Purgatorio -- Canto IX

The First Dream, Saint Peter's Gate



1 The moon, here described as the concubine of Tithonus, the brother of Priam, is rising with the constellation Scorpio gleaming on her forehead. Two steps of the night have flown by and the third is about to do so: it is approaching 9:00 P.M.





15 Philomena was changed into a swallow, her sister Procne into a nightingale, to prevent Procne’s husband Tereus from killing them. The story is found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses VI, 423- 674.



23 Ganymede, a handsome youth, was snatched up to Olympus by an eagle to become the cupbearer of Zeus.






34 Thetis, the mother of Achilles, stole him from the centaur and teacher Chiron in order to seclude him in the court of Lycomedes at Skyros and keep him out of the Trojan war (see note to Inferno XXVI, l. 56).












55 Saint Lucia stands for divine light. She is one of the three heavenly ladies in Inferno II.














78 This is one of the many angels that Dante encounters throughout purgatory.










94 The first step represents confession, the second contrition, and the third penance: the three steps, together, stand for forgiveness of sins.











112 The seven P’s are the seven sins (Latin peccata) to be wiped away; they may also be wounds (Latin plagae) to be healed.


117 The two keys are the signs of papal power to bind or loose sin, the gold indicating authority and the silver discernment of spirit.












137 The temple of Saturn on the Tarpeian Rock held the Roman treasury: Metellus failed to stop Julius Caesar from breaking into it in 49 B.C.

140 The Te Deum is a hymn of praise sung in the church on days of celebration since the fourth century.

          The concubine of old Tithonus now
          Grew pale above the eastern balcony,
          Breaking away from her sweet lover’s arms;
          Her white forehead glittered with bright gems
5         Set in the shape of that cold animal
          Which stings and lashes people with its tail;
          And night, there in the spot where we were come,
          Had scaled two steps of the hours that she climbs,
          And the third already lowered down its wings,
10       When I, who had a trace of Adam in me,
          Overcome by sleep, lay down on the grass
          On which all five of us already sat.
          At the hour nearing dawn when the swallow
          Begins to sing her mournful melodies,
15       Perhaps remembering her former woes,
          And when our mind, turned more into a pilgrim
          From the flesh and less a prisoner to thought,
          Becomes almost prophetic in its visions,
          In a dream I seemed to see an eagle
20       With golden feathers hovering in the sky
          And spreading wings in readiness to swoop.
          And I seemed to be standing on the spot
          Where Ganymede left his friends behind
          When caught up to the council of Olympus.
25       Deep in myself I thought, "Perhaps it strikes
          Its prey on this spot only and may shun
          To snatch it in its claws from some place else."
          Then I dreamed that, after circling for a while,
          Terrible as a thunderbolt it fell
30       And swept me up into the sphere of fire.
          There it seemed that the eagle and I burned,
          And the imaginary flames so scorched me
          That I broke straight out of my dreaming sleep
          The same way that Achilles started up,
35       Casting his awakened eyes around him
          Without his comprehending where he was,
          When his fond mother carried him asleep
          Within her arms from Chiron off to Skyros
          From where later the Greeks lured him to Troy:
40       So I woke with a start as soon as sleep
          Fled from my face, and I grew deathly pale,
          Just like a man who freezes up with fright.
          My comforter alone was at my side.
          The sun was now more than two hours high,
45       And I had turned my gaze toward the sea.
          "You have no need to fear," my master said;
          "Now rest assured — we have reached the right spot:
          Do not keep back but call on all your strength!
          "You are right now arrived at purgatory:
50       See there the cliff that walls it all around!
          See there the gate where that gap opens up!
          "At dawn before the day, a while ago,
          When your soul slept on deep within yourself,
          Upon the flowers that deck the glen below,
55       "A lady came; she said, ‘I am Lucia.
          Allow me to take this man, still asleep,
          So I may speed him on his way above.’
          "Sordello and the noble souls stayed there.
          She took you, and as the daylight brightened,
60       She came up here, and I went in her steps.
          "She set you down, but first her shining eyes
          Showed me that open entrance over there;
          Then she and sleep — together — went away."
          As a man in dismay feels reassured,
65       His fears resolving into resoluteness,
          When truth at last has been revealed to him,
          So I felt changed, and when my guide saw me
          Carefree, he started up the slope of stone
          And I moved on behind him toward the heights.
70       Reader, you clearly see I elevate
          My theme: you should not wonder then if I
          Try to raise my style with ampler art.
          When we drew closer we came to a place
          Where — at first it seemed nothing but a break
75       Or crack there that had split the wall asunder —
          I saw a gate, and underneath its threshold
          Three steps each leading up, of different colors
          And a guard too who had not said one word.
          And as my eyes grew focused more and more,
80       I saw that he was seated on the top step,
          But his face shone so bright I looked away!
          And in his hand he gripped a naked sword
          Which so reflected rays of light on us
          That it was useless to turn my gaze on it.
85       "Tell me from there: what is it you want?"
          He began by asking; "Where is your escort?
          Watch out! You may be hurt by coming here!"
          "A lady from heaven, familiar with such things,"
          My master answered him, "told us just now,
90       ‘Go in that direction: the gate is there.’ "
          "And may she further your steps toward the good!"
          The courteous gatekeeper once more began;
          "Come forward, therefore, to our stairway!"
          We came ahead then, and the first step was
95       White marble so smooth and so highly polished
          I saw myself there mirrored as I was.
          The second was darker than a blue-black stain,
          Made of charred and pebble-broken stones
          With deep cracks all across its length and breadth.
100     The third, resting its massive weight on top,
          Appeared to be of porphyry as flaming
          Red as the blood that spurts out from a vein.
          With both his feet planted on this step
          The angel of God sat high on the threshold
105      Which seemed to me cut out of a diamond rock.
          By these three steps my leader drew me up
          With glad goodwill, and said to me, "Beg him
          Humbly now that he unbolt the gate."
          Devoutly falling at his holy feet,
110     In mercy’s name I begged him open for me,
          But first I beat three times upon my breast.
          Seven P’s he traced on my forehead
          With his sword-point, and said, "Be sure you wash
          These wounds away when you are there within."
115      Ashes, or earth should it be dug up dry,
          Would have the one same color as his clothing,
          And from beneath these robes he pulled two keys;
          One key was golden and the other silver:
          First he fitted the white and then the yellow
120     And so unlocked the gate — my mind was eased.
          "Whenever one of these keys fails to work
          By its not turning rightly in the lock,"
          He said to us, "this passageway won’t open.
          "One is more precious, but the other needs
125     Wisdom and skill before it will release,
          Since it is that one which undoes the knot.
          "From Peter I keep these keys, and he told me
          Rather to err in opening than in closing
          If souls but cast themselves down at my feet."
130      Then he pushed the sacred portal open
          And said, "Enter, but I would have you know
          Those who look back return outside once more."
          And when the pivots of that holy entrance,
          Which were round rods of ringing and strong steel,
135      Turned within the sockets of their hinges,
          They made a louder and more resonant clangor
          Than Tarpeia did, when the good Metellus
          Was snatched from it, the treasure gone forever.
          I turned around at the first thundering sound
140     And thought I heard "Te Deum: Praise to God"
          Chanted by voices mixed with that sweet strain.
          The notes I heard conveyed to me the same
          Exact impression which we have at times
          When people sing in concert with an organ
145     And now and then we just make out the words.
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