Study Questions: Purgatorio 1-9
A) As at the beginning of Inferno, the start of Purgatorio seems particularly concerned with "metaliterary" questions. In these early cantos, be alert to the many times the text speculates about the nature of literature, especially about the differences--in style, form, or function--between "Infernal" and "Purgatorial" literature. The canticle begins, for example, with such a reference: in this metaphor, is it the Pilgrim or Poet whose journey will now be over better waters? Exactly what is metaphorically compared to a ship? What are the "wretched pies" of line 11 and what is their function? Does the nautical reference echo the voyage of Ulysses? Does anything else?
Canto 2 clearly focuses on the difference between two lyric poems--the psalm sung at the beginning by the penitents celebrating their arrival and the Convivio canzone at the end which is at best a distraction from their journey up the mountain. What are the terms of the comparison/contrast? Canto 2 ends with an extended simile. If the souls are like doves, what is their metaphorical food? Are there any other references, however indirect, to artistic or literary activities. Think of ways in which such activities as writing (or signifying) and reading (or interpreting) may be figuratively represented. Early in Inferno (Canto 5) there was a focus on a certain kind of love poem. How is love poetry evaluated at the start of Purgatorio? What kind of love poetry is involved here?
B) At the start of Purgatorio, Virgil, who had seemed so competent in Inferno, seems frequently confused or ineffective. How does he respond to Cato in Canto 1? To the first group of penitents in Canto 2? In Canto 3, Dante is presented with a Virgil's-eye view of the origin and purpose of shade bodies (lines 22-44). Does this represent "the" truth about shades or is this only Virgil's view? Is this explanation credible? How can we tell? Are there clues elsewhere in Purgatorio? Elsewhere in this canto?
C) There are several large structural parallels in the region of Ante-Purgatory, where souls have to wait before entering into Purgatory proper, with Book 6 of Virgil's Aeneid, the narrative of Aeneas' journey to the underworld. The largest parallel is probably to the shades of the unburied in Virgil's poem, those who are consequently unable to cross over the River Acheron into the underworld for a hundred years. Are there differences in Dante's version of this delay? How does Dante play off against the notion of exclusion in the afterlife in his presentation of Manfred? Why the focus upon Manfred's wounds? Do souls bear spiritually signs of their physical wounds?
Dante) Canto 4 seems particularly to emphasize the movement over time and space. (True? Where?) Are these concerns that continue in this section of Purgatorio? Throughout the canticle? In Canto 5, what role does La Pia play? How would you compare her (the first woman to speak in Purgatorio) with Francesca, the first woman to speak in Inferno? As we continue on our way up the mountain, continue to track some of the familiar motifs. How is Virgil dealt with in this section? How does he interact with the souls they encounter? (How does he introduce himself to his fellow citizen Sordello, for example (6.22-39)? Does the poem emphasize limits to his knowledge or power?
Self-conscious questions about the nature of art will re-enter the text explicitly in cantos 10-12. Are there already examples of art broadly conceived--visual art, literature, music, anything else--in Cantos 6-9? What kind of art seems to be particularly prized in these cantos?
How do Cantos 6-9 extend the poem's ongoing discourse about the nature of fame? What is life like in the Valley of the Princes? What does it look like physically? Describe it? How do you get there?
In the Epic Pseudo-simile that begins Canto 6, what are the terms of the comparison? Who is the "winner" and who the "loser" in this game? What is the crowd of hangers-on seeking from the winner?
What parallels are there between the transition from Ante-Purgatory to Purgatory and the transition from the regions of Incontinence to the regions inside the walls of Dis, i.e., in the transitions from Cantos 9 to 10 in the two canticles?
Purgatorio 10-12: The First Terrace
In these cantos, Dante seems intent, among other things, on demonstrating the "typical structure" of a Purgatorial terrace, the form which subsequent terraces will modify. Canto 10 presents examples of "visible speech," the sculpture created directly by the hand of God; Canto 11 presents an extended dialogue with a painter about the nature of artistic reputation; Canto 12, a return to speculation about art created directly by God. Throughout, we find, inescapably, discussions about the nature and limits of artistic representation. Is there a sense that these references to art play a role in the poem's "metaliterary" level of discourse? Is this, too, helping to define the role of poetry in Purgatorio? What role do addresses to the reader play in these cantos?
In Canto 10 three sculptures are presented in detail; in Canto 11, three characters. Are there any implied comparisons? As usual, pay attention to the details. Exactly how are the three sculpted scenes described? What is at stake in these descriptions? Exactly how are the three souls of Canto 11 described? In these cantos of Pride, how does Dante's own pride seem to be evoked? Is there some connection to 12 panels of pride presented as sculpted in the "floor" of the terrace.
In subsequent terraces, notice the way in which the poem presents the "Whip and Bridle," terms introduced in Canto 13. In this canto, is Sapia guilty of ongoing envy? Shouldn't she have overcome the sin in order to gain entry into Purgatory?
For additional specific concerns in this central part of the poem, reread the relevant sections of the Purgatorio essay.
Purgatorio 17 is the 51st canto of the poem's 100, close enough to the center for us to begin thinking about some of the new motifs and shifts of emphasis that seem to characterize the second half of the poem. The beginning of Canto 18 introduces a series of images centering on hunger and thirst, images that will continue to be re-examined all the way through the Empyrean. In various ways, hunger and thirst seem to be metaphors for intellectual or spiritual needs, for the search for a nourishment beyond the corporeal. You might wish to begin tracking these images, along with images drawn from falconry, i.e., hunting with hawks, falcons, eagles. The general relationship seems to be that God is metaphorical falconer to the human soul, but be alert to how this gets played out.
