DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: PURGATORY: Chapter 21
Chapter 21: Statius
The thirst for truth that never can be quenched
unless Christ give it, was tormenting me.
I picked footsteps on that awkward way 3
while grieving for the mourners’ long delay
when all at once I noticed we were three.
Luke writes of how to followers of Christ 6
after his crucifixion, found themselves
joined on a road by One they did not know
at first, or recognize as He. We two 9
were overtaken from behind, nor knew
until we heard, “Brothers, God send you peace.”
Said Virgil, “ May you find it with the blest 12
in that high court of God which exiles me.”
“But why?” the stranger asked as we walked on,
“If your souls excluded from God’s Grace, 15
how did you climb so high on Heaven’s stairs?”
At this my poet said, “See this man’s face.
It still has marks the Angel at the gate 18
wrote on his brow. He’ll reach that great high place
though still his thread of life is being spun.
Death has not slit it yet. His soul— sister 21
of yours and mine— could not climb here alone,
having no eyes like ours. I was released
from Limbo as his guide and do my best. 24
But can you tell what shook this sacred hill?
What made it ring with shouts of jubilee?”
These questions chimed so well with my desires 27
I listened for the answers eagerly.
The shade replied, “ Nothing disorderly
like rain, dew, hail, frost, snow can rise above 30
the three steps where Saint Peter’s curate sits.
To wind and lightning also we’re immune
and subterranean shocks. What shakes us 33
is a soul love unties from chosen sin,
free at last to rise where it wants to be.
I lay in pain over five hundred years, 36
and my release is a most glad surprise.
You felt the tremor, heard the shout of praise
from the devout. God send them soon above!” 39
The drink is more enjoyed the worst the thirst.
How this intelligence delighted me!
My wise guide said, “I now perceive the chords 42
of conscience that hold these mourners down,
what freed you, why so many souls rejoiced.
Please tell us who you were, and why you were 45
thus pinioned down for many centuries.”
“I lived when Titus was our Emperor,
he who made such stern warfare on the Jews. 48
My gift of song was such that from Toulouse,
Rome drew me to itself, and placed the crown
of myrtle on my brow for poetry. 51
My name’s still spoken there— it’s Statius.
I sang the wars of Thebes: and tried to make
Achilles hero of an epic song, 54
but that was rather more than I could do.
The spark that kindled my poetic aim
leapt from the flame of Virgil’s Aeneid, 57
where many other poets have caught fire.
He taught me how heroic history,
the strife of gods and men in daily life 60
is the pure substance of morality.
Without his Aeneid none would believe
my verses worth a penny. Could I live 63
when Virgil lived I gladly would endure, what? . . .
an extra Purgatorial year.”
These words turned Virgil to me with a look 66
that silently said, “Silence!” willpower
cannot do all. Laughter and tears are so
near passions causing them, sometimes they show 69
whether we will or know. I only smiled,
at which the spirit looked into my eyes
where most expression is and said, “Forgive, 72
but I need to ask, why that gleam of mirth?”
Between one commanding and one
begging for speech, what could I do? I sighed. 75
My master understood for he too sighed
and said, “Reply. Answer his eagerness.”
“You wondered, ancient spirit, at my smiling,” 78
I began. “Hear now a greater wonder.
He leading me is he who taught you how
to sing of gods and men— Virgil, I mean. 81
I only smiled because you spoke of him.”
Statius, bending to embrace my teacher’s feet,
was told by him, “Brother, that can’t be done. 84
We are both of us shades, so bodiless,
and neither nobler than the other one.”
Statius, rising, said, “It proves my love 87
that I forgot we lack solidity.”