drawn so thin / that piercing it is surely easy.”

Dante watches as two angels, holding flaming swords without tips, descend above them. Sordello explains that they are guarding the valley from a serpent, soon to appear. Dante is afraid for a second but soon is distracted by the “Noble Judge Nino.” The two converse for a moment until Nino asks a man named Currado to come over. Nino gently criticizes his living wife’s conduct, mourning him for too short of a time and remarrying someone whose family crest is a “viper.” Soon after, the serpent appears “turning its head from time to time to lick its back / like a beast that sleeks itself.” The angels, merely by flapping their “green wings,” scare the serpent away. Currado now turns to Dante and asks after his family’s reputation; Dante speaks highly of their continued renown.


Here Dante continues to emphasize the need for focus during one’s spiritual journey. Importantly, this message is taught to him, through Virgil, using poetic devices. Virgil, rather than Dante, uses a simile when he exhorts him to be “more like a sturdy tower”; just as Dante the poet is giving his reader spiritual instruction through poetry, Virgil the poet is giving Dante the pilgrim (which is to say Dante as he appears in the narrative) spiritual instruction through poetic devices. Now recommitted to not getting distracted, Dante is reminded of how far he has come by the next crowd of spirits. The psalm they sing, "Miserere" (“pity me” in Latin) is actually the same phrase as Dante’s very first spoken words in the Inferno, where he asks Virgil to pity him. This allusion to the first book of the Commedia reveals how Dante interlocks the separate poems to show his continuous growth.

Another important aspect of this canto, in terms of interlocking structure, is the return of characters who tell their stories to Dante. Like many of the inhabitants of Hell in the Inferno, these characters say their names and explain their deaths or lives, now seeking to receive prayers from Earth. In this canto, too, Dante shows his attention to contemporary politics, as the first two speakers are a Guelf and a Ghibelline, respectively. Rather than side with one or condemn one, Dante shows them both as saved, revealing his own political equanimity.

Canto VI may be one of the most politically charged parts of the Commedia. The digression criticizing the state of Italy, taking up almost half of the canto, is brought about by Sordello and Virgil’s excited discussion of Mantua. Their conversation emphasizes a sort of joy about Italy which then sharply contrasts with Dante’s indictment. The criticisms become even more intense on account of Dante’s use of apostrophe: he directly addresses Italy, its leaders, and its towns, stepping out of the narrative to directly berate them. His repetition of the imperative “come and see” adds to the urgency and quick pace of the section, which reaches an ironic crescendo as he “praises” Florence.

In the seventh canto, we can see the subtle ways that Dante characterizes Virgil. His response to Sordello’s questions reveals that he seems almost ashamed at being in Hell. He focuses almost exclusively on the innocent babies in Limbo with him, rather than paint a fuller picture of the situation and his punishment. This characterization importantly gives the reader a more full-bodied sense of the shade of Virgil; rather than a deified poet, he too is human and subject to human feelings and fears.

Canto VIII begins by subtly contrasting Dante to the figures he refers to in his opening simile. Rather than think of the past, he is turned towards salvation. Soon, Dante enters the second person, addressing the reader directly. This pulls our attention into the poem, asking that we attend both to the “truth” of the political commentary as well as the “truth” of the allegory. But what does the allegory in the Valley suggest? Dante reworks imagery from Genesis, like the flaming swords and the serpent, to show that Christ has conquered Satan. Rather than pose a serious threat, the serpent is quickly dispersed by the angels; indeed, their swords don’t even need tips: the battle, this canto allegorically suggests, is won.