Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 21 | Summary



Bursting with curiosity about the earthquake he has just witnessed, Dante nonetheless keeps quiet as he resumes his ascent of the mountain. He and Virgil are soon joined by a newcomer, a soul who eventually introduces himself as the Roman poet Statius (45–96 CE). After being briefed on Dante and Virgil's reason for climbing the mountain, Statius fills them in on the source and meaning of the tremor they felt. There is, he says, no weather on Mount Purgatory, but whenever a soul "rises, newly cleansed, to start its climb," the mountain rumbles to announce the fact. Souls, he further explains, can only ascend toward Heaven of their own free will, when they know their time has been served.

Unaware that Virgil is one of his two traveling companions, Statius lapses into gushing praise of the Aeneid. He would, he says, even serve extra time in Purgatory if he could only have lived back when Virgil was alive. Virgil silently implores Dante to keep quiet, but Statius senses that Dante is keeping a secret and demands to know what it is. At last, Dante introduces his teacher and guide, and Statius bows low in awe and admiration. Virgil urges Statius not to abase himself before a mere "shade."


In describing the mountain's reaction when a soul ascends, Dante offers a clue to the nature of Purgatory. Between the rumbling and the hymns, it's as though the entire mountain is applauding—its redemptive purpose has been accomplished, and celebration is in order. This shows, as clearly as any other detail in the poem, how different Purgatory is from Hell. One is a place of deliverance through suffering, the other a site of unending torment. To see this more clearly, consider: how would Dante's Hell react if one of the damned were somehow to escape? Songs of joy and triumph seem like an unlikely response.

Conveniently for Dante's narrative purposes, Statius has no sins to purge on terraces six and seven, since the prayers of the living have remitted some of his punishment for him. Because of this freedom, and because he too is headed to the Earthly Paradise, Statius can accompany Dante for the remainder of the book. Working a third major character into Purgatory affords Dante some relief from the "student and teacher" dynamic that characterizes his dialogue with Virgil. In the short term, however, Statius is positively bowled over to realize he is traveling alongside the legendary Roman poet. Virgil, displaying the virtuous disposition that qualified him as Dante's guide, refuses to be fussed over, let alone bowed to.
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