Purgatorio -- Canto XXVIII

The Garden of Eden, Matilda



2 The three wayfarers have arrived at the sacred wood which Dante, with his new-found freedom, begins to explore, leading the way for Virgil and Statius.









20 Chiassi was formerly the harbor of Ravenna; a flourishing pine forest grew there.

21 Aeolus, king of the winds, kept them in a cave. The Sirocco is a warm wind that blows into southern Europe from North Africa.

26 The stream is Lethe, river of forgetfulness.









40 The woman who appears is Matelda (or Matilda) whose name Dante does not give us until Canto XXXIII, 119. Although she has not been identified historically, she clearly represents the active life of the soul in its exercise of moral virtue. She is Leah, while Beatrice is Rachel, the contemplative life, as Dante has dreamed them in the previous canto, lines 100 to 105.


50 Proserpine, daughter of Ceres and Jupiter, was kidnapped by Pluto — she returned to earth later, but on condition that she stay one season — winter — in the underworld (Metamorphoses V, 385-408).








65 Venus, accidentally scratched by her son Cupid’s arrow, fell in love with the handsome youth, Adonis (Metamorphoses X, 525-532).



71 Xerxes, son of Darius and king of Persia, crossed the Hellespont in 480 B.C. to invade Greece. He was routed at the battle of Salamis and retreated back over the Hellespont in disarray.

74 Leander of Abydos loved Hero Sestos, a priestess whom he could not marry. They met secretly until one night in attempting to swim the Hellespont Leander drowned. When she found his body the next morning, Hero also drowned herself.

80 Psalm 91(92) contains the phrase Delectasti quoted by Matilda in Latin.

85-87 See Statius's description of the weather conditions on the Mount of Purgatory in Canto XXI, 43-72.
















112 The other land is the northern hemisphere which is fertilized by the southern Garden of Eden.











130 These are two names of opposite meanings for the same river. Lethe here is the stream of "forgotten" sins and Eunoč there is the stream of "well-remembered" good deeds.




