David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 23: Sixth Ledge — Gluttony (Forese Donati)”

Canto 23: Sixth Ledge — Gluttony (Forese Donati)

  • How are the gluttonous purged, and why is that purgation appropriate?

Lots of music — hymns — is heard on the Mountain of Purgatory. On this ledge, penitents chant the hymn Labia mea Domine. This hymn, which comes from Psalm 50/51, contains the line, “Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praises” (Musa 253). The penitents need to use their mouths to praise God instead of merely eating and drinking too much.

The penitents on this ledge are emaciated — their eyes are sunk in their heads. The penitents make Dante think of these things:

1) Erysichthon

Erysichthon cut down trees that were sacred to the goddess Ceres, who punished him by making him endlessly hungry. He even sold his own daughter for money to buy food and eventually cannibalized his own flesh.

2) Miriam

During the siege of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Miriam, according to the Jewish historian Josephus, was so hungry that she cooked and ate her own baby boy.

Dante says that the word omo— or homo, Latin for man — could be read in the facial bones of these penitents. Of course, the facial bones are clearly visible of these starving penitents, who are always hungry and thirsty, and who see but cannot eat the fruit of the tree and who see but cannot drink the water that falls on the tree but not to the ground. The two O’s are the eye sockets, and the M is the middle of the face (eyebrows and nose).

  • Which languages did Virgil and Dante write in?

Dante, who is still traveling with both Virgil and Statius, is going to meet some poets who wrote before he did. He will be having conversations with these poets.

The languages that Dante and Virgil wrote in are different. Virgil wrote in Latin, but a little over 1300 years later, Dante wrote in Italian, a language that developed from Latin. Dante consciously made the decision to write in a vernacular language instead of in Latin, the language that the learned wrote in, in his day. Statius, an immediate antecedent to Virgil, also wrote in Latin. Now, Dante is going to meet a number of other poets who also wrote in Italian.

Let’s read this section carefully. Statius read Virgil, and he learned something from Virgil that Virgil did not know was in his own work. Statius learned enough from Virgil that he was able to decide to become a Christian. Perhaps Dante will be able to learn something from these vernacular poets who wrote love poetry. Perhaps, like Statius did from Virgil, Dante will be able to learn from these vernacular poets something about Christianity.

  • Write a short character analysis of Forese Donati.

The first poet we meet was a personal friend of Dante: Forese Donati.

After Dante and Forese Donati were friends, the Donati family was political enemies of Dante. The Donati family was the leaders of the Black Guelfs; Dante, of course, was a White Guelf.

One important point to realize here is that the members of the Donati family appear throughout The Divine Comedy. That means that we can compare and contrast the members of the family in the Inferno, in Purgatory, and in Paradise.

Forese Donati is not a great poet. Here is an analogy used by William R. Cook and Ronald B. Herzman that may be a little far-fetched. One of these teachers has a brother who is a very, very good chess player. He is even ranked. Someone asked the teacher, “You must have a lot of fun playing him.” However, the teacher replied, “That’s ridiculous. I would last four moves, and he would beat me.” Actually, the teacher taught his brother how to play chess — he taught him the basic moves. But within a few months, his brother was beating him every time, and so they haven’t played chess for 20 years. Forese is like the teacher, and Dante is like the teacher’s brother.

Forese Donati wrote a form of poetry that we would probably call doggerel, a kind of poetry with no or little literary value.

  • Which kind of poems did Forese and Dante sometimes write to and exchange with each other?

Sometimes, friends insult each other as a kind of endearment. This is what Forese and Dante did, but in the form of comic insults in poetry.

In his Rime #72 Dante wrote Forese, who partied often at night, about his wife, Nella:

Her cough, her cold, her other maladies

Were not incurred because she’s getting grey

But from a lack she suffers in her nest.

(Gallagher 106)

In other words, Forese’s wife is ill because he is not sleeping with her.

In his Rime #74 Dante wrote, using Forese’s nickname,

Bicci, my boy, you son of God-knows-who

(Though I could ask your mother — if she knows),

Your goods diminish as your belly grows

And stealing now must keep it full for you.

(Gallagher 106)

Forese’s belly is enormous in the poem, so it is no wonder that Forese is on the ledge of the Gluttons.

Forese also insulted Dante. How did Dante react in a quarrel? Forese tells him:

Fear has filled your trousers up so well

Two pack-mules couldn’t carry them away.

(Gallagher 107)

Dante was so afraid during the quarrel that he enormously pooped his pants.

Still, the two men are friends, as clearly comes through in the way that Forese greets Dante. Dante also explains to Forese that he wept when Forese died: “When death was on your face, I wept” (23.55).

  • How has Forese Donati been able to travel so far and so fast up the Mountain of Purgatory?

Forese repented late in his life, so we would expect him to still be in Prepurgatory like many other souls who repented late, yet here he is, far up the Mountain of Purgatory. How did he climb so far, so fast? According to Mark Musa, he has been dead for only five years and yet he is on the 6th ledge of the Mountain of Purgatory. Remember that Statius spent 400 years on the 4th ledge of Purgatory because of lack of zeal and over 500 years on the 5th ledge of Purgatory because of not avariciousness, but because of its opposite, prodigality.

Forese is fortunate in his choice of wives. His wife, Nella, has been praying for him, and so he has been allowed to quickly climb up the Mountain of Purgatory. One theme of the Purgatoryis that the prayers of good people are listened to in Heaven.

Many of the vernacular poets whom Dante will speak to will write love poetry. Here, love helps one’s spiritual life. Forese and Nella loved each other, and now Nella’s prayers are helping Forese to quickly climb up the Mountain of Purgatory.

We also find out that Nella is a very good woman — something rare in Florence. All too many Florentine women show too much of their breasts when they “walk our city streets” (Musa 23.101).

  • What did Dante learn from other poets?

Dante was able to learn different things from different poets.

Forese Donati and Dante — two friends — traded doggerel poems that were filled with low humor and friendly insults.

Many of the vernacular poets whom Dante will talk with helped teach him how to write love poetry.

Virgil taught Dante about politics.

Statius teaches Dante to go beyond Virgil, as Statius did when he read Virgil’s 4th Eclogue.

Different kinds of poetry have different purposes. Dante has to learn how to write the correct kind of poetry for his purpose.

Forese Donati and Dante talk about the degradation of Florentine women. Certainly, the doggerel filled with humorous insults that they wrote is inappropriate to be used to talk seriously about the degradation of Florentine women. Neither can the love poetry of the vernacular poets be used to talk about the degradation of Florentine women. The epic poetry of theAeneidcan be used to talk about the degradation of Florentine women, but Dante needs to go beyond the Aeneidand put a Christian interpretation on what is happening to Florence. (Unless the citizens of Florence reform, they can end up in the Inferno.)

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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