Autore: Charles S. Singleton
Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society
The opening scene of the Comedy is the scene of a conversion: from a dark wood of sin a man faces towards the light at the summit of a mountain, and strives to advance towards that light. The light comes from "the planet that leads men aright by every path," and later, as the goal at the summit, will be seen as sol iustitiae, and ulti- mately revealed as the Sun that lights the blessed in Heaven. On any reading, that light is God's light.
The act of turning away from sin and of turning towards such a light is conversio, as Dante and the theology of his time understood that term. This, moreover is not the only instance of conversion in the journey to God, as Dante has chosen to represent that journey. It is but the first of three conversions. Or, since this first, on the prologue scene of the poem, proves unsuccessful, and then, in a "repeat performance," is successful, perhaps we should count it twice, so that we have one plus three conver- sions in the whole course of the journey.
Certainly the "unsuccessful conversion" of the prologue scene must be viewed as distinct from the other three lying beyond it, if for no other reason than that it takes place on the scene of this life, whereas the others come along the way of a journey through the life after death, which begins with Canto III Inferno.
Now, in the prologue conversion, as we may call it, in spite of a desperate struggle to advance towards the light at the summit, the man who moves alone on that scene falls back towards the darkness and would be lost there again, did Virgil not come to lead him the "long way" around. On the slope three beasts appear to block his way and cause him to lose what he had gained, and to "ruin" to the low place again, where the sun is silent. Conversion, the turning to the light, has failed - at least for the time being. The "corto andare" up the mountain may not be taken, and Virgil does not come to lead up, towards the light, but down, into the darkness of Hell.
Conversion, in this sense, will be seen to happen again, when the way- farer emerges from the darkness of Hell to see the stars once more. Here now the outline of a mountain is again visible in the dawning light, and this time the wayfarer climbs the short way up the slope. Virgil guides now, even though, curiously enough, Virgil does not know the way. However, "the sun that is rising now will show the way" - and we catch in that verse the distinct echo of the other, in the prologue canto, that speaks of the planet that guides "dritto per ogni calle."
The opening scene of the Purgatory bears a most striking resemblance to the prologue scene, as few readers will fail to see. There a sense of "return" is very strong indeed, - and little wonder: this scene matches the prologue in so many essential features that the whole prologue action seems somehow to happen again - but with the all-important difference noted: the conversion is unsuccessful in the first instance, and succeeds in the second. We know now what Dante's basic method of allegory is in the Comedy. It is allegory by evocation. Intermittently, along the line of a journey beyond, a double vision is summoned up, as journey there brings journey here to mind, journey here, that is, as represented in the prologue scene. The prologue lays the very groundwork of the allegory in this sense, planting the possibility of it and making that possibility objective within the poem, because part of the poem's structure. Hence nothing is more basic to the whole edifice than the prologue action. Along the line of the journey beyond will come signals to correspondences, to resemblances, to points of contact with that prologue scene, even as in one of the most impressive moments of this when the scene at the beginning of the Purgatory brings to mind the opening scene of the poem.
It would seem that we have been somewhat blind to Dante's method in allegory, but not to that alone. We have even failed to see what the master pattern is by which the poet gave airy shape to his prologue scene. Curiously enough, our blindness has persisted in the face of the clearest pointers to what that pattern is, both within the poem and without. Perhaps it was only that we had first to understand the prologue action as a conversion before we might glimpse the matrix into which that action is cast. Once we did understand that this was conversion, however, we ought at least to have recalled a certain paragraph in the Letter to Can Grande where Dante is concerned to point out that the departure of the children of Israel in the time of Moses signifies, in the moral sense, the "conversion of the soul from the grief and misery of sin to the state of grace." That Exodus is the established and familiar "figure" of conver- sion, we could not be told more plainly. If the historical event of the Exodus can point beyond itself, signifying conversion, may not a conver- sion, any conversion, point back to the historical event of Exodus? This is all we needed to wonder in order to see precisely what guided the poet's hand as he drew the prologue picture. Yet of course, until we could view that as the picture of conversion, it would not occur to us to ask the question.
Exodus is the master pattern of the prologue action, the underlying image that dictates both the essential features of the scene of the action, as well as the outline of the action itself. To be sure, there is nothing here that we need construe as a departure from Egypt, as we watch this man leave the dark wood behind. No Moses guides here, neither are we told of fat lands that lie beyond any river Jordan. We know of no promised land here, unless the light at the summit of a mountain may stand for that. But, if we will sharpen our eyes a little, here on this scene there is water, dangerous waters, from which a man manages to escape and come to shore - to a shore which is a desert shore and the beginning, apparently, of a "great desert." There the beasts appear before him. Perhaps it is then that we begin to remember what came upon the children of Israel when they had crossed the Red Sea and entered upon the way of the desert: the temptations, the impediments, the backslidings. A flight, a crossing of dangerous waters, a desert place where "beasts" beset the way: these are the simple features through which we may begin to glimpse the fact that somehow "Exodus" is happening here, in figure.
