3.9 16
by Dante Alighieri

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"Purgatorio relates in thirty-three cantos Dante's progress, still with Virgil as his guide, up the mountain of purgatory, where souls expiate their sins before they enter heaven. As hell has circles, purgatory has terraces, one above the other, each representing one of the seven mortal sins. In each, an appropriate type of penance is practiced, and the spirit…  See more details below


"Purgatorio relates in thirty-three cantos Dante's progress, still with Virgil as his guide, up the mountain of purgatory, where souls expiate their sins before they enter heaven. As hell has circles, purgatory has terraces, one above the other, each representing one of the seven mortal sins. In each, an appropriate type of penance is practiced, and the spirit ascending the mountain must cleanse itself of each sin of which it is guilty." Since Robert Hollander is a master teacher whose achievements as a Dante scholar are unsurpassed in the English-speaking world, the introduction and commentaries that accompany each canto offer superb guidance in essential matters of comprehension and interpretation.

Editorial Reviews

Spring Poetry Forecast

American poetry is exploding. From Manhattan subway billboards to Library of Congress lecture halls, in small elementary schools and big-city bookstores, poetry is experiencing a revival. The most pleasant of addictions, poetry is no longer just something to read alone at home. It's now a public event -- as the rising number of readings at coffeehouses, slams, and university auditoriums attests.

A major reason for poetry's renewed prominence is the success of National Poetry Month, celebrated every April. Not surprisingly, a spate of new poetry collections is slated to appear this month, including several of the year's certain blockbusters.

Written entirely in couplets, Nobel laureate Derek Walcott's Tiepolo's HoundTIEPOLO'S HOUND is a masterful account of a love of painting and a commitment to the art of seeing. But that's just the beginning. Art is used as the framework for a story of movement from boyhood to manhood, threaded with a struggle to understand the secular and the sacred.

In Walcott's distinctive, lush language, the secular and the sacred engage in a tentative dance. In Book One, part III, the dance begins:

      Precious, expensive in its metal cruse,
      and poured like sacred, sacramental wine,

      I still smell linseed oil in the wild views
      of villages and the tang of turpentine.

      This was the edge of manhood, this a boy's
      precocious vow, sworn over the capped tubes

      like a braced regiment, as his hand deploys
      them to assault a barrack's arching cubes.

      Where did we get the money to paint?
      Out in the roaring sun, each road was news,

      and the cheap muscatel, bought by the pint?
      Salt wind encouraged us, and the surf's white noise.

Walcott offers the pleasure of the breathtaking individual phrase throughout the book. In fact, a single memorable passage is part of what led another very accomplished poet, W. S. Merwin, to tackle Dante's Purgatorio in a new verse translation. In his informative introduction, Merwin details how he was both captivated and baffled by the prospect of translating the opening stanza of the first canto.

Merwin's translation of the Purgatorio preserves Dante's elegant tercets. In Merwin's experienced hands, the Purgatorio retains its balance of the lively and the tender, and the poem is at turns furious and soothing. "Of the three sections of the poem," Merwin writes in his introduction, "only Purgatorio happens on the earth, as our lives do, with our feet on the ground, crossing a beach, climbing a mountain. All three parts of the poems are images of our lives, of our life, but there is an intimacy peculiar to the Purgatorio."

Merwin likes something else about the Purgatorio -- the presence of hope. While there is no hope in Hell and no need for hope in the idyll of Paradise, the Purgatorio, in Merwin's view, is about longing for the good:

"Hope is central to the Purgatorio, and is there from the moment we stand on the shore at the foot of the mountain, before the stars fade. To the very top of the mountain hope is mixed with pain, which brings it still closer to the living present."

