The Divine Comedy, Part II

My 2004 review of this classic, continued.

***

Purgatory contains seven circles; here we find people who basically lived good and righteous lives, yet had some sin that couldn’t be overlooked, and so they must undergo a set form of penance in a set circle of Purgatory for a set period of time until they’re deemed ready to enter their set circle of Paradise (or Limbo/First Circle, as the case may be if they’re non-Christians; again, how very arrogant!).

In the first circle of Purgatory, the lowest circle instead of the highest, unlike Hell, where the best circle came first instead of last, are being punished the proud. After that we find envy, anger, sloth, avarice and prodigality, gluttony, and lust. I guess the gluttons in Purgatory weren’t as all-out gluttonous as the ones in the Third Circle of Hell. At the start of this middle part of the journey, seven Ps are written on Dante’s forehead, signifying each of the seven major sins being punished here; however, each time he climbs up into each new level, an angel erases one of the Ps, which makes his step lighter and thus easier for him to climb.

One of the last major trials still awaits, though, even as they’re getting closer to Paradise: a terrifying fire. At first Dante is very scared about having to pass through it, despite reassurances from his belovèd Virgil, since he’s seen people being burned alive back in Italy. Eventually he does go through it, cheered on by the thought that soon he’ll be with Beatrice. Towards the end of the journey through Purgatory, Dante suddenly finds Virgil has left him, and he becomes very sad, after the last few powerful days they’ve been through together. His guide for the remainder of this part of the journey is a woman named Matilda; Beatrice also joins them, but she isn’t the guide just yet. And then comes Paradise.

There are ten spheres of Paradise, named by the region in the cosmos which they occupy. Though at the time this poem was written, the farthest-away planet people knew about was Saturn, so the circles that come after Saturn are named for the region in the bed of stars they occupy, instead of for Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. And as they ascend to each new level, Beatrice gets more and more beautiful to behold.

The first level of Paradise is located in the Moon, and this is for those who broke vows, such as some nuns who were forcibly removed from their convents in order to get married. Dante thinks this is unfair, since it’s not like they broke their vows on purpose; they were forced into doing something they didn’t want to do.

Next comes Mercury, where we find those who were ambitious; it’s not classified as a sin, but it’s still not something that’s very desirable, and so their place in Paradise isn’t quite so high up.

Next we find the sphere of Venus, which is for rulers; the Sun, for theologians; Mars, for martyrs and warriors, obviously; Jupiter, for those who were “conspicuous for justice”; Saturn, for those who spent their lives in holy contemplation; the sphere of the Fixed Stars, far above the planets, which houses the really big-name people, such as Saints Peter and John, Adam, Jesus, Mary, and the Angel Gabriel; Primum Mobile, where a huge host of angels of all types are assembled; and finally Empyrean, which is the best of the best Paradise has to offer. It is here where Dante beholds the Divine Presence, in visions more wonderous and unbelievable than even in the last few spheres, which were also dazzling to behold, even blinding at some points.

All three parts of the poem end with the beautiful and hopeful word “stars”; the very end of the poem has one of the most beautiful and inspiring ending lines I’ve yet read. “To the high imagination force now failed;/But like a wheel whose circling nothing jars/Already on my desire and will prevailed/The Love that moves the sun and the other stars.”

This is a love poem not just for Beatrice and Virgil but for all that is good and inspiring within humanity. We too can make the trek from the depths of deepest despair, to a place where we have hope of bettering our lives; and finally to higher and higher spheres of beauty and wonder.

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