In fact, it is the first simile of the poem which first introduces us clearly into the whole figure of Exodus:
E come quei che con lena affannata,
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva,
si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,
Così l'animo mio ch'ancor fuggiva,
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
The simile, in its first term, puts water, perilous waters, upon the scene, as well as the figure of a man who struggles forth from those waters (surely the figure of a swimmer), panting from his exertions as he stands upon the shore to look back upon that pelago where he had almost perished; all of which is matched, in the second part of the simile, by the man (or his soul, this being a moral landscape) who, fleeing in fear, now turns to look back upon a passo "that never left anyone alive," passo corresponding to pelago of the first part. How do we picture such a body of water? No doubt, as an ocean deep, first of all, since pelago implies as much. However, passo can well suggest a passing through or a crossing over, and thus bring the feature of a shore or shores into the picture, however distant those shores may be. Later, Ulysses speaks of his long ocean voyage as an alto passo, while later that same voyage is termed a varco. Similarly, the boat that ferries souls over to the shore of Purgatory, holding to much the same route as the ancient hero took, is said to cross "between shores so distant." It would seem that we should think of the passo of the first simile so, that is, think of shores as we picture it, so that this man, as he comes from the water, may be viewed as crossing over, from the one shore, which is not seen, to the other, which is.
The simple features are there: the dangerous water, a flight which is a "crossing over," then a desert shore which is the beginning of a "gran diserto," a mountain rising from the desert, then the beasts. How many times we have watched the rapid little action upon that stage, so starkly simple in its few properties, and yet have failed to see how "Exodus" is happening there - until one day in our reading we may come upon a certain chapter in St. Gregory's Moralia, and then suddenly we see the master pattern that guided the poet's hand as he staged conversio:
At ne conversus quisque jam sanctum se esse credat, et quem moeroris pugna superare non valuit, ipsa postmodum securitas sternat, dispensante Deo, permittitur ut post conversionem suam tentationum stimulis fatigetur. Iam quidem per conversionem Rubrum mare transitum est; sed adhuc in eremo vitae praesentis ante faciem hostes occurrunt. lam peccata praeterita velut extinctos Aegyptios post terga relinquimus; sed adhuc nocentia vitia, quasi alii hostes obviant, ut ad terrain promissionis pergentibus coeptum iter intercludant. lam priores culpae, velut insequentes adversarii, sola divina virtute prostratae sunt, sed tentationum stimuli, quasi hostes alii contra faciem veniunt, qui et cum nostro labore superentur.
But lest a man [conversus quisque] should believe himself holy immediately on his conversion, and security should overthrow him, whom the contest with pain could not overpower, he is permitted, in the dispensation of God, after his conversion, to be wearied with the assaults of temptations. The Red Sea was already crossed by his conversion, but enemies still oppose him to the face while in the wilderness of this present life. We leave already our past sins behind us, as the Egyptians dead on the shore. But destructive vices still assail us, as fresh enemies, to obstruct the way on which we have entered to the land of promise. Our former offences, as enemies who were pursuing us, already had been laid low by the power of God alone. But the assaults of temptations meet us to our face, like fresh enemies, to be overcome with our own endeavors also.
What, in the oblique ways of poetry, the poet could only suggest, Gregory tells us openly. The interesting point to note is how, as he writes of conversion, he passes into the figure of the Exodus: "lam Rubrum mare transitum est..." One does not suspect, up to that point, that thought of any Red Sea is anywhere present in this disquisition on conversion and what can follow upon conversion. Yet when the phrase "Red Sea is crossed" comes in, and the whole event of the Exodus is called to mind, we feel at once the natural relevance of the figure. Somehow the departure of the children of Israel from Egypt can be seen in every con- version, not merely because in every conversion an "Egypt," or a worldly life of sin, is left behind, as conversus quisque flees in fear from it, but because the entire resemblance continues most impressively in what hap- pens after conversion, after the Red Sea is crossed: for, lo!, the sinful incli- nations, the "obnoxia vitia" which the conversus had thought to have put behind him are suddenly there before his face, impeding the way of his advance, even as the "temptations" came upon the Israelites in the way of the desert. "Exodus" happens again, even in this respect - indeed espe- cially in this respect, as Gregory would have it, for that is his point.