Trying to meld the living present with the remembered past is one theme of Kenneth Koch's new book of poems, entitled New Addresses. Nothing like the strict meter of the new volumes by Walcott and Merwin, Koch's book has long-lined odes that are often hilarious. "To Testosterone," "To Stammering," and "To Marijuana" are some of the more memorable. After all these years of living in great cities -- London, Rome, New York -- and reading great books in the drive to write good poems, Koch can look back and laugh at all the places he's called home. Here is the opening to his poem "To My Old Addresses":

      Help! Get out of here! Go walking!
      Forty six (I think) Commerce Street, New York City
      The Quai des Brunes nine thousand four hundred twenty six Paris
      Georgia Tech University Department of Analogues
      Jesus Freak Avenue Number 2, in Clattery, Michigan
      George Washington Model Airplane School, Bisbee, Arizona

By the end of the poem Koch speaks directly to these addresses:

      If I address you
      It is mostly to know if you are well.
      I am all right but I think I will never find
      Sustenance as I found in you, oh old addresses
      Numbers that sink into my soul
      Forty-eight, nineteen, twenty-three, o worlds in which I was alive!

Meanwhile, the talented poet Thom Gunn has just published a book titled after his big motivator -- Boss Cupid. The wishes of the flesh seem to govern many of Gunn's poems, and now, as he gets older, he mixes poems about the commands of sexual attraction -- often addressed to "Love-god, Cupid" -- with terrific writing on God and aging as a poet.

Here is a delicious excerpt from "The Artist as Old Man," from a section of the book called "Gossip":

      The little cousin dashed in
      from her friends outside:
      Mother, what
      do we think about God?
      My aunt's brisk answer:
      "We think God is silly."

      My cousin dashed back
      with the news

Gunn can really get to the point, and he can be uproarious when he lets loose. Here is the opening to "Classics":

      Bartending is a branch
      of show business. Your bartender
      can flirt as heavy as he wants
      without danger of being taken for real, thanks
      to the wide spread
      of wood between
      him and the customer. There
      are the stars of course
      and the bit players.

In poetry, too, there are the stars and bit players. One of America's longtime stars is Galway Kinnell, who has been on the national stage long enough to offer a New and Selected Poems, which includes new poems and revisions of his first Selected, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1982. One of Kinnell's themes is the effects of living alone for a long time. In "Oatmeal," he writes about how solitude has affected every corner of his life:

      I eat oatmeal for breakfast.
      I make it on the hot plate and put skimmed milk on it.
      I eat it alone.
      I am aware it is not good to eat oatmeal alone.
      Its consistency is such that it is better for your mental health if somebody eats it with you.
      That is why I often think up an imaginary companion to have breakfast with.
      Possibly it is even worse to eat oatmeal with an imaginary companion.
      Nevertheless, yesterday morning, I ate my oatmeal with John Keats.

What's wonderful about Kinnell is his ability to capture the "glutinous" texture of oatmeal just millimeters away from references to Keats. Another longtime and much-loved fixture on the American poetry scene, Gerald Stern, contributes Last Blue to April's offerings. The book showcases Stern's trademark ability to turn a tiny anecdote into a long rumination. Here, he transforms buying an orange one day 40 years ago into a long poem called "The Sorrows." This is how the poem begins, letting flashback run loose:

      I was outside on the street picking up a
      plum tomato when I remembered the vile
      Moroccan in Paris and how we argued over
      his oranges. I remember Gilbert was shocked
      when I turned the cart over and oranges rolled
      down the sidewalk -- into the street. I wanted
      to make it up to him for years; I felt
      ashamed whenever I saw him. Here I am
      forty years later on my knees on First
      Avenue, maybe paying for that, or maybe
      paying for my grandfather's sin, eating
      a pear on Yom Kippur, burying the core
      underneath the hats of towels or in
      the starch and cleanser -- garbage clung to it
      and it grew black and withered, a withered mouse
      behind the Brillo; or maybe I am only
      paying for a broken bag.

Stern's mix of the humorous with larger questions of guilt and religious belief make him interesting, but he never takes himself too seriously, as the "broken bag" aside indicates.

