Gateway to the Classics: Display Item
Mary Macgregor

The Mount of Purgatory

It was on Good Friday, when, as you know, all good Christians are full of grief, remembering the sufferings of their Lord, it was on Good Friday that Virgil and Dante had entered the Inferno.

It was Easter, when all good Christians are full of joy, remembering that their Lord is risen, it was early on Easter Monday that the two poets came forth from the lower world.

To enter the Inferno, you remember, the poets had to pass through the portal of a gate bearing the terrible words, "All hope abandon, ye who enter here."

But in Purgatory, through the seven circles of which Virgil was erelong to lead Dante, hope abounded. It was true that those who had gained an entrance to this mount suffered, ere they were set free from the sins which had clung to them on earth. Yet each one bore his pain with gladness, knowing that when at length his spirit was purged from all that was not good and beautiful, he would be able to reach the summit of the mount. And from that summit there would be but a step into Paradise, the Paradise of God.

As day dawned Virgil and Dante stood under a cloudless sky. Before them they could catch a glimpse of a sea, a wide-stretching sea, still, save for the gentle rise and fall of the little waves.

They had seen the light of the rising sun, these little waves, and were glad.

Long, long the travellers gazed toward the distant sea, then Dante, turning, saw that he and Virgil were no longer alone. Beside them stood an old man, whose face shone as the brightness of the sun, while over his shoulders hung his long white hair, and on his breast lay his long white beard.

A reverend figure the old man looked, and such indeed he was. For he was none other than Cato, a great Roman writer, who now guarded the shores of Purgatory.

"Who are ye?" cried Cato, looking upon Virgil and his charge; "and how have ye escaped from yonder prison-house?" and he glanced toward the cavern by which the poets had left the Inferno.

Virgil bade Dante fall on his knees before the venerable old man, while he himself answered Cato:

"A lady from Heaven," he said, "sent me hither; therefore, I beseech thee, give me leave to conduct my charge through the seven circles of the mount which thou dost guard."

"It is enough for me that thy request is urged in the name of a blessed dame from Heaven," answered Cato. "Go, therefore, gird thy follower with a reed which grows yonder by the lone seashore. Bathe thou also his face, that the stains of tears and smoke, which his journey has left upon him, may be removed. Then, as the sun rises higher, thou shalt see where thou canst most easily ascend the mount."

As Cato ceased speaking he disappeared from sight, and Virgil and Dante walked toward a meadow where the grass was yet damp with dew.

Here the Master stooped, and laid his hands upon the grass. Then with the morning dew he removed from his follower's face all trace of smoke and tears.

Onward still they walked, until they had reached the lonely shore. Once more the Master stooped, and plucking a reed, girded it around Dante's waist. And, in place of the reed the Master plucked, another at once sprang up.

Now a reed was an emblem of humility, and Dante being girded with a reed was thus surrounded by this rare and beautiful grace.

Standing by the water's brink, the travellers tarried, dreaming of the journey which lay before them. As they dreamed, Dante saw a light upon the sea, a light which moved toward them more swift than any bird. Larger, brighter grew the light; greater, deeper grew the wonder in the poet's heart.

He turned to his Master. He, too, was gazing across the sea, yet no word did he utter.


Brighter and yet more bright shone the Brid of God.

As the light drew nearer yet, it spread itself out, and Virgil knew the glistering white wings of an angel of God.

"Down, down!" the Master cried, turning to Dante. "Bend low thy knees, fold thy hands. Behold, God's angel draweth nigh!"

The heavenly Pilot, for such indeed was the angel, stood upright in the prow of a boat, guiding it without oars or sail other than his own white wings.

Nearer and nearer yet drew the bark, and brighter and yet more bright shone the Bird of God. Before the splendour of his white wings Dante bowed his head until it touched the ground.

In the bark sat more than a hundred spirits singing a Psalm, which, if you wish, you can read in your own Bible. For it was Psalm 114 which the spirits sang, beginning, "When Israel came out of Egypt."

As the boat reached the shore the angel blessed each soul, making upon it the sign of the Cross. Then, as they left the bark, the angel sped back across the sea, swiftly, as he had come, his bright wings growing pale on the distant shore.