Little wonder that as we read Gregory on conversion, the prologue scene of the Comedy flashes upon our mind. Were it chronologically possible, we might even take Gregory to be writing a gloss on the first canto of the Inferno, But the reverse of this, that the poet took from Gregory, is not at all probable. Dante most certainly did not have to read the Moralia to get the notion that conversio might be conceived on the pattern of Exodus. Exodus is simply the figure of conversion, as he knew well enough to tell Can Grande.
Looking back upon the prologue scene of the poem through such reminders, we realize that the first simile of the first canto would not be what it is or where it is, indeed would not be at all, if the underlying and controlling pattern of Exodus were not there, requiring it. That model, or mould, demands that on this scene of conversion there be water, a passo somehow like one that did not leave "the Egyptians" alive, at least. Here there must be a crossing of that water, in fearful flight, here there may even be a moment of turning to look back upon the dread peril left behind (and this Gregory also remembered to get into his picture). Then there will be a turning, a facing towards the promises, and an advance across a "desert shore," which is also a "great desert," when lo! the temptations: in Gregory's phrasing the "obnoxia vitia" come with a phrase seà adhuc, in Dante's they come with an ed ecco. It is almost as if the vitia, or the beasts, were expected. As, of course, they are. We might know they would come, for does the Exodus not happen over and over again in every conversion? Then how could the temptations fail to come in the desert way?
The unmistakable confirmation of the fact that the Exodus figure is the controlling image and matrix of the prologue scene of the Comedy comes at the beginning of the Purgatory, thirty-three cantos later, where the wayfarer "returns" to a similar scene. Again as he comes forth from an infernal valley and a "silvestra via" to see the stars, it is the hour of dawn. Again he finds himself upon a desert shore, again stands looking out over waters that are clearly labeled dangerous. This time, to be sure, he does not come across those waters, but he does come from a passo which might be said "never to have left anyone alive." He himself does not cross over the dangerous waters lying off shore, but as he stands there to watch, a boat comes over that pelago, piloted by an angel. There are more than a hundred souls in the boat, and, as it approaches, they are heard to sing a song of the Exodus as they come. With that touch there may be no mistake about it: not only is an "Exodus" happening here, at the beginning of the Purgatory, but precisely because that is what is happening, the prologue action seems also to be happening again, as in figure or metaphor. Yet a difference visible in the very resemblance is at once most striking: here now it is not a swimmer who struggles to shore, but a boat that comes over the water and lands with the greatest of ease, piloted by an angel who is the minister of the Lord and who "scorns all human means." Indeed, if we may now speak of two "Exoduses," one in the prologue and one here at the beginning of the Purgatory, at once we see that this latter Exodus is more like the real event. It was by a miracle that the Lord brought His chosen people across the Red Sea to the desert shore beyond, and clearly a boat piloted by an angel corresponds better to that than does the figure of a man struggling to cross over "by human means." Moreover, as these souls join company with Virgil and Dante here on the "desert shore" and all are seen as "pilgrims" who seek the way to "the promises," what happens is also more like what happened to the Israelites. "Temptations," corresponding to the beasts on the prologue scene, do come here, even as in the real event of the Exodus. Casella sings a song of love and, lo! these new "pilgrims" forget the promises, forget that they are pilgrims, and gather around the singer "as if nothing else touched their minds." Yet their backsliding is allowed to last but a moment. Old Cato rushes upon the scene to make them mindful of their journey and to send them upon their way up the mountain slope. Again we are much closer to the historical Exodus, and again the great point of difference between what happens in this second "exodus," and what happens in the first, is brought home to us.
Much further along in the Purgatory come verses that are as a kind of invitation to look back upon the two Exoduses and to take the sure mea- sure of this difference between them. On the first terrace of Purgatory proper, a special version of the Lord's Prayer is recited in which each of the familiar verses becomes a whole terzina. Thus, in place of "panem nostrum supersubstantialem da nobis hodie" we hear:
Da oggi a noi la cotidiana manna
sanza la qual per questo aspro diserto
a retro va chi più di gir s'affanna
Here is precisely the focus upon the two Exoduses that we need in order to take the measure of the difference between them. "Manna" may easily stand for all the divine assistance given to the Israelites when they had crossed the Red Sea and set out upon the desert way, "manna" is grace, of course; and 'manna given' or 'manna not given,' in the way of the desert, is the whole point of difference. In the prologue "Exodus" no manna falls, and the more the wayfarer struggles to cope with the beasts there, the more he falls back. In the second "Exodus," in Purgatory, "temptations" do indeed come as before, but the guiding and protecting hand of the Lord is always there to help the pilgrim on his way, and this time the ascent of the mountain proves possible. Where in the first attempt he had fallen back, the wayfarer now climbs "the short way up."
In the focus of double vision, in which one Exodus calls the other to mind, such a difference could not be more apparent to any reader who sees the matter in these terms. But will the reader see it? The poet seems to have wondered.