C. K. Williams, a poet who normally writes on large and serious topics, has just published an unusual book titled Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself. Although it's a prose memoir, it's divided into brief chapters that are full of a poet's language, digressions, and minute observations.

Williams's father, a shrewd businessman, is not presented as wholly good or wholly evil, but shown in a series of episodes that take place both before and after his death. What's powerful here is not only what's mentioned, but what's not. That, of course, is part of the point -- this is only one person's point of view. The father and mother are silent.

As this month's books indicate, poetry is often about silence and the unsaid. In a brief form where space is at a premium, what could have happened or what might have happened is often the main event. While Williams takes that mystery and transfers it to prose, award-winning poet and novelist Nicholas Christopher is used to moving between poetry and fiction -- and manipulating mystery in both mediums. His new book, Atomic Field, which chronicles a young man coming of age during the antiwar movement of the 1960s and 1970s, is composed of poems which quickly tell a story.

Here, in poem 34, the absence of detail creates poetic mystery:

      There is the woman who like Leonardo buys caged birds
      in order to set them free.
      And her husband who prefers sitting on their front porch
      for hours killing flies with a fly swatter.
      He works as an electrician in the opera house.
      But the only music I ever hear from their living room
      through the green chintz curtains,
      are her LPs of show tunes:
      Gypsy, South Pacific, West Side Story,
      over and over again...
      One day she brings home a caged bird,
      a kind of blackbird with red-tipped wings that sings,
      which she actually keeps.
      Within a week it dies,
      and the husband buries it in their garden,
      and for a long time I hear no music from that house.

This is today's poetry in English -- voices veering from the classical to the contemporary, the plaintive and descriptive to the lighthearted and humorous. Whether it's odes to testosterone or ruminations on living alone, this month's offerings prove poetry is not only alive but thunderously relevant.

—Aviya Kushner

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1-6exordium: metaphor of little ship

7-12invocation: holy Muses, especially Calliope

I. The setting at the shore

13-18the restored delight caused by the sky before sunrise

19-21to the east: Venus in Pisces

22-27to the south: the four stars (apostrophe: "widowed hemisphere")

28-30to the north (direction of Ursa Major)

II. Cato the Younger

31-39a fatherly figure to be revered, bearded, his face aglow

40-48the challenge of this old man (Cato) to their presence

49-51Virgil: Dante must kneel and bow his head

52-84Virgil's responses to Cato:

52-57I come, guiding this man, by agency of a lady

58-66he is still alive, but was almost dead when I was sent to bring him through hell to here

67-69my guidance is in turn guided from above

70-75he seeks liberty, as you once did, dying for it in Utica on your way to heaven

76-80we break no law, since he is still alive and I am not in hell proper but share your wife's abode

81-84for love of Marcia let us proceed; then I will report to her your kindness to us when I return

85-108Cato's rejoinder to Virgil:

85-90I loved Marcia in the life below; now the new law that accompanied my release forbids further feeling

91-93if a heavenly lady leads you there is no need for flattery

94-99gird and bathe him so that he may approach the angel with his vision clear

100-108descend to the edge of the sea to the rushes in the mud; then ascend by an easier path, guidedby the sun

109-111Cato's departure and Dante's acquiescence

III. The shore again

112-114Virgil urges Dante to descend the slope toward the sea

115-117Dante makes out the waves of the sea

118-121their going compared to that of a man who finds the path he had lost

122-133in a place still moist with dew Virgil cleanses Dante's face and, at the shore, girds Dante as he had been bidden

134-136a wonder: the plant, once plucked, grows back again


Per correr miglior acque alza le vele

omai la navicella del mio ingegno,

3 che lascia dietro a se mar si crudele;

e cantero di quel secondo regno

dove l'umano spirito si purga

6 e di salire al ciel diventa degno.

Ma qui la morta poesi resurga,

o sante Muse, poi che vostro sono;

9 e qui Calliope alquanto surga,

seguitando il mio canto con quel suono

di cui le Piche misere sentiro

12 lo colpo tal, che disperar perdono.

