Purgatorio Purgatory Canto XIX (Fifth Terrace: the Avaricious and Prodigal) Summary
Dante has more dreams as dawn draws near. Remember that dreams near dawn were believed, at that time, to have the greatest chance of coming true.
In Dante’s dream, a woman appears. Her eyes are crossed, her feet are crooked, her hands are crippled, she’s pale, and stammers when she talks.
But Dante decides that hey, it’s his own dream, so he turns her into his fantasy woman. With just one look (which he describes as the reviving rays of the sun), his gaze “loosen[s] her tongue and then, in a little time, set[s] her contorted limbs in perfect order, and, with the coloring that love prefers, [his] eyes transformed the wanness of her features.”
The newly beautiful woman is a siren.
Not surprisingly, she talks about siren things: seducing men to their deaths, distracting Ulysses, brushing her hair, etc., while Dante drools more and more.
But before she even finishes her song, another woman shows up.
The second woman is “alert and saintly.” Her appearance makes the siren fall silent. She asks Virgil the identity of this siren and glares daggers at her.
So Virgil appears in the dream as well, toga and all, approaches the siren, and does what Dante wanted to do…rips her clothes off.
But, Dante’s dream doesn’t turn NC-17 at this point. Instead of being turned on by the naked siren, Dante is completely revolted by a terrible rotten stench that’s steaming from her bare stomach.
Dante wakes up in a cold sweat.
Virgil, though, takes no notice, because it’s morning and he’s anxious to get moving up the mountain. He says he’s already called to Dante three times to get up.
Dante practices the unhealthy technique of suppressing his worries and follows Virgil humbly, his head bent.
At some point, they hear a voice announcing their arrival at the passageway onto the fifth terrace. It turns out that it’s an angel speaking.
As they walk past in reverence, the angel fans them with his wings, telling them that those “qui lugent” (“who mourn their sinfulness”) will have consolation in their souls.
It’s taken this long for Virgil to notice Dante’s depression. After they pass the angel, he asks Dante what’s wrong.
Dante answers that his dream from last night troubles him.
Virgil comforts him by explaining what the dream means. The hag whom Dante transformed into a beautiful siren represents a vice which is atoned for in the terraces above. This is Virgil’s way of explaining the dream and getting Dante to hurry up.
He tells Dante to “fasten [his] eyes upon that lure that’s spun above” (in other words, Heaven) instead of focusing on his dream.
Dante obeys. In doing so, he creates a metaphor. He compares his desire to climb higher up the mountain to a falcon’s desire for the food in its master’s hand.
Immediately, Virgil and Dante see the penitents in their punishment. Here on the fifth terrace, penitents lie face down on the ground, chained down, and weeping.
Virgil speaks, praying for their salvation and then (of course) asking for the proper path to follow.
A penitent answers that if they don’t need to lie down with their fellow penitents, they should to take the path to the right.
Dante hears something in that voice and looks at Virgil, who wordlessly gives him permission to do as he wishes.
Dante asks the penitent who he is, why he is lying on the ground, and if he should pray for him. This really could be a veiled way of saying, “I’ll pray for you if you tell me what I want to hear.”
The penitent goes on to say that he’s worn the “great mantle” and been the “Roman shepherd.” In other words, he was a pope on earth!
This former pope only got his office after converting and finding that the mortal life held no satisfaction for him. So he became interested in the afterlife (which, it is implied, is when he was saved).
Up until that point, he claims, he was a greedy little jerk. He explains the logic of their (the Avaricious’ and Prodigals') punishment. Since they wanted only material things on earth and never “lift[ed] their eyes on high,” here in Purgatory their eyes are “impelled…towards earth.” As if it weren’t bad enough to have your nose rubbed in the dirt all the time, their limbs are chained down by “justice” so that they can’t move. (This also means they can’t face Dante when he talks to them.)
Dante kneels, wanting some more talk, but the penitent (by means of his supersensitive sense of hearing) anticipates him and asks why he’s kneeling.
Dante answers that seeing him prostrate on the ground has made Dante feel ashamed of standing up over him.
The pope doesn’t want his pity and orders Dante to stand up straight. He says they’re all under the power of God and to underscore it he spits out another Latin phrase (he’s from the Vatican, remember?) This time it’s neque unbent (which translates as “not marrying”).
Quick aside for some context: This phrase comes from the New Testament book of Matthew and talks metaphorically about the “marriage” between God and the Church, headed by the Pope. Our pope’s meaning here may be that this “marriage” he had before, on earth, was corrupt, but now that he’s in Purgatory his earthly past doesn’t matter anymore.
Fully perturbed now, the pope tells Dante to leave him alone to his suffering.
As an afterthought, he mentions his good niece Alagia who is still alive and pious. So we can assume that he means for Dante to find her and ask for her prayers.