Inferno Canto 2
Anthony Nussmeier is an Associate Professor of Italian and the Director of the Italian Language program at the University of Dallas. He regularly teachers classes abroad in Florence and is an expert in Dante, Medieval Literature, and Italian pedagogy.
Questions for Reflection
- Why does Dante slide into cowardice at the outset of his journey into hell and what does this reveal about the divided character of his will (2.37)?
- What does Dante’s cowardice and divided will reveal about the diligence and fortitude needed for living out the Christian life?
- Who are the three heavenly women who instigate Dante’s salvific journey with Virgil? Why these three figures? How do they correspond to the three beasts of the previous canto? What role do their compassion, hope, and tears play in this canto?
- What does Dante’s depiction of the heavenly women show us about how he imagines the relationship between the blessed in heaven and those lost and wandering on earth? How might we better image that heavenly attitude in our lives?
The Second Canto of Purgatorio is a moment of pause, of rest, of hesitancy, of delay. As it opens, everything is in balanced transition. Sunset and sunrise are balanced over the hemispheres. The night and the sun are balanced. The night over the Ganges holds the constellation Libra, the balances. The colors of Aurora are balanced, the white and scarlet of dawn, combining towards gold. And Dante and Virgil are also balanced. Dante says of them, “We were still by the sea, like those who think about the journey they will undertake, who go in heart, but in the body, stay.”
So in glorious harmony at the opening of the canto, the poet matches the expectation of the heart with the moving balancing moment of the whole heavens. Here, at the boundary between mortal life and immortal life, between the body and the heart. The poet fills this moment of pause with the most beautiful things he can, a vision of what will follow in Purgatorio, and distinguish it from the nightmares of the Inferno. An angel appears with a boat full of souls chanting a psalm, and Virgil calls Dante to kneel in reverence.
A friend of Dante’s rushes to embrace him and at Dante’s request, sings one of Dante’s own poems, to the delight of all gathered near. Then, Cato returns to reprimand them for their delay, but also to encourage them toward conversion. So even in this pause, before the journey really begins, we can see this is definitely not the same kind of journey. This is not hell. The poet is clearing off the infernal grime from the reader’s minds, just as Virgil had used the dew of the mountain to wipe off Dante’s face in Canto I.
So let’s consider more deeply two points in the canto, the boat and Casella, with his song. The Boat, an angel speeds across the globe with a boat full of souls from the mouth of the Tiber, from the port of the City of Rome, as they arrive to Purgatory. But we have seen boats before. This is not the first significant boat in the Divine Comedy. First, there was the boat in Inferno, the skiff we might call it, which the souls of the damned throw themselves into so that the demon Charon, with eyes burning like embers, can bear them across the Acheron into hell, as he cries to them, “Woe to you, corrupted souls.” Using the same verb, in fact, Dante says that the souls of Purgatory throw themselves onto the shore, an action of identical energy, but a very different spiritual impulse.
The other ship, of course, belongs to Ulysses, who tried by his own vain human efforts to sail from the Pillars of Hercules to unknown waters. In fact, we’ve now learned through this same mountain, until he and his crew caught sight of Mount Purgatory and were destroyed by the whirlpool. They chose the wrong path. You cannot reach this training ground for heaven by simple force of arm and intellect. Ulysses said that he and his comrades “made wings of our oars in wild flight”. While here, in a clear reversal, the angel makes oars of his wings, holding them, Virgil says, “Pointing to heaven.”
The humble souls coming to Purgatory rely not on their own genius, but on the supernatural power of God’s messenger of grace. They simply sing along, but not (singing). That would be hell, I think. Now, they sing a Psalm, which Dante notes only by its first verse in the Latin of the Vulgate, [Latin 00:04:33]. He leaves it to us to recognize that this is the great Psalm of the Exodus, long associated in Christian chants with a special melody called the Tonus Peregrinus, the Wandering or Pilgrim Tone, appropriate for this setting.
The melody is beautiful. I’ll sing a little bit that I happen to remember. (singing). I don’t happen to remember the rest, but it’s a very beautiful, haunting melody. In English, it would go, “When Israel came out of Egypt, the House of Jacob, from a people of strange language, Judah became his sanctuary, Israel, his dominion. The sea looked and fled. The Jordan turned back on its course.” Now, this is not the harsh noise of Inferno, but Dante does not insert this Psalm verse as mere decoration. Rather, in accord with ancient and medieval tradition, he invites us to consider this Psalm not just in its literal sense in what it says about Israel in the past, but in its spiritual or allegorical senses.
The chants about Israel’s liberation from Egypt has always meant much more than just that for Christians. It means our own liberation, our own salvation from not Egypt, but from an enslaving world of sin that is not our true home, our becoming part of the people of God. In all the ways our soul is turned away from sin, we are freed from Egypt by God’s miraculous power. The Psalm is this song of spiritual crossing over, of recalling that we have begun a great journey of salvation. So Dante chooses this well. The Israelites’ situation in the Psalm is the same as the situation of the souls in Purgatory and the same as ours, he hopes, as we read.
Now, after this, or perhaps in contrast to it, there is Casella’s song, which is one of Dante’s own poems. When Casella recognizes Dante, Casella rushes over. Dante requests something beautiful. He says, “If there’s no new law that denies your memory or practice of the songs of love that used to quiet all my longings, then may I please you with those songs to solace my soul somewhat. For having journeyed here together with my body, it is weary.” Perhaps we too are weary of the soul by the time we get here after the journey of Inferno.
And so Casella sings, [Italian 00:07:48], one of Dante’s earlier poems, “Love that discourses with me in my mind.” And it is a great refreshment to Dante, and to Virgil, and to all the other souls that are there, who eagerly gather around. But it is a song not of salvation, but of reflective consolation amid the sorrows of mortal life. Actually, it’s a love song to Lady Philosophy, to whom Dante turned after Beatrice. Wonderful thing, but still, not true liberation. So this moment is charming and restful. But Dante quotes his own poem not to praise himself, but as a self-critique, a poetic miniature Purgatory, reminding himself, and us, of the danger of resting too long in such pleasant but earthly arts.
So when the crowd drew around Dante to marvel at his being still alive, to look again upon what it’s like to breathe and have a heartbeat, the poet says, “Those happy spirits stared hard at my face,” adding in Italian, “[Italian 00:08:56],” “As if forgetting to go and become beautiful themselves.” The beauty of face and the beauty of song are rest and consolation in this life, are true goods in their way, admitted on the shore of Purgatory, at least briefly. Absent from hell, for sure, that we are called to transcend them. Neither to reject them totally, nor just idly admire them, wasting our time. But rather, to use these moments of pause rightly, to grow in true desire and move on our way. To move through that which is beautiful, to become truly beautiful ourselves. This is the power Dante claims for his Divine Comedy.
And so it is that Cato comes to urge them along. Now, perhaps Cato allowed them this little pause, a lighthearted early morning stop for donuts and coffee before the long road trip I guess, as a foreshadowing of what true likeness of spirit will be. But his first lesson is that, small comforts for the weary soul are not enough, and thus can be perilous distractions. For we are called to heroic, spiritual labor. Our souls need exercise to put ourselves more and more fully into the perfect light of God’s grace, with all good zeal. If we want to grow, we can’t settle for the easy comfort or the easy workout, so may our labor of reading bring us that much closer to our true goal.
- Dr. Anthony Nussmeier
- University of Dallas
- Run Time 9:33