Purgatorio, Canto II
By then the sun had come to the horizonthe circle of whose meridianat its high point covers Jerusalem and Night, circling on the opposite side,was emerging from the Ganges with the Scalesthat fall out of her hands when she prevails, so that the white and vermilion cheeksof lovely Dawn, in the place where I was,were growing old and turning orange. We were still beside the edge of the sealike people who are thinking about their journeywho in their hearts go and their bodies stay and there, as when Mars in the flush of dawnreddens low in the west through the heavyvapors, over the floor of the ocean, may I see it again as it appeared to me:across the sea a light was coming so swiftlythat no flight could compare with its motion. When I had taken my eyes away from itonly for a moment to question my leader,I saw it again grown brighter and larger. Then there appeared to me on each side of itsomething that I could not make out, something white,and another was emerging little by little below it. All that time until the first white things appearedto be wings my master uttered not a word,and when he was sure who the pilot was he shouted, “Down, down on your knees! There isthe angel of God. Put your hands together.From now on you will see such emissaries. See how he scorns any human contrivance,wanting no oar nor any sail betweenshores so remote, except for his own wings. See how he has pointed them toward the sky,plying the air with the eternal pinionswhich unlike mortal plumage never change.” Then as the divine bird came closer and closerto us he appeared brighter, so that my eyescould not bear the sight when he was near us, but I looked down, and he came to the landwith so fleet and so light a vesselthat it seemed to draw no water at all. At its stern was the celestial helmsman,blessedness like a writing upon him,and seated in it were more than a hundred spirits. When out of Egypt lsrael came forth,all sang together with their voices as one,and the rest of that psalm as it is written, then he made the sign of the holy crossover them and they all flung themselves on the shoreand as he had come he was gone, with the same swiftness. The crowd that was left there did not seem to knowanything of the place, looking around themlike those who are trying things for the first time. On all sides the sun was firing arrowsof day, and its sharp arrows had drivenCapricorn out of mid-heaven when the new people lifted their facestoward us, saying to us, “If you knowthe way up the mountain, show it to us.” And Virgil answered, “Possibly you believethat this is a place with which we are familiar,but we are pilgrims even as you are. We came here just now, a little before you did,by another way that was so rough and hardthat the climb must seem like play now, after it.” The souls who had perceived that I was breathingand understood that I was alive stillmarveled so that they became deathly pale. And as people crowd to a messengerbearing an olive branch, so they can hearthe news and no one is afraid of trampling, in the same way every one of thosefortunate souls kept staring at my face,forgetting, it seemed, to go and see to their own beauty. I saw one rush ahead of the rest of themto embrace me with so much affectionthat he moved me to do the same. Oh shadows that, except to the eye, are vain!Three times my hands came together behind himand as often returned to my breast again. My wonder, I think, must have been painted on me,because the shadow smiled and drew awayand I pushed forward, following after him. Gently he told me to remain still. Then Iknew who he was and I begged him to stayfor a little so he could talk with me. He answered me, “Even as I loved youin my mortal body, I do now that I am free,and so I stay. But why are you on this way?” “My Casella, so that I may returnhere where I am,” I said, “I am making this journey.But how has so much time been taken from you?” And he to me, “No wrong was done to meif he who takes up when and whom he pleasesdenied this passage many times to me, for out of a just will his own is madeand in truth for three months now he has takenwith all peace whoever has wished to come. So I, who had turned at that time to the shorewhere the water grows salty in the Tiber,was gathered up by him in his kindness. Now he has set wing for the mouth of that riversince that is where the souls are forevergathering who do not sink to Acheron.” And I, “If a new law does not take from youthe memory or the mode of singingof love that used to quiet all my longings, may it please you for a while to comfortwith it my soul which, on the journeyhere with its body, has become so weary.” Love that speaks in my mind persuading me,he began then, so sweetly that even nowthe sweetness goes on sounding in me. My master and I and the people whowere with him seemed as content as thoughthere was nothing else touching their minds. All of us were caught up listeningto his notes, and here is the venerableold man shouting, “What is this, lingering spirits? What is this negligence, this standing still?On your way to the mountain, running, and peelaway the dead skin that keeps you from seeing God.” As doves when they are picking up wheat or weed seedsall together, quietly feedingwithout their usual puffed-up displaying, if something should appear that frightens themsuddenly abandon what had tempted them,seized as they are by what matters more to them, so I saw that fresh troop abandonthe singing and wheel away toward the slopelike one who goes without knowing the direction nor were we less prompt in our leaving.
Translation copyright © 2018 by W. S. Merwin
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
W.S. Merwin’s rendition of the Purgatorio is considered a pinnacle and highlight from a prolific and celebrated career in poetry and translation. The most neglected and arguably the most rewarding book of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Purgatorio finds Dante undertaking the arduous journey of scaling the terraces of Mount Purgatory. Presented in a bilingual edition with the translator’s notes and commentary, Merwin’s interpretation of Dante’s great poem of sin, repentance, and salvation is a profoundly moving work of art and a luminous translation for our time. When asked why he translated this book, as opposed to the Inferno or Paradiso, Merwin responded, “The Purgatorio is more like life.”