Dante’s Purgatorio – Canto 32

The procession now leaves the bank of the stream and turns back toward the east from where it came. Dante and Statius follow alongside the chariot. Soon, they arrive at a great barren tree, where Beatrice steps off the chariot and the griffin ties its pole to the tree. At once, the tree comes into bloom. Listening to the heavenly music, Dante falls asleep and is later awakened by the lovely lady he had earlier met in the forest. To his surprise only Beatrice and the seven noble ladies remain. The rest of the procession, he is told, has returned to Heaven. Beatrice now tells Dante to pay careful attention to what he is about to see so that he can record it for the benefit of those on earth. Seven mystical tableaux then begin.

            My eyes were so intent on looking only at Beatrice, as though quenching ten years of thirst, that my other senses seemed to vanish. Ensnared by the nets of her spell, all I could do was gaze upon her holy smile. But when I heard those goddesses at my left say, “Too fixed is his gaze!” I looked away. By then, my eyes were so strained that I was blinded for a time, as though I had been looking straight into the sun.

            After they became accustomed to a dimmer light – compared to that brilliance I had been feasting on, I noticed that the glorious procession had turned around and was now moving back toward the sun in the east. When soldiers retreat under their shields, it’s those in the front line who turn first, and so it was here: those holy elders at the front of the procession turned past us before the chariot made its turn. The four and three ladies again took their places beside the wheels, and the griffin pulled his blessed passenger without ruffling a single feather. Statius and I, in company with the lovely lady who had brought me across the stream, now walked behind the right wheel.

            As we walked through that empty forest, empty because Eve had listened to the serpent, our pace kept time with the heavenly music. We had not gone three times the distance of an arrow shot full strength, when Beatrice stepped off the chariot. As she did so, I heard everyone murmur, “Adam.” Then they circled around a great tree, barren of leaves and fruit. In India, the height of this tree would be considered miraculous: the higher it rose, the more widespread were its branches.

            Everyone gathered around the tree and began to sing: “Blessed are you, Griffin, because your holy beak does not tear the tasty bark of this tree, which later pains the belly.” And the griffin responded: “In this way the seed of righteousness is preserved.”

            Then, he took the shaft which pulled the chariot behind him and laid it up against that barren tree. Immediately its leaves and fruit returned. Just as trees begin to bloom in early spring, when, pouring down through Aries, the strong rays of the sun shine on them, restoring their colors, so was this tree now renewed as it filled with purple blooms.

            That group also began to sing a hymn, but I did not recognize it because it is not sung on earth – and I couldn’t listen to all of it. If I could describe how the watchful eyes of Argus were lulled to sleep with the tale of Syrinx – and the fatal price he paid for his slumber – I would try to paint myself falling asleep, as though from a model. But who can paint himself nodding off? So, I will tell you how I awoke instead.

            A brilliant light penetrated my sleep, and I heard a voice saying to me: “Get up! What are you doing?” When they were led up the mountain to see the apple tree that makes the angels crave its fruit and celebrates eternal marriage-feasts in Heaven, Peter, James, and John fell into a slumber. When they were awakened at the word of Jesus – a word that would break a deeper sleep, they saw that Moses and Elijah had departed, and Jesus’ garments were no longer dazzling. It was the same for me. Awakened, I looked up to see that lovely lady who had walked with me along the stream in the forest.

            Frightened for a moment, I cried out: “Where is Beatrice?” But the lady calmed me and pointed, saying: “Look under the tree. She is sitting there in the shade of its new leaves. And see those who are still with her. All the others have gone up to Heaven with the griffin, where there is more glorious music.”

            I don’t remember if she said more, because once again my eyes saw the only one I wanted to think about. Beatrice sat there on the ground by herself, guarding the chariot that had been tied to the tree by the griffin. The seven noble ladies now formed a circle around her, and they held torches that no wind on earth could put out.

            “For a short time now, you shall live outside the walls of our eternal city. Then you will live with me forever as a citizen of that Rome where Christ is Roman. In the mean time, for the good of sinners in the world, keep your eyes on the chariot. Watch carefully so that what you see you can write down when you have gone back.” And I obeyed, paying careful attention to everything I then saw.

            Never did fire flash down from the remote regions of the sky and strike with such speed and force as did a great eagle, which swooped down into the tree, tearing off some of its new leaves, ripping the bark, and wrecking all its blooms. He smashed broadside against the chariot, which rocked back and forth like a ship caught in a great storm.

            Then, I saw a lean fox jump up into that glorious cart. From its wasted appearance, it seemed that it had not eaten in a long time. But Beatrice chased it away, shouting at its foul offenses; the creature fleeing as fast as its bony body could carry it.

            Once again, the eagle flew down through the tree – this time into the chariot itself, leaving some of its golden feathers there. When this happened, I heard a mournful voice from Heaven say: “O my little boat, what evil cargo you have to carry!”

            As I watched this, I saw the ground open up under the chariot. A great dragon came out and drove its tail up into the floor of the car. And as a wasp pulls its stinger out, that dragon pulled out its evil tail, tearing away part of the floor with it, and went off. Then, as though the chariot were like rich soul where weeds would thrive, it grew feathers – probably with innocent intentions. But the whole chariot – wheels and pole included – was completely overgrown with them more quickly than I could take a breath.

            Transformed like this, that feathered car began to grow heads from its various parts. Three grew on the pole, and one from each of the four corners. The three on the pole looked like oxen, with two horns each. But the ones on the four corners had only one horn growing out of the top of their heads. No monster like this has ever been seen!

            And then I saw a naked whore sitting in the chariot – secure like a hilltop castle. She looked here and there with arrogant and lascivious glances. Standing next to her, with jealous looks, was a giant. Again and again they kissed each other. But when those roaming, lustful eyes fell on me, the jealous giant became angry and beat that slut from head to toe. Then, with jealous fury, he unhitched that now-monstrous cart and dragged it and the whore into the woods until the trees blocked them from my sight.