Dante Alighieri: Purgatorio 26 (From Italian)

Purgatorio 26
Dante Alighieri
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

It is around 4 or 5 o'clock in the afternoon, and the sun is on its way down in the west on Dante's right hand side. Dante, Virgil and Statius are walking south along the flaming edge of the seventh rung of Purgatory where penitents are serving time for sexual excess. A group of souls watches Dante and wonders why he casts a shadow over the flames. At one soul's request, the poet explains that he is still alive. Another group of souls, the homosexual penitents, joins the first, and the shade of the Bolognese poet Guido Guinizelli explains the nature of their sins. Dante expresses admiration for Guinizelli, and then — as author — pays the Occitan poet Arnaut Daniel the highest of possible compliments, allowing him to close out the Canto with lines of arrestingly simple verse in Lyric Occitan.

   While we went on in single file about
the edge, over and over my dear guide
told me "Take care, I'll point the perils out." 
   My shoulder felt the sun strike from the right,
its rays already turning the west sky
from azure to a countenance of white.
   My shadow thrown as shade across the high
flames made the burning red a deeper ruddy,
and I saw several shades as they went by
   notice this. As they looked they began to study
and discuss me. One of them I could hear
said "he seems not to have a fictive body"
   Then some of them came near to me, as near
as possible, while always making sure
to stay within the bounds of burning there
   "You there who let those other two go first,
(not out of sloth maybe, but reverence) I 
have a question! I who burn in fire and thirst.
   And it is not just me who needs your reply.
These others are all thirstier for it
than Ethiopes for cold drink beneath hot sky. 
   Tell us: how do you cast a shadow yet, 
raise ramparts against sunlight with your skin?
It's like death never snatched you in his net."
   These words from one of them. I would have been     
explaining things already. But the flare
of something else surprised my eyes just then:
   down the middle of that flamey thoroughfare
came other people facing these. Forgetting
what I had meant to say, I stood to stare,
   as I saw shades rushing from each side, meeting
to kiss each other's cheek, not lingering
but satisfied with a momentary greeting.
   Ants in their black ranks do this kind of thing:
each nuzzling at the other as if to seek
news of their recent luck and traveling.
   When each had kissed the other's friendly cheek,
before departing that phantasmagora
each shade tried to outscream the other's shriek...
   The newcomers howled "Sodom and Gamorrah"
The rest: "Pasiphaë enters the cow
to let the bullcalf rut her lust and bore her."
   Then as two flocks of cranes divide and go,
one south to Africa, one to the Riphean Height,
these shying from the sun, those fleeing snow,
   these two groups parted. One left, one went right
to us. Then went back in tears and chagrin
to crying out the mantra of their blight;
   and those who'd come my way drew close again,
the shades that first entreated me, their eyes
as eager for my story as they had been.
   Now having seen their wish presented twice,
I made to answer: "oh souls sure to gain,
whenever it comes, your peace in Paradise,
   my limbs of human life did not remain, 
age-ripe or green, back there. They did not die.
They are on me here, complete with bone and brain. 
   I go through here to stop being blind. On high 
there is a lady who has won me grace
to bear across your world my mortal I. 
   But please — so that you may more quickly taste
what you want most of all, and heaven set
you in its loving shelter and great embrace,
   tell me, and I will make a place for it
in what I write: who are you, and who's that faction 
of people that just now ran opposite?" 
   With no less than a mountain man's reaction
when he comes red-necked to a metropolis
and stares in a speechless downtowned stupefaction,
   the shades seemed flabbergasted hearing this.
But when their shock was laid under control
and blunted (as, in great hearts, it soon is)
   the shade spoke who'd addressed me first of all: 
"Blessed are you who from our shores ship keen
experience back, to die a better soul.     
   That other group committed the obscene   
same sex-act for which Caesar won the shame  
in victory of being called a Queen. 
   so they leave crying out 'Sodom' and blame
themselves aloud as you heard. The contrite
self-loathing that they feel sustains the flame. 
   Our sins were rather more hermaphrodite
but since, in disregard of man's law, we  
like beasts just acted on our appetite,
   when we go by them we scream shameheartedly 
the name of her who in the mockbeast's slime
got on all fours for bestiality. 
   Now you know all about our guilt and crime:
if you want our names, I don't know all of them,
and even if I did, there isn't time.  
   I'll rid you of your want for mine: I am
Guido Guinizelli, brought here at once
because I repented well before time came."
   While King Lycurgus grieved berserk, twin sons
discovered their lost mother and made him see.
So was I moved (though I couldn't match their response)
   hearing him name his name: father to me
and of my betters who gave the world the dear
and graceful rhymes of love and courtesie.
   Thoughtstruck, I seemed to have no tongue or ear
as we walked on. I simply stared, then stood
a while as flames kept me from coming near.
   When I had stared my fill, more than I should,
I offered, in such terms as win good faith,
to serve him in whatever way I could.
   He said: "The things that I just heard you say
will leave in my memory such clear residue
as Lethe can't blur out or wash away.
   But if the words you swore just now are true
then tell me why your speech and your look declare
the kind of love I think I see in you." 
   I said: "It is your verses, graceful and clear
which shall, so long as modern style is sung,
render the very ink that penned them dear"
   "Brother" he said, pointing out one among
the shades ahead "that soul you see there rose
as the best of craftsmen in the mother tongue. 
   He excels all who wrote in verse or prose
of love and loss, though idiots for their part
will still prefer that rhymer from Limoges. 
   Such men turn more to talk than truth and heart,
following familiar fames, set in their praise
with no regard to reasoning or art.
   Thus with Guittone whom they used to raise
above all others, with cry on cry galore,
though truth prevails with most of them these days. 
   Now if almighty privilege affords
you entry to that cloister where the master
and abbot of the college is Our Lord,
   then say on my behalf a Paternoster
or as much of one as we need, who can't be
led to temptation, but delivered faster."  
   And then, as if to yield his place with me
to someone else, he vanished in the flame
as a fish toward the bottom of the sea.
   I drew ahead a bit beside the same
shade he'd shown me, and said my heart and ear
would set a place of honor for his name.
   He answered in the language I hold dear:
"Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrir
   Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
cossiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jauzen lo joi qu'esper, denan.
   Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l'escalai 
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!"
   Then he was hidden in flames that purify.



















