At certain points along the line of the journey, as every reader will recall, the poet speaks out in direct address to his readers, urging them to sharpen their eyes and to look at the truth visible beneath the veil. That truth is a moral truth, as we might guess, visible only in the double vision of allegory. We have seen that such double vision can rest upon the vision of a double "Exodus." Could it be that the truth the reader is invited to see beneath the veil, the moral truth, is a matter of the difference between these "Exoduses?" Why is "manna" not given in the one? Why is "manna" given in the other? The poet will prompt his Christian reader to put the question to himself and, at points where that difference is most striking, to sharpen his eyes and see the answer as it is realized in the action of his poem.
If this journey to God begins in the figure of an Exodus, and then leaves that figure, to return to it after a long descent through Hell, the reason for this is clearly a matter worthy of attention. What we have here, in simplest statement, is a first attempt to climb that fails, then a long descent that returns the wayfarer to the second attempt that succeeds. Can this configuration of event in the journey beyond be pointing to the truth that it is necessary for us to descend that we may ascend (this being, in the moral allegory, our journey)?
Such an injunction is familiar enough in Christian doctrine, if we know that the descent is a descent to humility; yet the reason for this, the neces- sity of it in these terms, may not be quite so familiar. Happily, the poet allows that very question to come, along the way of the Paradiso, and has Beatrice answer it; and we shall do well to bring her words to bear upon a point of doctrine that has simply dictated the entire main outline of the journey as a descent through Hell, all the way to the girding on of the rush of humility on the desert shore of Purgatory Mountain.
In the seventh Canto of Paradiso question arises why God chose the way of our Redemption that He did choose, sending His Son to take on our flesh and to die upon the Cross. As Beatrice proceeds to resolve Dante's dubbio in the matter, we recognize the familiar point of doctrine. We are reminded that the sin of our first parents was essentially one of pride, a disobedience, a willful aspiration to be sicut dii, even as the serpent had promised them they would be upon eating the forbidden fruit. Nor must we forget that we all sinned when Adam sinned.
Now, by such sinful aspiration to ascend and be "as God," man was left powerless to make due atonement, for the enormity of that sin, and its very nature, made it impossible for him to descend, as far as he had aspired to ascend in his disobedience:
Non potea l'uomo ne' termini suoi
mai sodisfar, per non potere ir giuso
con umiltate obediendo poi,
quanto disobediendo intese ir suso;
e questa è la cagion per che l'uom fue
da poter sodisfar per sé dischiuso.
Now, since man of himself (ne’ termini suoi) was unable to make due atonement, God in His mercy chose to do this for him, by sending His Son to descend to the humility of the flesh:
e tutti li altri modi erano scarsi
a la giustizia, se 'l Figliuol di Dio
non fosse umiliato ad incarnarsi.
Here Beatrice speaks only of the "humility" of the Incarnation, but means to suggest what every Christian reader will know, the even greater "humilities" suffered in obedience to the Father: death upon the Cross, the descent to the tomb, the descent to Hell. Indeed, even as the verses spoken here by Beatrice clearly imply, the whole divine act of the atonement must be viewed as a descent to humility on the part of God, that very descent which man was powerless to make "ne' termini suoi," after his willful ascent in pride. Man could not descend low enough, yet a descent so low was necessary if a just atonement was to be made. It was Christ who descended low enough to effect that atonement. By His descent to humility He atoned for man's ascent in pride, thus opening the way for man himself to ascend. Our Redemption through Christ rests, therefore, upon a fundamental pattern of descent-ascent, and the texts that might be adduced to witness that basic point of doctrine are indeed legion, and are easily garnered from Scripture and from the tradition. One of the many to be found in the works of St. Augustine alone may here be chosen to represent them all:
But our Life came down to this our earth and took away our death, slew death with the abundance of His own life; and He thundered, calling to us to return to Him into that secret place from which He came forth to us - coming first into the Virgin's womb, where humanity was wedded to Him, our mortal flesh, though not always to be mortal;… For he did not delay, but rushed on, calling to us by His death, life, descent, and ascension to return to Him. And He withdrew from our eyes, that we might return to our own heart and find Him. For He went away and behold He is still here. He would not be with us long, yet He did not leave us. He went back to that place which He had never left, for the world was made by Him. And He was in the world, and He came into this world to save sinners. Unto Him my soul confesses and He hears it, for it has sinned against Him. O ye sons of men, how long shall ye be so slow of heart? Even now when Life has come down to you, will you not ascend and live? But to what high place shall you climb, since you are in a high place and have set your mouth against the heavens? First descend that you may ascend, ascend to God. For in mounting up against God you fell…
The conceptual necessity of the entire descent through Inferno is plainly visible in such a passage. By His descent to humility Christ opened the way for man to rise to salvation. It was Christ Himself who showed us how to descend, and then, by His Resurrection and Ascension, how we may ascend. "Descend that you may ascend"; such is the injunction upon every Christian, for we all bear the burden of Adam's sin; the proof of which is that when we turn towards God and strive to ascend to Him, we have not the strength to do so. Indeed we discover that, if we struggle to ascend by our own powers (ne’ termini nostri), we simply fall back into the darkness the more we strive. The burden of Adam's sin is too much with us. But it was Christ who showed us the way: we have first to descend in order to ascend.
