Purgatorio 9 is the canto where the pilgrim transitions to the place where purgatory truly begins: “là dove purgatorio ha dritto inizio” in the language of Purgatorio 7.39. And indeed in Purgatorio 9.49 Virgilio tells Dante that he has now arrived in purgatory: “Tu se’ omai al purgatorio giunto” (You have already come to purgatory).
How does Dante get to the gate of Purgatory? One answer is: through dreaming. Night falls at the beginning of Purgatorio 9, and Dante sleeps. He dreams that he is “rapt” (“ratto” in Purg. 9.24, “rapisse” in Purg. 9.30) by an eagle that carries him up, as Ganymede was carried by Jove:
Poi mi parea che, poi rotata un poco, terribil come folgor discendesse, e me rapisse suso infino al foco. (Purg. 9.28-30)
Then it seemed to me that, wheeling slightly and terrible as lightning, it swooped, snatching me up to the fire’s orbit.
This dream sequence weaves together mythological figures like Ganymede in Purg. 9.23 and Achilles in Purg. 9.34 with echoes of 2 Corinthians 12:1-4, where St. Paul recounts being “caught up into paradise” (“raptus est in paradisum”):
Dante had established St. Paul as a model for himself in Inferno 2, when he worries that this journey is not for him, since after all he is not Aeneas and not Paul: “Io non Enea, io non Paulo sono” (Inf. 2.32). Now Pauline raptus is explicitly evoked in the language that recounts the first dream of Purgatorio.
Dante conjures the violence of raptus and visionary experience through the many frightening details in the description of the eagle, as it hangs in the air preparing to strike, and then as it swoops down “terribil come folgor” (terrible as lightning [Purg. 9.29]). St. Thomas notes the violence that is implicit in raptus: “Rapture adds something to ecstasy. For ecstasy implies simply ‘standing outside oneself’ as when a person is placed outside his usual disposition. But rapture (‘being caught up’) adds a note of violence to this” (ST 2a2ae 175.2, in the Blackfriars translation, vol. 45, p. 101).
The divinatory and prophetic nature of the dream is established before it is narrated:
e che la mente nostra, peregrina più da la carne e men da’ pensier presa, a le sue vision quasi è divina...(Purg. 9.16-18)
when, free to wander farther from the flesh and less held fast by cares, our intellect's envisionings become almost divine...
After the dream is narrated, Virgilio tells Dante “what really happened”: beginning in Purg. 9.55, Virgilio effectively translates Dante’s experience from one order of reality—heightened, visionary, mystical—to a more “normal” order of reality. In this “translation” of what the dream recounts in mystical form, Lucia (see Inferno 2.97-108) came and picked up Dante while he was sleeping and transported him up the mountain to the gate of purgatory. It speaks volumes of the world that Dante creates that the second account seems like an everyday occurrence! The dream is a way of communicating the nature of visionary experience within the vision that is the Commedia: it is a vision within the Vision.
The dream of Purgatorio 9 and its “interpretation” by Virgilio are important for my analysis of different kinds of discourse in The Undivine Comedy. I argue that “Dante forges a new ‘jumping’ discourse for the moments in which the narrative line cannot be sustained, when the narrative cammino is fractured by ineffability” (p. 163). This new discourse will be particularly evident in Paradiso but Dante begins to present examples of it in Purgatorio, especially in visionary contexts. Purgatorio 9 is a primer with respect to the alternative styles that will come to dominate Paradiso: it showcases the special discourse manufactured for the “fantastic” event, the dream sequence, and then the return to sustained “normal” discourse in Virgilio’s translation.
In the second part of Purgatorio 9, Dante faces the angel who guards the gate of purgatory and undergoes a ritual confession. I call this a “ritual confession” because this is not the personal confession that Dante makes later to Beatrice, when he meets her in the Earthly Paradise.