As they walk, Virgil warns Dante to be careful. One soul asks Dante about his living body, but before he can respond, he watches two groups of penitents kiss quickly as they meet, moving opposite directions, and continue on. Those moving away from Dante cry out “Sodom and Gomorrah!”; those moving with Dante bring to mind Pasiphae, a figure of classical mythology who committed bestiality with a bull, producing the minotaur. Dante once again hides his identity, although he explains that he has been sent by Beatrice. Dante asks who the two groups are, and the shade closest to him explains that those who are moving away are homosexuals, while those moving with him are heterosexual.
The speaker introduces himself as Guido Guinizzelli, an Italian poet. Guido points to another poet, who he says “was a better craftsman of the mother tongue.” Dante approaches him and learns that he is Arnaut; Arnaut asks that Dante remember his pain “when the time is fit."
It is approximately 6 PM on the mountain of Purgatory. The angel of charity sings one of the Beatitudes and tells them they must enter through the fire to move forward. Dante, with his “mind fixed on the image / of human bodies” he “once saw being burned,” fears to move through it. Virgil begs that he “keep it in mind,” "it" being his safe passage through Hell. Against his own will, Dante cannot move. Yet when Virgil reminds him of Beatrice, Dante’s vigor renews, and he moves into the fire. As it burns, Virgil keeps “speaking of Beatrice” to help Dante maintain his will. All three poets are guided by a voice singing ahead and soon come out of the flame.
The sun has now set. Although they have made it to the next set of stairs, sleep will soon overtake them, and each lays down on one step. Dante compares them to shepherds and goats: “I like a goat and they like shepherds, / shut in on all sides by walls of rock.” Asleep, Dante dreams of the biblical Rachel and Leah, the former reflecting on herself in a mirror and the latter collecting flowers. He wakes up at the edge of the Garden of Eden. As the canto ends, Virgil leaves Dante with these words: “‘No longer wait for word or sign from me. / Your will is free, upright, and sound. / Not to act as it chooses is unworthy: / over yourself I crown and miter you.’”
Dante, now in the Garden of Eden, explores. A wind bends the branches of trees; soon he has traveled so far that he cannot see where he entered. He comes to a stream that is astoundingly clear; a woman is at the other side of it, picking flowers, and Dante asks her to come closer such that he can hear her song. She turns and moves towards him until they are only “three steps apart,” divided by the stream. Although he does not reveal it to the reader, Dante could now hear and understand “her sweet song.” He asks her why there is weather in Eden, and she explains that weather came to the Garden through man’s “own fault.” But still, only the wind from the Earth reaches Eden, from which seeds are scattered across the Earth.
She explains further that this river is the Lethe, where sins are forgotten; on the other side is another river, called the Eunoë, which restores the memory of good deeds. The taste of the water of the second river “surpasses every sweetness.” With this, she explains that this Garden is what ancient poets thought of when they imagined “the golden age,” and Dante turns to Statius and Virgil, both of whom are smiling.
The woman ends her explanation by singing “Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata,” (Latin for “blessed are those whose sins are covered”). Dante follows her as they round a curve in the river, still divided by the water. She tells Dante to “look and listen.” The forest is filled with light and “a melody / so sweet” that Dante is temporarily angered at Eve for her sin. Dante calls upon the muses to help him describe what comes next: a set of divine figures, moving like a triumphal procession. There are “people, clad in white,” “twenty-four elders,” fantastic animals inspired by the prophetic books of the Bible, and at last a griffin leading “a two-wheeled chariot of triumph,” with women dancing near it and elders in tow.
Canto XXVI focuses largely on vernacular poets of Dante’s time. Vernacular poetry, in this period, is any poetry not written in Latin. To write in the vernacular was considered somewhat strange, and as a practice, it had not taken hold as a standard way of writing poetry or prose. As such, we can see how Dante reduces Virgil’s presence in the canto in order to bring to the fore other poets writing in Italian. His diction in these conversations, even outside of explicit discussion of poetry, calls attention to the act of writing: “trace” is repeated twice with reference to memory, and the Italian uses words like ver, dir, and detto. This emphasis suggests the tight link between place, culture, and memory, all of which are bound up in Dante and his poetry.
Canto XXVII dramatizes, through narrative and symbolism, two of the most important themes of the Purgatorio. First, Dante’s passage through the fire reveals his strengthened will; he is now able to overcome the images of earthly things to move towards heavenly things (in particular, Beatrice). Indeed, this transformation of the will, brought into focus at the beginning of the canto, is explicitly confirmed by Virgil at the canto’s end. Second, the fire is an intense and visceral image of purgation. Unlike the cleansing, baptism-like water at the beginning of the Purgatorio, this cleansing fire poses a real danger, one which seems to suggest the possibility of physical and painful sacrifice.
Yet, this canto also uses juxtaposition by settling Dante’s last dream directly after the passage through the fire. This calm, pastoral scene, in which Rachel and Leah represent the virtuous lives of contemplation and activity respectively, seems even more pleasant when it follows upon the cleansing (and seemingly destructive) fire.
In the twenty-eighth canto, Dante arrives at the Garden of Eden. Here we can see how he begins to create closure through parallelism. That he cannot remember where he entered the Garden parallels his disorientation at the beginning of the Inferno; yet now he is out of the “savage forest, dense and difficult” and in an earthly paradise. Similarly, the woman who leads him with a “sweet song” not only plays on Dante’s own “sweet new style,” but it also provides him with his first female guide, as if he is one step closer to Beatrice.
The procession in Canto XXIX, called “the church Triumphant” by commentators on Dante’s work, is perhaps too full of symbolism to fully recount. But in sum, these figures represent the books of the Bible, both old and new testament. The Griffin in particular seems to represent Jesus, a view bolstered by Dante’s later focus on his double nature; as Jesus is human and divine, the noble Griffin is eagle and lion.