Thursday, September 19, 2013


Chapter 3: Before Purgatory

Our pace became more dignified upon
            the foot-hills of that mount where climbing joins
            goodness and reason. Since letting me halt                                         3

to hear a song, Virgil had been silent.
His noble mind, believing no fault small,
            endured the sting of being in the wrong.                                             6

The rising sun shone rosy on our backs.
I gladly viewed the upward slope ahead
            then felt it incomplete, for only one                                                   9
shadow lay on the ground before my feet.
Afraid that suddenly I climbed alone
I gasped with dread. My comforter enquired,                       12

Why, even now, do you distrust my aid?
            In Naples, underneath a monument
my shadow is entombed among my dust.                                          15

That I am shadowless is not more strange
than all the starry spheres of Heaven are.
Admiring wonder is the right reply                                                    18

to everything beyond your wisdom’s range.
Thought alone cannot know the infinite,
eternal Three-in-One creating all.                                                        21

If science brought the mind of man to God
Mary need never have bore Jesus Christ,
or we in Limbo dwell unsatisfied                                                        24
in outer Hell, far from the highest good
where Homer, Plato, Aristotle dwell,
            and many more.” He fell silent again,                                                 27
staring with troubled face on ground we trod
            until we reached Mount Purgatory’s base.
            The wildest mountainside in Italy                                                      30

would look an easy staircase seen beside
            this cliff too sheer, this granite precipice
            too high and smooth for any mountaineer.                                         33

My master sighed and murmured, “Lacking wings,
            we need to find a slope that legs can use.
            It must exist. Do we turn left or right?”                                             36

He pondered where the ground met the rock wall.
            I, looking round, saw a sling-shot away
            a group of souls approaching from our left,                                      39

walking so slowly that at first I thought
            they did not move at all. I shouted out,
            “See Master! These may know where we should go.”                       42

He looked, then spoke with confidence renewed.
            “Indeed they may my son. Let us enquire
            and never cease to hope.” A thousand steps                                      45

brought us to where most of the souls, like sheep,
            walked timidly, heads bowed, behind a few
            dignified leaders walking slowly too.                                                  48

“Hail, holy ones!” cried Virgil. “You have died
            as Christians, so in the end are sure of
            Heaven’s grace. We must ascend at once. Please,                               51

where is the right place?” The leaders halted,
stared, then drew back. The flock behind stopped, scared,
not knowing why, and huddled to the rock.                             54

My shadow on their track caused this dismay.
            Virgil declared, “You need not question us
            for I’ll explain. My friend is still alive,                                               57

his body therefore splits the light of day.
            Heaven tells us not to waste time but climb.
            can you show where?” “Turn round and go with us,”                       60

 these good souls said. We did, walking as slow.
One said, “Please look and say if you know me.”
I looked attentively. He was fair haired,                                             63

handsome, debonair, an eyebrow broken
            by a scar. I admitted I did not,           
whereupon smiling, “Look at this,” he said,                               66
 opening his vest to show in his chest
            a much worse wound, adding “I am Manfred,
            ruler of Sicily, Tory warlord                                                              69

who defied the Pope and died by the sword.
            As my blood flowed I gave my soul with tears
            to Him who saves all sinners who repent,                                          72

even of crimes as horrible as mine.
            The victors built a cairn over my bones.
            He that comes to me I will not cast out,                                              75

 Saint John wrote. Forgetting that, Pope Clement
            had the cairn broken, bones scattered about, 
            on unholy ground, battered by wind and rain.                                    78

Though excommunicate, we in this troop
            will reach Heaven at last. Though under a
papal ban, each year we were damned as bad                         81

 heretics adds thirty years to our wait
before we can start the Purgatorial
climb up to Heaven’s gate.  But living souls                              84

can shorten that time by their prayers, so
            when back on earth, tell my daughter Constance,
Aragon’s queen, mother of kings,                                                       87

to pray for me, as I am not in Hell.”







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