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 woodland 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.Dante’s curiosity is focused no longer on the condition of the sinners he has encountered along his journey, nor on their punishments. Virtually free now from all restraint, he chooses the … Continue reading
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 flowing leftward here were clearer than anything I had ever seen, and dark as they flowed under the constant shade of the dense forest overhead.There is a definite sense of leisure here as Dante takes his time walking through this primeval forest–only stopping to realize that he is lost. Notice the parallel here with the beginning of Canto … Continue reading
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.This young woman is one of the most enigmatic characters in the entire Comedy. She will not be named until Canto 33:119, and though many have tried, no one, to this day, has been able to determine … Continue reading
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 eternal season of spring.”Dante’s words to Matelda are both gracious and familiar, and the tone is unmistakably poetic. One might suggest from this that he already knows who she is. Just as the light of the sun (God) shone … Continue reading
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!The image of the dance and the delicate movement of Matelda toward Dante project both her complete self-confidence and the soft calmness of this place, highlighted by the tender modesty of her eyes. … Continue reading
“You are all new to this place,” she said, “and I can see that you are perplexed at finding me here so filled with happiness 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.”At last, Matelda speaks. Thus far, we have been so tightly focused on Dante’s experience here in the Earthly Paradise that we have been unaware that Virgil and Statius have been following close … Continue reading
“The water flowing here and the wind in the trees” I answered her, “seem to contradict what I was told about this mountain.”Dante’s questions about the water and the wind stem from what he heard Statius tell him back in Canto 21 when he asked for an explanation of the great tremor that accompanied the freedom of a soul … Continue reading
“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.Matelda begins to answer Dante’s questions with a brief theological reflection on Genesis 3 as a way to clear his mind and make it receptive to her explanations. As a reflection of His own … Continue reading 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.Since there is no weather above the Gate of Purgatory, there is no wind here at the top of the Mountain to disturb its tranquility. However, if we think of the earth as standing still at the center … Continue reading 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 wind Matelda is explaining actually has a significant purpose. She tells Dante that every growing thing in the Earthly Paradise has a “fruitful power”–namely, seeds. The gently blowing wind … Continue reading
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.Matelda now answers Dante’s question about the stream of water that separates them. (Recall that in Genesis 2:10 there are four rivers in Eden: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.) … Continue reading
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.”In what may be a nod to Dante’s two companions, Matelda suggests that the ancient poets who wrote of the Golden Age may have had the Earthly Paradise in mind because this is where humans were … Continue reading
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.The smiles of Virgil and Statius are affirmations that they understand what Matelda has told Dante, and encouragement for him to continue following her.
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Dante’s curiosity is focused no longer on the condition of the sinners he has encountered along his journey, nor on their punishments. Virtually free now from all restraint, he chooses the “active” option Virgil offered moments ago. And so we find him eager to explore what he calls in Italian “the divine forest,” the wooded landscape here on the Mountain’s top, alive with the morning light and fresh with the fragrant murmuring breezes of springtime. Until this moment, we did not know it was here, and since he will soon be quite occupied, he gives us some description of what is on the mountaintop. Nevertheless, without his telling us quite yet, this is the Earthly Paradise, the locus of our creation, our original home, a place of peace, harmony, and innocence. In a symbolic sense, this is the realm for which Dante was consecrated and crowned at the end of the previous canto. It stands in direct opposition to the dark forest of death he entered in Canto 1 of the Inferno.
As he moves through this wondrous place, Dante makes a point of referring to his face being swept by the gentle breeze. Recall how, after their arrival on the shore below, Cato had Virgil wash the grime of Hell off of Dante’s face. Later, at the Gate of Purgatory, his face was disfigured with the seven Ps, which have all been removed. With his new face he faces east, the direction of the rising sun, and symbolic of the Resurrection and Second Coming of Christ. He also sees how the constant breeze coming from that direction bends the branches and leaves on the trees to the west, the shaded side of the Mountain at this moment.
