Study Guide

Purgatorio Language and Communication

By Dante Alighieri

Language and Communication

[Dante to the Late-Repentant who died of Violence]: “…if there’s anything within
my power that might please you, then – by that
same peace which in the steps of such a guide
I seek from world to world – I shall perform it.”
And one began: “We all have faith in your
good offices without your oath, as long
as lack of power does not curb your will.” (Purg. V, 60-66)

By swearing an oath, Dante performs one of the most meaningful tasks with language: he asserts his honor by putting the truth of his words to the test. The Late-Repentant accepts his oath and trust that – out of the goodness of his heart – Dante will bring word of them back to earth.

…in an age
when record books and measures could be trusted… (Purg. XII, 104-105)

A common theme throughout this text is the degeneration of man’s virtue over time. Because Dante sees truth as intrinsically tied up with language, he vents his frustration here with a reference to the decay of language. He claims that in the old days, when man properly worshipped God, man’s use of language was similarly honest and accurate. Thus, in the past, “record books and measures could be trusted.”

The other [Rinieri da Calboli] said to him [Guido del Duca]: “Why did he [Dante] hide
that river’s name, even as one would do
in hiding something horrible from view?”
The shade to whom this question was addressed
repaid with this: “I do not know; but it
is right for such a valley’s name to perish,
for from its source…
until its end point…
virtue is seen as serpent, and all flee
from it as if it were an enemy,
either because the site is ill-starred or
their evil custom goads them so; therefore,
the nature of that squalid valley’s people
has changed, as if they were in Circe’s pasture.” (Purg. XIV, 25-42)

This passage follows the concept of taboo: certain things are so evil that even naming them can bring about bad luck. Here, the river Arno remains unnamed because it provides a vital stream of water to Italian regions where – according to Dante – men run most corrupt.

“Either your speech deceives me or would tempt me,”
he [Marco Lombardo] answered then, “for you, whose speech is Tuscan,
seem to know nothing of the good Gherardo.” (Purg. XVI, 136-138)

Unlike in Inferno, where it happens more frequently, this is the only time in Purgatorio that Dante is identified by his Tuscan accent. Perhaps in Purgatory, the souls are less concerned with who a person was in life, but more concerned with what he is becoming now – purified. Here, however, Dante’s accent does more than simply link him to a certain region of Italy; it implies that by living in that region he should know the man Marco Lombardo is talking about, “good Gherardo.”

Now I am held by one side and the other:
one keeps me still, the other conjures me
to speak; but when, therefore, I sigh, my master
knows why and tells me: “Do not be afraid
to speak, but speak and answer what he has
asked you to tell him with such earnestness.” (Purg. XXI, 115-120)

This is a very telling moment. Dante is caught between the contrasting desires of his two mentors, Virgil and Statius. Appropriately, author-Dante represents this conflict as a verbal one. To whose favor will character-Dante speak? Whose orders will he follow? Finally, Virgil solves the problem in a most favorable manner; he tells Dante to answer Statius’ questions and to speak the truth. This is consonant with the message author-Dante has been conveying to his readers about language: that questions should be asked and addressed, and that they should be answered with truth.

“O you upon the holy stream’s far shore,”
so she [Beatrice], turning her speech’s point against me –
even its edge had seemed too sharp – began
again, without allowing interruption,
“tell, tell if this is true; for your confession
must be entwined with such self-accusation.”
My power of speech was so confounded that
my voice would move and yet was spent before
its organs had released it. (Purg. XXXI, 1-9)

Beatrice’s speech here is described as a blade. Her previous words in Canto XXX are supposedly directed not towards Dante, but towards the angels in the procession. In content, however, they discuss Dante, his sins, and shame. Now, after letting Dante feel the sidelong “edge” of her criticism, Beatrice turns “her speech’s point against [him],” directing her disapproval at him. However, she doesn’t pierce him immediately; instead, she asks for his confession, giving him a chance to spare himself some shame by openly admitting his sins. Dante is so overwhelmed by seeing Beatrice again that his “power of speech” becomes “confounded” and he cannot speak.

Just as a crossbow that is drawn too taut
snaps both its cord and bow when it is shot,
and arrow meets its mark with feeble force,
so, caught beneath that heavy weight, I burst;
and I let tears and sighs pour forth; my voice
had lost its lift along its passage out. (Purg. XXXI, 13-21)

Language is seen here as an outlet for intense, bottled-up emotion. Dante compares his shame to a “crossbow that is drawn too taut [and] snaps both its cord and bow when it is shot [so that] that arrow meets its mark with feeble force.” Because his confession is so affected by the deep emotion he feels, the words he uses to describe it do not move Beatrice or his readers. As established in Inferno, Dante considers human speech a faculty of the intellect, completely separate from that of the physical body. Here, however, he finds that the two cannot so easily be separated.

[Beatrice]: “Take note; and even as I speak these words,
do you transmit them in your turn to those
who live the life that is a race to death.
And when you write them, keep in mind that you
must not conceal what you’ve seen of the tree
that now has been despoiled twice over here.” (Purg. XXXIII, 52-57)

Beatrice charges Dante to practice his craft with virtue, to always write with truth.

[Beatrice]: “But from now on the words I speak will be
naked; that is appropriate if they
would be laid bare before your still-crude sight.” (Purg. XXXIII, 100-102)

After charging Dante to write with clarity and truth, Beatrice imposes the same sentence on her speech, promising that “from now on the words I speak will be naked” so that Dante with his “still-crude sight” will understand them. Emphasis here is put on not only the truth of the speaker’s words but on the comprehension of the listener as well. Both need to function in order for language to work properly.