Purgatory, Canto 8
NIGHT is now falling; and after the Souls of the Preoccupied Rulers have sung their evening hymn, two Angels descend from Heaven to protect the Valley. Led by Sordello, the Poets advance, and Dante is recognized by Judge Nino Visconti, who, learning that his former friend is still alive, sends a message by him, asking for prayers. While he is speaking, Dante notices that the Four Stars which he had seen before daybreak have set, and Three Others risen in their place. A Serpent comes creeping into the Valley, but is immediately put to flight by the Angels. Dante converses with the soul of Conrad Malaspina, to whose family he will, as he learns, shortly have cause to be grateful.
The Prepatory Lecture
Questions for Reflection
Purgatory, Canto 8 © Jan Hearn
The Serpent and the Angels: The intrusion of the Serpent “such as gave Eve the bitter fruit, maybe”, into this Eden-like valley naturally raises the question whether, in the literal story, the souls in Ante-Purgatory are still liable to temptation and sin. It would appear that they are — not in the conscious will, which in the hour of death was firmly set towards God — but in the subconscious, the region of dreams, which is not yet subject to the will, so that a special intervention of Divine Grace is needed to protect it from assault. (The souls in Purgatory Proper are definitely beyond the reach of sin — see Canto xi. 22 and note.)
The green robes of the Angels are the colour of Hope — specifically the hope of salvation. Their fiery swords remind us of the flaming sword of Gen. iii. 24, set at the gate of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve; but these are blunted at the point: “salvation, in these souls, is now working out the reversal of the Fall” (J. D. Sinclair). The blunted points are usually taken to signify Mercy as opposed to Judgement; but it is, perhaps, rather that the contest with the Serpent is now hardly more than a fencing bout: the creature needs only to be routed and not slain, for sin “has retreated to its last stronghold” (J. S. Carroll), and is reduced to a mere fantasy, which can only trouble and not corrupt.
In its allegorical application — i.e. to the experience of the soul in this world — the episode may perhaps be taken to mean that so long as the will truly intends penitence and amendment, the Christian need not, and should not, be unduly troubled about the involuntary aberrations of the unconscious, but should simply commend the matter to God, in the confident assurance that it will be taken care of.
The Three Stars: These typify the Theological Virtues (or Graces): Faith, Hope, and Charity.
Mark Vernon's Lecture