The very timing of the journey through Hell points to the familiar doctrine of Christ's descent and of "imitatio Christi." The wayfarer, that conversus quisque who cannot climb the mountain, begins his descent into Hell on the evening of Good Friday, and on Easter Sunday morning, just before dawn, comes forth from the "tomb" of Hell to find himself upon a desert shore once more. And everywhere, in the opening verses of the Purgatory, are the signals of Resurrection. All is newness of life.
The entire pattern of meaning here, as it is seen to extend through no less than a third of the poem, is so emphatically underlined in these several ways that we can hardly have failed to glimpse it in our reading of the poem. One can only wonder, though, why not a single modern commentary of the poem finds time to mention it. We may wonder - but we really know the answer. The simple fact is that by now we have gone almost as far as we could possibly go in our trend to play down or exclude from attention the deeper Christian meanings of this great poem; and such a trend is an old one by now. It began very soon after Dante, in a revolution we have sometimes called a Renaissance.
The man who returns through descent to the desert shore, there to gird on a rush, returns to attempt once more to cross the "great desert" and ascend the mountain. It would seem to be this girdle of rush that makes all the difference now. This time the advance to the promises will prove successful. The descent to humility has been a return to "Exodus." Indeed the mere fact that rushes grow upon this desert shore should in itself have served as the clearest kind of signal of such a return, at least for any reader who knows that Sea of Rushes is the Red Sea's other name!
Exodus-conversion, then the descent-ascent pattern of our Redemption through Christ, then a return to the first figure: such is the essential outline of the journey up to the point of the girding on of the rush. But if there is an understandable connection between the Exodus and "our conversion," as Dante writing to Can Grande said there was, may there not also be a necessary connection between that same Old Testament event and "our Redemption through Christ," i.e., the very figure of descent-ascent? But again it is Dante himself who gives the answer in that same Letter.
nam si ad litteram solam inspiciamus, significatur nobis exitus filiorum Israel de Egypto, tempore Moysis; si ad allegoriam, nobis significatur nostra redemptio facta per Christum; si ad moralem sensum, significatur nobis conversio…
Gradually we learn again to read Dante's great poem in its deeper Christian meanings, to see it as the great "imitation" it is. The poet chose his model well. That model was nothing less than God's way of writing. The poet's way will imitate that Divine polysemous way, whereby an event such as Exodus can signify both our Redemption through Christ and the conversion of the soul. The two significations have their common root in Exodus because Exodus is their figura.
When the souls, who in their "crossing over" sing of Exodus, come up to Virgil and Dante on the desert shore, asking about the "way to the mountain," something happens for the first time in the poem: a merging of two dimensions of its structure, of "journey" and of "state of souls after death." This is brought about through the notion of 'pilgrim' (and there- fore of 'pilgrimage') made explicit for the first time here in Virgil's reply:
E Virgilio rispuose: "Voi credete
forse che siamo esperti d'esto loco;
ma noi siam peregrin come voi siete.
Such a merging of the two dimensions could never have happened in Hell, of course. There souls may not be seen as "pilgrims," eternally fixed in their places as they are. Nor may souls in Paradise be thought of as being "in via," for they have reached the patria. But Purgatory, as Dante chose to picture that realm of the Afterlife, can lend itself especially to the metaphor of pilgrimage. Souls there can indeed be seen as pilgrims, and so join the company of the wayfarer who is constantly realizing that metaphor. Thus, later, Statius will fall in with Virgil and Dante, and move forward with them towards "the promises." The whole of Purgatory, in hope and aspiration if not in fact, is a place where a forward movement towards a "promised land" takes place, and always with a sense that such a movement is group movement: entire groups of souls become pilgrims, along with Dante and Virgil there.
It is within the confines of the particular area which we have come to call the Ante-Purgatory that such a sense of forward movement is most pervasive - and little wonder, since this is precisely the area of Purgatory where Exodus is the controlling master image, where Exodus (in figure) happens again, and where the prologue event is repeated, with the great difference noted. Here in Ante-Purgatory, even though the "tempta- tions" do come, there is a positive advance towards the promises. We recalled Casella's song of love as the first of those "temptations." That was at the beginning of this "pilgrimage." Now we may look to the last "temptation," at the end of the pilgrimage through Ante-Purgatory, and see an even stronger outcropping of the Exodus figure, where "our old Adversary," the serpent, comes to the souls that are gathered in the valley of the princes.
