The theme of literary genealogy continues to branch out from the previous two cantos and into the opening of canto 23.
The canto starts with a hunting simile in which Dante compares his awed stare at the upside-down triangle tree we walked upon at the end of canto 22 to the searching eyes of a hunter of small birds. What he means to say is that he’s getting distracted and is falling behind, at which point Virgil, his “more-than-father”, tells him to hurry and keep up with him and Statius.
It wouldn’t be a stretch for me to suggest that the image in lines 7-9 of Virgil and Statius walking ahead in conversation with each other and Dante trailing after them is a manifestation of the literary family tree that Dante has been trying to create over the past few cantos. And when we meet a couple of literary figures contemporary to Dante in this canto and the next, we’ll see that tree branch out horizontally, too.
But despite Dante’s familiarity with the person he’s about to meet in this canto, their encounter isn’t entirely seamless.
As the poets make their way along the 6th terrace, they’re overtaken by a crowd of penitents who go round and round seemingly mesmerized by the tree and singing “Labia mea, Domine”, a line from Psalm 50:15, which is often translated into English as “O Lord, open my lips”. As Dante is about to find out momentarily, the 6th terrace is where spirits atone for gluttony.
Watching the entranced crowd pass him by Dante becomes in turn entranced by them, more specifically by their physical appearance. He writes
‘Each one was dark and hollow round the eyes,
pallid in feature, and so gaunt and waste
their skin was formed to show the very bone.’
The description is significant both because of how evocative it is and because this is actually the first time that we get this type of Inferno-esque description in Purgatory. Last year we grew accustomed to the paradox underpinning Dante’s description of the sinners he met in hell: they were immaterial specters but somehow suffered various degrees of physical decay. But up until this point of Purgatory, we haven’t come across such vivid descriptions of corporal punishment. In part because a lot of the pain of purgatory seems to be of a moral/spiritual nature, but in my opinion also because a lot of the souls here are probably pretty far along the process of purgation and therefore closer to their human form.
But greed - of which gluttony is a subcategory - is a very special sin in Dante’s book (I couldn’t help the pun). Robin Kirkpatrick, whose translation I’ve been reading, makes an excellent point that, for Dante, greed is the opposite of justice. He writes
“Justice is the highest virtue that human beings are capable of and ensures that one individual lives in a well-proportioned relationship with another. Gluttons, in seeking more than their share, distort that balance.”
For this reason, he argues, their punishment is a distortion of their physical being.
The same distortion of personhood is implied in Inferno 6, where Ciacco, a sinner from the circle of gluttony, tells Dante that he was a contemporary Florentine, but the former fails to recognise him.
In Purgatorio, however, the souls seem to have the word OMO stamped in their faces (presumably because the hollows of their eyes look like O’s and their browbones and noses look like the letter M), which is an archaic form of the Italian ‘uomo’ meaning man. So, although distorted by sin, these people are still recognisable human beings.
This glimmer of recognition becomes a fully-fledged moment of recognition like we have seen many times before when one of the penitents speaks to Dante and the latter recognizes the voice of his friend Forese Donati. In life, Forese was a distant cousin of Gemma Donati, Dante’s wife, and a rather lowbrow poet himself. He’s most famous for a series of tenzoni (a tenzone is a type of offensive poetic exchange - think rap battle or diss track) he and Dante exchanged in their youth.
This is an interesting detail when it comes to the literary family tree I mentioned above: what exactly is Dante trying to say about the state of contemporary poetry by placing poets like Virgil and Statius at the root of the tree and presenting us with Forese’s insult-poetry as an example of what the most recent branches look like?
Forese explains that the process of purgation for gluttony involves an all-consuming “thirsting” and “hungering” triggered by the aromas released from the oddly shaped tree. The experience is incredibly painful, but this is a pain that the penitents welcome in the same way that Christ welcomed the cross (line 73) because going through it brings them closer to God. He also explains, in response to Dante’s puzzlement, that he made it so far up the mountain despite only being dead for five human years thanks to his wife Nella’s prayers - this is the first time that we actually see the effects of human prayers on behalf of the dead.
Thinking about his beloved Nella, triggers a bizarre and pretty misogynistic critique of Florence in Forese. He says that his wife is so not like all the other Florentine women who have taken up the scandalous fashion of wearing revealing necklines which makes them more vulgar than the women of Sardinia or Saracen women. But, he adds, what is to be expected of the women of a city that has been overrun by corruption even among its most virtuous citizens (men, I imagine)?
After his rant, Forese wants to hear how come Dante, a living man, has made it here. The explanation, which we all have now heard a dozen times, closes the canto.