Dante’s journey through Purgatory is constantly described as a ship cutting through water. Yes, it’s easy to say that this is just a vessel of voyage. Ship = journey. What’s so great about that? Well, first of all, this is a journey on several different layers. Yes, there is the physical component of moving from Hell to Purgatory and up the mountain. Not that any of that trip is seabound. Remember, though, that the penitent souls arrive on a “boat so light, so quick that nowhere did the water swallow it,” piloted by a “helmsman sent from Heaven.” So the reference to ships could be an acknowledgment that Dante, like the souls shuttled in on a boat, is here as a penitent.
Occurrences of the ship metaphor also seem to signal the intellectual progress Dante is making on his spiritual journey. Indeed, mentions of the ships or boats seem to crop up during particularly important lessons – like when Dante is hunched over, sharing the penitence of the Prideful; in his dream of the Siren where Virgil teaches him to be cautious of ill-directed love; during Statius’ conversion to Christianity; and after the trembling of the mountain for Statius’ purgation.
Finally, we ask, why a ship? Why not a chariot? Or a ride on horseback? Or even – as we got in Inferno – a pilgrimage on foot? Remember the opening ship metaphor at the very beginning of Purgatorio? Let’s refresh your memory:
To course across more kindly waters now
my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;
and what I sing will be that of the second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven. (Purg. I, 1-6)
Here the ship quite obviously represents Dante’s self-proclaimed “talent” for poetry. Whom does that remind you of? Another major mythological figure with a ship? Ulysses (or Odysseus) from the Inferno who dropped all his other duties in favor of sailing the world to experience what no man had experienced before.
Doesn’t that sound just a teensy bit like what Dante is doing? Going beyond the bounds of human endeavor to test the waters of godly realms: Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. If you really think some other poor soul has actually taken this journey before, let’s revisit that glaring line in Inferno Canto I, where Dante is said to have endured “the pass / that never has let any man survive.” Well, that makes him special, doesn’t it?
In addition, Dante’s archaic style in these opening lines, complete with the invocation to the Muses and the famous phrase from epic bards, “I sing,” sounds an awful lot like the opening lines of the Odyssey, in which Ulysses/Odysseus plays the starring role.
However, this is where Dante differs from Ulysses. Instead of transgressing human boundaries at the expense of his other duties, it becomes clear in the final cantos of Purgatorio that Dante’s duty is to experience these otherworldly realms and bring word of them back to earth. Thus, whereas Ulysses sinned by overreaching his bounds, Dante’s superhuman labor is ordained by God; it’s even necessary for the salvation of his soul.