140 Dante equates the myth of the Greek Golden Age in classical epic poems with the biblical Garden of Eden.

          Longing now to search in and around
          The heavenly woods — dense and green with life —
          Which softened the new sunlight for my eyes,
          Not waiting any longer, I left the cliff,
5        Making my slow, slow way on level ground,
          Over the soil which everywhere spread fragrance.
          A sweetly scented breeze, which did not vary
          Within itself, struck me across the forehead
          With no more force than would a gentle wind.
10       The branches quivering at its touch all bent
          Spontaneously in the direction where
          The holy mountain casts its shadow first;
          Yet the trees weren't so swayed from standing straight
          That little birds among the topmost boughs
15       Had to leave off the practice of their art,
          But with their song they welcomed, full of joy,
          The early morning hours among the leaves
          Which kept up an accompaniment to their rhymes,
          As sound accumulates from branch to branch
20       Through the pine forest on the shore of Chiassi
          When Aeolus lets the Sirocco loose.
          Now my slow steps had brought me on so far
          Into the ancient woodland that I could
          Not see back to the point where I had entered —
25       And look! a stream stopped me from going farther.
          With its little waves it bent toward the left
          The grass that sprouted up along its bank.
          All of the clearest waters here on earth
          Would seem to carry clouds of sediment
30       Compared to that stream which keeps nothing hidden,
          Although its dark, dark waters flow beneath
          The ever-present shade which never lets
          A beam of sun or moon to glimmer there.
          I stayed my feet and passed my eyes across
35       The far side of the river to survey
          The lush variety of blossoming boughs,
          And I saw there — as something suddenly
          Appears that causes such astonishment
          It drives all other thought out of the mind —
40       A woman all alone, who walked along
          Singing, and picking flower after flower,
          For her whole path was painted with their colors.
          "Ah, lovely lady, you who warm yourself
          In rays of love, if I am to believe
45       Those looks which often witness to the heart,"
          I said to her, "may you be pleased to come
          Forward toward this river, close enough
          That I may comprehend what you are singing.
          "You make me remember where and what
50       Proserpine was when her mother lost her,
          And she too lost the flowers of the spring."
          Even as a woman, dancing, turns around
          With feet close to the ground and to each other,
          And scarcely places foot in front of foot,
55       She turned upon the red and yellow flowers
          In my direction, no differently than would
          A virgin lowering her modest eyes.
          And in this way she satisfied my prayers,
          Approaching me so near that the sweet sound
60       That came to me was comprehensible.
          As soon as she had come to where the waves
          Of the untainted stream just touched the grass,
          She favored me with the lifting of her eyes.
          I do not think a light so splendid shone
65       Beneath the lids of Venus when her son,
          Without intending, pierced her with an arrow.
          Standing straight, she smiled on the far bank,
          Weaving in her hands the colored flowers
          Which that high land produces without seeds.
70       The stream kept us a mere three strides apart,
          And yet the Hellespont where Xerxes crossed
          (It still serves as a curb to human pride)
          Stirred no more hatred in Leander for
          Its surging flood from Abydos to Sestos
75       Than I felt at that stream’s not opening then.
          "You are new here, and maybe," she began,
          "Because I smile in this place which was chosen
          For the human race as its first nest,
          "A doubt of some kind keeps you wondering,
80       But the psalm ‘You made me glad’ sheds light
          That can clear up the mist that clouds your minds.
          "And you who are in front, and called on me,
          Speak if you would hear more, since I came ready
          For all your questions till you’re satisfied."
85       "The water and the woodland sounds," I said,
          "Contend in me against my recent faith
          In something I heard contrary to this."
          To this she answered, "I will tell you how
          The thing that makes you wonder has been caused,
90       And I will clear the mist that troubles you.
          "The highest Good, Self pleasing Self alone,
          First made man good and for good, and this place
          He gave him as a pledge of endless peace.
          "Through his own sin his stay here was cut short;
95       Through his own sin he changed innocent laughter
          And wholesome sport to tearfulness and toil.
          "So that the tempests — which the exhalations
          Of earth and water, drawn up by the heat
          As far as possible, produce below —
100     "Should not make war on man in any way,
          This mountain rose to such a height toward heaven
          That it is free, above the gate, from storms.
          "Now, since the whole air rotates in a circuit,
          Moving with the primal revolution,
105     Unless its circling breaks off at some point,
          "Upon this height, which is completely open
          To the pure air, this whirling motion strikes
          And makes the forest, since it’s dense, resound;
          "And, being struck, each tree has so much power
110      That with its seed it makes the same breeze pregnant
          Which, in its whirling, scatters seed abroad;
          "And other land conceives and reproduces
          The different plants that grow with different powers
          According to the soil itself and climate.
115     "It should not seem a wonder, then, on earth,
          Once this account is heard, when some plant there
          Takes root without a seed that can be seen.
          "And you should know here that the holy field
          Where you now stand is full of every growth
120      And has in it fruit never plucked on earth.
          "Water you see does not spring from a source
          Restored by vapors which the cold condenses,
          Like rivers gaining and then losing force,
          "But pours out from a sure and steady fountain
125     Which by the will of God regains as much
          As it gushes freely down on either side.
          "On this side it flows down with the power
          To wipe away the memory of sin,
          On that side to bring all good deeds to mind.
130     "It is called Lethe here, Eunoč there;
          And its waters will not work unless they first
          Be tasted on one side and then the other:
          "Their flavor is above all other sweetness.
          And though your thirst may now be fully quenched
135      If I disclose to you no more than that,
          "I’ll give you, as a gift, a corollary;
          Nor do I think you’ll welcome my words less
          If they extend beyond my promise to you.
          "Those who in days of old sang in their poems
140     The golden age, its state of happiness,
          Perhaps dreamed of this place on their Parnassus.
          "Here was the root of mankind innocent;
          Here it was always spring and every fruit;
          This is the nectar-drink each poet speaks of."
145     With those words I whirled all the way around
          Toward my poets, and saw that they had heard
          This final reference to them with smiles.
          Then I turned my face to the lovely woman.
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