The last verse of Purgatorio 26, referring to Arnaut Daniel, is “Poi s’ascose nel foco che li affina” (Then he hid himself in the fire that refines them [Purg. 26.148]). In Purgtorio 27 we learn that the refining fire of the seventh terrace must be confronted by every soul who passes beyond the terraces of Purgatory. In other words, the fire of the seventh terrace is not only the designated punishment of the terrace of lust; it burns away and “refines” any remaining inclination to vice in all souls as they complete purgation.
Dante’s fear of the fire is such that Virgilio needs to remind him of all the fear-inducing experiences that they have shared in the course of their time together and all the times that Virgilio took care of him and kept him safe. This is an extraordinary moment of personal intimacy between the pilgrim and his guide, in which they look back over their long and companionable journey. The moment that Virgilio singles out as most emblematic of the pilgrim’s fear is their flight on the back of the monster Geryon (Inferno 17):
Volsersi verso me le buone scorte; e Virgilio mi disse: «Figliuol mio, qui può esser tormento, ma non morte. Ricorditi, ricorditi! E se io sovresso Gerion ti guidai salvo, che farò ora presso più a Dio?» (Purg. 27.19-24)
My gentle escorts turned to me, and Virgil said: “My son, though there may be suffering here, there is no death. Remember remember! If I guided you to safety even upon the back of Geryon, then now, closer to God, what shall I do?”
In The Undivine Comedy I give a metapoetic reading of Virgilio’s words, based on the importance assigned to Geryon in that book’s interpretation of the Commedia:
Thus it is not surprising that Vergil should much later single out the ride on Geryon, the ride that made Dante akin to Phaeton and Icarus, the ride that made him a Ulyssean aeronaut, as emblematic of all the dangers they have encountered together in the course of their journey…
The encounter with Geryon dramatizes the text’s confrontation with its own necessary representational fraud, and as such is the moment of maximum peril, when the text gambles all on being accepted as a “ver c’ha faccia di menzoga,” a comedìa. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 67)
Now I find particularly fascinating in Virgilio’s words his emphasis on time and memory: “Ricorditi, ricorditi!” (Remember remember! [Purg. 27.22]). Time and memory are the currencies of human affect and love: affect accrues over time and is preserved in memory.
Purgatorio 27 is in many ways Virgilio’s canto: the canto that distills the special bond shared by Dante with the mentor who has guided him thus far. At the beginning of the canto we have the above reference to his paternal guidance, and a little further on we see that only Virgilio — not the new guide Stazio — can induce Dante to cross the flames. When Dante proves intransigent, Virgilio knowingly refers to Beatrice:
Quando mi vide star pur fermo e duro, turbato un poco disse: «Or vedi, figlio: tra Beatrice e te è questo muro». (Purg. 27.34-36)
When he saw me still halting, obstinate, he said, somewhat perplexed: “Now see, son: this wall stands between you and your Beatrice.”
The above reference to Beatrice completes the previous two references to Beatrice that Virgilio has sprinkled into his explanations as they have journeyed up Mount Purgatory: in Purgatorio 6.46-46 and in Purgatorio 18.73-75. The reference to Beatrice reminds us that Virgilio, unlike Stazio, has met Beatrice. Indeed, he was commissioned by her to undertake this journey. As part of the memory and time-induced intimacy of this canto we now recall the scene that Virgilio recounts in Inferno 2, where he details a meeting between himself and Beatrice that takes place in the pre-history of the Commedia, before the timeframe of the story that begins in Inferno 1.
Virgilio speaks a lot in this canto; Dante never speaks.
The sun sets, night comes, and the travelers stop. As Sordello explained back in Purgatorio 7, no one can climb the mountain by night. Dante dreams: his third purgatorial dream comes, like the previous two, at a moment of transition. The first dream marked the transition from Ante-Purgatory to the seven terraces, the second dream signaled the transition from the lower terraces to the upper three terraces, and the transition that is about to take place is from the seven terraces to the Earthly Paradise.
All these dreams are “non-false errors” (the expression used for the ecstatic visions of the terrace of wrath in Purg. 15.117): the first dream figures his being carried up to the gate of Purgatory by Santa Lucia; the second figures the vices of the top three terraces, embodied in the siren; the third dream figures the two forms of bliss — active and contemplative — that humans can seek in their lives, here embodied in the biblical characters of Leah and Rachel, the wives of Jacob.
The Old Testament characters of Lia (Leah) and Rachele (Rachel) were traditionally interpreted allegorically by the Church as figures of the active and contemplative life: both are worthy but the contemplative is superior. In Dante’s handling they have a second meaning layered over their traditional allegorical significances. Here, in Purgatory, the figures of Lia and Rachele in Dante’s dream are also anticipations of the two ladies he will shortly meet in the garden of Eden: Matelda (who corresponds to Lia, and to the active life) and Beatrice (who corresponds to Rachele, and to the contemplative life).
So, as with the dream of the siren, this dream glosses the experience that awaits the pilgrim. In effect, Lia and Rachele are anti-sirens: while the siren leads voyagers off the path, Lia and Rachele are both, in different ways, fulfillments of the correct path.
Dreams are always markers of transition in the Purgatorio and Purgatorio 27 ends with the splendid verses with which Virgilio announces that Dante is now free. He has finished purgation and his will is now free, straight, and whole. He does not need to follow a guide; he can follow himself, for he cannot err. He is crowned and mitered over himself. He is the sovereign of his soul:
Non aspettar mio dir più né mio cenno; libero, dritto e sano è tuo arbitrio, e fallo fora non fare a suo senno: per ch’io te sovra te corono e mitrio. (Purg. 27.139-42)
Await no further word or sign from me: your will is free, erect, and whole—to act against that will would be to err: therefore I crown and miter you over yourself."
What the pilgrim does not know as he listens to these words, and what we do not know as we read them for the first time, is that these will turn out to be Virgilio’s last spoken words in the poem.