Purgatorio 31, with Purgatorio 30, belongs to the microcosmic core of the canti of the earthly paradise, encircled by the macrocosm that treats world-historical events (see the diagram at the end of Purgatorio 28). Here Dante’s life and Dante’s personal choices are at stake.
Purgatorio 31 continues Beatrice’s rebuke, begun in the previous canto, where she vigorously expresses her dismay that Dante, after her death, had “taken himself from her and given himself to others”: “questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui” (Purg. 30.126).
In Purgatorio 31, she refers again to these “others”, now as “sirens” (“serene” [Purg. 31.45]). Dante’s “errore” (44) in listening to sirens was the greater because he had been given Beatrice, and he should have been able to follow her—even after her death—in the proper direction:
Tuttavia, perché mo vergogna porte del tuo errore, e perché altra vota, udendo le serene, sie più forte, pon giù il seme del piangere e ascolta: sì udirai come in contraria parte mover dovieti mia carne sepolta. (Purg. 31.43-48)
Nevertheless, that you may feel more shame for your mistake, and that—in time to come— hearing the Sirens, you may be more strong, have done with all the tears you sowed, and listen: so shall you hear how, unto other ends, my buried flesh should have directed you.
Who are these sirens who tempted Dante after Beatrice’s death? They are both real/historical and allegorical/symbolic. Dante’s love poetry contains the names of many ladies other than Beatrice, including one, the donna petra, to whom he wrote some of the most charged and compellingly beautiful erotic verse ever written. The second half of the Vita Nuova hinges on the compassion shown to Dante by a beautiful lady after Beatrice’s death, and his subsequent falling in love with her. The Convivio returns to the donna gentile episode of the Vita Nuova, more than a decade later, to say that the donna gentile never existed in reality: she was really Lady Philosophy. In another poem, Parole mie, he writes openly of “quella donna in cui errai” (that lady in whom I erred [Parole mie 3]). All these ladies who caused him to err after Beatrice’s death are now lumped into “diessi altrui” (Purg. 30.126): he gave himself to others.
The theme of whether one should be constant in love or whether variability in love is to be expected is one to which Dante is deeply drawn: he begins to treat it in his earliest poetry and returns throughout his life. As a topic it culminates in Beatrice’s purgatorial rebuke. She settles the matter: constancy is required, even when the beloved has died.
In requiring constancy toward a dead beloved, Beatrice validates an unconventional position that Dante had adopted as early as the Vita Nuova. This edict is stated in the sonnet L’amaro lagrimar (Vita Nuova XXXVII/26):
Voi non dovreste mai, se non per morte, la vostra donna, ch’è morta, obliare.
Unless you die, you should not ever be forgetful of your lady who has died.
The position adopted in L’amaro lagrimar is not a conventional position for lovers in the previous lyric tradition. It became conventional after Dante, because Petrarch used it—another of Dante’s forgotten but exploited “inventions” (see the Introduction to Purgatorio 29).
In my commentary to Videro gli occhi miei, another of the donna gentile poems of the Vita Nuova, I write as follows about Dante’s “refusal of normative consolation” and the non-normative route to consolation that he devised for himself:
Often fidelity is withdrawn and reallocated in case of death, and in “normal” daily life we do not consider such a substitution sinful. In fact, we consider it healthy to accept the death of a beloved and to “move on.” Ultimately Dante does not accept the normative rules of his society and so has himself be reprimanded by Beatrice in the earthly paradise for not having remained faithful to her after her death. According to the logic of their conversation in purgatory, only after her death did Beatrice become truly “useable” (in the Augustinian sense of the tension between uti and frui: one must use the things of this world, not take delight in them), capable of directing Dante’s will beyond any mortal object towards the only correct goal, the transcendent object. All this is implicit in Li occhi dolenti, where Dante first comes up with the idea of having himself be consoled by his dead lady.
In the donna gentile sequence Dante has backed away from the radical consolatory move of Li occhi dolenti and of the Divine Comedy, in which the dead beloved returns to life and speaks and comforts the sufferer. In Videro gli occhi miei we find a more pragmatic reaction to loss, the reaction that prevails in the everyday human social consortium whose laws can be glimpsed behind the curtains of this sonnet: the process of mourning, often eased by others’ sympathy, brings about resignation, and from the acceptance of the loss of the old love, one inevitably moves to the acceptance of a new. It is precisely this healthy and normative sequence of events, repeated over and over again in the course of human history, that Dante will ultimately refuse, not in his material life, in which he married and had children, but in his interior life, the one reflected in his writings. This refusal of normative consolation, in both its material form as the donna gentile of the Vita Nuova and in its allegorized form as Lady Philosophy in the Convivio, is the condition sine qua non of the Commedia, whose essential plot hinges on a far more radical form of self-consolation, whereby the old love is divinized.
(Dante’s Lyric Poetry: Poems of Youth and of the ‘Vita Nuova’, pp. 268-69)
In Purgatorio 31, Beatrice continues to hammer on the theme of appropriate objects of desire: her own perfection as a mortal being was the lens that should have put everything into perspective for Dante and kept him from straying. The core of her argument is that, since he had already seen in her the highest mortal beauty—the “sommo piacer” of Purgatorio 31.52—he should not have been distracted by lesser beauty after losing her. Rather, her death should have functioned as a prophylactic against further desiring of secondary goods:
Mai non t’appresentò natura o arte piacer, quanto le belle membra in ch’io rinchiusa fui, e che so’ ’n terra sparte; e se ’l sommo piacer sì ti fallio per la mia morte, qual cosa mortale dovea poi trarre te nel suo disio? Ben ti dovevi, per lo primo strale de le cose fallaci, levar suso di retro a me che non era più tale. Non ti dovea gravar le penne in giuso, ad aspettar più colpo, o pargoletta o altra novità con sì breve uso. (Purg. 31.49-60)
Nature or art had never showed you any beauty that matched the lovely limbs in which I was enclosed—limbs scattered now in dust; and if the highest beauty failed you through my death, what mortal thing could then induce you to desire it? For when the first arrow of things deceptive struck you, then you surely should have lifted up your wings to follow me, no longer such a thing. No green young girl or other novelty— such brief delight—should have weighed down your wings, awaiting further shafts.
This concept, that death should function as a prophylactic, immunizing one from further desire, is Augustinian. Augustine in the Confessions wrote of the death of a male friend as the death that liberated him from loving other mortal creatures, because it taught him the error of loving mortal beings as though they are not mortal: “diligendo moriturum ac si non moriturum”—“loving a man that must die as though he were not to die” (Conf. 4.8). On this concept, see The Undivine Comedy, p. 107, where I link the above passage from Purgatorio 31 to the Vita Nuova and to Confessions 4.8.
At Purgatorio 31.80, the canto shifts; everything changes. Dante sees Beatrice focused now not on him but on the griffin, the animal that is “one person in two natures”: “fera / ch’è sola una persona in due nature” (Purg. 31.80-81). With this succinct evocation of Christ’s dual nature as both man and God, the focus begins to move away from the microcosmic events of Dante’s life to the macrocosmic events of human providential history.