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Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).  The Divine Comedy.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Purgatory
 
Canto XXIII
 
 
ARGUMENT.—They are overtaken by the spirit of Forese, who had been a friend of our Poet’s on earth, and who now inveighs bitterly against the immodest dress of their countrywomen at Florence.
 
 
ON the green leaf mine eyes were fix’d, like his
Who throws away his days in idle chase
Of the diminutive birds, when thus I heard
The more than father warn me: “Son! our time
Asks thriftier using. Linger not: away!”        5
Thereat my face and steps at once I turn’d
Toward the sages, by whose converse cheer’d
I journey’d on, and felt no toil: and lo!
A sound of weeping, and a song: “My lips, 1
O Lord!” and these so mingled, it gave birth        10
To pleasure and to pain. “O Sire beloved!
Say what is this I hear.” Thus I inquired.
  “Spirits,” said he, “who, as they go, perchance,
Their debt of duty pay.” As on their road
The thoughtful pilgrims, overtaking some        15
Not known unto them, turn to them, and look,
But stay not; thus, approaching from behind
With speedier motion, eyed us, as they pass’d,
A crowd of spirits, silent and devout.
The eyes of each were dark and hollow; pale        20
Their visage, and so lean withal, the bones
Stood staring through the skin. I do not think
Thus dry and meagre Erisichthon show’d,
When pinch’d by sharp-set famine to the quick.
  “Lo!” to myself I mused, “the race, who lost        25
Jerusalem, when Mary with dire beak
Prey’d on her child.” The sockets seem’d as rings,
From which the gems were dropt. Who reads the name 2
Of man upon his forehead, there the M
Had traced most plainly. Who would deem, that scent        30
Of water and an apple could have proved
Powerful to generate such pining want,
Not knowing how it wrought? While now I stood,
Wondering what thus could waste them, (for the cause
Of their gaunt hollowness and scaly rind        35
Appear’d not,) lo! a spirit turn’d his eyes
In their deep-sunken cells, and fasten’d them
On me, then cried with vehemence aloud:
“What grace is this vouchsafed me?” By his looks
I ne’er had recognized him: but the voice        40
Brought to my knowledge what his cheer conceal’d.
Remembrance of his alter’d lineaments
Was kindled from that spark; and I agnized
The visage of Forese. 3 “Ah! respect
This wan and leprous-wither’d skin,” thus he        45
Suppliant implored, “this macerated flesh.
Speak to me truly of thyself. And who
Are those twain spirits, that escort thee there?
Be it not said thou scorn’st to talk with me.”
  “That face of thine,” I answer’d him, “which dead        50
I once bewail’d, disposes me not less
For weeping, when I see it thus transform’d.
Say then, by Heaven, what blasts ye thus? The whilst
I wonder, ask not speech from me: unapt
Is he to speak, whom other will employs.”        55
  He thus: “The water and the plant, we pass’d
With power are gifted, by the eternal will
Infused; the which so pines me. Every spirit,
Whose song bewails his gluttony indulged
Too grossly, here in hunger and in thirst        60
Is purified. The odour, which the fruit,
And spray that showers upon the verdure, breathe,
Inflames us with desire to feed and drink.
Nor once alone, encompassing our route,
We come to add fresh fuel to the pain:        65
Pain, said I? solace rather: for that will,
To the tree, leads us, by which Christ was led
To call on Eli, joyful, when he paid
Our ransom from his vein.” I answering thus:
“Forese! from that day, in which the world        70
For better life thou changedst, not five years
Have circled. If the power of sinning more
Were first concluded in thee, ere thou knew’st
That kindly grief which re-espouses us
To God, how hither art thou, come so soon?        75
I thought to find thee lower, 4 there, where time
Is recompense for time.” He straight replied:
“To drink up the sweet wormwood of affliction
I have been brought thus early, by the tears
Stream’d down my Nella’s cheeks. Her prayers devout,        80
Her sighs have drawn me from the coast, 5 where oft
Expectance lingers; and have set me free
From the other circles. In the sight of God
So much the dearer is my widow prized,
She whom I loved so fondly, as she ranks        85
More singly eminent for virtuous deeds.
The tract, most barbarous of Sardinia’s isle, 6
Hath dames more chaste, and modester by far,
Than that wherein I left her. O sweet brother!
What wouldst thou have me say? A time to come        90
Stands full within my view, to which this hour
Shall not be counted of an ancient date,
When from the pulpit shall be loudly warn’d
The unblushing dames of Florence, lest they bare
Unkerchief’d bosoms to the common gaze.        95
What savage women hath the world e’er seen,
What Saracens, 7 for whom there needed scourge
Of spiritual or other discipline,
To force them walk with covering on their limbs?
But did they see, the shameless ones, what Heaven        100
Wafts on swift wing toward them while I speak,
Their mouths were oped for howling: they shall taste
Of sorrow (unless foresight cheat me here),
Or e’er the cheek of him be clothed with down,
Who is now rock’d with lullaby asleep.        105
Ah! now, my brother, hide thyself no more:
Thou seest how not I alone, but all,
Gaze, where thou veil’st the intercepted sun.”
Whence I replied: “If thou recall to mind
What we were once together, even yet        110
Remembrance of those days may grieve thee sore.
That I forsook that life, was due to him
Who there precedes me, some few evenings past,
When she was round, who shines with sister lamp
To his that glisters yonder,” and I show’d        115
The sun. “’Tis. he, who through profoundest night
Of the true dead has brought me, with this flesh
As true, that follows. From that gloom the aid
Of his sure comfort drew me on to climb,
And, climbing, wind along this mountain-steep,        120
Which rectifies in you whate’er the world
Made crooked and depraved. I have his word,
That he will bear me company as far
As till I come where Beatrice dwells:
But there must leave me. Virgil is that spirit,        125
Who thus hath promised,” and I pointed to him;
“The other is that shade, for whom so late
Your realm, as he arose, exulting, shook
Through every pendent cliff and rocky bound.”
 
Note 1. “O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall show forth thy praise.”—Psalm li. 15. [back]
Note 2. The temples, nose, and forehead are supposed to represent this letter [of the Latin word (H)OMO—man], and the eyes the two O’s. [back]
Note 3. A brother of Piccarda. See also Canto xxiv. and Paradise, Canto iii. Cionacci is referred to by Lombardi, in order to show that Forese was also the brother of Corso Donati, our author’s political enemy. [back]
Note 4. In the Ante-Purgatory. See Canto ii. [back]
Note 5. The wife of Forese. [back]
Note 6. The Barbagia is a part of Sardinia, to which that name was given, on account of the uncivilized state of its inhabitants, who are said to have gone nearly naked. [back]
Note 7. “Saracens.” This word, during the Middle Ages, was applied to all nations (except the Jews) who did not profess Christianity. [back]
 

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