Purgatorio Purgatory XXXI (The Earthly Paradise) Summary
Now, having told her story indirectly to the angels, Beatrice turns her speech directly on the shame-faced Dante.
She commands him to speak, to tell her if her accusations are true. His confession must be like this, she says, intertwined with both her accusations and his confession. Harsh.
Completely stunned at her words, Dante can't speak. What a time to get a frog in your throat. Whatever happened to the glib poet we all know?
Seeing him silent, she encourages him a little more gently to speak, because the waters of the Lethe haven’t wiped clean his memories yet.
Still unable to speak, Dante wants to say "yes" and to agree to all her accusations, but his voice won’t cooperate.
Finally, all his pent-up emotion bursts forth, like a crossbow strung so tautly that when it finally shoots its arrow, its bowstring breaks and the arrow just barely finds its target. In this way, Dante’s voice pours out of him but is not strong enough to make its way to Beatrice, mingled as it is with tears.
But Beatrice is unmerciful. She continues, asking Dante straight up what troubles he ran across after her death that made him stop moving forward along the true path? What temptations did others lure him with to make him parade in front in them?
Finally, Dante manages to whisper bitterly that “mere appearances turned me aside with their false loveliness, as soon as I had lost your countenance.”
Beatrice thunders that had Dante failed to confess this, he would’ve still been guilty of it, because God knows all of his faults. But (and here she softens a little), because he has openly admitted to his sins, the blade of justice will come down a little less harshly. Whew.
She’s not done yet. Oh no, not by a long shot. She tells Dante he must feel more shame to keep from sinning again when temptation comes along. She informs him what he should’ve done after she died.
Showing a bit of arrogance herself, Beatrice says that nothing should’ve been as beautiful to Dante as herself, even after her death. If her supreme beauty couldn’t keep him from sin, what could?
When the first false arrow struck you, Dante, she says, you should’ve “lifted up your wings to follow me.” Nothing else should’ve tempted you – no pretty girls or other novelties. You should’ve flown.
As he listens, guilt-ridden, Dante compares himself to a fledgling bird, who must be struck a couple times by his parents before he learns. He stands like a child, sullen and silent but knowing the truth of his accuser’s words.
When Beatrice sees Dante looking down, she tells him to lift his eyes so that, by looking at her, he can increase the shame he feels just hearing her.
But he meekly obeys and as he lifts his eyes, he sees her facing the griffin.
Underneath her veil, she seems even more beautiful than he remembers, and this brings on more tears, because he cannot imagine being lured away from her. The sight of her beauty and his corresponding shame overwhelm him so that he faints.
When he awakes, he finds himself being held by the nameless young lady, who plunges him into the Lethe up to his neck, and then draws him up into her gondola to take him to Beatrice.
Near the shore, she dips him in the water again, this time so deeply that he’s forced to drink some of the water. Then, she gently bathes him and leads him among the four dancing women.
They introduce themselves in song as the handmaidens of Beatrice, though they’re really stars in the sky; their task is to help Dante see into her eyes. Say what?
They lead him over to where Beatrice stands beside the griffin and tell him to gaze into her eyes.
He obeys and find himself lost in her brilliant green eyes.
Her eyes seem full of emerald fires as they gaze serenely upon the griffin, but the flames make the reflection of the griffin waver and constantly shift shape. Dante is hypnotized.
As one of the handmaidens stands beside Dante, the other three approach Beatrice and beseech her to look at her lover. Moreover, they ask her to reveal her face to him, “so that he may discern the second beauty you have kept concealed.”
At this Dante prays to the Muses again, pleading for the ability to stay sane when confronted with Beatrice’s full beauty.