The Purgatorio -- Canto XXIX

The Procession of Revelation

 

Notes.

3 Matilda sings a line in Latin, Beati quorum tecta sunt peccata, taken in part from Psalm 31(32):1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

37 The poet here invokes the Muses as Christian virgins. Helicon (l. 40) is the mountain sacred to Apollo and the nine Muses, and Urania (l. 41) is the Muse of astronomy and heavenly things.

43 The procession approaches: it is a pageant of the Church in time from the Old Covenant to the New, from creation to the end of the world. The chariot is the Church drawn by the griffin (half eagle, half lion), Christ, God and Man. In the order of their appearance, the seven golden candlesticks stand for the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit (wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord); the twenty-four elders represent the books of the Old Testament; the four creatures symbolize the Four Gospels; the three women on the right of the chariot are the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) and the four to the left are the cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance); the seven men behind represent the rest of the New Testament writings: Acts, Epistles of Saint Paul, Catholic Epistles of Saints Peter, John, James, and Jude, and last of all the Apocalypse of Saint John. See Introduction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

78 The sash of Delia or Diana is the lunar halo; Apollo’s bow is the rainbow.

 

 

 

 

85 Dante paraphrases two biblical sources: Luke 1:28 and 42, and Judith 15:18.

 

 

 

 

95 Argus, with his hundred eyes, was beheaded by Jupiter, and his eyes given to the peacock (Metamorphoses I, 625-629).

 

 

 

 

 

105 In the Apocalypse, John pictures the four creatures with six wings (4:6-9), and in Ezekiel, the four cherubim have four wings (1:4-14).

 

 

 

 

115 Publius Scipio Africanus the younger defeated Carthage in 146 B.C. and entered Rome in triumph; his father, Scipio Africanus the Elder, who conquered Hannibal in 202 B.C., may also be intended. Augustus is the title bestowed on Octavian, the first emperor (63 B.C.-14 A.D.), by the senate and the Roman people.

118 Another reference to Phaethon’s abortive attempt to drive Apollo’s sun chariot (see Inferno XVII, l. 107, and Canto IV, l. 72).

 

 

 

132 The three-eyed woman is Prudence, who sees past, present, and future.

 

136 Saint Luke, author of Acts, was said to be a physician, a follower of Hippocrates, the father of medicine.

139 Saint Paul is often represented carrying a sharp sword, symbol of the word of God.

          Singing like a woman who is in love,
          She — after finishing her speech — continued,
          "Blessed are they whose sins are covered over!"
 
          And just as nymphs who used to roam alone
5        Through woodland shadows, one solicitous
          To see the sun, another to avoid it,
 
          So she then moved, walking along the bank,
          Against the stream, and I kept pace with her,
          Following her short steps with my short ones.
 
10       Between us we’d not gone a hundred steps,
          When both banks turned a bend at the same angle,
          In such a way that I once more faced east.
 
          And we had not yet gone far on our way
          When the lady turned around full-face,
15       Saying to me, "My brother, watch and listen!"
 
          And look! a sudden glowing brightness coursed
          Throughout the lofty forest on all sides,
          So that at first I thought it must be lightning.
 
          But since as soon as lightning comes it goes,
20       While this light, glowing brighter, lasted brightly,
          I asked within my mind, "What thing is this?"
 
          And a sweet-sounding melody ran through
          The light-filled air; at that, a holy zeal
          Made me reproach the impudence of Eve,
 
25       In that, where earth and heaven were obedient,
          A solitary woman, just then formed,
          Would not endure the veil before her eyes:
 
          Had she but stayed devout beneath that veil,
          I could have tasted — and for much more time —
30       These ineffable delights before this moment.
 
          While I walked on among so many first fruits
          Of everlasting pleasure, all in raptures,
          And longing for still deeper happiness,
 
          Ahead of us, beneath the greening boughs,
35       The air became just like a blazing fire,
          And now the sweet sound could be heard as song.
 
          O Virgins, sacrosanct, if for your sake
          I’ve ever endured fastings, cold, or vigils,
          Occasion spurs me now to claim reward!
 
40       Now Helicon should pour its streams for me,
          Urania should help me with her choir
          To put in verse things difficult to ponder.
 
          A short way farther on, we seemed to see
          Seven golden trees, a false impression
45       Caused by the vast space between the trees and us;
 
          But when I had come up so close to them
          That the broad likenesses which fool the senses
          Did not let distance blur their true details,
 
          The power which forms matter for the reason
50       Made out that they in fact were candlesticks
          And that the voices sang the word "Hosanna."
 