Dolce color d'or-ental zaffiro,

che s'accoglieva nel sereno aspetto

15 del mezzo, puro infino al primo giro,

a li occhi miei ricomincio diletto,

tosto ch'io usci' fuor de l'aura morta

18 che m'avea contristati li occhi e 'l petto.

Lo bel pianeto che d'amar conforta

faceva tutto rider l'or-ente,

21 velando i Pesci ch'erano in sua scorta.

I' mi volsi a man destra, e puosi mente

a l'altro polo, e vidi quattro stelle

24 non viste mai fuor ch'a la prima gente.

Goder pareva 'l ciel di lor fiammelle:

oh settentr-onal vedovo sito,

27 poi che privato se' di mirar quelle!

To run its course through smoother water

the small bark of my wit now hoists its sail,

3 leaving that cruel sea behind.

Now I shall sing the second kingdom,

there where the soul of man is cleansed,

6 made worthy to ascend to Heaven.

Here from the dead let poetry rise up,

O sacred Muses, since I am yours.

9 Here let Calliope arise

to accompany my song with those same chords

whose force so struck the miserable magpies

12 that, hearing them, they lost all hope of pardon.

Sweet color of oriental sapphire,

hovering in the calm and peaceful aspect

15 of intervening air, pure to the horizon,

pleased my eyes once more

as soon as I had left the morbid air

18 that had afflicted both my chest and eyes.

The fair planet that emboldens love,

smiling, lit up the east,

21 veiling the Fishes in her train.

I turned to the right and, fixing my attention

on the other pole, I saw four stars

24 not seen but by those first on earth.

The very sky seemed to rejoice

in their bright glittering. O widowed

27 region of the north, denied that sight!

Com' io da loro sguardo fui partito,

un poco me volgendo a l'altro polo,

30 la onde 'l Carro gia era sparito,

vidi presso di me un veglio solo,

degno di tanta reverenza in vista,

33 che piu non dee a padre alcun figliuolo.

Lunga la barba e di pel bianco mista

portava, a' suoi capelli simigliante,

36 de' quai cadeva al petto doppia lista.

Li raggi de le quattro luci sante

fregiavan si la sua faccia di lume,

39 ch'i' 'l vedea come 'l sol fosse davante.

"Chi siete voi che contro al cieco fiume

fuggita avete la pregione etterna?"

42 diss' el, movendo quelle oneste piume.

"Chi v'ha guidati, o che vi fu lucerna,

uscendo fuor de la profonda notte

45 che sempre nera fa la valle inferna?

Son le leggi d'abisso cosi rotte?

o e mutato in ciel novo consiglio,

48 che, dannati, venite a le mie grotte?"

Lo duca mio allor mi die di piglio,

e con parole e con mani e con cenni

51 reverenti mi fe le gambe e 'l ciglio.

Poscia rispuose lui: "Da me non venni:

donna scese del ciel, per li cui prieghi

54 de la mia compagnia costui sovvenni.

Ma da ch'e tuo voler che piu si spieghi

di nostra condizion com' ell' e vera,

57 esser non puote il mio che a te si nieghi.

Once I had drawn my gaze from them,

barely turning toward the other pole

30 where the constellation of the Wain had set,

I saw beside me an old man, alone,

who by his looks was so deserving of respect

33 that no son owes his father more.

His beard was long and streaked with white,

as was his hair, which fell

36 in double strands down to his chest.

The rays of those four holy stars

adorned his face with so much light

39 he seemed to shine with brightness of the sun.

'What souls are you to have fled the eternal prison,

climbing against the dark and hidden stream?'

42 he asked, shaking those venerable locks.

'Who was your guide or who your lantern

to lead you forth from that deep night

45 which steeps the vale of hell in darkness?

'Are the laws of the abyss thus broken,

or has a new decree been made in Heaven,

48 that, damned, you stand before my cliffs?'

