Purgatorio -- Canto XXIII

Forese Donati








11 Labia mea, domine from Psalm 50 (51) is quoted here in Latin.










25 Erysichthon, prince of Thessalia, defied Ceres and was inflicted with insatiable hunger: he ended by devouring himself. See Ovid’s Metamorphoses VIII, 726-881.

30 A woman named Miriam was so stricken by famine during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. that she ate her own child.

32 OMO (Italian and Latin word for "man") was a popular pictogram: the two O’s form ears (or eyes) and the M the nose, eyebrows, and cheekbones. See Introduction.







48 Forese Donati, a friend of Dante and fellow poet, died in 1296. A Black Guelph, he was related to Dante by marriage; his wife Giovanna ("Nella") is mentioned in lines 87-93. Dante and Forese exchanged sonnets of personal insults when they were young.














74 See Matthew 27:46.














94 The Barbagia, a wild area of Sardinia, is compared to Florence.

          While fastening my gaze through the green leaves,
          I peered up as a hunter usually does
          Who wastes his life in prowling after birds.
          At that my more-than-father told me, "Son,
5        Come on now, for the time allotted us
          Ought to be portioned out more purposefully."
          I turned my eyes and — just as fast — my steps
          Straight after those two sages who talked so,
          That it made walking with them cost me nothing.
10       And suddenly in tears and song we heard
          "Open my lips, O Lord," sung in such tones
          That it gave birth to gladness and to grief.
          "O gentle father, what is this I hear?"
          I wondered; and he: "Shades who journey on,
15       Perhaps loosening the knot of their bad debt."
          Like pilgrims who go wrapped in pious thought
          And, overtaking strangers on the road,
          Turn toward them but do not stop to talk,
          So from behind us, moving faster, coming
20       And passing by, there gazed at us in wonder
          A throng of spirits, silent and devout.
          The eyes of each were dark and hollowed-out,
          Their faces pale and they so shriveled up
          That their skin took its contour from their bones.
25       I doubt Erysichthon was so dried up
          Right down to the rind by his huge hunger
          When he was most afraid that he must fast.
          In thought I said then to myself, "Look on
          The people there who lost Jerusalem
30       When Miriam tore her son with her beak!"
          The sockets of their eyes seemed gemless rings:
          Those who read OMO in the face of man
          Would plainly there have recognized the M.
          Who would have dreamt that odor of a fruit
35       And that of water, by creating the craving,
          Would have done this without his knowing how?
          I was still wondering what starves them so,
          Since I had not yet fully grasped the reason
          For their thinness and their wretched scurf,
40       When look! a shade, from deep inside his head,
          Turned his eyes on me and steadily stared,
          Then cried aloud, "What grace have I received?"
          I never would have known him by his looks,
          But in his voice I plainly saw revealed
45       What his face had kept obscured from me.
          This spark rekindled in me all I knew
          Of the features that were now so changed,
          And I recognized the face of Forese.
          "Ah do not strive to make out who I am
50       Through the dry scabs discoloring my skin,"
          He begged, "nor by my scarcity of flesh,
          "But tell me the truth about yourself, and say
          Who are those two souls there escorting you:
          Do not restrain yourself from speaking to me!"
55       "Your face, which once I wept for at your death,"
          I answered him, "now gives me no less cause
          For tears when I behold you so disfigured.
          "Then tell me, for God’s sake, what strips you bare?
          Don’t make me talk while I am struck with wonder,
60       For one speaks poorly, driven to distraction."
          And he told me, "From the eternal counsel
          The power that emaciates us so
          Falls into the water and the tree.
          "All these people who in weeping sing
65       Resanctify themselves in thirst and hunger
          For having followed appetite too much.
          "Craving for food and drink is kindled in us
          By the fragrance wafted from the fruit
          And from the water splashed on the green leaves;
70       "And not just once while we walk round this road
          Is our ordeal renewed — I say ordeal
          And yet I ought to say our consolation,
          "For that same will that leads us to the tree
          Led Christ in gladness to call out ‘Eli,’
75       When he delivered us with his own blood."
          And I said to him, "Forese, from that day
          When you exchanged the world for a better life,
          Not five years have revolved up to this time.
          "If your ability to sin more ended
80       Only when the hour of true repentance,
          Which reweds us to God, had supervened,
          "How is it you have come up here already?
          I’d thought to find you still down there below
          Where time pays in return for wasted time."
85       And he told me, "What brought me here so soon
          To drink the sweet wormwood of these torments
          Was my Nella with her flood of tears:
          "By her devoted prayers and by her sighs,
          She led me from the slope where all must wait
90       And set me free from every other circle.
          "All the more precious and beloved by God
          Is my dear widow, whom I loved so well,
          As she is more alone in her good works.
          "For the Barbagia of Sardinia
95       Is far more modest in its womenfolk
          Than the Barbagia in which I left her.
          "O gentle brother, what would you have me say?
          A future time is already clear to me —
          Before this hour shall be very old —
100     "When — brazen-faced — those ladies of Florence
          Shall from the pulpit be prohibited
          To go displaying breasts bare to the paps.
          "What barbarian girls, what Saracens
          Ever were required to go covered
105     By spiritual or civil ordinance?
          "But if those shameless creatures were made sure
          Of what swift heaven has in store for them,
          They’d open up their mouths by now to howl,
          "For if our foresight here does not deceive me,
110     They shall be sad before the hair shall cover
          The cheeks of those now soothed by lullabies.
          "Ah, brother, hide nothing from me any longer!
          You see not only me but all these people
          Stare at the spot where you screen out the sun."
115     At this I told him, "If you call to mind
          What you have been with me and I with you,
          The memory now will still be hard to bear.
          "From that life he who goes before me here
          Turned me the other day, when you were shown,
120     At the full, the sister there of that one" —
          And then I pointed to the sun — "He, through
          Deep night, has led me from the truly dead
          With this true flesh in which I follow him.
          "From there his furtherance has drawn me higher,
125      Mounting up and moving round the mountain
          That makes you straight whom the world made crooked.
          "He says that he will keep me company
          Until I reach the place where Beatrice waits;
          There it is destined I be left without him.
130     "Virgil is he who speaks to me this way,"
          And I pointed to him, "and this other
          Is the shade for whom just now your kingdom,
          "Releasing him below, shook all its slopes."
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