Left alone, the spirits looked around bewildered. Seeing Virgil and Dante, they begged to be told the way to the Mount of Purification.

"We also are strangers," answered Virgil, "nor have we been here long before you. By a rough way and hard have we come, therefore no new ascent can dismay us."

As Virgil spoke the spirits had drawn closer to Dante, and had seen that he breathed and had a body such as they had had on earth. In awe they gazed upon him, growing pale in their great wonder.

But one of them, forgetting wonder in joy, rushed forward to embrace the poet. Here, on the lonely shore, had he indeed found a friend.

Only when the spirit spoke, however, did Dante recognise him by the unusual sweetness of his voice.

He was Casella, a musician who had dwelt in Florence, and who had often set Dante's beautiful love-songs to music. Moreover he had sung them to the poet in a voice so pure, so sweet, that never could he forget it. Oft had its beauty banished care from Dante's soul.

"If thou still hast power, sing to me as of old!" cried Dante, overjoyed to see his friend.

Without a moment's delay Casella began to sing one of Dante's own beautiful songs. Softly the clear voice rose upon the quiet sea-shore, then more strong, more joyous yet it soared, even as the lark soars, upward. Dante, with Virgil and the other spirits, forgot, as they listened, all else save the music of the marvellous voice.

Suddenly, above the voice of the singer, rang the stern tone of the guardian of the mount.

Cato was in the midst of the rapt throng of spirits, bidding them loiter no longer, but haste to the mountain, there to begin their ascent toward Paradise.

No sooner was Cato's voice heard than Casella's song ceased. Then, even as a flock of timid doves forsake their corn if aught alarm them, the spirits hastened away to the mountain-side. Virgil and Dante followed them, but the Master's head was bowed, for he was grieved that he had lingered by the way.

And now a strange thing happened. Dante, looking before him, saw that the sun had cast his shadow on the ground. Startled, he looked again. Where was his Master's shadow? It also should be there on the ground before him, unless indeed Virgil had forsaken his charge.

Dante turned. Nay, his Master was there, though his shadow was not to be seen. What could it mean?

But Virgil did not explain. He but bade him fear nothing, though spirits cast no shadows as did his human body.

The poets had now reached the foot of the mountain, but so steep it seemed, so rugged, that they could scarce hope to ascend it without wings.

As they looked, dismayed, at the heights which towered above them, a band of spirits timidly drew near, the more timid as their eyes fell upon the shadow cast by Dante's body on the ground.

They took courage, however, to point out to the travellers a narrow opening in the mountain, by which they might begin their ascent. Yet so steep was the path that Virgil and Dante were forced to scramble upward, using their hands and knees as well as their feet.

Ere long Dante began to lag behind his Master.

"If thou tarry not I shall be left alone," he cried, panting, to Virgil, who was still toiling upward.

"My son," answered the Master, "seest thou yon ledge that winds round the hill? Thither will we climb ere we seek to rest."

Spurred to fresh efforts by his Master's words Dante at length reached Virgil's side, and together they sat down on the narrow pathway.

But Dante, glancing at the heights above him, was full of foreboding. Would he ever reach the summit?

Virgil, seeing that his follower was downcast, bade him be of good cheer. "On the Mount of Purification," said the Master, "the steepest part is at the beginning. The higher thou climbest the easier will the ascent become, until at length, when it becomes as easy to mount as for a ship to sail with the tide, thou mayest know that the end of the journey is near."

As Virgil's words ceased a voice startled the travellers. "Yet perchance thou mayest be forced to rest ere the ascent grows easy."

Turning round, the two poets saw a huge boulder, beneath whose shade leaned several spirits. They seemed scarce able to stand for very laziness.

One among them had indeed already sat down. His arms were around his knees and his head was bent down to rest upon them.

"See, Master!" cried Dante. "See, here is one lazier than if laziness were his sister."

The spirit, it may be, heard Dante's words, for without raising his head he murmured mockingly, lazily, "Thou art very valiant. Up then and reach the summit."

Dante, half laughing at his indolent ways, stooped to catch, if he could, a glimpse of the spirit's face.

Why, it was Belacqua who had mocked him thus, Belacqua, the maker of musical instruments, noted long ago in Florence for his lazy, indolent ways.

