Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 9 | Summary



Partway through the night, Dante finally falls asleep. He dreams of a golden-plumed eagle which snatches him up in its talons and carries him up into "the sphere of fire." Imagining himself "scorched and seared" by the flames, Dante wakes up suddenly to find it is mid-morning. Virgil tells of a lady named Lucia, who has carried the sleeping Dante up to the gates of Purgatory proper. The two travelers' time in "Ante-Purgatory" is at an end.

Approaching the gate, Virgil and Dante are met by a silent guardian with a dazzling sword. Virgil explains their mission to the guard, who beckons them forward to a series of three steps. One is made of white marble, the next of dark, rough rock, and the last of porphyry—a purplish-red stone similar to granite. When Dante asks that the gate be opened, an angel undoes the lock, but not before he traces the letter P seven times on Dante's brow with the tip of his sword. The gate swings open with a thunderous sound as an unseen choir sings "Te Deum laudamus" ("God, we praise you").


The details of this densely symbolic canto require some commentary. The fiery vision that opens the canto is in some way representative of Dante's fears and anxieties as he approaches the gate to Purgatory proper. Critics differ, however, as to which parts of the scene deserve greatest emphasis. Robin Kirkpatrick, translator of the Penguin edition of the poem (2007), describes the eagle as emblematic of both divine and earthly justice. American-Italian editor Teodolinda Barolini focuses instead on the experience's resemblance to a state of religious rapture, like that described by Saint Paul. She also points to Dante's evocation of the myth of Ganymede, a youth who was seized by an eagle and borne up to Olympus. Whatever the dream's precise significance is taken to be, the episode is both frightening for Dante and ultimately uplifting.

More symbols arrive when Dante reaches the steps to Purgatory's gate. The seven Ps on his forehead are for Italian peccato or Latin peccatum, both of which mean sin. Specifically, they represent the seven capital sins, each of which will be accorded its own terrace on Mount Purgatory. As Dante ascends from level to level, the Ps will be erased as a sign of purgation. Before that, however, he must climb the three steps to the threshold. These, according to scholars represent the three stages of repentance. The white marble step, mirror-bright, stands for "recognition of one's sins"—the ability to see oneself and one's faults clearly. The middle step, cracked and rough, is "heartfelt contrition," and the third, blood-red step is "satisfaction" or atonement. The crossing of this threshold is a pivotal moment within the Divine Comedy, bringing into focus the poem's concerns with punishment, penance, and forgiveness. These topics—and Canto 9 in particular—are explored at length by Peter Armour in his 1983 book The Door of Purgatory.

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