Paradise | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Paradise | Canto 9 | Summary

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Summary

Still in the third heaven (Venus), Dante encounters more souls who explain the nature of this level of Paradise. The souls here, he learns, are those who gave in to their earthly passions—particularly their sexual desires—and were therefore lacking in the virtue of temperance. He first speaks with one named Cunizza (Cunizza da Romano, who lived from 1198 to 1279), who admits: "The light of Venus vanquished me." She complains of the ongoing political strife in northern Italy, but she assures Dante this earthly turmoil is part of a much larger divine plan. Cunizza then falls silent, and another brilliantly glowing soul approaches. Prompted by Dante, he introduces himself as Folco of Marseilles, a late 12th-century troubadour who "burned" with lust before renouncing the world and becoming a monk. The souls in this sphere, Folco explains to Dante, are no longer saddened by the memory of their past foolishness. "Here we don't repent such things," he says. "We smile ... at that Might that governs and provides."

Folco, in turn, directs Dante's gaze to another soul who "shines" alongside him. This is Rahab, mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures as a harlot who helps Joshua's army capture Jericho and thereby saved her family from destruction. Her inclusion among the blessed is fitting, Folco explains, because she witnessed the triumph of God's chosen people in the Holy Land. Folco, sharing Dante's craft of poetry, ends his speech by lamenting the corruption of the popes and cardinals, whose greed has made them wholly indifferent to the teachings of the Bible.

Analysis

Heaven, as envisioned by Dante, is a place too joyful for regret, as the examples of Cunizza and Folco make clear. There are no unhappy people in any of the cantos. Each of the two souls here freely confesses to having led a passionate but misguided life prior to finding God and repenting. Cunizza is downright cheerful as she forgives herself for having indulged too much in pleasures of the flesh. Folco, likewise, is blithe and unperturbed as he recounts his own amorous career. The triumphant, even festive atmosphere of Venus is a far cry first from the torments of Hell and also from the penitential gloom of Purgatory, where souls think back on their sins with great bitterness. Here, joy is so all-consuming that Dante refers to the souls as "loves" and "happinesses."

In excluding regret and repentance from Paradise, Dante hearkens back to specific features of Purgatory, as described in the second cantica of the Divine Comedy. In Cantos 28–33 of Purgatory, the poet speaks of a pair of rivers that flow through the Earthly Paradise (i.e., the Garden of Eden) at Mount Purgatory's peak. The river Lethe serves to purge souls of remembrance of sin, while the river Eunoe strengthens remembrance of good deeds. If—as seems likely—Cunizza or Folco "served time" in Purgatory prior to joining the saints in Heaven, they would have undergone this process of purification. Drinking from the river Lethe, it seems, does not make one forget one's sins in the sense of literally failing to remember. Rather, the water of Lethe might be said to "loosen the grip" of sin on people, allowing them to remember past misdeeds without the pain of guilt. That is a great liberation without denial of the past.
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