Purgatory Canto XXIII (the Sixth Terrace: the Gluttonous)
Dante, tempted by the fruit tree and puzzled by the disembodied voice, is hypnotized.
Virgil, unperturbed by the voice, tells Dante to come on. They need to hurry up. He obeys.
As they travel, they hear a hymn sung on the wind: “Labi mea, Domine” (which means “O Lord, open thou my lips”).
Dante asks who is singing this and Virgil answers that it’s probably penitents.
Right on cue, a crowd of penitents overtakes them, traveling along the same road faster than our heroes. Each party silently examines the other.
Dante is struck by how skinny each soul is. They’re so thin he can practically see their skeletons underneath their skins.
In his head, Dante compares them to Erysichthon.
Quick mythology lesson: Erysichthon is a Thessalian prince who makes the mistake of chopping down a goddess’ sacred tree. She punishes him by making him starve, and he eventually gets so desperate that he tries to eat himself.
The shades are so skinny that Dante can clearly see the M of OMO on their faces. Quick explanation: “Homo” is the Latin word for man, and medieval people saw it (minus the H) inscribed on everyone’s face. The two O’s are the eyes, while the M consists of the lines from the two cheekbones connected to the nose. So these people’s faces are so emaciated that the M shows more prominently than any of the other letters.
As Dante wonders why they’re so thin, one of the souls turns and speaks to him. His face is so emaciated that Dante doesn’t recognize it, identifying the figure only by his voice. He turns out to be Dante's friend Donati Forese.
He begs Dante not to scold him for being so malnourished. Instead, he wants to know about Dante’s two guides.
Dante answers a question with a question. He asks Forese why he is here.
Forese points out the tree behind them and replies that all the souls here suffer for their gluttony on earth. Their punishment is to constantly smell fruit and pure water but to vainly circle the tree, unable to eat or drink.
Now here’s an interesting moment. Forese calls their suffering “pain,” but corrects himself, saying it should be called “solace” because they are following in Christ’s footsteps to reach God.
Dante continues questioning Forese. He’s done some quick calculations in his head: Forese died only five years ago. He asks his friend why he isn’t still in ante-Purgatory, where Dante would expect to find him.
Forese answers that his sweet wife Nella has been praying for him and that this is winning her God’s love more than ever, because she is living alone. He rhapsodizes on how faithful and modest she is—so much better than Florentine women who go around bare-breasted.
Forese then goes into prophecy-mode. He foresees a time when it will be forbidden for Florentines to walk around so indecently. If they could see what’s coming, they would howl in pain.
But then he seems to remember the questions he asked Dante, which remain unanswered. So he begs Dante not to keep the information from him any longer.
Dante introduces Virgil as the man who guided him from Hell up to this point and who will continue to guide him until he finds Beatrice.
Then he points to Statius. Without naming him, Dante simply calls him “the shade for whom, just now, your kingdom caused its every slope to tremble as it freed him from itself.” Nice.