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Quotes

Quote #1

[Virgil quoting Beatrice]: "‘In Heaven there’s a gentle lady – one
who weeps for the distress toward which I send you,
so that stern judgment up above is shattered.
And it was she who called upon Lucia,
requesting of her: "Now your faithful one
has need of you, and I commend him to you."
Lucia, enemy of every cruelty,
arose and made her way to where I was,
sitting beside the venerable Rachel.
She said: "You, Beatrice, true praise of God,
why have you not helped him who loves you so
that – for your sake – he’s left the vulgar crowd?
Do you not hear the anguish in his cry?
Do you not see the death he wars against
upon that river ruthless as the sea?"
No one within this world has ever been
so quick to seek his good or flee his harm
as I…’" (Inf. II, 94-111)

Virgil’s story of how he has come to guide Dante directly discusses Dante’s status as a chosen one in having the opportunity to experience Hell while still alive. His special status comes purely from the compassion of three divine ladies: the Virgin Mary herself, Saint Lucia, and Beatrice (the mortal love of Dante’s life). Indeed, this reinforces the stereotype of women as gentle emotional creatures, contrasted with the male stereotype of being too rational. These women show the physical manifestation of compassion: tears. Unlike gentle Mary, Lucia chastises Beatrice for ignoring Dante’s straying from God’s path. And, in an interesting paradox, Beatrice, by linking the "persuasive word" to Virgil, herself uses it to convince the Roman poet to help Dante.

Quote #2

As little flowers, which the chill of night
has bent and huddled, when the white sun strikes,
grow straight and open fully on their stems,
so did I, too, with my exhausted force;
and such warm daring rushed into my heart
that I – as one who has been freed – began:
"O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
the true words that she had addressed to you!
You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
to longing for this journey – I return
to what I was at first prepared to do." (Inf. II, 127-138)

Dante’s response to Beatrice’s pity spurs him to bloom "as little flowers…grow straight and open fully on their stems" when "the white sun strikes." Thus, Beatrice’s compassion is related to the light of God. And because he can ‘see’ again with her illumination, Dante feels "warm daring rush into [his] heart" to offset the "exhausted force" of doubts that were plaguing him before. Thus, compassion seems to have a life-giving force that Dante will later use to enliven sinners to recount their stories to him.

Quote #3

But I, who’d seen the change in his [Virgil’s] complexion,
said: "How shall I go on if you are frightened,
you who have always helped dispel my doubts?"
And he to me: "The anguish of the people
whose place is here below, has touched my face
with the compassion you mistake for fear." (Inf. IV, 16-22)

Unbeknownst to Dante, he and Virgil are about to meet a group of Classical poets and Virgil’s dear companions. This foreknowledge causes Virgil to pale dramatically with sympathy for their plight. Interestingly, Dante mistakes his physical reaction for one stemming from fear. Indeed, this concept will later be played on as Dante cries and faints – some typical reactions to intense fear or pain – when moved to pity for the sinners. This reinforces the very root of the word "compassion," which means literally "to feel with." So, one could read Virgil’s and later Dante’s sympathy for the sinners as literally feeling and participating in the pain that the sinners experience.

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