As evening falls, the many souls who sit together upon the beautiful and fragrant greensward there are heard to sing a song most appropriate to the hour, the Salve Regina. We had first seen them as "princes," but now if we can call to mind (as we are surely expected to do) the words of the antiphon they sing, we can sense that a change of figure takes place, for that song is nothing less than a prayer addressed to Mary by "the exiled sons of Eve" who abide yet "in this vale of tears."
Then, moments later in the deepening dusk, these souls sing yet another song, the Te lucis ante. Again the reader is expected to recall the words of that prayer, or at least those which come at the end of its second stanza: "hostemque nostrum comprime." This second song now is a prayer addressed to the Creator, imploring His protection through the night, asking Him especially "to drive back our Enemy."
Now, it is just at this point that all the souls, who are gathered here to sing such prayers, are viewed as a single group, as an "essercito":
Io vidi quello essercito gentile
tacito poscia riguardare in sue,
quasi aspettando, palido e umile.
All are as one "army" now, and the adjectives can be in the singular (the adjective that makes the rhyme will not escape our special notice!). Already their song has explained why all are pale as they look up to Heaven. That pallor comes from the fear of "our Enemy" who is ex- pected to come in the night; and they look towards Heaven, of course, because their prayer is for help from on high, from Mary, as their first song had it, or from the Lord, as now, that the Enemy who will come at night be driven back. The whole attitude and posture is one of humility, even as the adjective in the emphatic rhyme position is declaring. These souls trust in the Lord, and wait upon His protection here.
The implored protection is given: two angels descend "from Mary's bosom," taking up their posts, like guards or sentinels, on either side of this "army" of souls. If we pause to take in the scene as a whole, will it not remind us of some scene of Exodus? Why not a certain scene of encampment before Mount Sinai?
Mense tertio egressionis Israel de terra Aegypti, in die haec venerunt in solitudinem Sinai. Nam profecti de Raphidim, et pervenientes usque in desertum Sinai, castrametati sunt in eodem loco; ibique Israel fixit tentoria e regione montis.
The connection of the one scene with the other could seem merely one reader's arbitrary association, were it not for the whole context of "Exodus" through Ante-Purgatory, of which this scene is but a part, and of which the theme of "temptation in the desert" is also a part; and were it not that inside the gate of Purgatory proper we meet with a quite special backward glance over this whole episode, the coming of "our Enemy." Again they are verses that come in the Pater Noster recited on the first terrace. This time, in place of the familiar "ne nos inducas in tentationem," we hear the paraphrase:
Nostra virtù che di leggier s'adona,
non spermentar con l'antico avversaro,
ma libera da lui che sì la sprona.
Then, significantly enough, the souls add a special qualification to this ending of their prayer:
Quest'ultima preghiera, signor caro,
già non si fa per noi, che non bisogna,
ma per color che dietro a noi restaro.
We know that the phrase "those who remained behind" is rich in ambiguity. We, the living, are intended, as the next terzina makes clear. But so are those who have remained behind, outside the gate, in Ante- Purgatory, intended by those words also. There could be no clearer declaration that the whole of Ante-Purgatory is a place where temptations can still beset the way, even as we had seen in the coming of the "antico awersaro" there, the serpent, perhaps the same that "gave Eve the bitter food."
We are helped further to see that Exodus is still the controlling figure here, near the end of the Ante-Purgatory, by what the wayfarer himself looks up to see at this point - and by this we are reminded of what he had seen in the sky that morning, when his "pilgrimage" began. There, at the outset, as dawn came on, Dante had taken notice of four especially beautiful stars near the pole of this southern hemisphere. Now, as he stands with the "essercito" of souls in the little valley (and is thus one with them) he looks up once more to see three stars where the four had been, and is told that the three have replaced the four. Now, given the context here, and the certain presence of the Exodus figure as noted, how shall we fail to recall that the Lord was with the army of the Israelites as it moved across the desert, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night? These groups of stars do appear to preside, one over the day, one over the night.
In fine, in the "way of the desert" as it reaches through the vestibule area of Purgatory, "manna" is given. The guiding and protecting hand of the Lord is here to drive back the Adversary who comes. Not so on the prologue scene. The beasts were not driven back. To be sure, there was a certain relay of grace in Heaven, from Mary to Lucia, from Lucia to Beatrice, from Beatrice to Virgil, and help did come with Virgil; but it was nothing to match the descent of two angels from Mary's bosom. Here now, where the "pilgrims" look up to the Lord and wait upon Him, pale and humble, help descends directly from Mary.
