Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 33 | Summary



Having witnessed the symbolic abduction of the Church, the seven virtues gather round and weep. Beatrice listens in sympathy to their sorrowful song. Then, to console them, she quotes the words of Christ at the Last Supper. Sending the virtues ahead of her, she walks alongside Dante and offers a tentative explanation of the vision he saw in Canto 32. She urges him not to worry about the Church's fate, since a rescuer appointed by God will arrive to right the wrongs of the Avignon papacy.

Acknowledging the riddle-like nature of her speech, Beatrice nonetheless asks Dante to commit her utterances to memory and share them with the living. Dante pledges to carry her words to the world; she, in turn, promises to speak to him more clearly hereafter. Beatrice then directs Dante to the sacred stream Eunoe, which strengthens remembrance of good deeds just as Lethe washed away memories of sin. Drinking of its waters, Dante is made "pure and prepared" for the third and final leg of his voyage. The poem of Purgatory ends.


Even in the last canto of Purgatory, Dante continues to confront the reader with new mysteries. The psalm sung by the seven virtues at the canto's opening is Psalm 79, which expresses lamentation and repentance in the face of God's apparent abandonment of his people. In its original biblical context the psalm is thought to have referred to the Babylonian Captivity, in which the king of Judah was deposed and his people deported to Babylonia. This event was seen as the prototype for the Avignon Papacy, the last and latest calamity to be depicted in Dante's vision. The psalm thus aptly conveys not only grief at the Church's misfortunes in general, but anguish at the Church's impending "captivity" in France.

Nonetheless, the poem itself ends on a hopeful note, as Dante speaks of being ready at last to "rise toward the stars." This stellar image mirrors the end of the Inferno, where Dante is relieved to see the stars again after having spent days underground in Hell. A similar gesture occurs in the final line of Paradise: there, Dante refers to God as the "love that moves the sun and other stars." In all three cantiche, the stars represent the cosmic order over which God presides. His presence reassures Dante in the Inferno, beckons him to greater heights in Purgatory, and overpowers him with love and awe in Paradise.

Beatrice's consoling words to her companions are an enigmatic quotation from the Gospel of John. "A little while, and ye shall not see me," she says in Latin; "and again, a little while, and ye shall see me." Like many of Jesus's utterances, they have attracted many different interpretations, most of which involve Jesus's reappearance in glory after his death. Beatrice's later prediction that "five hundred ten and five" will rescue the Church is, likewise, a mystery that has baffled scholars for centuries. Translator Robin Kirkpatrick calls the phrase "an impenetrable piece of numerological symbolism" and suggests Dante is being "deliberately cryptic."

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