Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 19 | Summary

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Summary

As the night wears on, Dante dreams of a hideous old "crone" who transforms into a Siren, then attempts to seduce the poet. An unnamed lady, the Siren's enemy, appears and calls for Virgil, who obliging appears and rips down the Siren's dress. Beneath her clothes the Siren is a mass of foul-smelling "guts," a revelation which causes Dante to awake with revulsion. Continuing on his way, Dante leaves the terrace of the slothful. An angel wipes another P from Dante's brow and "Beati ... qui lugent" ("Blessed are they who mourn") rings out.

Noticing Dante's dejected and preoccupied state, Virgil explains the significance of the Siren dream. Its mixture of allure and revulsion, he says, was intended to show Dante the nature of temptation as well as the means of overcoming it.

Having arrived on the terrace of the avaricious (i.e., the greedy), Dante notices the penitents there for the first time. All are "turned face downwards, lying on the earth" and lamenting loudly. As usual, Virgil asks for directions, and one of the penitent souls directs them to keep going counterclockwise. The soul in question, Dante learns, is Pope Adrian V (died 1276), whose short-lived reign helped him to see the foolishness of his greedy ways. When Dante bows before him, Pope Adrian admonishes him not to do so, since all Christians are "co-servant[s] of one single Power." He then asks Dante to leave so he can resume his penance.

Analysis

Dante's Siren vision, like the eagle episode in Canto 9, has been extensively discussed by scholars. The dream can be broken down into three main parts: the Siren's initial ugliness, her later beauty, and Virgil's revelation of her inward nature. These, as Virgil points out after Dante awakes, are a kind of template for temptation. Specifically, they describe the way in which someone falls into the sin punished on terraces five through seven—the sins of loving earthly goods excessively. Initially, Dante seems to say, worldly things are too "ugly," too drab and trivial, to seem worth bothering with. But the more attention one pays to them—the more one looks and listens—the more they develop a Siren-like attractiveness. The spell can only be broken by realizing the true nature of earthly pleasures, which will decay as surely as the Siren's rotting "guts." As usual, Dante's moral response to temptation requires both divine assistance (the unnamed lady) and personal virtue (Virgil).

Later in the canto Dante's interview with Pope Adrian shows his complex attitude toward the papacy and those who occupy it. Unlike the popes in the Inferno, Pope Adrian learned while still alive to respect the vast responsibilities of his office—"the weight," as he calls it, "of keeping papal garments from the mud." Rather than corrupting him or making him mad with power, this new responsibility actually made Pope Adrian a better man, forcing him to reckon with his past sins. Pope Adrian thus forms a counterexample to the "bad popes" typically associated with Dante's poem. The sincerity of his repentance is shown when he dismisses Dante, forgoing a pleasant distraction in order to focus on his duties of prayer and repentance.

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