Purgatorio -- Canto XVII

The Slothful














19 Procne was changed into a nightingale (see note to Canto IX, l. 15).




26 Haman, favorite of King Ahasuerus of the Persians, was charged by queen Esther for persecuting Mordecai and the Jews; he was hanged (Esther 3-7).




34 Lavinia, daughter of Latinus and Amata, was promised to Aeneas rather than Turnus; Amata in distress killed herself (Aeneid XII), The three reins or bridles come to the poet as visions of his imagination.






46-66 This angel, as in other passages from terrace to terrace, gives Dante directions to proceed, and wipes out one of the P's from his forehead.












68 Beati pacifici is the liturgical prayer Dante hears at the end of the third terrace.







80 The pilgrims arrive at the fourth cornice for the slothful. The poet — and readers — are challenged to a probing study of love which is either natural or rational in human beings; rational or elective love can err in a number of ways (ll. 91-139). We are at midpoint in the poem.

          Remember, reader, if ever you have been
          Up in the mountains when the clouds close in
          So that you saw as blindly as a mole,
          How, when at last the dense and humid vapors
5        Begin to blow away, the circle of the sun
          Pierces through the mists with feebleness,
          Then your imagination will be quick
          To come to see how I first saw the sun
          Once more, right at the moment of its setting.
10       So, matching my steps with the trusted steps
          Of my master, I broke out of the cloud
          Into the rays now dead down on the shore.
          O imagination, which sometimes steals us
          So far from outward things we pay no heed
15       Although a thousand trumpets blast about us,
          Who moves you if the senses yield you nothing?
          Light formed in heaven moves you by itself
          Or by the will of Him who guides it downward.
          The impious act of her who changed her form
20       Into the bird that most delights in singing
          Appeared to shape in my imagining.
          And here my mind was so withdrawn within
          Upon itself that nothing from the outside
          Could have come then to be admitted in it.
25       Then there rained down within my heightened fancy
          A figure crucified, scornful and fierce
          In his look, exactly as he died.
          Around him stood the great Ahasuerus,
          Esther his wife, and the just Mordecai
30       Who showed integrity in word and deed.
          And as this image burst all by itself,
          Just like a bubble when the water runs
          Out from under where the film has formed,
          There rose into my vision a young girl
          Bitterly weeping, and she said, "O Queen,
35       Why in your anger did you slay yourself?
          "You took your life to keep Lavinia:
          Now you have lost me! I am one who mourns,
          Mother, more for your ruin than another’s."
          As sleep is broken when all of a sudden
40       New light strikes upon unopened eyes
          And, broken, flickers before it fully dies,
          So my imagining fell straight away
          As soon as light, more intense by far
45       Than what we are inured to, struck my eyes.
          I turned about to survey where I was,
          When a voice called out: "Here you can climb up,"
          And this drew me from every other thought,
          And it piqued my desire with such impatience
50       To gaze directly on the one who’d spoken
          As never rests till it stands face to face.
          But as before the sun which thwarts our sight
          And, being overbright, blurs its own shape
          So there my power of perception failed.
55        "This is a heavenly spirit who directs us,
          Without our asking, on the upward way,
          And with his own light he conceals himself.
          "He deals with us as men do with themselves.
          For he who sees the need but waits for asking
60      Already sets himself to turn it down.
          "Now let our steps follow his invitation.
          Let us press on to climb before night comes,
          For then we cannot go till day returns."
          So spoke my guide, and he and I together
65       Had turned our feet toward a stairway there
          When, just as I arrived at the first step,
          Near me I felt the brush as of a wing
          Fanning my face, and I heard said, "Blessed are
          The peacemakers, those free of wicked wrath."
70       By now the final sunbeams which night follows
          Rose so high above us that the stars
          Started to show themselves on every side.
          "O strength of mine, why do you melt away?"
          Within myself I said, since I perceived
75       The power of my legs had ceased to function.
          We had arrived now where the stairs ascended
          No higher, and we’d come to a full stop
          Just like a ship that pulls up to the shore.
          I listened for a while in hope of hearing
80       Any sound within this newest circle,
          Then I turned to my master, and I said,
          "My gentle father, tell me, what offense
          Is purged here in the circle we are come to?
          Although our steps halt, do not stop your speech."
85       And he told me, "The love of good which falls
          Short of its duty is in this place restored.
          Here the idle oar is dipped once more.
          "But that you may understand more clearly,
          Turn your mind to me and you will gather
90       Some goodly fruit from our delaying here.
          "My son, neither Creator nor his creature,"
          He then began, "was ever without love,
          Natural or rational, as you know.
          "The natural is always without error,
95       But the other love may err by evil ends,
          Or by too much or by too little ardor.
          "While it’s directed toward the primal good
          And toward the secondary goods keeps measure,
          It cannot be the cause of sinful pleasure,
100      "But when it’s bent on evil or runs after
          The good with more or less zeal than it should,
          Those whom he made then work against their Maker.
          "From this you can conceive how love must be
          The seed in you of every other virtue
105      And every deed deserving punishment.
          "Now, in so far as love can never shift
          Its sight from the well-being of its subject,
          All things are free from hatred for themselves.
          "And since no being can be thought as sundered
110      From primal Being and standing by itself,
          Each creature is cut off from hating him.
          "It follows, if I judge well by my critique,
          This evil that is loved is for one’s neighbor,
          And in three ways this love sprouts in your clay:
115      "There is the man who through his neighbor’s fall
          Hopes to advance, and only for this reason
          He longs to see him cast down from his greatness,
          "There is the man who dreads the loss of power,
          Favor, fame, and honor at another’s rise,
120     And pines so at it that he wants him ruined;
          "And there is the man who grows so resentful
          For injury, he’s greedy for revenge,
          And such a man must seek another’s harm.
          "This threefold love is purged down there below us.
125     Now I wish you to grasp the other kind:
          The love that runs for good in wrongful measure.
          "Each has a nebulous notion of the good
          On which his mind may rest, and longs for it;
          And so each struggles to achieve that end.
130      "If the love drawing you to view or gain
          This goal is lukewarm, then this terrace here,
          After true repentance, punishes for that.
          "There is another good which gladdens no one:
          It is not happiness, nor the true essence
135     Which is the fruit and root of every good.
          "The love which yields itself too much to this
          Is mourned in the three circles up above us;
          But how it is divided in three parts,
          "I will not say, that you may search it out."
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