Purgatory: Canto 9 -- Dante's Dream of the Eagle

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Thursday, February 24, 2005

Purgatory: Canto IX -- Ante-Purgatory: The Angel Guardian

Psalm 91, on which "On Eagle's Wings" was based, reads,

"1 You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, Say to the LORD, "My refuge and fortress, my God in whom I trust." God will rescue you from the fowler's snare, from the destroying plague, Will shelter you with pinions, spread wings that you may take refuge; God's faithfulness is a protecting shield. You shall not fear the terror of the night nor the arrow that flies by day, Nor the pestilence that roams in darkness, nor the plague that ravages at noon. Though a thousand fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, near you it shall not come. You need simply watch; the punishment of the wicked you will see. You have the LORD for your refuge; you have made the Most High your stronghold. No evil shall befall you, no affliction come near your tent. For God commands the angels to guard you in all your ways. With their hands they shall support you, lest you strike your foot against a stone. You shall tread upon the asp and the viper, trample the lion and the dragon. Whoever clings to me I will deliver; whoever knows my name I will set on high. All who call upon me I will answer; I will be with them in distress; I will deliver them and give them honor. With length of days I will satisfy them and show them my saving power."

This scripture has been fulfilled in our presence, for we have come through the pains of hell and ante-Purgatory to the gate of St. Peter, borne aloft on eagle's wings (metaphorically, those belonging to Lucia -- did you catch it, Andy -- the symbol of divine light and patron saint of the blind) while overcome by the fatigue of having not slept since entering hell's gate. This is the first of three sleeps Dante will take in Purgatory, and they all happen on a multiple of nine. When Dante awakes, the flowering valley is gone, and he finds himself sitting with Virgil, who explains that they're at the gate of Purgatory, which is effectively the gate of heaven. All others, even Sordello, who'd earlier promised to guide the two to the gate, have remained in the valley below. That the promise of heaven is before him through this dream that turned reality is also reflected in today's reading of La Vita Nuova, where Dante dreams that love has called him to the truth, to the end of dissimulation, and to a confession to Beatrice about his true feelings and intentions towards her. Beatrice becomes his confessor, and love is the medium through which the profession is made.

It is appropriate that our saint for today is St. Sebastian of Aparicio, not only because we enter the gate on a saint of my name, but because St. Sebastian is the patron saint of travelers (and a Franciscan, no less, Fr. Earl!) who devoted his life to serving others. It's in the spirit of St. Sebastian (even though he lived long after Dante stepped through this gate) that we pilgrims continue our road through the humility and penitence necessary for us to complete our journey. As at the exit from hell, the poets are accosted by a heavenly guard, though this one is an angel while the first was a human shade. It is to this angel that Dante prostrates himself, like a priest seeking ordination or a penitent seeking absolution, and begs entrance into the kingdom. The angel cuts, and this is not a point to be missed, seven P's (like the crosses made on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent, the season of penitence) into the forehead of Dante so that he will have the opportunity to lose a P with each ledge of sin he ascends above -- in the same way Minos curled his tail around his waist for every circle the sinner must descend, we expect that this angel is used to cutting P's in the position relative to the ledges the penitent must climb.

So much imagery in this canto, the differences in the composition of the first three steps (like the Old Man of Crete, but with the foundation on the strongest step rather than the weakest leg), the color of ashen, parched earth vestments, the gold and silver keys entrusted to him by St. Peter, and the warning at the gate, "Enter (hope). But first be warned: do not look back (upon sin or the temptations of the earth below) or you will find yourself once more outside" (131-33). The Holy Gate roars upon opening, and Dante hears accompany it Te deum laudamus, leading Professor Archibald MacAllister to suggest that purgatory is set up on the structure of a mass in the same way that hell is structured after a cathedral. It is the acclamation of the saved hailing the advent of one of their own that resounds, Ciardi believes, to Dante's allegorical ear, for how else could he have heard them over the clanging of the gate's opening?

The importance of Dante's entrance to all the saved is underscored by Pope, who writes, "from nature's chain whatever link you strike,/ Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike" (VIII, 245-46), for all souls, all angels, all spheres, and things have their place, and the proper place of man is already reserved for us in God's cosmos based on the decisions of our will. What is really there for the asking is man's acknowledgement of his place, and this is also why all those souls lining up on Acheron are eager to receive their place, for they come too late to the knowledge that the choice of heaven was theirs to lose and that God's system of order is as immutable as it is infallible. The stress on order, on the spheres interacting in their proper relationship to one another, is why Pope is a neo-classicist, a throw-back to the Golden Age of Rome -- to the poetry of none other than Virgil, himself.