Study Guide

Purgatorio Love

By Dante Alighieri


[Virgil to Cato]: “…but I am from the circle where the chaste
eyes of your Marcia are; and she still prays
to you, o holy breast, to keep her as
your own: for her love, then, incline to us.
Allow our journey through your seven realms…
“While I was there, within the other world,
Marcia so pleased my eyes,” he then replied,
“each kindness she required, I satisfied.
Now that she dwells beyond the evil river,
she has no power to move me any longer,
such was the law decreed when I was freed.” (Purg. I, 78-90)

Romantic love, even when faithful and conjugal, has no place in Purgatory, where all of one’s love must be directed toward God. Cato proves this by renouncing his love for his wife Marcia (who now suffers in Hell) in favor of the new “law” of Purgatory. Now, mortal love has no power to move him. This principal holds true for all the penitents in Purgatory.

[Manfred]: “After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.
My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.” (Purg. III, 118-123)

God’s love is conveyed by his forgiveness of all those who repent, no matter how late in life. Here, Manfred describes his experience of God’s compassion, which he deems “Infinite Goodness” because it “willingly forgives” him no matter how “ghastly” his sins.

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return – as long as hope shows something green. (Purg. III, 133-135)

God’s love of an individual, Manfred suggests, has nothing to do with the Church’s opinion of him. This is exemplified by the character of Manfred, who was excommunicated by Pope Alexander IV for what was seen as an illegitimate bid for political power. By placing him in Purgatory, author-Dante hints that God can forgive even an excommunicate, if the individual repents and continues to “hope.”

[The Late-Repentant who died of Violence]: “We all were done to death by violence,
and we all sinned until our final hour;
then light from Heaven granted understanding,
so that, repenting and forgiving, we
came forth from life at peace with God, and He
instilled in us the longing to see Him.” (Purg. V, 52-57)

With God’s forgiveness comes a renewed “longing” in the repentant individual to “see Him.” Thus, the individual reciprocates God’s love and expresses it in his labors in Purgatory. This is one of our first indications that love behaves as desire (in this case desire to see God) and that God condones this desire.

[Buonconte da Montefeltro]: “…and there, as I
had finished uttering the name of Mary,
I fell; and there my flesh alone remained.
I’ll speak the truth – do you, among the living,
retell it: I was taken by God’s angel,
but he from Hell cried: ‘You from Heaven – why
do you deny me him? For just one tear
you carry off his deathless part; but I
shall treat his other part in other wise.’” (Purg. V, 100-108)

God’s love – shown through forgiveness – can be initiated by something as simple as an utterance of the Virgin Mary’s name or “just one tear.” This shows God’s infinite compassion, which is in contrast to Hell’s crazed cruelty, represented here by the demon who wants to torture Buonconte’s soul.

It was the hour that turns seafarers’ longings
homeward – the hour that makes their hearts grow tender
upon the day they bid sweet friends farewell;
the hour that pierces the new traveler
with love when he has heard, far off, the bell
that seems to mourn the dying of the day;
when I began to let my hearing fade
and watched one of those souls who, having risen,
had signaled with his hand for our attention. (Purg. VIII, 1-9)

That the sunset evokes such descriptions of melancholy love reinforces the idea that man’s most natural desire is for God. If one interprets the sun as a symbol of God (what with all the light imagery), this metaphor is apt.

[Judge Nino]: “Through her [Giovanna’s mother], one understands so easily
how brief, in woman, is love’s fire – when not
rekindled frequently by eye or touch.” (Purg. VIII, 76-78)

Judge Nino condemns earthly romantic love as sinful lust. He denounces his wife Giovanna’s desires as “brief” and merely physical, since they constantly have to be “rekindled…by eye or touch.” This, of course, differs distinctly from God’s love.

[The guardian angel to Dante]: “Whenever one of these keys fails, not turning
appropriately in the lock,” he said
to us, “this gate of entry does not open.
One is more precious, but the other needs
much art and skill before it will unlock –
that is the key that must undo the knot.
These I received from Peter; and he taught me
rather to err in opening than in keeping
this portal shut – whenever souls pray humbly.” (Purg. IX, 121-130)

That Saint Peter instructed the guardian angel to “err in opening [rather] than keeping this portal shut” reveals God’s boundless compassion and His desire to forgive anyone who “prays humbly.” The frequent openings of the gate represent God’s generous bestowal of second chances upon all who repent.

