Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 26 | Summary

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Summary

Dante carefully circles the terrace of lust, trying to avoid both the flames on the one side and the sheer drop on the other. The souls on this level, like others in Purgatory, are curious about their visitors—especially the one who casts a shadow like a living man. Knowing the drill by now, Dante owns up to having come to Purgatory while still alive. He offers his prayers for the penitents and wishes them a speedy journey to Heaven.

The souls on this level, Dante finds, are split into two distinct groups. The first he tactfully describes as having "offended as did Caesar," meaning they committed homosexual acts. The second group has committed acts of "hermaphrodite" (i.e., heterosexual) lust. Perhaps unexpectedly for a medieval poet, Dante does not describe either group of sinners as worse than the other: for him, lust is lust. The soul who first spoke to Dante—a member of the latter group—now names himself as Guido Guinizelli (c. 1230–75). He closes his speech by praising the 12th-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel, who is also present in Purgatory and introduces himself via a short poem.

Analysis

The further up Mount Purgatory Dante travels, the more poets he seems to meet. The two introduced here are important for reasons only peripherally related to their sin of lust. Both, it is true, were "love poets" in the sense that their lyrics exemplify the poetry of courtly love. More importantly, however, Guido Guinizelli was the pioneer of the dolce stil novo, the "sweet new style" in which Dante and his contemporaries worked. The style's emphasis on the spiritual and philosophical dimensions of love is evident throughout Dante's work, not least in his treatment of Beatrice.

Arnaut Daniel, in contrast, is associated with trobar clus, or the "hermetic style," marked by its complexity and fondness for riddles and obscure metaphors. Dante himself, in writing Purgatory, indulges in analogies which would have made Arnaut proud. He does this most notably in the final cantos, where a bizarre succession of symbols is marshaled to present the Scriptures and Church history. If Virgil is the "father" or "forefather" of Dante's poetic style, Guido and Arnaut might be described as his literary "godfathers." Their position in Dante's literary pantheon is less lofty than Virgil's, but also more human, less remote and forbidding.
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