My leader then reached out to me

and by his words and signs and with his hands

51 made me show reverence with knee and brow,

then answered him: 'I came not on my own.

A lady descended from heaven and at her request

54 I lent this man companionship and aid.

'But since it is your will that I make plain

the true condition of our presence here,

57 it cannot be that I deny your wish.

Questi non vide mai l'ultima sera;

ma per la sua follia le fu si presso,

60 che molto poco tempo a volger era.

Si com' io dissi, fui mandato ad esso

per lui campare; e non li era altra via

63 che questa per la quale i' mi son messo.

Mostrata ho lui tutta la gente ria;

e ora intendo mostrar quelli spirti

66 che purgan se sotto la tua balia.

Com' io l'ho tratto, saria lungo a dirti;

de l'alto scende virtu che m'aiuta

69 conducerlo a vederti e a udirti.

Or ti piaccia gradir la sua venuta:

liberta va cercando, ch'e si cara,

72 come sa chi per lei vita rifiuta.

Tu 'l sai, che non ti fu per lei amara

in Utica la morte, ove lasciasti

75 la vesta ch'al gran di sara si chiara.

Non son li editti etterni per noi guasti,

che questi vive e Minos me non lega;

78 ma son del cerchio ove son li occhi casti

di Marzia tua, che 'n vista ancor ti priega,

o santo petto, che per tua la tegni:

81 per lo suo amore adunque a noi ti piega.

Lasciane andar per li tuoi sette regni;

grazie riportero di te a lei,

84 se d'esser mentovato la giu degni."

"Marz*a piacque tanto a li occhi miei

mentre ch'i' fu' di la," diss' elli allora,

87 "che quanta grazie volse da me, fi.

'This man has not yet seen his final sunset,

but through his folly was so close to it

60 his time was almost at an end.

'I was sent to him, as I have said,

for his deliverance. No other way

63 but this could he be saved.

'I have shown him all the guilty race

and now intend to let him see those spirits

66 who cleanse themselves within your charge.

'How I have led him would take long to tell.

Descending from on high a power aids me

69 to bring him here that he may see and hear you.

'May it please you to welcome his arrival,

since he's in search of liberty, which is so dear,

72 as he well knows who gives his life for it.

'You know this well, since death in Utica

did not seem bitter, there where you left

75 the garment that will shine on that great day.

'Not by us are the eternal edicts broken,

for this man lives and Minos does not bind me,

78 but I am of the circle where your Marcia

'implores with her chaste eyes, O holy breast,

that you still think of her as yours.

81 For love of her, then, I beseech you,

'allow us passage through your seven kingdoms.

I will report to her your kindness--

84 if you deign to be mentioned there below.'

'Marcia so pleased my eyes while I still lived,'

he said, 'that whatever favor

87 she sought of me, I granted.

Or che di la dal mal fiume dimora,

piu muover non mi puo, per quella legge

90 che fatta fu quando me n'usci' fora.

Ma se donna del ciel ti move e regge,

come tu di', non c'e mestier lusinghe:

93 bastisi ben che per lei mi richegge.

Va dunque, e fa che tu costui ricinghe

d'un giunco schietto e che li lavi 'l viso,

96 si ch'ogne sucidume quindi stinghe;

che non si converria, l'occhio sorpriso

d'alcuna nebbia, andar dinanzi al primo

99 ministro, ch'e di quei di paradiso.

Questa isoletta intorno ad imo ad imo,

la giu cola dove la batte l'onda,

102 porta di giunchi sovra 'l molle limo:

null' altra pianta che facesse fronda

o indurasse, vi puote aver vita,

105 pero ch'a le percosse non seconda.

Poscia non sia di qua vostra reddita;

lo sol vi mosterra, che surge omai,

108 prendere il monte a piu lieve salita."

Cosi spari; e io su mi levai

sanza parlare, e tutto mi ritrassi

111 al duca mio, e li occhi a lui drizzai.

El comincio: "Figliuol, segui i miei passi:

volgianci in dietro, che di qua dichina

114 questa pianura a' suoi termini bassi."