[The Prideful]: “Even as we forgive all who have done
us injury, may You, benevolent,
forgive, and do not judge us by our worth.
Try not our strength, so easily subdued,
against the ancient foe, but set it free
from him who goads it to perversity.
This last request we now address to You,
dear Lord, not for ourselves – who have no need –
but for the ones whom we have left behind.” (Purg. XI, 16-24)

On the first terrace, the Prideful – who presumed themselves above God while on earth – show their humility by taking God as their role model. Just as He forgives sinners, the Prideful generously “forgive all who have done [them] injury.” However, they also show great love for their fellow man by their prayer at the end to “forgive…the ones whom we have left behind.” The message is that those still on earth have more need of compassion than those in Purgatory, who are already guaranteed entry into Heaven. This prayer, perhaps, shows the ultimate love: unreciprocated love for those who are less fortunate.

I think no man now walks upon the earth
who is so hard that he would not have been
pierced by compassion for what I saw next;
for when I had drawn close enough to see
clearly the way they paid their penalty,
the force of grief pressed tears out of my eyes.
Those souls – it seemed – were cloaked in coarse haircloth;
another’s shoulder served each shade as prop,
and all of them were bolstered by the rocks:
so do the blind who have to beg appear
on pardon days to plead for what they need,
each bending his head back and toward the other,
that all who watch feel – quickly – pity’s touch
not only through the words that would entreat
but through the sight, which can – no less – beseech. (Purg. XIII, 52-66)

Reminding us of Dante in Inferno, Dante again is “pierced by compassion” by the terrible suffering of the Envious penitents. He seems to pity most those who have obviously lost God’s love; while this may not true of the Envious, their sightlessness (their eyes sewn are shut by iron wire) moves him because it means they cannot see the loving light of the sun.

[Virgil]: That Good, ineffable and infinite,
which is above, directs Itself toward love
as light directs itself to polished bodies.
Where ardor is, that Good gives of Itself;
and where more love is, there that Good confers
a greater measure of eternal worth.
And when there are more souls above who love,
there’s more to love well there, and they love more,
and, mirror-like, each soul reflects the other.” (Purg. XV, 67-75)

Virgil explains the miraculous self-multiplying effect of love. God, who is present wherever love is, gives himself to those who love. Now for the weird part: because God, the “infinite…Good” is infinite, the more people love, the more He gives His love. Thus the sheer amount of love increases exponentially when many people show love, unlike all material goods whose numbers decrease the more people acquire them.

She [the wife of Pisistratus] said: “If you are ruler of that city
to name which even goddesses once vied –
where every science had its source of light –
revenge yourself on the presumptuous
arms that embraced our daughter, o Pisistratus.”
And her lord seemed to me benign and mild,
his aspect temperate, as he replied:
”What shall we do to one who’d injure us
if one who loves us earns our condemnation?” (Purg. XV, 97-105)

As an example of Gentleness (the corresponding virtue to Wrath), King Pisistratus shows compassion to the man who would love his daughter. Whereas the Queen wants the lover punished for his insolence in daring to love a woman above his station, the King acts with mercy. This reaffirms God’s compassion, since we see it happening between humans on earth.

…although his [St. Stephen’s] eyes were bent
always on Heaven – they were Heaven’s gates –
praying to his high Lord, despite the torture,
to pardon those who were his persecutors;
his look was such that it unlocked compassion. (Purg. XV, 110-114)

Another example of Gentleness, Saint Stephen takes the selfless compassion shown in Canto XI by the Prideful to another level. Where one might expect him to wrathfully d--n his torturers, he instead “pray[s] […] to his high Lord [….] to pardon those who were his persecutors.” He goes beyond the Prideful’s prayers for their fellow men by wishing good not just on indifferent souls, but on those who actively wish him harm.