Line 8:
There is some uncertainty about how the word pur is to be read here. My translation is at this point paraphrastical enough for me not to worry a great deal.

Line 32:
See Romans 16:16

Line 34-36:
See Aeneid IV.402-407

Line 40:
Those who have tried to argue that the sin punished in Inferno XV and XVI is not homosexuality are hard pressed to explain this passage in the Purgatorio. Even more absurd is the attempt by some modern commentators, desperate to see in Dante some kind of moral inspiration for the modern era, to read into this passage a tacit approval of moderate same-sex romantic relationships. It goes without saying that moderation of heterosexual lust is acceptable in Dante's view. It in no way follows that, by placing homosexual and heterosexual penitents in the same part of Purgatory, Dante was expressing the view that homosexual lust is also acceptable in moderation. Some amount of hay has been made of the fact that Dante here portrays homosexual and heterosexual lust as arising from the same source, unlike the Inferno where heterosexual vice is punished in the realm of Incontinence while homosexual behavior is punished as Violence. This probably has nothing to do with "softened views" about homosexuality, so much as the fact that Dante has painted himself into a corner by sticking to the seven capital vices in the layout of Purgatory, unlike Hell where he could maneuver more on the moral grid. The fact is that Dante thinks homosexuality is wrong, and this is not surprising from a vernacular poet writing in 14th century Europe. If any reader needs to find a way to square themselves with this fact, I would suggest that they take a leaf from Dante's book when it comes to cultural context. In Dante's Hell, nobody is punished for something they couldn't have been expected to know was wrong. The only people punished for sodomy or suicide are Christians who would have understood these things to be sinful. Greek and Roman polytheists, in whose culture these were acceptable, are not punished for them but are placed alongside the virtuous unbaptized in Limbo a.k.a Pagan Heaven. If Dante can give Sophocles a pass for sodomy, then I don't really mind giving him a pass in return on this.

Line 91:
While the basic meaning of this line is clear, the contorted syntax is puzzling and has occasioned multiple attempts to parse it, with quite different conclusions.

Line 92:
It is worth noting that Dante doesn't bother informing Guido that the other two individuals walking with him are Statius and Vergil. Presumably this would have been of interest to Guinizzelli. But as the focus of the Canto is on (medieval) vernacular poetry, Dante probably had narrative reason to keep the Latin-writing Romans out of it. No other part of the Commedia is as concerned with poetry and poetic merit.