          Atop that beautiful arrangement flamed
          Light far more brilliant than the mid-month moon
          At midnight in a calm and cloudless sky.
 
55       I turned around, all full of wonderment,
          To my good Virgil, but he answered me
          With a look no less bewildered than my own.
 
          Then I returned my gaze to those lofty things
          Moving towards us at so slow a pace
60       That even newly wedded brides move faster.
 
          The lady chid me, "Why are you so ardent
          Only for the sight of the living lights
          And do not look at what comes after them?"
 
          Then I saw people following the lights,
65       As if behind their lords, and clothed in white:
          Whiteness so pure has never been on earth!
 
          The water on my left took in my likeness,
          And like a mirror, when I looked in it,
          Reflected back to me my left-hand side.
 
70       When I had reached the point along my bank
          Where only the stream now separated us,
          I stayed my steps so that I could see better,
 
          And I beheld the glowing flames glide forward,
          Leaving the air behind them streaked with pigment,
75       Like moving strokes a painter’s brush might make,
 
          So that the air above them remained marked
          With seven bands, all in those colors which
          Make up the rainbow and Delia’s girdle.
 
          These banners streamed on to the rear and far
80       Beyond my sight; as well as I could judge,
          The outside bands were full ten feet apart.
 
          Beneath the vivid sky I have described,
          Twenty-four elders, two by two, approached,
          With crowns of woven lilies on their brows.
 
85       They all were singing, "Blessed are you among
          The daughters of Adam, and blessed be
          Your beauties throughout all eternity!"
 
          After the flowers and fresh-growing grass
          Across from me on the opposing bank
90       Were clear again of the elected people,
 
          As star replaces star within the heavens,
          Behind the elders came four living creatures,
          Each with a crown of green leaves on his head.
 
          Each had six wings with feathers full of eyes.
95       And were the eyes of Argus still alive
          They would have looked exactly like his eyes.
 
          I shall not spend more of my verses, reader,
          Describing their forms, since I have other charges
          So pressing that I can’t be lavish here.
 
100      But read Ezekiel who pictures them
          As he saw them come from the frozen north
          Out of a storm of wind and cloud and fire.
 
          And just as you will find them in his pages,
          Such were they here, except that, for the wings,
105     John is with me and disagrees with him.
 
          The space between the four of them contained
          A chariot of triumph on two wheels,
          Coming drawn at the neck of a griffin.
 
          And he stretched upward one wing and the other
110     Midway between the bands — three here, three there —
          So that by splitting them he did no damage.
 
          They rose so high the wings were lost to sight;
          His limbs were golden where he was a bird
          And all the rest was white mixed in with red.
 
115     Never did Africanus or Augustus
          Please Rome with such a splendid chariot,
          But even the sun’s cannot compare to it —
 
          The sun’s, which veering off its course burnt out
          At the devout petition of the earth,
120     When Jove in his mysterious ways was just.
 
          Three women in a circle next came dancing
          At the right wheel; the first one was so red
          She scarcely would be noticed in a flame;
 
          The second seemed as if her flesh and bone
125     Had been cut out of emerald; and the third
          Appeared to be of freshly fallen snow.
 
          And now the white one seemed to lead them round
          And now the red, and from their leader’s song
          The others took the measure fast and slow.
 
130     By the left wheel, four women clad in purple
          Celebrated, dancing to the cadence
          Of one of them with three eyes in her head.
 
          After all the group I have described,
          I saw two old men, different in their dress
135     But like in bearing, straightforward and staid:
 
          One showed himself to be by his attire
          A follower of great Hippocrates
          Whom nature made for creatures she loves best;
 
          The other showed the contrary concern,
140     With a glittering and sharp-edged sword —
          Even on this near shore it frightened me!
 
          Then I saw four men, modest in their look:
          And after all of them, a lone old man
          Coming along, keen-featured, in a sleep.
 
145     All seven of these men were clothed like those
          In the first group, except they did not wear
          A crown of woven lilies round their heads,
 
          Rather of roses and other red flowers:
          One viewing them from closer up would swear
150     That all, above their eyebrows, were ablaze.
 
          And when the chariot was across from me,
          I heard a thunderclap, and those worthy people,
          Apparently forbidden to march farther,
 
          Stopped there with their banner-flames in front.
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