Such is the context in which the poet chooses to address his reader directly - indeed the poet does this at just the moment when the term "essercito" leads us into an "Exodus" scene and recalls the other "Exodus" of the prologue:
Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero,
che 'l velo è ora ben tanto sottile,
certo che 'l trapassar dentro è leggero.
Io vidi quello essercito gentile
tacito poscia riguardare in sue
quasi aspettando, palido e umile;
e vidi uscir dell'alto e scender guie
due angeli con due spade affocate,
tronche e private delle punte sue.
Verdi come fogliette pur mo nate
erano in veste…
Green is the color of hope, and the hope of those who have humility, who wait upon the Lord for protection, is not in vain. "Manna" descends, angels come, and as long as His angels are watching over us, and three stars shine down upon us, the dangers which beset our way cannot be such as to require sharp-pointed swords to drive them back, for swords can be as token swords where He guides. So much of the "truth" we are surely expected to see, if we sharpen our eyes. But the poet's whole method in moral allegory extends beyond any such limited context. That allegory depends on the evocation of double vision, and double vision is always possible if the prologue scene of the poem can be recalled, not only for the resemblance it may have with this journey beyond, but for the difference visible now within the resemblance. Trapassar dentro, in this poet's address to the reader, will mean a trapassar indietro, all the way back to a prologue scene at the beginning.
Still further confirmation of the fact that the meaning here holds to the contextual image of Exodus is to be noted as the scene of the poem passes from that of an "encampment," on the lower slope of a mountain, to the episode of the wayfarer's first dream in Purgatory, when night comes and he falls asleep beside Sordello and Virgil and the "essercito gentile." The dream comes in the hour just before the dawn, and proves to be prophetic - as it might be expected to be, coming at such a time. In the dream the wayfarer sees an eagle circling above him, its golden wings outspread, ready to swoop down; and it seems to the dreamer that he is where Ganymede was when he abandoned his companions and was caught up to the "consistory of the gods." Then the eagle does descend, terrible as lightning. It carries the dreamer "up to the fire," which "imagined" fire seems to burn him, so that he awakens.
As Dante wakes up to look about him, he is frightened to see that he is now no longer where he was when he fell asleep, and that it is broad day now. Virgil comforts him by explaining what had happened, telling how just before dawn (hence, in the hour of the dream) Lucia had come to him in the vale where he sat beside the sleeping Dante, asking to be allowed to take up the sleeping man and to "make his way easier"; then she had carried him up the long steep slope of the mountain, all the way (or almost) to the gate of Purgatory proper.
The prophetic nature of the dream is now evident enough. The dream was actually realized while it was taking place as a dream. The eagle, in the realization, is Lucia, and the fire that had seemed to burn the dreamer was Purgatory proper, the gate of which is now within sight, a little further up the slope.
As the reassured wayfarer climbs towards that gate, the poet speaks out in yet another address to his reader:
...e come sanza cura
vide me 'l duca mio, su per lo balzo
si mosse, ed io di retro inver l'altura.
Lettor, tu vedi ben com'io innalzo
la mia matera, e però con più arte
non ti maravigliar s'io la rincalzo.
It is always important to have the precise context of these addresses to the reader before us. Here it is one of climbing the mountain, climbing now to the very gate of Purgatory, which gate is described in the verses immediately following the above. In the address itself, what the reader is told he can see so well now is how the poet is uplifting his "matera" here.
Given the nature of this poem, the poet's "matera" can be nothing if not the record of his journey beyond, which he as poet is setting down, with all the art at his command. Thus, to urge the reader to see how the poet's "matera" is being uplifted with more "arte," is to invite him to look at what "matera" (the record), and "arte," are now setting before his eyes, namely, the last lap of a successful climb up the mountain to the very gateway to "the promises" - for such is indeed the area of Purgatory proper, as seen from within. This gate is the portal to the "true city," as we realize most clearly when a soul on one of the terraces is asked much the usual question by Dante: "Are there any Italians here among you?" and replies, speaking for all its companions:
"O frate mio, ciascuna è cittadina
d'una vera città; ma tu vuo' dire
che vivesse in Italia peregrina.”
However, it is not merely this last lap of a successful climb that the address to the reader would have him consider. To see "how the matera is raised" is to look back over the whole account of the journey so far (else we may not see how this is any "last lap").
