Dante’s Purgatory: Canto 1 Retelling — The Island of Purgatory and Cato the Guard

Chapter 1: The Island of Purgatory and Cato the Guard (Purgatory)

Dante the Poet thought, Now my talent for poetry must be put to a new test. I have left behind me the Inferno, where unrepentant sinners are punished. Now my subject is Purgatory, where repentant sinners are purged of their sins so that they may ascend to Paradise. Muses, let my poetry be worthy of this subject! Let Calliope, the Muse of Epic Poetry and the leader of the other Muses, assist me! Let Calliope keep me from pride! Pride would keep me from telling this part of my tale correctly. Once, the proud daughters of King Pierus, whom he had named after you Muses, challenged you Muses to a contest of song. They had unwisely sung a song about the proud giants known as the Titans rebelling against their rightful ruler, Jupiter, King of the gods. You, Calliope, sang a song that utterly defeated the proud daughters of King Pierus, and then you changed them into magpies. They were proud challengers, but I am a humble suppliant. Pride is the worst and the foundation of all sins. Please, Calliope, sing for my benefit so that I may properly write about the Mountain of Purgatory!

Dante the Pilgrim looked around him at the base of the Mountain of Purgatory. He and his guide, Virgil, had entered the Inferno on Good Friday of the year 1300. Now, on Easter Sunday, 10 April 1300, dawn was nearing. The Inferno is always in darkness, but here on the Mountain of Purgatory are both day and night. The air of the Inferno always stank, but here the air is always pleasing. Sinners of the Inferno never saw Venus, the planet of love, but here Dante looked up at the sky and saw the bright and beautiful planet.

Dante the Pilgrim then looked to his right, and he saw four stars.

Dante the Poet thought, These are the stars that the first man, Adam, saw clearly, and no man since him has ever seen so clearlyThese four stars, which can be clearly seen from the Forest of Eden, are Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Fortitude. They are the four cardinal virtues. A person who has Prudence is able to judge which of a number of actions is the correct action to pursue. A person who has Temperance is able to practice self-control when self-control is needed. A person who has Justice is able to correctly balance his or her own self-interest with the needs of others, and a person who has Courage is able to conquer fear so that he or she can do the right thing. Virtuous pagans such as Virgil have the cardinal virtues.

Dante looked away from the four stars, and he saw an old man of dignity who commanded respect. Any stranger looking at him felt like a good son looking at a good father. The old man was alone. His beard was long, and it was streaked with white among the black. His hair was long, and on each side of his head his hair flowed down to his chest. His face was brightly lit with rays from the four stars. In fact, so brightly lit was it that a viewer could almost say that the Sun — given to us by God — was shining on the old man’s face.

The old man saw Dante and Virgil and asked, “Who are you? You have escaped from the Inferno by climbing along the passage through which a stream flows from the Forest of Eden at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory into Cocytus in the Inferno. Who is your guide? Who provided you with light to escape from the forever-dark pit of Hell? Have the laws of God changed? Has God decided that some of the damned may come to the Mountain of Purgatory?”

Dante thought, This is interesting. Can God change His laws? Why not? Once we had an Old Testament and now we have a New Testament. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-good. God is not limited. Could God decree that a virtuous pagan enter Paradise? Why not? God is all-powerful. God is not limited by Humankind’s interpretation of the Bible. If God were to allow virtuous pagans into Paradise, it would be a triumph for Omnipotent Love.

Virgil had recognized the old man. Virgil grabbed Dante’s arm, and motioned for him to kneel and show respect to the old man. Dante quickly obeyed.

Virgil thought, This man is Cato the YoungerHe is also known as Cato the Stoic and as Cato of Utica. In his life, he was renowned for possessing Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage in abundance. He was morally upright. He understood law. He valued freedom. He declined to take bribes. He detested the corruption of his age. When war broke out between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, Cato sided with Pompey because he believed that Julius Caesar was the greater enemy of freedom. When Julius Caesar decisively defeated Pompey at Utica, Cato committed suicide there rather submit to a person whom he considered to be a foe of freedom. Such a suicide is much different from that of Pier della Vigne, who committed suicide out of self-pity and the hope of getting people to feel sorry for him. Pier della Vigne is and deserves to be in the Inferno. Cato’s suicide was a vote in favor of freedom. Cato is a suicide, a pagan, and an opponent to Julius Caesar, but he is virtuous.

Virgil spoke to Cato, “I am not here to help myself. I am here on a mission given to me from a lady in Paradise. She asked me to be a guide for this man. You have requested that we explain what we are doing here, and I will obey your request. This man is still alive; he has not yet died. To avoid being condemned to the Inferno after he dies, he needs help, and so a lady in Paradise asked me to help him. This is the only way that he can avoid eternal damnation. I have guided him through the Inferno with all its damned souls, and now I need to show him all those who are on the Mountain of Purgatory to get him ready to enter Paradise. It is the will of Heaven that we proceed. Please welcome this man. He is searching for freedom, and you value freedom so highly. You committed suicide at Utica because you loved freedom so much. There you cast off your body — a body with which you will be reunited on the Great Day that is the Day of Judgment. Neither this man nor I have broken Heaven’s laws by coming here. This man is still alive, and Minos has never judged me and found me guilty. I come from Limbo, where the virtuous pagans, including Marcia, your wife, resides. Marcia loves you and still wishes to be your wife. Out of your love of her, please allow us to climb the seven ledges of the Mountain of Purgatory. I will tell her of your kindness to us, if you will allow me to mention your name in Limbo.”

Cato said, “While I was alive, I would do anything for Marcia. But now I am doing the Will of a Greater Power, and she can no longer command me. But since a Heavenly lady wishes you to be here and to climb the mountain, that is all that is necessary. You may climb the mountain. You need not flatter me. Take this man and tie a humble reed around his waist. Also clean his face. The tears of Hell are on his face, and it is not fitting that he see angels. Go down to where the waves break upon the shore. Reeds are growing in soft sand. Most plants cannot survive there; the waves would break their stalks. But the humble reed bows before the waves and so survives. When you are ready to climb the mountain, do not come back here. The daylight will show you where to go.”

Cato left them.

Dante rose from his knees, and he looked at Virgil.

Virgil said to him, “Follow me. I see where the reeds grow.”

Daylight was more pronounced, and Dante could see the waves. Dante and Virgil walked to the shore. They were like two men who had wandered from a path and were eager to find the path again.

They reached a place that was still shaded, and so the dew remained. Virgil put his hands in the dewy grass, and Dante turned his face to him. Virgil cleaned from Dante’s face the traces of the tears that he had shed when he had pitied some sinners in the Inferno — a pity that had angered Virgil and that Dante had learned was undeserved. Once again, Dante had a clean face with no trace of Hell left on it.

Then Virgil pulled a reed to tie around Dante’s waist. Immediately, another reed grew to take its place.

This is a place of miracles, Dante thought. It is also a place of growth. Good things happen here.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:

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