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Having left Hell behind (as described in Inferno), Dante begins Purgatorio with a metaphor. He compares his talent/genius to a ship that now has the task of crossing kinder waters (than those of Hell) to a place where people are cleansed of their sins: Purgatory.
After inflating his own ego, Dante proceeds to invoke the Muses. He asks Calliope, the head muse, to help him so that his “poem [may] rise again from Hell’s dead realm.”
He’s relieved to be out of Hell (located underground) and to see the sky—“the gentle hue of oriental sapphire”—again at last.
Now for an astronomy lesson courtesy of Dante: on the eastern horizon is the planet Venus, which looks like a very bright star. At the south pole, four old (but still shiny) stars are glowing. We know they’re ancient because Dante says they were seen by the “first people.”
Looking back to the north pole, Dante sees a constellation that tells him the time of day, but before he can calculate it down to the exact minute, an old man distracts him.
The old man is sage-like, one of those white-bearded men who immediately commands respect; perhaps even more respect because his face is framed by the light of those four significant (but secretive) stars.
The old man comes up to Dante and asks who he is that he could escape Hell. He follows with a deluge of questions: who was your guide? Have the laws of Hell been broken? Or have the powers that be changed them?
Virgil, who unlike Dante isn’t distracted by the man’s questions, forces Dante’s “knees and brow [to] show reverence.” In other words, knowing who the old man is, Virgil makes Dante kneel.
Then Virgil goes through his spiel, which hasn’t changed since Inferno. The Virgin Mary sent me, yada yada, Dante needed to learn a lesson, yada yada, so I guided him and showed him Hell, and now I’m going show him Purgatory… so could we have your blessing please?
Virgil then shows his impressive knowledge by identifying the nameless old man. Basically he says, “You’re Cato and you died in Utica for political freedom. And I (Virgil) am from the same circle in Hell as your true love, Marcia. She still prays for your love.” Then, to sweeten the deal, Virgil deals a low blow: “You should let us through Purgatory because if you do, I’ll take your condolences back to her.”
But Cato’s no longer a lover boy. He tells Virgil that Marcia “has no power to move me any longer” because unlike Cato, she’s in Hell.
Here’s the clincher. Cato tells Virgil that if he’s been sent by the Virgin Mary, there’s no need for flattery. He can go through for her sake.
Cato then commands Virgil to go on, but to first get Dante a new wardrobe, because burnt-to-a-crisp togas are so last year. He needs to get a new belt made out of a rush (a kind of plant) and wash his face so he can be all cleaned up for Purgatory. Cato says that they’re in luck because no plants except rushes grow on this island. After freshening up, they should start climbing Mount Purgatory.
With those instructions, Cato vanishes.
Virgil and Dante head back down to the shores to get rushes for belts.
Meanwhile, the sun rises. In the distance, the sea trembles. Translation: it’s pretty.
On the shore, the rushes are all wet with dew. Dante notices that the dew should’ve evaporated because it’s smack dab in the sunlight, but the “sea winds” protect it, so the grass is still wet.
Virgil places his hands on the wet grass. Dante reads his intent and kneels, letting Virgil wash his face with the dew.
Dante notes that they’re walking on a shore that has never felt the footstep of a living man. In other words, Dante’s very special.
Virgil, all business-like, ties a new rush around Dante’s waist.
Right where Virgil has plucked the reed, a new one immediately springs up.