But Lucia! Is it not significant that it is Lucia, and not another, who comes here? Is her very re-appearance here not like an address to the reader, prompting him (as that other address had done) to look back, all the way back to the prologue, to hold the event of a successful climb here against that of an unsuccessful climb there, and to remark that very difference? The coming of Lucia here is a recall to the prologue event that can be compared to another given along the line of the descent through Hell: the reference to the girdle of rope with which the wayfarer had once thought to take the lonza with the painted hide. By the mere mention of the lonza the reader is returned to the prologue scene - for where else has he met with mention of any such beast, or the attempt to "take it," that is, to cope with it? So now with Lucia's coming. We shall not fail to remember how hers was the middle role in the relay of grace that ended with Virgil's coming to the rescue in the "gran diserto." By Lucia's coming the reader is returned to the prologue (which means a return to the Exodus figure) and invited to consider the difference between then and now, "Exodus" then and "Exodus" now. Then no Lucia descended directly to make this man's way easier on the mountain slope; now Lucia herself descends and carries him the long way up. Neither did help descend then from Mary, certainly not directly, as it has but now done in the descent of two angels "from Mary's bosom."
Thus, first from Mary, then from Lucia, help comes here, de sursum descendens. What if the next one who came to help this man on the mountain slope were a Beatrice? And what if she came to Virgil there? But so it is! - only that will be part of another dream, and will lie beyond the pattern of Exodus. Nonetheless, even there, recall to the prologue will continue to operate.
Twice the reader is addressed directly by the poet when the context, in general and in particular, is evocative of Exodus. The first such address comes when help is seen to descend from Mary to the "encampment" of the esserdto, where the serpent is wont to come. The second comes when we pass to the dream of the eagle's descent, realized by Lucia's "making the way easier." But that this second episode of the dream is also imbed- ded in the context of Exodus we have yet to see.
Actually, the allusion to Ganymede does its own proper work, serving very well to give us a scene on a mountainside comparable to the scene here in Purgatory, and to bring in an eagle that will detach one figure from the rest, Ganymede from his companions, as Dante from the essercito of souls. But the point to bear in mind is that this scene of "encampment" before the mountain is above all reminiscent of Exodus. But can this eagle in the dream be itself any part of an Exodus figure? To see the answer we have only to read a little farther in the passage already remembered from Exodus:
Mense tertio egressionis Israel de terra Aegypti, in die hac venerunt in solitudinem Sinai. Nam profecti de Raphidim, et pervenientes usque in desertum Sinai, castrametati sunt in eodem loco; ibique Israel fixit tentoria a regione montis. Moyses autem ascendit ad Deum, vocavitque eum Dominus de monte, et ait: Haec dices domui Jacob, et annuntiabis filiis Israel: Vos ipsi vidistis, quae fecerim Aegyptiis, quomodo portaverim vos super alas aquilarum, et assumpserim mihi.
Nor is this all. We must also remember that later, in Deuteronomy (and therefore near the end of Exodus, even as in the poem at this point we are nearing the end of the Exodus figure of Ante-Purgatory) the eagle enters again where again there is mention of the help the Lord gave to Israel in the desert. Indeed here we feel we have come even closer to the particular detail of Dante's dream and the context of Exodus in which it is rooted (as unnecessary italics can suggest):
Invenit eum in terra diserta, in loco horroris, in vastae solitudinis; circumduxit eum et docuit, et custodivit quasi pupillam oculi sui. Sicut aquila provocans ad volandum pullos suos, et super eos volitans, expandit alas suas et assumpsit eum…
Lucia is "grace" de sursum descendens, and in the dream the eagle is "grace." In the dream the eagle descends, in the fact Lucia comes. Such is the "manna" given to the man who strives to climb the mountain again, because that man now wears the girdle of humility, having learned in the journey through Hell to put off the other girdle of self-reliance. A girdle is plainly a symbol of strength, strength of one kind or another, be the girdle a corda or a giunco. The man in the prologue action had worn the first kind, the girdle of his own powers, because by God's dispensation (even as St. Gregory instructed us) he was there left to discover how weak those powers are. Now the same man climbs the "desert" slope again where the "temptations" can still come (as the coming of a serpent proves all too clearly), but now he is girt with the rush of humility, now he waits upon the Lord, even as the souls in this place who look up so pale and humble.
As we get the whole of the moral truth before us, in terms of the difference a girdle of rush can make, we may also recall other familiar verses, this time from Isaiah, where again we hear mention of eagle's wings:
Deficient pueri et laborabunt, et juvenes in infirmitate cadent; qui autem sperant in Domino mutabunt fortitudinem, assument pennas sicut aquilae, current et non laborabunt, ambulabunt et non deficient.
From where an eagle (or Lucia) had set him down, the gate of the "true city," the entrance to "the promises," can be seen, and this man climbs the last lap of his "Exodus" now, with no difficulty at all. This time he faints not, neither does he fall back.
Aguzza qui, lettor, ben li occhi al vero.