What is canto 1 about in The Divine Comedy?
As canto 1 opens, Dante and Virgil cross from hell to purgatory. They come up from the underground into the “oriental sapphire” of the sky just before dawn. Dante calls on his muse, Calliope, to help him write verses about the experiences he will have in purgatory.
Dante and Virgil run into an old man, Cato, who asks how a living person like Dante can possibly be coming back from hell, so Virgil explains the special context of this journey. Beatrice and the Virgin Mary wish to help guide Dante back onto the path of faith, so Mary has given a special dispensation for Dante to go to the underworld without being dead.
Cato, having heard this explanation, then insists that Dante and Virgil freshen up after being soiled from their journey in hell. Virgil washes Dante's face with dew as the sun rises.
The whole feeling of the poem changes as we transition from hell to purgatory. Although hell and purgatory are both earthly realms, hell was created by Lucifer's fall and is underground and for the damned. Now we are on the surface of the earth, the realm God created for the saved, and it is beautiful:
The lovely planet that is patroness
of love made all the eastern heavens laugh
All of the people on Mount Purgatory are on the path to full salvation. In washing Dante's face, Virgil is symbolically suggesting that purgatory is a place where souls are cleansed. It is the place where people do the hard work necessary to attain the highest realm: heaven.
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