Study Guide

Purgatorio Time: Haste, Change

By Dante Alighieri

Time: Haste, Change

[Cato]: “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, 85-90)

As a guardian of the island of Purgatory, Cato no longer adheres to the same priorities he did during his lifetime. He puts emphasis on how much he has changed from the man he was on earth – one who dearly loved his wife Marcia – to the man he is now – one who is not moved any longer by thoughts of her. This is one of our first clues that human relationships in the afterlife operate differently than they do on earth.

By now the sun was crossing the horizon
of the meridian whose highest point
covers Jerusalem; and from the Ganges,
night, circling opposite the sun, was moving
together with the Scales that, when the length
of dark defeats the day, desert night’s hands;
so that, above the shore that I had reached,
the fair Aurora’s white and scarlet cheeks
were, as Aurora aged, becoming orange. (Purg. II, 1-9)

By referring to the celestial bodies – the sun and constellations like “the Scales” (Libra) – Dante shows readers that, unlike the timeless eternity of Hell, Purgatory operates on a time scale much like that of the mortal world. The reference to Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, changing from “white” to “orange,” reveals that it is morning when Dante arrives on Purgatory’s shores. The bright colors of the morning and the wide expanse of the sky emphasize the difference between Hell and Purgatory; in Hell all is darkness and close confined, there being no sky with which to tell time. Purgatory, as shown here, is much more beautiful and similar to the mortal world.

Love that discourses to me in my mind
he [Casella] then began to sing – and sang so sweetly
that I still hear that sweetness sound in me.
My master, I, and all that company
around the singer seemed so satisfied,
as if no other thing might touch our minds.
We all were motionless and fixed upon
the notes, when all at once the grave old man [Cato]
cried out: “what have we here, you laggard spirits?
What negligence, what lingering is this?” (Purg. II, 112-121)

Casella’s singing seems to suspend time for the listeners, but in actuality they’re wasting time that they could be spending repenting and purging their sins in Purgatory. Dante seems to suggest that the arts that so enchant us in our mortal lives become a distraction and a waste of time in Purgatory, where one must fulfill an obligation to God. Cato acts as the voice of God here, reprimanding the souls for “lingering” and being too “laggard.” As the guardian of Purgatory, he understands just how much time they’ll have to spend here and how important it is to get started.

[Virgil to the Late-Repentant souls]: “…please tell
us where the slope inclines and can be climbed;
for he who best discerns the worth of time
is most distressed whenever time is lost.” (Purg. III, 75-78)

Virgil, like Cato, understands that time is of the essence in Purgatory; he thus loses no time in asking every penitent soul he meets what is the quickest way up the mountain.

[Manfred]: “But it is true that anyone who dies
in contumacy of the Holy Church,
though he repented at the end, must wait
along this shore for thirty times the span
he spent in his presumptuousness, unless
that edict is abridged through fitting prayers.” (Purg. III, 136-141)

One of the reasons that everyone in Purgatory is in such a rush to get to the top of Mount Purgatory is that many of them have been there for so long. As Manfred explains here, each penitent must languish in ante-Purgatory – not even Purgatory proper – “for thirty times the span / he spent in his presumptuousness.” In other words, every soul must stay for thirty lifetimes out on the shores before even beginning the labors of purgation. Prayer is the one expedient that can speed up waiting time.

Compared to you [Florence], Athens and Lacedaemon,
though civil cities, with their ancient laws,
had merely sketched the life of righteousness;
for you devise provisions so ingenious –
whatever threads October sees you spin,
when mid-November comes, will be unspun.
How often, in the time you can remember,
have you changed laws and coinage, offices
and customs, and revised your citizens! (Purg. VI, 139-147)

In general, haste is seen as a positive thing in Purgatory. Here, however, Dante shows the other side of haste. In his diatribe against Florence, he lampoons the city for “chang[ing] laws and coinage, offices / and customs” so often and so quickly (from “October” to “mid-November”) that nothing can get done in the city and it falls prey to the bickering of politicians who cannot make up their minds.