All of this reminds Dante of the pineta, the great pine forest around the Ravenna of his day in which he enjoyed walking. Nowadays, it has virtually disappeared. What still remains are the occasional hot and gritty winds of the Sirocco that blow up across the Mediterranean from northern Africa.
|↑2||There is a definite sense of leisure here as Dante takes his time walking through this primeval forest–only stopping to realize that he is lost. Notice the parallel here with the beginning of Canto 1 in the Inferno, where he told us that he also looked back but couldn’t remember how he got there. In that place, he reacted with fright, whereas here he enjoys the sight of this amazingly clear stream whose little waves gently push at the grass along its banks, and whose name he will soon learn. Recall the reeds along the shore at the end of Canto 1 that bent with the wind. Virgil wrapped one of them around Dante’s waist as a sign of humility. One wonders whether he is still wearing it. The wondrous clarity of the water here is symbolic of the purity of the soul now purged of all taint of sin. And about the shade that darkens the waters of this stream, Ronald Martinez writes in his commentary that until the end of the Purgatorio all events will take place within the shade of this forest.|
|↑3||This young woman is one of the most enigmatic characters in the entire Comedy. She will not be named until Canto 33:119, and though many have tried, no one, to this day, has been able to determine who she was. Her function seems fairly clear, and that Dante doesn’t give us any further historical information about her is a good indication that we need to pay more attention to her symbolic significance and to what she says than to who she was. Thus, nothing is spoiled by identifying her now. Her name is Matelda. Robert Hollander writes here: “Someone (it may have been Charles Singleton) once made the remark that if we did not know Matelda’s name we would know much more readily who she is.”
As a symbol of innocence, appropriate for this place, she is at home in this edenic setting, wandering gently, singing to herself and picking flowers. In this, she can be compared with Leah in Dante’s recent dream, representing the active life of the soul. In another sense, she is a new Eve, just as Dante is a kind of new Adam. And her unexpected appearance adds to the miraculous nature of this Earthly Paradise.
|↑4||Dante’s words to Matelda are both gracious and familiar, and the tone is unmistakably poetic. One might suggest from this that he already knows who she is. Just as the light of the sun (God) shone on Dante’s face a while ago, so Matelda’s face is resplendent with the truth of Love. Yet the purpose of this lovely greeting is purely practical: Dante would like her to come closer so that he can understand the words to her song. To this end, he offers a compliment, comparing her to mythical maiden Proserpine.
The story of Proserpine (told by Virgil, Ovid, and others) fits well into Dante’s theme here. The Earthly Paradise is always in full bloom, a perpetual springtime, as it were. And so the beauty of the landscape and the presence of Matelda among the flowers leads him to see her as a kind of Proserpine who, in mythology, was snatched down into the Underworld by Hades as she gathered flowers (like Matelda). At the pleading of her mother, Ceres, her father, Jupiter, sent Mercury to Hades demanding that Proserpine be returned. But because the maiden had eaten from the food of the dead, she could not return to the world of the living. A bargain was struck, however, and she was allowed to return, but only for half of the year. While she was in the upper world, seeds grew, crops flourished, and harvests were abundant. When she returned to the Underworld everything died. And thus we have the seasons.
By using the myth of Proserpine, Dante has in mind the myth of the Fall, and he sees in Matelda both a new Eve and the return of the “eternal season of spring” to the Earthly Paradise that had been lost by the original Adam and Eve. This will become even clearer as he continues to narrate his experience here.
|↑5||The image of the dance and the delicate movement of Matelda toward Dante project both her complete self-confidence and the soft calmness of this place, highlighted by the tender modesty of her eyes. All of this gives her an aura of perfect innocence. Within this aura Dante understands the meaning of her song, perhaps at the moment their eyes meet. Interestingly, he does not share this meaning with us. We would expect all of this in a love poem, and this is exactly what Dante is doing with his Poem. It’s a love story told on the grandest scale possible, embracing both time and eternity. For a moment, the meeting of their eyes takes on epic proportions as the Poet imagines the loving eyes of Venus (Matelda) embracing forever the face of Adonis (Dante). The amorous overtones are clear here, and Dante has fallen in love. But while the image of Venus and Adonis may represent a profane love, Dante has seen in Matelda’s innocent face the truth of Love itself which raises this moment to the level of the sacred.
