David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 21: Fifth Ledge — Avarice and Wastefulness (Statius)”

Canto 21: Fifth Ledge — Avarice and Wastefulness (Statius)

  • Why does the mountain of Purgatory occasionally tremble?

The Mountain of Purgatory trembles when a soul is ready to move from Purgatory to the Forest of Eden and then to Heaven.

Virgil asks a soul who turns out to be the Latin poet Statius why the mountain trembled. Statius replies,

“It trembles here, whenever any soul

Feels itself pure, so that it soars, or moves

To mount aloft, and such a cry attends it.”

(Longfellow 21.58-60)

Statius himself is pure enough to climb up to the Forest of Eden, so in his case at least the mountain trembles because a soul is almost ready to ascend to Heaven — we will see that a few things must be taken care of in Eden first. It is certain, however, that his soul (and all other souls climbing the Mountain of Purgatory) will enter Paradise.

In Canto 23, Dante says about Statius:

“The other spirit standing over there

is he for whom this mountain’s terraces

trembled just now, releasing him to Heaven.”

(Musa 23.131-133)

In other parts of the world, quakes are caused by natural causes, but on the Mountain of Purgatory quakes are caused by the purification of souls.

Note that all the souls are happy when a soul is purified. No envy exists here.

Note also that Dante will be saved. We will hear that in Paradise, and we learn that here. Virgil tells Statius about Dante:

And said my Teacher: “If thou note the marks

Which this one bears, and which the Angel traces

Well shalt thou see he with the good must reign.”

(Longfellow 21.22-24)

  • Write a short character analysis of Statius. Who is he, historically?

Three poets converse in this canto:

Virgil: 70-19 B.C.E.

Statius: c.45-96 C.E.

Dante: 1265-1321

Virgil and Statius wrote in Latin; Dante wrote his Divine Comedyin vernacular Italian.

Publius Papinius Statius greatly admired Virgil and his Aeneid. Statius was a member poet of Rome’s Silver Age; Virgil was a member poet of Rome’s Golden Age.

Statius completed one epic, the Thebaid, which is an epic poem in 12 books of a myth of Thebes. Oedipus ruled Thebes, but he handed down the kingship of Thebes to his two sons: Eteoclesand Polynices. They agreed to alternate the kingship of Thebes, with one brother ruling for one year and then allowing the other brother to rule for a year. At the end of the first year, Eteocles wanted to continue to be king of Thebes, and he refused to allow Polynices to be king. Therefore, Polynices attacked Thebes. In the battle, Eteocles and Polynices killed each other.

Statius also started an epic poem about Achilles, titled the Achilleid. A little over one book of this epic poem remains.

Dante does something that does not appear in history — he makes Statius a Christian. Statius — who is now a purified soul — stays with Dante as Dante climbs up the mountain.

In fact, at the beginning of Canto 21, Statius, a Roman poet, is compared to Christ. Dante and Virgil walk together

And lo! in the same manner as Luke writeth

That Christ appeared to two upon the way

From the sepulchral cave already risen,

A shade appeared to us, and came behind us,

(Longfellow 21.7-10)

Statius is compared to the risen Christ here. In Luke 24:13-16, we read about the risen Christ walking behind and overtaking two men walking to Emmaus:

13: And, behold, two of them went that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was from Jerusalem about threescore furlongs.

14: And they talked together of all these things which had happened.

15: And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them.

16: But their eyes were holden that they should not know him.

Statius does much the same thing to Virgil and Dante. In a way, of course, Statius is risen. He is dead, but now he traveling to Heaven.

  • How long has Statius been on the Mountain of Purgatory? How long has he been on this storey of the Seven-Storey Mountain?

Statius has spent over 500 years on this storey of the Seven-Storey Mountain, which is dedicated to purging avariciousness (greed) and wastefulness. He died in 96 C.E., and since this poem is set in the year 1300 C.E., Statius has been dead for 1204 years. He has waited a long time to get to Heaven.

Statius says,

“And I, who have been lying in this pain

Five hundred years and more, but just now felt

A free volition for a better seat.”

(Longfellow 21.67-69)

  • Can Statius be regarded as another guide for Dante?