“How is that?” he was asked. “Is it that he
who tried to climb by night would be impeded
by others, or by his own lack of power?”
And good Sordello, as his finger traced
along the ground, said: “Once the sun has set,
then – look – even this line cannot be crossed.
And not that anything except the dark
of night prevents your climbing up; it is
the night itself that implicates your will.
Once darkness falls, one can indeed retreat
below and wander aimlessly about
the slopes, while the horizon has enclosed
the day.” (Purg. VII, 49-61)

Time dictates each soul’s progress up Mount Purgatory. Souls can only travel upwards during the day. Night immobilizes their movement. Thus, this cuts in half the amount of time that one might conceivably spend climbing the mountain, which also explains why the souls are in such a hurry to get to the top.

My avid eyes were steadfast, staring at
that portion of the sky where stars are slower,
even as spokes when they approach the axle.
And my guide: “Son what are you staring at?”
And I replied: “I’m watching those three torches
with which this southern pole is all aflame.”
Then he to me: “The four bright stars you saw
this morning now are low, beyond the pole,
and where those four stars were, these three now are.” (Purg. VIII, 85-93)

The position of the stars in the sky is used to indicate the passing of time. That the cluster of four stars Dante sees at dawn is now reduced to three (because one of them has set) means that a certain amount of time has passed, and serves as a reminder to Dante to hurry up.

Our upward pathway ran between cracked rocks;
they seemed to sway in one, then the other part,
just like a wave that flees, then doubles back.
“Here we shall need some ingenuity,”
my guide warned me, “as both of us draw near
this side or that side where the rock wall veers.”
This made our steps so slow and hesitant
that the declining moon had reached its bed
to sink back into rest, before we had
made our way through that needle’s eye; but when
we were released from it, in open space
above, a place at which the slope retreats,
I was exhausted; with the two of us
uncertain of our way, we halted on
a plateau lonelier than desert paths. (Purg. X, 7-21)

The terrain of Purgatory proper, unlike the wide-open spaces of ante-Purgatory, is narrow, steep, and difficult to navigate. This slows down all climbers’ progress. The message seems to be that the labor of penance is meant to be time consuming, difficult, and tedious.

O empty glory of the powers of humans!
How briefly green endures upon the peak –
unless an age of dullness follows it.
In painting Cimabue thought he held
the field, and now it’s Giotto they acclaim –
the former only keeps a shadowed fame.
So did one Guido, from the other, wrest
the glory of our tongue – and he perhaps
is born who will chase both out of the nest.
Worldly renown is nothing other than
a breath of wind that blows now here, now there,
and changes name when it has changed its course. (Purg. XI, 91-102)

Oderisi expounds on the transience of human glory. As an artist he has experienced just how fleeting celebrity can be. He describes human glory as “a breath of wind that blows now here, now there”; this is reminiscent of Dante’s rant against Florence’s fickleness.

[Forese]: “Now you remain behind, for time is costly
here in this kingdom; I should lose too much
by moving with you thus, at equal pace.”
Just as a horseman sometimes gallops out,
leaving behind his troop of riders, so
that he may gain the honor of the first
clash – so, with longer strides, did he leave us;
and I remained along my path with those
two who were such great marshals of the world. (Purg. XXIV, 91-99)

The penitents, like Dante and Virgil, have a sense of haste as well. Here, Forese refuses to keep walking at Dante’s too-slow pace because “time is costly” and he “should lose too much / by moving with you thus, at equal pace.” Forese’s departure is compared to that of a knight rushing out to win “the honor of the first clash,” revealing that the penitents' haste is for a good cause: honor.

[Matilda]: “The water that you see does not spring from
a vein that vapor – cold-condensed – restores,
like rivers that acquire or lose their force;
it issues from a pure and changeless fountain,
which by the will of God regains as much
as, on two sides, it pours and it divides.
On this side it descends with power to end
one’s memory of sin; and on the other,
it can restore recall of each good deed.
To one side, it is Lethe; on the other,
Eunoe; neither stream is efficacious
unless the other’s waters have been tasted:
their savor is above all other sweetness.” (Purg. XXVIII, 121-133)

These two streams, the Lethe and the Eunoe, can effectively bring man back to the start of his life by wiping his memories clean. By drinking from the Lethe, one can ‘stop time’ and return to a state of innocence. For our purposes, however, the Lethe functions as preparation for immortality – eternal innocence in Heaven.