Matelda’s smile adds to the enchantment Dante feels as she arranges the colorful flowers she had picked. Keeping in mind the miraculous nature of this place, we learn more about this Earthly Paradise: these flowers have grown without seeds. More information about this will be forthcoming. In the mean time, we are intended to infer that everything that grows here is the original, a re-enactment of the Golden Age described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses (I:107ff): “At that time, Spring was everlasting, and gentle breezes with warm breath played among the flowers that sprang from the fecund ground unplanted. Then the earth brought forth her stores of grain, and the unplowed fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the great oak.”
As the mingling of myth with reality continues, Dante compares the narrow stream separating him from Matelda with the Hellespont, the narrow strait whose fearsome currents separate Asia from Europe, now called the Dardanelles. The “impossibility” of this comparison highlights the fact that while the distance across the stream is hardly worth noting, Dante will dare not cross it as did the clever Persian king Xerxes cross the Hellespont in 485 BC.
Adding to the sense of impossibility is his reference to the myth of Leander and Hero found in Ovid’s Heroides: 15-19. In some ways it echoes the story of Pyramus and Thisbe in the previous canto. Leander, living in Abydos on the Asian side of the Hellespont, and Hero, a priestess of Venus, living on the European side, fell in love though their social positions were sharply different, not to mention their parents’ opposition. Their cities were at the narrowest point of the dangerous strait, only a mile across. At night Leander would often swim across to Hero, guided by a light from her tower. One night, however, the light blew out. Losing his way, Leander was drowned. The next day, finding his body along the shore, Hero threw herself into the sea and drowned.
In the end, and bringing the epic references to a close, Dante hates the little stream become the Hellespont because, unlike the Red Sea for Moses, it will not part and allow him to cross.
|↑6||At last, Matelda speaks. Thus far, we have been so tightly focused on Dante’s experience here in the Earthly Paradise that we have been unaware that Virgil and Statius have been following close behind him. Like the other spirits, Matelda can read Dante’s mind and sees that her joyful presence in this place perplexes him. Note that she tells them that this is the place “where mankind had its beginning.” That they are “new to this place” obviously refers to Dante in the most general sense, but to all of them because this is a specific place–the Earthly Paradise–where none of them have been before. Then, speaking directly to Dante, she offers to answer all of his questions.
That Matelda is “filled with happiness” has bothered some commentators because this is the location of The Fall. However, we mustn’t forget that this is a place of almost heavenly beauty and a true foretaste of Paradise. For the purposes of the Poem, we have to believe that Dante and his two companions are the first visitors to this place since Adam and Eve were evicted by God. This is a cause for joy. More importantly, what happened here long before led ultimately to the Incarnation–God become human in the person of Jesus in order to lead us back to even more than what Eden has to offer. To quote a line from the great Easter Vigil hymn, the Exultet: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!” In addition, Matelda references Psalm 91 with its words from verse 5, Delectasti me: “You have delighted me, O Lord, in your work; and in the work of your hands I will rejoice.” Note that she doesn’t actually sing this Psalm. Rather, she merely refers to it. As it happens, this Psalm is one of the standard monastic hymns of praise to the Creator sung at sunrise and befitting this early morning encounter here in Eden.