L'alba vinceva l'ora mattutina

che fuggia innanzi, si che di lontano

117 conobbi il tremolar de la marina.

'Now that she dwells beyond the evil stream

she cannot move me any longer,

90 according to the law laid down at my deliverance.

'But if, as you say, a lady from Heaven

moves and directs you, there is no need of flattery.

93 It is enough you ask it in her name.

'Go then, make sure you gird him

with a straight reed and bathe his face,

96 to wipe all traces of defilement from it,

'for it would not be fitting to appear,

his eyes still dimmed by any mist,

99 before the minister, the first from paradise.

'This little island, at its lowest point,

there where the waves beat down on it,

102 grows reeds in soft and pliant mud.

'There no other plant can leaf,

or harden to endure,

105 without succumbing to the battering waves.

'After you are done, do not come back this way.

The sun, now rising, will disclose

108 an easier ascent to gain the peak.'

With that he vanished, and I stood up,

speechless. Coming closer to my leader,

111 I turned my eyes to him.

He began: 'My son, follow my steps.

Let us turn around, for this plain slopes

114 from here, down to its lowest edge.'

Dawn was overtaking the darkness of the hour,

which fled before it, and I saw and knew

117 the distant trembling of the sea.

Noi andavam per lo solingo piano

com' om che torna a la perduta strada,

120 che 'nfino ad essa li pare ire in vano.

Quando noi fummo la 've la rugiada

pugna col sole, per essere in parte

123 dove, ad orezza, poco si dirada,

ambo le mani in su l'erbetta sparte

soavemente 'l mio maestro pose:

126 ond' io, che fui accorto di sua arte,

porsi ver' lui le guance lagrimose;

ivi mi fece tutto discoverto

129 quel color che l'inferno mi nascose.

Venimmo poi in sul lito diserto,

che mai non vide navicar sue acque

132 omo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto.

Quivi mi cinse si com' altrui piacque:

oh maraviglia! che qual si scelse

l'umile pianta, cotal si rinacque

136 subitamente la onde l'avelse.

We went along the lonely plain,

like someone who has lost the way

120 and thinks he strays until he finds the road.

When we came to a place where the dew

can hold its own against the sun

123 because it is protected by a breeze,

my master gently spread

his hands upon the grass.

126 And I, who understood what he intended,

raised my tear-stained cheeks

and he restored the color

129 hell had obscured in me.

Now we came to the empty shore.

Upon those waters no man ever sailed

132 who then experienced his return.

There he girded me as it pleased Another.

What a wonder it was that the humble plant

he chose to pick sprang up at once

136 in the very place where he had plucked it.

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What People are saying about this

Harold Bloom
W.S. Merwin's Purgatorio is a wise and eloquent version of what seems to many of us the most welcoming part of the Commedia. Once again Merwin demonstrates that he is a courteous and generous troubadour whose poetic gift is copious and heartening.
Robert Pinsky
At last the Purgatorio can be read in English as a work of art. Art, including the art of poetry, is an important presence in this the central book of Dante's Commedia, and W.S. Merwin's gorgeous, accurate rendering is worthy of its great original.
— (Robert Pinsky, Poet Laureate of the United States)
Richard Howard
It is only justice that Merwin should translate this cantica dedicated to 'natural' powers, the most human narrative of Dante's enterprise, 'remade in the way that trees are new, made new again when their leaves are new.' It is the absolute of transience both poets are caught up in, a mortal communication which has entangled Merwin in that certain twist of idiom we recognize as the style of solicitude: affectionate, absorbent, ardent. What better preparation for the absolute of Paradise than these mortal lights that must yield to eternal?

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The Purgatorio (Barnes & Noble Classics Series) 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
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thirsting_for_knowledge More than 1 year ago
this book is a great book, just not as exciting as "The Inferno" was. i still recommend that everyone buy this book, especially those who enjoy the timeless classics.