[Marco Lombardo]: “Issuing from His hands, the soul – on which
He thought with love before creating it –
is like a child who weeps and laughs in sport;
that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight.
At first it savors trivial goods; these would
beguile the soul, and it runs after them,
unless there’s guide or rein to rule its love.
Therefore, one needed law to serve as curb;
a ruler, too, was needed, one who could
discern at least the tower of the true city.” (Purg. XVI, 85-96)

In explaining free will to Dante, Marco Lombardo begins with a discourse on the soul and its desires. It is no accident that he compares to the soul to a distinctly loveable object: a human child. This shows how much love God had in creating man. Marco Lombardo argues that God expresses His love in the soul by its desire for “things that bring delight.” Like a child, the soul is attracted to beautiful things – gold, jewels, art, music, pretty women – but, if properly educated by society, it turns away from these “trivial goods” to pursue the only truly worthy object of desire: God.

[Virgil]: “My son, there’s no Creator and no creature
who ever was without love – natural
or mental; and you know that,” he began.
“The natural is always without error,
but mental love may choose an evil object
or err through too much or too little vigor.
As long as it’s directed toward the First Good
and tends toward secondary goods with measure,
it cannot be the cause of evil pleasure;
but when it twists toward evil, or attends
to good with more or less care than it should,
those whom He made have worked against their Maker.
From this you see that – of necessity –
love is the seed in you of every virtue
and of all acts deserving punishment.” (Purg. XVII, 91-105)

To further elucidate Dante’s (and our) understanding of love, Virgil explains the difference between natural and mental love. Natural love is always “without error” because it inherently desires its Creator. Mental love, however, is where free will comes in. Because mental love is not ruled by God as natural love is, it may err by “choos[ing] an evil object [to love]” or love with “too much or too little vigor.” Thus, not only is it important for a Christian to love the proper things (God, most of all), but for them to love objects in the proper measure. Here, Virgil introduces a distinctly Aristotelian concept, that “love is the seed […] of every virtue and of all acts deserving punishments.” The idea that everything man does is motivated by desire reveals how pervasive and powerful love is in human life.

[Virgil]: “Thus, if I have distinguished properly,
ill love must mean to wish one’s neighbor ill;
and this love’s born in three ways in your clay.
There’s he who, through abasement of another,
hopes for supremacy; he only longs
to see his neighbor’s excellence cast down.
Then there is one who, when he is outdone,
fears his own loss of fame, power, honor, favor;
his sadness loves misfortune for his neighbor.
And there is he who, over injury
received, resentful, for revenge grows greedy
and, angrily, seeks out another’s harm.
This threefold love is expiated here
below; now I would have you understand
the love the seeks the good distortedly.” (Purg. XVII, 112-126)

Having distinguished between natural and mental love, Virgil goes on to characterize different types of sinful mental love (also called perverted love). He specifies three kinds. The first is pride (“hopes for supremacy”), the second is envy (“when he is outdone, fears his own loss of fame”), the third is wrath (in which one “seeks out another’s harm”). Thus, readers can see that the first three terraces (which Dante has already experienced) contain the three kinds of perverted love. Following what Virgil said earlier, there are only two other kinds of sinful love: loving with “too much or too little vigor.” It should come as no surprise that these kinds of insufficient and excessive love are punished in the higher terraces, still to come.

[Virgil]: “The soul, which is created quick to love,
responds to everything that pleases, just
as soon as beauty wakens it to act.
Your apprehension draws an image
from a real object and expands upon
that object until soul has turned toward it;
and if, so turned, the soul tends steadfastly,
then that propensity is love – it’s nature
that joins the soul in you, anew, through beauty.
Then, just as flames ascend because the form
of fire was fashioned to fly upward, toward
the stuff of its own sphere, where it lasts longest,
so does the soul, when seized, move into longing,
a motion of the spirit, never resting
till the beloved thing has made it joyous.
Now you can plainly see how deeply hidden
truth is from scrutinists who would insist
that every love is, in itself, praiseworthy;
and they are led to error by the matter
of love, because it may seem – always – good;
but not each seal is fine, although the wax is.” (Purg. XVIII, 19-39)

Virgil explains how man comes to love objects. Not surprisingly, it works like a fantasy, wherein a person's senses first discover something aesthetically pleasing. Then the soul takes over and “draws an image from a real object”; in other words it takes that object of desire, perfects it, and puts it up on a pedestal to admire and lust after. If the soul lusts after that object “steadfastly” or repeatedly, it becomes love, though it may be perverted love if the object isn't worthy of being loved. This is why some people are wrong in asserting that “every love is, in itself, praiseworthy.”

