Purgatory Canto XXI (Fifth Terrace: the Avaricious and the Prodigal)
Still plagued by the fact that he can’t figure out the Avaricious and Prodigal penitents’ behavior, Dante moves on with Virgil.
Now, lo and behold, here’s a new character! Our dynamic duo doesn’t realize someone is following them until the man speaks, greeting them.
When this happens, Dante compares the man to Jesus, newly risen from his grave, following a pair of pilgrims who do not realize he is there until he speaks. Hmm, a comparison to Jesus himself. Maybe this is a really important moment.
Virgil returns the greeting, saying something about how he’s “consigned… to eternal exile.”
The mysterious man says, “What? If you’re from Hell, how are you here?”
Virgil explains by pointing to Dante’s forehead with the three remaining Ps. He goes into a discussion about how Dante is meant to “reign with all the righteous,” but has fallen off his path and it’s Virgil’s job to set him straight.
Then Virgil questions the newcomer, asking why there was an earthquake just now. Dante listens silently.
The mysterious man explains that it wasn’t an accident, because Purgatory proper does not have regular weather; the clouds cannot reach any higher than the three steps at the entrance of Purgatory.
So the trembling of the mountain indicates something special: it only shakes when a soul has been completely cleansed and is ready to ascend to Heaven. At that point, all the penitents give a joyous shout and sing happy hymns. (This seems to be their reaction to everything.)
The man reveals that it was for him that the mountain shook. Congratulations!
Virgil, too, congratulates him, then asks this graduate of Purgatory who he is. But he smartly uses the phrase, “who you were,” because he’s been caught red-handed before using the wrong tense. Oh the horror!
The mysterious man explains how he was a famous person in his own time, but not a Christian. He came from Toulouse but found his glory days in Rome. Finally he names himself as the poet Statius, who wrote the Thebiad and the Achilleid, but lost his moral compass while writing that latter one.
So he turns to his favorite work of all time: Virgil’s Aeneid. Do you notice the irony? Statius is talking to Virgil, but doesn’t know it.
Statius continues talking. He worships Virgil so much that he would gladly add a year to his sentence here in Purgatory to have been able to live during Virgil’s time.
At these words, Virgil turns to Dante silently with a look that says, “Be still.” But as hard as he tries to remain impassive, Dante can’t help but smile a little. That knowing smile.
Statius notices and looks inquiringly at Dante. What’s so funny? He doesn’t get the joke.
Dante feels torn between telling Statius the truth and obeying Virgil’s order to keep quiet. Oh, what to do?
Finally, Virgil decides, by letting out a great big sigh and ordering Dante to tell him the truth, which he does.
At the big revelation, Statius drops to his knees to kiss Virgil’s feet, but Virgil quickly lifts the man to his feet. He tells him there’s no need to humble himself so, saying, “you are a shade, a shade is what you see.” In other words, they’re of the same rank—just souls.
Statius answers that his reaction (dropping to his knees) shows just how much respect he has for Virgil. He treats Virgil almost as a human being, instead of a fellow soul.