Lines 140-147:
Dante has Arnaut Daniel speak in (slightly Italianized) Old Occitan as a nod to his lyric predecessor. It is the only extended passage of a language other than Italian in the Commedia. (And even the Latin passages are mostly scriptural quotation.) There is no other language — not even French — in which a quotation in Occitan would have precisely this effect.
What to do in translation?
Most translators, such as Longfellow and Clive James, have rendered Arnaut's speech into the same kind of English as the rest of the Commedia. Some have kept the speech in Occitan. Others have found more creative solutions. Dorothy L. Sayers has him speak pastiche Scots. John Ciardi has him speak mock-Spenserian English. Anthony Esolen — whose piety is matched only by his inanity  — makes the offensively ironic move of trying to have Arnaut speak French rather than Occitan, revealing how little he knows of either language, especially since he is even worse at writing in Modern French than Ciardi is at writing in Spenserian English. 
In my English version, one possibility that occurred to me was to have Arnaut Daniel address Dante in Occitanized Italian, as a nod to the Romance lyric tradition. Only in Italian could an Old Occitan insertion have worked. Only in translation into another language could an Italian-language insertion work this way. The reader would know that something is up, and perhaps ask why there is an Italian passage in what is supposed to be a translation from Italian. This would lead the curious to try and learn more. For the interested, this is the passage that I came up with in implementing this possibility:

   He said in gentleman's vernacular
Tant' e tua domanda cortese, Dante, 
Ch'i' non mi posso né voglio celar.
   Arnaldo son che piango nei miei canti 
Afflitto vedo il passato follore
Goioso, vedo la gioia davanti  
   Ora ti prego io per quel valore
che ti guida alla sommità ormai: 
ti sovvenga a tempo del mio dolore

This is however mediocre Italian verse at best, an injustice to Arnaut and to Dante.
Ultimately I decided to leave the passage in Old Occitan and simply alter it slightly for rhyme's sake. In both cases I altered items (the infinitive cobrire and the form escalina) which were Italianate insertions probably justified by rhyme considerations to begin with. (Escalina appears to be a coinage original to Dante. The form escalai is a coinage original to me.) Here is a verse translation that can also be read in its place:

Your courtly question is so gladdening
that I cannot, will not, stay hidden here.
   I am Arnaut who go in tears and sing
in pain I see the folly of my prime 
and rejoice seeing the joy that time will bring. 
   I beg you by the power that helps you climb
to the summit of that flight of stairs on high:
remember how I suffer in good time. 

There was another more off-the-wall option: to completely replace Arnaut with somebody else, somebody who could be made to do something interesting as a dramatic conclusion to this Canto. For me the obvious choice was my favorite poet, Hafez of Shiraz. This would pose problems, of both a chronological and theological nature. I won't rob the reader of the pleasure of trying to solve them. I'll simply point out that Dante does very occasionally — for special reasons — place people in the afterlife when they were still alive at the time of writing, and that Cato the Younger somehow is in Purgatory by heavenly will. Here is how that implementation would have looked:

   He answered with Saracen harmony:
"Your courtwise question comes so dear to me,
that I can't stay concealed, or want to be. 
   Dante, I am Hafez the Shirazi 
who sing through tears. With painful memory
I rejoice, in foresight of joys to be. 
   I beg of you now by the Powers that see
you to that stairway's summit: pray for me. 
Think in good time upon my agony."
   Then he hid in flames that burn to purity. 

The Original:

