Canto 2 ended with the image of the newly arrived penitents flying away under the whip of Cato’s disapproval.
They rush up the mountain, leaving Dante and Virgil on their own again, but despite this apparent return to normality, our pilgrim quickly notices that his guide isn’t really present. Something Cato said seems to have struck a chord, or maybe it is the sight of all these souls for whom there is still hope. Whatever it is, Dante feels like his master isn’t really all there.
A feeling that immediately manifests in v.16-21 when looking down at the ground Dante sees his shadow unfolding before him, but alone.
For a moment he forgets Virgil’s disembodied state and terror washes over him: is he really on his own? If so, what hope does he have to make it up the mountain?
Despite his momentary absent-mindedness, Virgil remains anchored in his role as guide and master. He sees Dante’s panic and offers a word of encouragement: have you no faith after we’ve come together all this way?
The reason he has no shadow, Virgil explains, is because his body is across the world, buried in Naples, where it was brought from Brindisi by Emperor Augustus for an honourable burial.
Virgil ventures here in an unprompted explanation of the type of “body” that the souls of Purgatory have. As we already saw with Casella and Virgil himself, they are immaterial. However, he says that God (“the Utmost Power”) has made it so that the ghostly bodies of sinners and penitents can feel pain.
He conveniently adds that God did this “not wishing how it does to be revealed”.
Last week I wrote about how Dante often uses the act of fainting or being blinded by a light, or the limits of human logic to get out of explaining things that he fears he might get challenged on, either by other theologians or, you know, science.
But I also think that his constant references to the limits of human intellect are also a necessary aspect of the nature of God. The Christian God is not knowable by those who have not undergone an assiduous cleansing process.
Humans, at least ones that are still alive, need to make do with quia.
Virgil adds a cryptic mention of “the fruitless yearning of those men” who dedicated their lives to the search for answers about the nature of the world, like Plato and Aristotle, whom he shares Limbo with.
He then goes uncharacteristically quiet and bows his head “darkly troubled”.
Meanwhile, Dante is looking around, searching for a way up the mountain. Mount Purgatory, he says, is steeper than the cliffs of Lerici and Turbia - a region in Italy where the stone drops directly into the sea.
He sees in the distance a group of people moving at a glacial pace and points them out to Virgil. Perhaps they’ll know where they might find a path up the mountain.
This is the first time we see Dante suggest something to Virgil and actually be taken up on it. I haven’t read any critique on this moment, but my own reading is that this is either representative of Virgil’s lack of expertise in this new realm as opposed to Hell, which he had travelled through before.
Or it could be indicative of a growing familiarity between pilgrim and guide. Maybe now that they’ve quite literally been through hell together, Dante feels like he can address his master more freely. Virgil’s addressing Dante as “my dear son” in the next verse supports the familiarity theory.
The way he speaks to the souls of the penitents, however, supports the first one. You may have noticed the marked difference in the way Virgil speaks to the souls here. No more “wretched beast” like in hell. These guys are “chosen ones”, “honoured folk”, and “happy flock”. All the things that he and his Limbo pals aren’t.
I’d like to also leave you with a note on this “happy flock” image. In Inferno, we saw that every soul there was on their own. Even Paolo and Francesca, together but not really.
In Purgatory the penitents move in groups. While the image of a confused flock of sheep might be comical (which it is), it also conveys a sense of safety and companionship.
But of course, there’s at least one character that stands out. In canto 3 this is Manfred. He stands away from the crowd and calls out to Dante asking to be recognised. Embarrassed, Dante had to admit that he doesn’t know him, so the man introduces himself. Manfred was the illegitimate son of Emperor Frederick II (we remember him from Inferno as the arch-nemesis of the Church). Not only did the Church refer to Manfred as the Anti-Christ due to his claim to the Imperial throne, which would have significantly diminished the power of the Pope), but he was also excommunicated a respectable three times by two separate popes.
Despite this, Manfred, along with everyone else in this slow-motion crowd, was granted a second chance by God, who unlike his human representatives could see into a person’s soul.
Manfred’s presence here is both personally and politically motivated (although in Dante’s world, the two often overlap). On the one hand, he is a proponent of the empire as the ideal political system and often referred to the Holy Roman Empire as the manifestation of heaven on earth.
On the other, the idea of God hand-picking someone who had been condemned by the Church helps Dante stress the grave illegitimacy of his Church-mandated exile, without actually saying the words.
The canto ends with a revelation about the nature of Purgatory. Manfred says that the excommunicates, despite the effort of the Church, will be granted entry into Paradise, eventually. Their progress is not solely dependent on their own efforts though. The prayers of those the dead have left behind can really help.
Manfred asks Dante to please let his daughter know that he made it here against all odds and that there’s something she can do to help his entry into the Kingdom of God - pray.
The canto ends on this note of hope, both for the dead - who will eventually be by God’s side - and for the living - whom Dante gives to understand that their dearly departed are not entirely out of reach.