Quali i beati al novissimo bando
surgeran presti ognun di sua caverna,
la revestita voce alleluiando,
cotali in sua la divina basterna
si levar cento, ad vocem tanti senis,
ministri e messagier di vita etterna,
Tutti dicean: "Benedictus qui venis!"
e fior gittando e di sopra e dintorno,
"Manibus, oh date lilïa plenis!"
[As the blessèd, when the last trumpet sounds,
will rise from the tomb, eagerly each one,
"Hallelujah" in each voice put on again,
so, over the holy hooded chariot,
at the voice of so great an elder, a hundred
messengers and ministers of eternal life
were, all of them, saying, "Blessèd is He who comes,"
scattering flowers upward and around them,
saying, "Oh with full hands give lillies."]
(Purgatorio XXX, 13-21, pp. 292-293, in the bilingual original and as translated by W.S. Merwin)
Although I think almost everybody in our readalong group agreed that the Inferno made for far more scintillating reading than the Purgatorio, I'm not sure that the writing really explains the difference in the reception of the two works. In fact, I think that the second canticle might be even better-written than the first in some ways. In the snippet above, for example, we see a "typical" example of Dante's brilliance at work. Setting up the moving scene where Virgil departs from the poem, Dante breaks from his Florentine Italian to boldly mix in some Latin verse. While Dante does this sort of thing throughout the poem with astonishing regularity and fluidity, W.S. Merwin explains that line 21 ("Oh with full hands give lillies") is "a line freighted with allusions. It is translated from a famous line of elegy and farewell from Virgil's Aeneid (book 6, 967-886 [sic]), Manibus, oh, date lilia plenis, and serves as both a welcome from the angels and a farewell to Virgil" (Purgatorio, notes to Canto XXX, 356). In other words, this is a homage to Virgil the character written as a "cut and paste" from Virgil the poet's own words from over a thousand years before. I find that pretty spectacular on Dante's part.
Elsewhere, Dante highlights the ambitiously interactive nature of his poetry via his choice of other languages and the use of featured poets as "characters" within his narrative. In Canto VI, Dante and Virgil meet Sordello, "one of the Italian poets who wrote in Provençal, continuing the tradition and conventions of the troubadours" in the words of Merwin's footnote (337). In Canto XXI, the Roman poet Statius, born long after Virgil's death in the real world, praises the genius of the Aeneid to Virgil and Dante before realizing he's actually in the Mantuan's presence in the poetic sphere. A discussion about poetry naturally ensues. In Canto XXIV, a soul that Dante meets in Purgatory questions him on an early poem Dante had written and then mentions the "dolce stil novo" that he is hearing (XXIV, 57, pp. 234-235). And finally in Canto XXVI, the 12th-century troubadour Arnaut Daniel responds to a question posed to him in Italian with eight lines of "dialogue" rendered in the Old Occitan of his day. While Dante never connects the dots quite so heretically himself, it's tempting to view this elevation of poets, poetry, and language as something akin to a secular religion on the poet's part. At least, it is for me anyway.
In any event, you don't have to be a language geek or a heretic to appreciate these sorts of things--nor need you know Latin or Occitan to appreciate Dante's Italian in Merwin's English! But the level of precision in the Purgatorio's poetry is often amazing. To cite just one more example, let's return to Canto XXX and the specific verses that deal with Virgil's departure (XXX, 43-57, pp. 294-295, with the English translation again by W.S. Merwin):
volsimi a la sinistra col respitto
col quale il fantolin corre a la mamma
quando ha paura o quando elli è afflitto,
per dicere a Virgilio: "Men che dramma
di sangue m'è rimaso che non tremi:
conosco i segni de l'antica fiamma."
Ma Virgilio n'avea lasciatti scemi
di sé, Virgilio dolcissimo patre,
Virgilio a cui per mia salute die'mi:
né quantunque perdeo l'antica matre,
valse a le guance nette di rugiada
che, lagrimando, non tornasser atre.
"Dante, perché Virgilio se ne vada,
non pianger anco, non piangere ancora;
che pianger to conven per altra spada."
[I turned to the left with the confidence that
a little child shows, running to its mother
when something has frightened it or troubled it,
to say to Virgil, "Not even one drop
of blood is left in me that is not trembling;
I recognize the signs of the old burning."
But Virgil had left us, he was no longer there
among us, Virgil, most tender father,
Virgil to whom I gave myself to save me,
nor did all that our ancient parent
had lost have any power to prevent
my dew-washed cheeks from running dark with tears.
"Dante, because Virgil leaves you, do
not weep yet, do not weep even yet, for you
still have another sword you must weep for."]
Taken out of context like this, it may be difficult for someone who hasn't experienced the poem to understand how touching a farewell this is at this late stage in Purgatorio. But pay attention to the shift in perspective of the speakers and the repetition of the name Virgil to see how Dante's poetic gifts enhance the emotion of the moment. With a post on Paradiso upcoming next weekend, I'll let Merwin have the last word here because the way he explains the Canto XXX farewell is rather mindblowing to me:
"The farewell to Virgil and his disappearance is a moment of great symbolic and personal significance. It is formalized by numerological designs: Virgil is named five times, first once, then three times in one tercet, then again once. The echo, several commentators have pointed out, recalls in turn lines of Virgil's in Georgic IV, 525-527, where Orpheus' voice, calling the lost Eurydice, is echoed down the stream" (notes to canto XXX, 356).