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Virgil says goodbye
The evening is about to fall over Mount Purgatory and the three poets are closer to Earthly Paradise than ever. They just have to walk through a bit of fire.
All throughout Purgatorio we’ve seen Dante’s position shift slightly from that of an external observer of the punitive function of hell to that of a partial participant in the process of purgation. We’ve seen him talk about the arduous journey up the mountain and we’ve watched angels periodically wipe Ps from his forehead to mark his symbolic purgation of the sin allocated to whichever terrace he had just crossed.
In canto 27, however, he has to become more literally involved in purgation. After all, he’s about to step into Earthly Paradise and meet his beloved Beatrice, so he needs to be squeaky clean.
The idea of purity is introduced already in line 8, when we are told that beyond the wall of fire which holds the lustful penitents, Dante can see an angel. The angel stands at the edge of the 7th terrace and sings beati mundo corde the sixth Beatification for the gospel of Matthew, which translates into English as “blessed be the pure of heart”. And as we saw in the previous couple of cantos the fire of the 7th terrace is both a physical representation of the passion that burned in the hearts of the lustful and a means of purifying the soul through physical suffering.
And should these hints and allusions be too opaque, the angel stops his singing and tells the three poets that they have to let the fire “bite them” before they can proceed to the upper levels of the afterlife.
Dante is taken aback by the suggestion, which is more than fair - unlike everyone else here, he has a material body and is not quite ready to part with it. But Virgil intervenes and tries to reassure him that nothing bad is going to happen. In doing so he reassumes the tone of an authoritative guide which we were so used to in Inferno. He tells Dante not to fear because while there “may be agony” in purgatory, there is “never death”. It’s unclear where he suddenly got this knowledge about the nature of purgatory, considering he was entirely dependent on other people to find his way up the mountain.
Nevertheless, he tries to hype Dante up, but as you can imagine “agony” isn’t exactly much better than death, so Dante is still reluctant to quite literally jump in the fire. So Virgil proceeds to appeal to him by bringing up all their past adventures, including how Virgil had led Dante to safety on the back of the monster Geryon. This doesn’t work either, so finally, Virgil reminds Dante that on the other side of the fire, Beatrice awaits. Needless to say, this works.
This is an interesting and - as usual - not at all random choice. In the context of the Divine Comedy, Beatrice represents the saved soul, spiritual contemplation, and divine love. Which is exactly what awaits Dante in the next phase of his journey.
But in the context of Dante’s life and literary production, Beatrice represents the muse, the angel-woman who elevates the poet’s work through the inspiration she provides. It’s not a coincidence that Dante only responds to her name being invoked immediately after meeting Guinizzelli and having a conversation about poetry and courtly love.
So the scorching heat of the fire becomes bearable and Virgil goes on and on about Beatrice, but before they make it through the wall of flames and out on the other side, it’s night. And you know what happens in purgatory at night: nothing. As Dante reminds us in lines 74-75, the natural law of the mountain is such that everyone suddenly runs out of energy and they have to stop whatever they’re doing. So the poets are forced to sit down and “rest” until morning, presumably while they are still in the flames. I say presumably because the fire isn’t mentioned again until 40+ lines later when Virgil talks about “the temporal and eternal flames” that Dante has seen up until this point of his journey, but it’s not clear to me that he means they have just come out of the fire.
But let me not get ahead of myself.
As the poets sit down, Dante begins “ruminating” on what he has seen and heard thus far. He describes this new state of affairs through pastoral imagery, suggesting that the two poets guarded him as shepherds protect their flocks from predators. And before long a sleep comes over him and he has another one of his semi-prophetic dreams.
A woman appears to him in the act of gathering flowers and she sings, to no one in particular, that her name is Leah and that her hands are always doing/making something. Her sister, Rachel, will always be found contemplating her own image in the looking glass.
This is a biblical reference. Leah and Rachel were both married to Jason because… well their father Laban was essentially a psychopath (read about Leah here).
Leah and Rachel are often presented as opposites and this is also their function here. Leah is representative of labour while Rachel embodies contemplation. Their appearance here is tied to the theme of time and how humans choose to use it - either actively involved in the practical concerns of life or dedicating one’s life to intellectual matters.
Dante was himself a political activist, so it’s very unlike him to diminish work as an expression of human will, but as he is about to enter Earthly Paradise, he realizes that in order to understand the spiritual truths about to be revealed to him, he has to lean into the pure reason.
Leah and Rachel also foreshadow the two people Dante is about to meet next - Matilda and Beatrice. But before we can get to them, we must first say goodbye to our beloved Virgil.
As dawn returns, Dante wakes up and is ready to climb the remaining distance to the edge of the 7h terrace and cross into Earthly Paradise. However, once the poets come out of the fire, Virgil reveals that this is as far as he can go.
The canto closes with Virgil’s heartfelt parting words, in which he encourages Dante to trust the clear sense of judgment he has developed over the course of the last few days under Virgil’s guidance.
Dante’s will is “healthy, upright, free and whole”, he says. So there’s no need for his guidance anymore. And in a ceremonial gesture that mirrors the beginning of the journey when he bound Dante with a reed, Virgil now crowns him master of his own life.