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Dante Alighieri (1265–1321).  The Divine Comedy.
The Harvard Classics.  1909–14.
 
Purgatory
 
Canto XXV
 
 
ARGUMENT.—Virgil and Statius resolve some doubts that have arisen in the mind of Dante from what he had just seen. They all arrive on the seventh and last cornice, where the sin of incontinence is purged in fire; and the spirits of those suffering therein are heard to record illustrious instances of chastity.
 
 
IT was an hour, when he who climbs, had need
To walk uncrippled: for the sun 11 had now
To Taurus the meridian circle left,
And to the Scorpion left the night. As one,
That makes no pause, but presses on his road,        5
Whate’er betide him, if some urgent need
Impel; so enter’d we upon our way,
One before other; for, but singly, none
That steep and narrow scale admits to climb.
  E’en as the young stork lifteth up his wing        10
Through wish to fly, yet ventures not to quit
The nest, and drops it; so in me desire
Of questioning my guide arose, and fell,
Arriving even to the act that marks
A man prepared for speech. Him all our haste        15
Restrain’d not; but thus spake the sire beloved:
“Fear not to speed the shaft, that on thy lip
Stands trembling for its flight.” Encouraged thus,
I straight began: “How there can leanness come,
Where is no want of nourishment to feed?”        20
  “If thou,” he answer’d, hadst remember’d thee,
How Meleager 2 with the wasting brand
Wasted alike, by equal fires consumed;
This would not trouble thee: and hadst thou thought,
How in the mirror 3 your reflected form        25
With mimic motion vibrates; what now seems
Hard, had appear’d no harder than the pulp
Of summer-fruit mature. But that thy will
In certainty may find its full repose,
Lo Statius here! on him I call, and pray        30
That he would now be healer of thy wound.”
  “If, in thy presence, I unfold to him
The secrets of Heaven’s vengeance, let me plead
Thine own injunction to exculpate me.”
So Statius answer’d, and forthwith began:        35
“Attend my words, O son, and in thy mind
Receive them; so shall they be light to clear
The doubt thou offer’st. Blood, concocted well,
Which by the thirsty veins is ne’er imbibed,
And rests as food superfluous, to be ta’en        40
From the replenish’d table, in the heart
Derives effectual virtue, that informs
The several human limbs, as being that
Which passes through the veins itself to make them.
Yet more concocted it descends, where shame        45
Forbids to mention: and from thence distils
In natural vessel on another’s blood.
There each unite together; one disposed
To endure, to act the other, through that power
Derived from whence it came; and being met,        50
It ’gins to work, coagulating first;
Then vivifies what its own substance made
Consist. With animation now indued,
The active virtue (differing from a plant
No further, than that this is on the way,        55
And at its limit that) continues yet
To operate, that now it moves, and feels,
As sea-sponge clinging to the rock: and there
Assumes the organic powers its seed convey’d.
This is the moment, son! at which the virtue,        60
That from the generating heart proceeds,
Is pliant and expansive; for each limb
Is in the heart by forgetful nature plann’d.
How babe of animal becomes, remains
For thy considering. At this point, more wise,        65
Than thou, has err’d, making the soul disjoin’d
From passive intellect, because he saw
No organ for the latter’s use assign’d.
  “Open thy bosom to the truth that comes.
Know, soon as in the embryo, to the brain        70
Articulation is complete, then turns
The primal Mover with a smile of joy
On such great work of nature; and imbreathes
New spirit replete with virtue, that what here
Active it finds, to its own substance draws;        75
And forms an individual soul, that lives,
And feels, and bends reflective on itself.
And that thou less may’st marvel at the word,
Mark the sun’s heat; how that to wine doth change,
Mix’d with the moisture filter’d through the vine.        80
  “When Lachesis hath spun the thread, 4 the soul
Takes with her both the human and divine,
Memory, intelligence, and will, in act
Far keener than before; the other powers
Inactive all and mute. No pause allow’d,        85
In wondrous sort self-moving, to one strand
Of those, where the departed roam, she falls:
Here learns her destined path. Soon as the place
Receives her, round the plastic virtue beams,
Distinct as in the living limbs before:        90
And as the air, when saturate with showers,
The casual beam refracting, decks itself
With many a hue; so here the ambient air
Weareth that form, which influence of the soul
Imprints on it: and like the flame, that where        95
The fire moves, thither follows; so, henceforth,
The new form on the spirit follows still:
Hence hath it semblance, and is shadow call’d,
With each sense, even to the sight, indued:
Hence speech is ours, hence laughter, tears, and sighs,        100
Which thou mayst oft have witness’d on the mount.
The obedient shadow fails not to present
Whatever varying passion moves within us.
And this the cause of what thou marvel’st at.”
  Now the last flexure of our way we reach’d;        105
And to the right hand turning, other care
Awaits us. Here the rocky precipice
Hurls forth redundant flames; and from the rim
A blast up-blown, with forcible rebuff
Driveth them back, sequester’d from its bound.        110
  Behoved us, one by one, along the side,
That border’d on the void, to pass; and I
Fear’d on one hand the fire, on the other fear’d
Headlong to fall: when thus the instructor warn’d:
“Strict rein must in this place direct the eyes.        115
A little swerving and the way is lost.”
  Then from the bosom of the burning mass,
“O God of mercy!” 5 heard I sung, and felt
No less desire to turn. And when I saw
Spirits along the flame proceeding, I        120
Between their footsteps and mine own was fain
To share by turns my view. At the hymn’s close
They shouted loud, “I do not know a man;” 6
Then in low voice again took up the strain;
Which once more ended, “To the wood,” they cried,        125
“Ran Dian, and drave forth Callisto stung
With Cytherea’s poison”; then return’d
Unto their song; then many a pair extoll’d,
Who lived in virtue chastely and the bands
Of wedded love. Nor from that task, I ween,        130
Surcease they; whilesoe’er the scorching fire
Enclasps them. Of such skill appliance needs,
To medicine the wound that healeth last.
 
Note 1. “The sun.” The sun had passed the meridian two hours, and that meridian was now occupied by the constellation of Taurus, to which as the Scorpion is opposite, the latter constellation was consequently at the meridian of night. [back]
Note 2. Virgil reminds Dante that, as Meleager was wasted away by the decree of the fates, and not through want of blood; so by the divine appointment, there may be leanness where there is no need of nourishment. [back]
Note 3. As the reflection of a form in a mirror is modified with the modification of the form itself; so the soul, separated from the earthly body, impresses the ghost of that body with its own affections. [back]
Note 4. “When Lachesis hath spun the thread.” When a man’s life on earth is at an end. [back]
Note 5. “Summæ Deus clementiæ.” The beginning of the hymn sung on the Sabbath at matins, as in the ancient breviaries; in the modern it is “summæ parens clementiæ.” [back]
Note 6. Luke, i. 34. [back]
 

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