Purgatorio -- Canto I

The Shore, Cato







8 The muses are invoked, especially Calliope, the first and the inspirer of epic poetry.

11 The Magpies were daughters of King Pieros; they challenged the Muses to a song contest and, losing, were turned into birds.




19 The planet Venus rises on this Easter morning, shortly before sunrise.


23 The four stars represent the four cardinal virtues: prudence. temperance, fortitude, and justice. Adam and Eve were the first (and last) people to see these southern stars from Eden.



31 Cato is the appointed guardian of the foot of the mountain. Rather than yield to Caesar and the loss of the Republic, he committed suicide at Utica in 46 B.C. His wife Marcia (l. 79) remains in Limbo.




























77 Minos is the judge of souls in hell, pictured in Inferno V.







88 The stream is the Acheron.





95 The reed symbolizes humility.

          To race for safer waters, the small ship
          Of my poetic powers now hoists sail,
          Leaving in her wake that cruel sea.
          And I shall sing this second kingdom where
5        The human spirit purifies itself,
          Becoming fit to mount up into heaven.
          But let dead poetry here rise once more,
          O sacred Muses, since I am all your own,
          And let Calliope rise a step higher,
10       Accompanying my singing with that strain
          Which struck the wretched Magpies with such force
          That they despaired of ever finding pardon.
          Soft coloring of oriental sapphire,
          Collecting in the calm face of the sky,
15       Clear right up to the edge of the horizon,
          Brought back delight again into my eyes
          As soon as I stepped out from the dead air
          Which overburdened both my sight and breast.
         The beautiful, love-provoking planet
20       Was making the whole east break into smiles,
          Veiling the Fishes that follow in her train:
          I turned then to the right and fixed my mind
          On the other pole, and I saw there four stars
          Which, after the first people, none have seen.
25       The heavens seemed ecstatic in their flames.
          O widowed northern hemisphere, you are
          Deprived forever of wonder at their sight!
          When at last I left off gazing at them,
          Turning partially to the other pole
30       Where the Wain had already disappeared,
          I saw near me an aged man, alive,
          In bearing worthy of such reverence
          As no son ever would refuse his father.
          His beard was long and mixed with streaks of white,
35       Exactly like his hair which on both sides
          Fell in two tresses down upon his chest.
          Radiance from the four holy stars
          So suffused his countenance with light
          That I saw him as if he faced the sun.
40       "Who are you, running against the blind stream,
          Who have fled here from the eternal prison?"
          He asked, shaking his venerable locks.
          "Who guided you, or what was the lamp there
          That led you in escaping the deep night
45       Which keeps hell’s valley in unending blackness?
          "Are the laws of the abyss so shattered
          Or is some new design decreed in heaven
          That, although damned, you come here to my rocks?"
          At that my guide placed his hands upon me
50       And with words and gestures and other signs
          Made me bend my head and knees in reverence.
          Then he replied, "I come not on my own:
          A lady came from heaven — by her prayers
          I helped this man with my companionship.
55       "But since it is your wish that I unfold
          More about the truth of our condition,
          It is not my wish to deny your bidding.
          "This man has yet to see his final evening,
          But by his folly came so close to it
60       That not much time was left for him to turn.
          "As I just mentioned, I was sent to him
          For rescue, and there was no other way
          Than this on which I set myself to travel.
          "I have shown him all of the sinful people
65       And now I want to show him the spirits who
          Purge themselves beneath your supervision.
          "To tell you how I led him would take long:
          From up on high the power comes that helps me
          To guide him here to see and hear you now.
70       "Now be pleased to support his coming here.
          He goes in search of freedom, which is so dear,
          As he who gives his life for it would know.
          "You know, since death for its sake was not bitter
          To you in Utica, where you have doffed
75       The garment which on doomsday shall be bright.
          "We have not broken an eternal edict,
          Since he’s alive and Minos does not bind me:
          But I am of the ring where the chaste eyes
          "Of your Marcia gleam; her looks still pray you,
80       Oh holy breast, to hold her for your own.
          For love of her, then, bend to our request:
          "Permit us to pass through your seven realms.
          I will report your kindness back to her —
          If you allow such talk of you below."
85       "Marcia was so pleasing to my eyes
          While I lived there beyond," he then replied,
          "That every favor she wished of me, I did.
          "Now that she dwells across that stream of evil,
          She can no longer move me, by that law
90       Which was imposed when I emerged from there.
          "But if, as you say, a lady from heaven
          Moves and commands you, you need not flatter:
          It is enough you ask me for her sake.
          "Go then, and make sure that you cincture him
95       With a smooth reed and that you cleanse his face
          Until you have removed all trace of filth.
          "For it would not be fitting to go before
          The first angel there on guard from paradise
          With eyes still dulled by the thick murky mists.
100      "Around about the base of this small island,
          Below the place where waves beat on the shore,
          Rushes flourish in the soft wet mud.
          "No other plant that sprouts its leaves, or stalk
          That hardens, ever could thrive in such a spot
105      Because it would not bend to buffeting waves.
          "Then afterwards, do not come back this way.
          The sun, now rising, will point out to you
          An easier route for climbing up the mountain."
          With this he vanished. I lifted myself up
110     Without a word, drawing myself closer
          To my guide, and turned my eyes toward him,
          And he began, "Son, follow in my footsteps!
          Let us turn back, for the plain slopes downward
          In that direction to its lowest point."
115      The dawn was winning over the morning hour
          Which fled before it, so that, still far off,
          I recognized the trembling of the sea.
          We traveled along the solitary plain,
          Like a man turning to the road he’s lost
120     And, till he finds it, feels the walking useless.
          When we arrived at a meadow where the dew
          Outlasts the sun, since in the cooling shade
          The dew scarcely evaporates in the breeze,
          My master gently spread out both his hands
125     And pressed them on the grass. And I, at that,
          Comprehending what he here intended,
          Presented to his touch my tear-stained cheeks:
          Completely he revealed their rightful color
          Which hell had hidden underneath the grime.
130      Then we came down to the deserted shore
          Which never saw one man sail on its waters
          Who afterward resolved how to return.
          There, as another willed, he cinctured me.
          O wonderful! when he had picked the humble
135      Plant, the same one instantly sprang up
          Exactly at the spot he plucked it out.
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