"Wherefore sittest thou here, Belacqua?" said Dante to the idle Florentine. "Art thou lazy even as of old, or dost thou wait for a guide to lead thee onward?"

"I may not go on," said the spirit; "the Angel of God who is seated at the portal will not let me pass. Here must I stay as many years as I dwelt idly upon earth."

Before Dante could answer his old friend Virgil was calling to him to hasten onward after him to the next ledge of the mountain.

As the poet sped along after his guide, he passed many bands of spirits. Again and again the different bands stopped to point at Dante's shadow while they whispered the one to another.

Dante was curious to hear what the spirits were saying, for well he knew it was of him they spoke. Slow, and yet more slow, grew his footsteps, until Virgil turned and sharply reproved his loitering charge.

"Why dost thou listen to the babblings of the crowd?" said the Master. "Come thou swiftly after me, nor heed their foolish whisperings."

Dante quickened his steps in silence, blushing with shame at his dear Masters" reproof. Now all this while Virgil and Dante were but on the outskirts of the realm through which they had yet to journey. Neither they nor the spirits whom they met had yet reached the gate which would admit them into the seven circles of Purgatory.

As the poets still toiled upward in search of the gate, they saw a spirit standing apart, gravely watching their approach.

Virgil went toward him to beg that he would tell them where to find the gate.

Instead of answering Virgil's request the spirit demanded to be told his name and the country from whence he came.

No sooner was he told than he moved quickly forward, and falling at the Roman poet's feet he threw his arms around Virgil's knees, crying, "I am Sordello, thy countryman."

Sordello had lived on earth some years before Virgil was born, and had himself been a poet. Thus it was that he greeted his brother poet with both joy and humility.

Night was falling and Sordello told Virgil that none might ascend the mountain in the darkness lest he should lose his way. He therefore offered to guide the two travellers to a region where they might rest pleasantly until the morning.

Well pleased to follow, Virgil and Dante were lead by Sordello to a beautiful valley. The grass was green, and the flowers more bright than gold or silver, while their fragrance was more rare than that of flowers that bloomed on earth. Seated among the flowers was a great multitude of spirits, singing softly a hymn to Mary, Mother of God.

Among the spirits were kings and nobles, and these Sordello pointed out to his companions. Even as he did so, one of the spirits rose from amidst the flowers, and stretched out his hands, as though imploring the other spirits to give heed to him. Then, folding his hands and gazing towards the East, the spirit began to sing an evening hymn. And soon countless voices were blended with his own.

As the hymn ended the, spirits all gazed upward, while their faces grew pale, fearful. Dante too gazed upward, and to! a wondrous sight met his gaze.

Two angels, with bright, flaming swords, appeared in the sky. Their robes and their wings were green as the green leaves of spring. Gently they descended, one alighting on a little hill behind the troop of spirits, the other dropping on to a knoll on the other side of the valley. It seemed as though the angels had come to safeguard those in the valley from all ill.

So bright shone the golden hair of the heavenly messengers that Dante's eyes drooped before the splendour.

"The angels come," said Sordello, "to guard the valley from a serpent that even now draws nigh."

Dante pressed closer to his Master, dreading lest already the coils of the reptile were drawing him from Virgil's side.

"Lo, our enemy is here!" cried Sordello, and he pointed to the lower side of the vale, which was guarded by no angel.

Spellbound, Dante watched as the serpent crept stealthily in and out among the beautiful flowers.

So intent was he on the movements of the creature that he did not hear the flutter of wings on the quiet air. But before Dante was aware of the angels" watchful care the serpent knew its evil plans were thwarted; for it had heard the swift movement of the angels" wings, and, having heard it turned and fled.

Then the angels winged their flight once more to the hills that overlooked the beautiful valley.

Dante was wearied now, and lying down among the flowers he fell fast asleep. And while he slept a gentle lady, named Lucia, came down into the valley and said to Virgil, "Let me take him who sleeps that the way may be easy to him."

Then Lucia lifted Dante in her arms and carried him, easily as a babe, up to the very gate of Purgatory, while Virgil followed close in her steps.

Thus when the poet awoke, refreshed after his long sleep, the valley, with its radiant flowers, had vanished. He was alone with his Master before the gate for which they had been seeking on the Mount of Purgatory.