We can regard Statius as being yet another guide for Dante. He is going to climb up the Seven-Storey Mountain with Dante and Virgil until they reach the top: the Forest of Eden. Through his conversations with Statius and Virgil, Dante will learn much.

Statius is a pagan who became a Christian. This makes him a good transition guide for Dante. Virgil, who represents Human Reason, is a pagan. Beatrice, who represents Grace and Revelation and Wisdom, is a Christian.

  • What does Statius say when he tells his story?

Statius says that he lived during the time of the Roman Emperor Titus. In 70 C.E., Titus destroyed Jerusalem. Statius says,

“In days when the good Titus, with the aid

Of the supremest King, avenged the wounds

Whence issued forth the blood by Judas sold,”

(Longfellow 21.82-84)

Before Titus became emperor, he had sacked Jerusalem. Dante regards this as just revenge for the crucifixion of Christ.

Statius adds,

“Under the name that most endures and honours,

Was I on earth,” that spirit made reply,

“Greatly renowned, but not with faith as yet.”

(Longfellow 21.85-87)

The title that “endures the most” (21.85) is that of poet. Statius was a renowned poet, and he enormously respected Virgil, poet of the Aeneid.

These days, Statius’ poetry is not held in as high regard as it was in Dante’s time, but he is still regarded as an important Roman poet of the Silver Age.

  • What inspired Statius to write poetry? How much does Statius respect Virgil?

Statius says that he was inspired to write poetry by Virgil’s Aeneid:

 “The spark that kindled my poetic ardor

came from the sacred flame that set on fire

more than a thousand poets: I mean the Aeneid.”

(Musa 21.94-96)

Statius shows his great respect for Virgil when he says that that he would be willing to spend another year in Purgatory if he could have lived when Virgil was alive:

“And to have lived upon the earth what time

Virgilius lived, I would accept one sun

More than I must ere issuing from my ban.”

(Longfellow 21.100-102)

When Statius says this, he does not know that Virgil is present. This is totally sincere praise.

  • How does Statius learn that he is in the presence of Virgil?

Virgil glances at Dante to signal him not to tell Statius who Virgil is:

These words towards me made Virgilius turn

With looks that in their silence said, “Be silent!”

(Longfellow 21.103-104)

Virgil’s look tells Dante to keep Virgil’s identity a secret. However, Dante is unable to control his face:

laughter and tears follow so close upon

the passions that provoke them that the more

sincere the man, the less they obey his will.

(Musa 21.106-108)

 Dante smiles, and then quickly stops smiling, but too late — Statius has noticed the smile.

Statius asks Dante why he smiled, and Dante sighs. Virgil then gives him permission to tell Statius that Virgil is standing before him.

Dante turns to Statius and tells him,

Whence I: “Thou peradventure marvellest,

O antique spirit, at the smile I gave;

But I will have more wonder seize upon thee.

This one, who guides on high these eyes of mine,

Is that Virgilius, from whom thou didst learn

To sing aloud of men and of the Gods.”

(Longfellow 21.121-126)

Purgatory has surprises, and the surprises are good surprises. Statius would love to meet Virgil, and here Virgil is.

  • How does Statius react when he learns that he is in the presence of the great Virgil?

Statius wants to embrace the feet of Virgil, but Virgil tells him, “Brother, no!” (Musa 21.131):

Already he was stooping to embrace

My Teacher’s feet; but he said to him: “Brother,

Do not; for shade thou art, and shade beholdest.”

(Longfellow 21.130-132)       

Virgil thinks that it is inappropriate for one shade to embrace the feet of another shade.

Here we see three poets spending together. Virgil influenced Dante, and Virgil influenced Statius. Both Dante and Statius have enormous respect for Virgil.

Dante has much respect for poetry and for poetry. In this canto, Statius says,

“Under the name that most endures and honours,

Was I on earth,” that spirit made reply,

“Greatly renowned, but not with faith as yet.”

(Longfellow 21.85-87)

And in the 4th canto of theInferno, Virgil tells Dante in Limbo about the poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan,

And he to me: “The honourable name,

That sounds of them above there in thy life,

Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them.”

(Inferno, Longfellow 4.76-78)


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved





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