a stammering woman came to me in dream:
her eyes askew, and crooked on her feet,
her hands were crippled, her complexion sallow.
I looked at her; and just as sun revives
cold limbs that night made numb, so did my gaze
loosen her tongue and then, in little time,
set her contorted limbs in perfect order;
and, with the coloring that love prefers,
my eyes transformed the wanness of her features.
And when her speech had been set free, then she
began to sing so, that it would have been
most difficult for me to turn aside. (Purg. XIX, 7-18)

In his dream about the siren, Dante transforms the ugly beast into a seductive woman. It is only through his love (or desire) for beautiful things that he does this; it turns out, however, that even though he desires for the woman to be good, she still hides some evil (depicted here as ugliness). This proves that love is not virtuous if directed at the wrong object.

When he [Virgil] saw me still halting, obstinate,
he said, somewhat perplexed: “Now see, son: this
wall stands between you and your Beatrice.”
As, at the name of Thisbe, Pyramus,
about to die, opened his eyes, and saw her
(when then the mulberry became bloodred),
so, when my stubbornness had softened, I,
hearing the name that’s always flowering
within my mind, turned to my knowing guide. (Purg. XXVII, 34-42)

Virgil craftily dangles Beatrice as an incentive for Dante to overcome his fear and move past the fire, playing on Dante’s obsessive love for her. Dante responds by comparing himself to the dying Pyramus in the epic love story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. That Dante associates his love for Beatrice with the famous story of Pyramus and Thisbe reveals just how highly he esteems her…and himself, as a poet.

[Virgil]: “I’ve brought you here through intellect and art;
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths.
Look at the sun that shines upon your brow;
look at the grasses, flowers, and the shrubs
born here, spontaneously, of the earth.
Among them, you can rest or walk until
the coming of the glad and lovely eyes –
those eyes that, weeping, sent me to your side.
Await no further word or sign from me:
your will is free, erect, and whole – to act
against that will would be to err: therefore
I crown and miter you over yourself.” (Purg. XXVII, 130-142)

In his parting words to Dante, Virgil explains that so far “intellect and art” (the concepts Virgil represents) have guided Dante, but now that he has learned his lessons so well, his mental love has been properly aligned with his natural love. Now it is safe to “let [his] pleasure be [Dante's] guide” because his “pleasure” or desire is now correctly directed towards God. To reinforce this idea, that Dante's love is now proper, Virgil asserts that “to act against that will would be to err.”

Within her [Beatrice’s] presence, I had once been used
to feeling – trembling – wonder, dissolution;
but that was long ago. Still, though my soul,
now she was veiled, could not see her directly,
by way of hidden force that she could move,
I felt the mighty power of old love.
As soon as that deep force had struck my vision
(the power that, when I had not yet left
my boyhood, had already transfixed me),
I turned around and to my left – just as
a little child, afraid or in distress,
will hurry to his mother – anxiously,
to say to Virgil: “I am left with less
than one drop of my blood that does not tremble:
I recognize the signs of the old flame.” (Purg. XXX, 34-48)

As a mortal man still bearing a physical body, Dante is still subject to overwhelming physical responses to the woman he formerly loved so ardently. Notice all the sensual words he uses to describe his reaction to her: “feeling,” “trembling,” “struck my vision,” “transfixed,” and “old flame.” Regular penitents (who are all souls) would not have a problem with encountering a past love, author-Dante suggests.

And she [Beatrice]: “Had you been silent or denied
what you confess, your guilt would not be less
in evidence: it’s known by such a Judge!
But when the charge of sinfulness has burst
from one’s own cheek, then in our court the whet-
stone turns and blunts our blade’s own cutting edge.” (Purg. XXXI, 37-42)

Beatrice, as a spokesperson for God, shows the compassion that He would. Because Dante has willingly confessed his sins and feels shame for them, the blade of justice is “blunt[ed].” Notice, however, that his confession does not lessen Dante’s guilt; Dante is not made a more virtuous person by his confession; instead, it is God who is moved to show His mercy.