Still plagued by questions as Canto 20 ends Dante struggles to understand several things as Canto 21 opens. Why did the earth quake? [20.127] What was the meaning of the acclamation, “Glory to God in the Highest,” he heard after the quake? [20.136] And why did the penitents return to their lament as they faced the ground? [20.143] Canto 21 of the Purgatorio provides Dante with answers, yet it also presents the reader with the irony and frailty of human knowledge.
The key to Canto 21 is its opening epistemological declaration. Dante writes that he had a “natural thirst [that tormented him] that can never be quenched except by the water that gives grace—the draught the simple woman of Samaria sought” [lines 1-4]. Referencing the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman found in the fourth chapter of John’s Gospel, Dante asserts that only God can provide living water that quenches the longings of the human soul to know the truth. Humanity’s hubris is that we think we have all the answers, yet this presumption is a mere “shade” of a self-absorbed longing for an unreal world of our own making. Such is the poetic portrait Dante presents in the exchange that follows between Dante’s traveling companion, Virgil and the newest character in the Purgatorio, the Roman poet Statius.
As Canto 21 begins, Virgil and Dante do not realize that someone is following them, but then the stranger speaks. Citing the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24, we have high hopes for this figure who appears to the two travelers. But alas, it’s only a shade, one of the many penitents on the purgatorial mountain. The irony here is that rather than a Christ-like figure, this man turns out to be anything but a model of living water.
This mysterious man first questions Dante and Virgil about their reason for being in Purgatory. Virgil provides him with a sufficient answer. Virgil, then, puts a question to the man: why did the mountain just quake? Dante listens silently but eagerly. The weather of the world can’t reach any higher than the three steps that enter into Purgatory proper, which, we must remember, is basically an extension of heaven. The quake, not being able to come from below, must have come from above, from Heaven. This is what regularly happens when a soul completes its final purification and is ready to ascend to Heaven. At that point, all the penitents in Purgatory give a joyous shout. This explains the acclamation we heard at the end of the last canto: “Glory to God in the Highest!” The man reveals that it was for him that the mountain shook, and Dante recalls for the reader, “So did he speak to us; and just as joy is greater when we quench a greater thirst, the joy he brought cannot be told in words” [lines 73-75].
At this point Virgil questions him about his identity and the man explains how he was a famous person in his own time. He came from Toulouse but found his true home in Rome. Finally he names himself as the Roman poet Statius (AD 45-96). Author of two epic Latin poems, the Thebaid (treating the fratricidal war for the city of Thebes) and the unfinished Achilleid (about the Greek hero Achilles), Statius spent over five hundred years on the fifth terrace (see 22.92-93). As a poet he recounts how the “sparks that warmed me, the seeds of my ardor, were from the holy fire—the same that gave more than a thousand poets light and flame” [lines 94-95]. Then, ironically, he regales the accomplishments of his muse, the poet Virgil, all the while oblivious to the true identity of Dante’s traveling companion. Statius recounts how he drew poetic inspiration from Virgil’s Aeneid (calling it a “divine flame” in line 95), and he credits Virgil’s fourth eclogue with his turn to Christianity (see 22.64-73). Statius continues talking. He worships Virgil so much that he would gladly add a year to his sentence here in Purgatory to have been able to live during Virgil’s time. At this point Dante cannot help but display his ironic humor as he gives an impish “wink” to Virgil (who counsels him to remain still) while Statius speaks.
Finally Dante explains that Statius is speaking with Virgil himself and immediately Statius drops to his knees to kiss Virgil’s feet, but Virgil quickly lifts the man. He tells him there’s no need to humble himself saying, “You are a shade; a shade is what you see.” Statius replies, “Now you can understand how much love burns in me for you, when I forget our insubstantiality treating the shades as one treats solid things” [lines 133-136]. Freed of his purgatorial trials, Statius will accompany Dante and Virgil the rest of the way up the mountain.
Numerous levels of misunderstanding and misinformation abound within this Canto. There is no evidence that the actual Roman poet Statius ever converted to Christianity. Let’s leave that aside, though. Within the logic and fictional framework of the canto itself, Dante wants his reader to “know” that while knowledge can quench the thirst for understanding, too often we can be confused and misled, treating half-truths and misinformation “as one treats solid things.” We often think we “know” something only to later find out that our epistemological confidence was an overconfidence, nothing more than the specter of our own narrow and insubstantial insecurity, much like the “shades” who are constrained to “lay along the ground….in tears” [20.143]. Thinking of this canto’s opening image, we recall the woman at the well in the gospel of John who sought the true Living Water to sustain her. Later in this gospel Jesus will chide doubting Thomas, “if you had known Me, you would know My Father as well. From now you do know Him and have seen Him” (John 6:7). True joy for the Christian is knowing the Lord Jesus who in turn reveals the Father. God alone is the source of knowledge and truth for those on the journey.
Fr. George Heyman, Ph.D. has been a priest of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, NY, for 34 years. Currently he is the President and Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford, NY. In addition to his teaching responsibilities in the area of biblical studies and early Christian origins, he is also Director of Professional Development and Ministerial Certification for the Diocese of Rochester.