|↑7||Dante’s questions about the water and the wind stem from what he heard Statius tell him back in Canto 21 when he asked for an explanation of the great tremor that accompanied the freedom of a soul from Purgatory (Dante doesn’t actually use the word terremoto, earthquake). Statius explained that Purgatory is not subject to any (atmospheric) change and that there is no “weather” (wind, storms, quakes, snow, clouds, lightning, etc.) above the Gate of Purgatory (Canto 9). As for the flowing water, Dante was probably thinking of rain as its source; and the wind he would have attributed to the changes in weather.|
|↑8||Matelda begins to answer Dante’s questions with a brief theological reflection on Genesis 3 as a way to clear his mind and make it receptive to her explanations. As a reflection of His own goodness, God created us as an image of His own perfection. To complement His perfection, God created the Earthly Paradise as the perfection of Nature and gave it to Adam and Eve as a pledge of eternal happiness in Paradise. There is no (physical, meteorological) change here because there is no change in God. It reflects the eternal peace of Paradise. Adam and Eve, tricked by the serpent, presumed to eat from the perfect fruit of the Garden. But in doing so, they radically disturbed the equilibrium of the Earthly Paradise. By their (Original) sin they lost their innocence and were driven out by God. And, as we have seen in this Canticle, the purpose of Purgatory is to purge all traces of that sin and restore us to our original state of perfection.|
|↑9||Since there is no weather above the Gate of Purgatory, there is no wind here at the top of the Mountain to disturb its tranquility. However, if we think of the earth as standing still at the center of the cosmos (a series of nested spheres), there is yet a movement of air generated by the movement of the first sphere, the Primum Mobile, which imparts motion to everything else in the cosmos (more about this in the Paradiso). The breeze that Dante felt earlier is moving from east to west, and this is what gives a slight “bend” to the branches of the trees in the forest and makes them “sing.” Note how the Earthly Paradise is in complete harmony with the rest of the universe.|
|↑10||The wind Matelda is explaining actually has a significant purpose. She tells Dante that every growing thing in the Earthly Paradise has a “fruitful power”–namely, seeds. The gently blowing wind picks up seeds from all the growing things here and, as it moves, it scatters them all over the globe. They bloom and grow in accord with the receptivity of the particular ground onto which they fall. This was a commonly accepted notion among scholars in Dante’s time. Not only this, every species of things here are originals of their kind as God had created them. And there is even fruit that grows only here (for example, the fruit on the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). While not every area on earth is suitable for the growing of living things, it is quite the opposite here in the Earthly Paradise.|
|↑11||Matelda now answers Dante’s question about the stream of water that separates them. (Recall that in Genesis 2:10 there are four rivers in Eden: the Pishon, the Gihon, the Tigris and the Euphrates.) Consistent with the fact that there is no “weather”–in this case, rain–that falls above the Gate of Purgatory, she tells Dante that the source of the water here is a spring, an eternal fountain that both flows continually and is continually refilled, as it were. This spring is controlled by God.
We also learn for the first time that there are actually two streams. While we are not told so directly, we are to assume that both flow from the same eternal fountain just referred to. Matelda tells Dante that the stream that separates them is called Lethe. Recall that Virgil mentioned this stream in Canto 14 of the Inferno when Dante thought it was one of the four rivers of Hell. Virgil told him he would see this river in Purgatory. In classical literature (e.g., Virgil Ovid, Statius, etc.), Lethe is the river of oblivion and forgetfulness. Matelda tells Dante that this stream has the power to remove all memory of sin.
The second stream, Eunoë, is a creation of Dante’s. It’s purpose is to restore the memory of the good deeds one has done. However, one must drink first from the Lethe. Note how drinking from each of these streams in succession will complete the process of a soul’s preparation for entrance into Paradise. Lethe and Eunoë, by the way, are Greek words: the former means “oblivion” and the latter means “well-minded.”
|↑12||In what may be a nod to Dante’s two companions, Matelda suggests that the ancient poets who wrote of the Golden Age may have had the Earthly Paradise in mind because this is where humans were created and nourished in all innocence. As I noted earlier, Ovid in his Metamorphoses (I:107ff) wrote of the Golden Age: “At that time, Spring was everlasting, and gentle breezes with warm breath played among the flowers that sprang from the fecund ground unplanted. Then the earth brought forth her stores of grain, and the unplowed fields whitened with heavy ears of corn. Sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar, and golden honey trickled from the great oak.” Unless its subtlety be lost on us, we should recall that just as the Earthly Paradise sits atop the Mountain of Purgatory, the Muses who inspired the classical poets resided atop another mountain sacred to Apollo: Parnassus.
By her mention of the Golden Age Matelda subtly joins scripture and classical literature. Her point is that in/from this place all things were/are touched by the sacred, the eternal. Though we lost access to the Earthly Paradise, its memory still resides deeply within us and all created things. Dorothy Sayers offers this reflection in her commentary here: “This memory belongs to Man’s nature; it is not the gift of revelation, but common to heathen and Christian alike. It follows that when we today contemptuously call such dreams ‘nostalgic,’ which means ‘homesick,’ we are unwittingly calling them by their right name, for they quite literally arise from Man’s longing for his true and original home.” At this point in his Comedy, Dante has brought us home, though only temporarily, for Paradise awaits him and all of us.
|↑13||The smiles of Virgil and Statius are affirmations that they understand what Matelda has told Dante, and encouragement for him to continue following her.|