Canto 18 seems to suggest that pleasure is central to human motivation, an inescapable, even defining part of our psychic makeup. So what's the problem with the Siren? She's dealt with prominently--introduced at the end of Canto 18, described at the start of 19, evaluated or interpreted later in the Canto. It seems she cannot be ignored.
We had a sense in Inferno 19 of Dante's own hostility to the Papacy. How does he complicate his presentation of the medieval Papacy in Cantos 19-20?
Purgatorio 19-27 form something of a "Poets' Corner" in the Commedia; many poets are located there and a great deal of discussion of poetry--direct and indirect discussion--takes place there. (Poems by many of these poets are included in the packet of translations of medieval lyric poems.) Canto 19 begins with the dream of the Siren. The end of Canto 20 and all of 21 and 22 deal with the first-century Roman epic poet, Statius, and especially with his relationship to the writings of Virgil. In Canto 23 Dante encounters the shade of a friend and fellow poet with whom he had exchanged a series of comically insulting poems. In Canto 24, a 13th-century poet, Bonagiunta da Lucca, asks the Dante how his poetry differs that of the previous generation, and in the answer Dante defines the dolce stil nuovo, the "sweet new style," the term which continues to be applied to the stylistic innovations of the poets with whom Dante allies himself stylistically. In Canto 26, Dante meets Guido Guinizzelli, "originator" of the dolce stil nuovo, and Arnaut Daniel, a Provencal poet renowned for his technical virtuosity. And Virgil concludes Canto 27 (and the ascent of the mountain) with a valedictory: he remains with us until Canto 30, but these are the final words he speaks.
Are there meaningful comparisons and/or contrasts among these poets that imply some attitudes toward the power or value of poetry? The role of a poet? Specifically of the kind of poetry Dante writes or of the kind of poet he tries to be?
You will note that I skipped over Canto 25, "Statius' discourse" on the origin of shade bodies, what one of my colleagues calls the OB-GYN canto. Is this part of the discussion of poetry in this part of the poem?
Canto 19: This may be a good point at which to think about the poem's "back illumination" (John Freccero's phrase) or its emphasis on "retrospection" (Charles Singleton's): as you read forward, the poem seems to look back--or at least to invite you to look back, to explain for yourself where you have been and the significance of where you have been. How do you interpret, for example, the dream of the Siren? Does it reopen the Ulysses question? Does it sum up ideas from the "previous day" on the mountain? Does it anticipate ideas from the "next day"?
The most important character Dante encounters in Purgatory, maybe the most important in the whole of the Comedy after Virgil and Beatrice, is Statius, a figure who enters in Canto 21 and remains present (though often invisibly) all the way through 33. Most of what Dante says about him he "makes up," so that Statius provides a lens through which to see some of the central values and concerns of the poem. In Canto 20, what is the means by which the whip and bridle are presented? (Be specific; I think it matters.) Cantos 21 and 22 seem dominated by two rhetorical phenomena: a series of questions and answers and a series of misunderstandings or misinterpretations. Track he questions and answers and list the places where characters seem to draw wrong conclusions from the evidence at hand. In 21.113-114, exactly what emotional reaction is described?
Statius describes three separate "conversion" experiences, all related to Virgil. What are they? Did Statius ever know Virgil in life? Then how could he have had such a profound effect on him? Is there a way in which Statius, like so many other figures we've met, tells us something specific about Dante. What is the relationship of reading to conversion in this encounter?
Virgil gets the last word in these cantos ad he's the central figure in Statius' life narrative. How is his function being redefined? His value?
Study Questions: Purgatorio 28-33
We have been considering the importance of time throughout Purgatorio: this is the realm where the sun rises and sets, days pass, and souls "pay for" their vices through time. At the end of the poem, considerations of time become broader and more complicated. In the Christian myth, would there have been awareness of time in Eden? Is temporality uniquely a phenomenon of our fallen world? What is the relationship of Dante's Eden to our (his?) world of fallen nature--as presented in Canto 28? In Canto 29, the Books of the Bible "march by" in the Pageant that takes place at the River Lethe. In a sense this presents the movement of history, from Creation to Apocalypse, from the beginning to the end of time. Against this background of "creation history," Dante-Pilgrim sees (Dante-Poet presents) a series of tableaux of ecclesiastical history (Canto 32) and Beatrice upbraids him for failings in his personal history (Cantos 30-31). As you read these cantos, pay particular attention to the various ways in which concepts of time get played out in the poem's narrative temporality.
This is also a portion of the poem in which there seems to be--even by Commedia standards--a high proportion of literary allusions, to Ovid's Metamorphoses, especially in Canto 28, to Virgil's poems, especially in Canto 30, to Biblical texts throughout. (What is Dante's relationship to Biblical texts in canto 29.97-104?) This is probably a clue that you would benefit from looking up the original passage alluded to in order to figure out why Dante may be making this allusion. In a sense allusions of this sort may play a part in the overall focus at the end of Purgatorio on the importance of artistic, and especially of self-consciously literary, references in this canticle. As you read, be alert to references to reading and writing, interpreting and signifying.
This seems to be a portion of the poem where Dante deals with his poem's largest historical vision, but also with his most intimate autobiographical details. Exactly what are the terms of Beatrice's condemnation of Dante in Cantos 30 and 31?