Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 28

Having arrived at the top of the Mountain of Purgatory, Dante is anxious to explore the lush forest he finds there. With a soft breeze against his face, he sets off and later finds that he can’t remember where he entered the forest. Soon, he comes upon a clear stream and, to his amazement, he sees a lovely young woman on the other side, walking along and picking flowers. He calls to her and asks her to tell him about this place. She tells him that she will be happy to answer all his questions, and Dante, recalling how Statius told him that there was no “weather” beyond the Gate of Purgatory, asks the lady about the constant breeze and the stream that separates them. She spends some time answering Dante’s questions.

            I was eager to explore everything in that divine forest before me, alive in its verdure that softened the bright morning light. So, I quickly left the stairs and meandered through the countryside that filled the air with its fragrance. Against my face I could feel a constant gentle breeze that set every branch and leaf slightly atremble, always bending them toward the west where the mountain casts its first shadow. In those softly swaying boughs, the birds joyfully sang their morning songs as they greeted the rising sun. I was reminded of walking in the pine forest near Ravenna when the Sirocco’s winds were blowing up from the south.

            Although I had been walking slowly, when I stopped to look around, I realized that I had come so far into that ancient forest that I couldn’t remember where I entered it. But in front of me was a lovely stream whose wavelets pushed back the grass growing along its banks. The waters here were clearer than anything I had ever seen, and dark as they flowed under the constant shade of the dense forest overhead.

            As I stopped to take in the lovely abundance of the landscape on the other side of this stream, a beautiful young woman appeared there quite unexpectedly. She sang softly as she wandered along picking flowers here and there.

            Speaking to her across that stream, I said: “My dear lady, filled with the beauty of Love’s radiance – if I read the truth in your face – may I ask you to come nearer to the bank so that I can understand what you are singing. Seeing you there reminds me of Proserpine, and of where she was when her mother lost her, and she herself lost the lovely season of spring.”

            As a dancing woman will turn slightly while she keeps her feet together on the ground, hardly moving one before the other, so she turned toward me there among the red and yellow flowers, casting her eyes downward in modesty. As she came closer, the melody of her song brought to me the meaning of its sweet words. Only when she had reached the bank of that gently-flowing stream did she lift her face and look into my eyes. I cannot imagine that the eyes of Venus gleamed as brightly the day Cupid’s arrow so innocently pierced her heart.

            She stood smiling on the other side of that stream as she arranged the flowers she had picked – flowers that grow there without seeds. Though that stream kept us apart by only a few feet, it was like the narrow Hellespont, crossed by Xerxes, but hated by Leander. And I hated it, too, because it would not part for me!

            “You are all new here,” she said, “and I can see that you are perplexed at finding me here so filled with happiness in this place where mankind had its beginning. But let the Psalm Delectasti me clear away your doubts. And you there in front who spoke to me a moment ago, I am happy to answer all the questions you may have.”

            “The water flowing here and the wind in the trees” I answered her, “seem to contradict what I was told about this mountain.”

            “Ah, yes,” she replied. “Let me explain why and how things here are the way you find them. This will clear your thoughts. The Highest Good, happy within Himself, created man completely good, and gave him this place as a pledge of eternal peace. But because that man sinned, his joy was turned into anguish, and he had to leave. The reason this mountain rises so high is to prevent storms formed below the Gate from disturbing the peace of this place.

            And since the air at this height meets no impediments and moves constantly, following the motion of the first sphere, this movement causes the forest to sing in the gentle breeze. Not only that, but everything that grows here is filled with a fruitful power that the turning motion scatters everywhere below. And so, according to the nature of the place on earth, different plants and trees will grow there. Furthermore, if people understood what you now know, they wouldn’t be surprised when a plant grows where there were no seeds before. And know also that this sacred place is filled with an abundance of every species and there is fruit here that no one earth has ever seen.

            The water that flows here does not come from a source that is filled by the rains that cause them to flow quick or slow. This water comes from a spring that flows continually without change. God wills that as much as flows out of it comes back. The water that flows in this direction has the power to remove all memory of sin, and that stream there restores the memory of all good deeds done. This stream is called Lethe, and that one is Eunoë. But one must drink first from Lethe to know the power of Eunoë. There is no sweeter water to be found anywhere.

            Now, though I may have quenched your thirst somewhat to know about this place, I will give you another gift and tell you more than I promised at first. It may be that the ancient poets who sang of the Golden Age and its original bliss, were thinking of this place. This is the place of mankind’s innocent roots, and in a Spring without end, it brought forth every fruit – the nectar which the poets praise.”

            When she had finished, I turned around to see my two poets. They were still there and smiling at her words. Then I turned back to that lovely woman.