   Mentre che sì per l'orlo, uno innanzi altro,
ce n'andavamo, e spesso il buon maestro
diceami: «Guarda: giovi ch'io ti scaltro»;
   feriami il sole in su l'omero destro,
che già, raggiando, tutto l'occidente
mutava in bianco aspetto di cilestro;
   e io facea con l'ombra più rovente
parer la fiamma; e pur a tanto indizio
vidi molt' ombre, andando, poner mente.
   Questa fu la cagion che diede inizio
loro a parlar di me; e cominciarsi
a dir: «Colui non par corpo fittizio»;
   poi verso me, quanto potëan farsi,
certi si fero, sempre con riguardo
di non uscir dove non fosser arsi.
   «O tu che vai, non per esser più tardo,
ma forse reverente, a li altri dopo,
rispondi a me che 'n sete e 'n foco ardo.
   Né solo a me la tua risposta è uopo;
ché tutti questi n'hanno maggior sete
che d'acqua fredda Indo o Etïopo.
   Dinne com' è che fai di te parete
al sol, pur come tu non fossi ancora
di morte intrato dentro da la rete».
   Sì mi parlava un d'essi; e io mi fora
già manifesto, s'io non fossi atteso
ad altra novità ch'apparve allora;
   ché per lo mezzo del cammino acceso
venne gente col viso incontro a questa,
la qual mi fece a rimirar sospeso.
   Lì veggio d'ogne parte farsi presta
ciascun' ombra e basciarsi una con una
sanza restar, contente a brieve festa;
   così per entro loro schiera bruna
s'ammusa l'una con l'altra formica,
forse a spïar lor via e lor fortuna.
   Tosto che parton l'accoglienza amica,
prima che 'l primo passo lì trascorra,
sopragridar ciascuna s'affatica:
   la nova gente: «Soddoma e Gomorra»;
e l'altra: «Ne la vacca entra Pasife,
perché 'l torello a sua lussuria corra».
   Poi, come grue ch'a le montagne Rife
volasser parte, e parte inver' l'arene,
queste del gel, quelle del sole schife,
   l'una gente sen va, l'altra sen vene;
e tornan, lagrimando, a' primi canti
e al gridar che più lor si convene;
   e raccostansi a me, come davanti,
essi medesmi che m'avean pregato,
attenti ad ascoltar ne' lor sembianti.
   Io, che due volte avea visto lor grato,
incominciai: «O anime sicure
d'aver, quando che sia, di pace stato,
   non son rimase acerbe né mature
le membra mie di là, ma son qui meco
col sangue suo e con le sue giunture.
   Quinci sù vo per non esser più cieco;
donna è di sopra che m'acquista grazia,
per che 'l mortal per vostro mondo reco.
   Ma se la vostra maggior voglia sazia
tosto divegna, sì che 'l ciel v'alberghi
ch'è pien d'amore e più ampio si spazia,
   ditemi, acciò ch'ancor carte ne verghi,
chi siete voi, e chi è quella turba
che se ne va di retro a' vostri terghi».
   Non altrimenti stupido si turba
lo montanaro, e rimirando ammuta,
quando rozzo e salvatico s'inurba,
   che ciascun' ombra fece in sua paruta;
ma poi che furon di stupore scarche,
lo qual ne li alti cuor tosto s'attuta,
   «Beato te, che de le nostre marche»,
ricominciò colei che pria m'inchiese,
«per morir meglio, esperïenza imbarche!
   La gente che non vien con noi, offese
di ciò per che già Cesar, trïunfando,
"Regina" contra sé chiamar s'intese:
   però si parton "Soddoma" gridando,
rimproverando a sé com' hai udito,
e aiutan l'arsura vergognando.
   Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito;
ma perché non servammo umana legge,
seguendo come bestie l'appetito,
   in obbrobrio di noi, per noi si legge,
quando partinci, il nome di colei
che s'imbestiò ne le 'mbestiate schegge.
   Or sai nostri atti e di che fummo rei:
se forse a nome vuo' saper chi semo,
tempo non è di dire, e non saprei.
   Farotti ben di me volere scemo:
son Guido Guinizzelli, e già mi purgo
per ben dolermi prima ch'a lo stremo».
   Quali ne la tristizia di Ligurgo
si fer due figli a riveder la madre,
tal mi fec' io, ma non a tanto insurgo,
   quand' io odo nomar sé stesso il padre
mio e de li altri miei miglior che mai
rime d'amore usar dolci e leggiadre;
   e sanza udire e dir pensoso andai
lunga fïata rimirando lui,
né, per lo foco, in là più m'appressai.
   Poi che di riguardar pasciuto fui,
tutto m'offersi pronto al suo servigio
con l'affermar che fa credere altrui.
   Ed elli a me: «Tu lasci tal vestigio,
per quel ch'i' odo, in me, e tanto chiaro,
che Letè nol può tòrre né far bigio.
   Ma se le tue parole or ver giuraro,
dimmi che è cagion per che dimostri
nel dire e nel guardar d'avermi caro».
   E io a lui: «Li dolci detti vostri,
che, quanto durerà l'uso moderno,
faranno cari ancora i loro incostri».
   «O frate», disse, «questi ch'io ti cerno
col dito», e additò un spirto innanzi,
«fu miglior fabbro del parlar materno.
   Versi d'amore e prose di romanzi
soverchiò tutti; e lascia dir li stolti
che quel di Lemosì credon ch'avanzi.
   A voce più ch'al ver drizzan li volti,
e così ferman sua oppinïone
prima ch'arte o ragion per lor s'ascolti.
   Così fer molti antichi di Guittone,
di grido in grido pur lui dando pregio,
fin che l'ha vinto il ver con più persone.
   Or se tu hai sì ampio privilegio,
che licito ti sia l'andare al chiostro
nel quale è Cristo abate del collegio,
   falli per me un dir d'un paternostro,
quanto bisogna a noi di questo mondo,
dove poter peccar non è più nostro».
   Poi, forse per dar luogo altrui secondo
che presso avea, disparve per lo foco,
come per l'acqua il pesce andando al fondo.
   Io mi fei al mostrato innanzi un poco,
e dissi ch'al suo nome il mio disire
apparecchiava grazïoso loco.
   El cominciò liberamente a dire:
«Tan m'abellis vostre cortes deman,
qu'ieu no me puesc ni voill a vos cobrire.
   Ieu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan;
consiros vei la passada folor,
e vei jausen lo joi qu'esper, denan.
   Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som de l'escalina,
sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!».
   Poi s'ascose nel foco che li affina.

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