The cantos describing the Earthly Paradise are notoriously difficult, and deliberately so. We are not necessarily meant to understand fully all that happens in these cantos, and we should beware of trying to fix their meaning down too rigidly. You will need to pay particular attention, however, to the symbolism employed by Dante in these cantos. Keep in mind, too, that Dante is not witnessing the Earthly Paradise as a neutral bystander. His own spiritual well-being is directly implicated in much of the action. It is here that he must confess to his own sins; it is here that his own name is mentioned for the only time in the Commedia; it is here that he finally meets Beatrice, the instigator, as we have known since the opening of the Inferno, of the entire journey.
These cantos, then, are central to Dante’s presentation of his spiritual journey in the Commedia.
The travellers enter the Earthly Paradise, a forest full of life. Dawn is about to break, and a breeze blows. After a short while, Dante comes across a stream flowing with purer water than any found in this world. Beyond the stream, Dante sees a woman, walking alone, picking flowers. Dante asks her to come towards him so that he can hear her singing. (This is Matelda, although she is not named until much later, in XXX, 118.) She draws near to him, and lifts her eyes towards him; Dante is dazzled, and feels an intense desire to join her. The woman laughs, and says that the psalm Delectasti (Psalm 91) should help him to understand the situation. Dante is puzzled by the stream, which seems to be fed by rain, even though Statius had said that there was no change in the weather in Purgatory. The woman explains that they are in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve had lived for a short while.
The Garden is at the top of the highest mountain, beyond the changes of weather on earth. The daily movement of the heavens scatters all of the plants found on earth out of this garden into the world. The water in the stream does not flow from water which has fallen as rain, but descends directly, in two directions, from the will of God: on this side, it descends with the power to take away memory of sin; on the other side, it restores the memory of good deeds. The streams are named as Lethe (the stream which Dante can see) and Eunoè. The woman explains that those classical poets who had written of the Golden Age may have had the Garden of Eden in mind; in this place it is always spring. Virgil and Statius smile at this.
The canto can be divided into three sections:
the entry into the Earthly Paradise, and the description of the forest (1-24)
the stream, and the appearance of the woman (25-75)
the woman’s explanation of the Garden of Eden (76-148).
Discussion point: evoking Eden
How does Dante evoke the atmosphere of the Earthly Paradise in lines 1-24? Why do Virgil and Statius smile? (Recall Canto XXII if you are not sure).
There are clear contrasts to be drawn with other woods which Dante has described: the dark wood of Inferno I, and the wood of suicides of Inferno XIII.
Read the description given below from Genesis of the Garden of Eden. Now compare this to the account we find in Dante’s poem. Which points in the account in Purgatorio derive from Genesis, and which seem to come from elsewhere?
'Now God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed [Adam]. And God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground - trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. The name of the first is the Pishon…the name of the second river is the Gihon…the name of the third river is the Tigris…the fourth river is the Euphrates.'
(Genesis 2: 8-14)
The Genesis account seems to allow for the possibility of the river flowing directly from God, although it does not specifically say that this is the case. The four rivers described in Genesis are in fact the rivers which flow into the world, not the rivers described by Dante. From the notes of your edition, find out where Dante derived the names of these rivers, and if there are any precedents for such rivers in literature or in the Bible.
The woman sets off walking, and Dante follows her. Suddenly a bright light shines through the forest, and a sweet melody passes through the air. As they move along, the air seems to be like fire, and the sweet sounds resemble singing. Dante-poeta appeals for help. Dante sees what seem to be seven golden trees, but as he moves closer to them, he realises that they are in fact candelabra, and that the singing is the word Hosanna. These bright lights are moving towards Dante, Statius and Virgil, and Dante looks beyond them, seeing people following the lights, dressed in white. Dante stops, and the flames move on towards them, and twenty-four elders appear, crowned with lilies, singing. Then four animals come, crowned with green leaves, each with six wings, with feathers full of eyes. Between the animals is a triumphal chariot, drawn by a Gryphon, which lifts up its two wings. By the right wheel, there are three ladies, one red, one green, one white, dancing in a circle. On the other side, there are four others, wearing purple; one of them has three eyes, and is singing. Then follow two old men; then four humble men, and finally an old man walking along, asleep, but with an alert face; these last seven people have roses in their hair. When the chariot is opposite Dante, a peal of thunder is heard, and the procession stops.
This canto can be divided into two sections:
Dante, Virgil and Statius follow the woman alongside the stream, and see the bright lights and hear the melody (1-60)
the procession (61-154).
Discussion point: the procession
There is, quite deliberately, a huge change in tone in this canto. So far in the Commedia, we have never had such a difficult and dense description which seems to demand such heavy interpretation. Dante-poeta points to the difficulty of this canto in lines 37-42, when he appeals to the Muses for help in putting such difficult things into verse. Note that he does not ask us, the readers, to interpret the canto.
Although this would have been a very dense text even for Dante’s readers to interpret, they would in some ways have been familiar with interpreting such a procession. For the rituals of the Church were very similar to some of the things we see here: candelabra, a procession. So this is supposed to be hard to interpret, but not utterly impossible.
Notice that in lines 100-105 Dante-poeta sets his account against New and Old Testament accounts of visions. His text seems to be claiming the same status as that of the Bible - he even corrects the Bible! This procession, which seems so strange, and lacking in realism compared with what has gone before in the cantica, is precisely the moment at which Dante-poeta makes the boldest claim for his work’s authority.
It is also important that the procession contains elements from all of time: the Old Testament and the New Testament, which goes from Genesis to the Apocalypse (a vision of the end of time). Dante’s ambition in describing this procession is to encompass all of human time; small wonder, then, that he needs to use an extraordinarily difficult symbolic language to do so.
The chariot comes to a halt, and a hundred angels rise up, casting flowers around. A woman appears; and Dante recognises her as Beatrice. He turns to tell Virgil that he has recognised her; Virgil has disappeared. Beatrice tells Dante not to weep over Virgil’s departure. Dante looks at Beatrice, who admonishes him, and Dante looks down in shame. Suddenly the angels sing part of a psalm, and Dante weeps at the thought of their compassion for him. Beatrice turns to the angels, and explains to them why it is necessary to admonish Dante, who had turned to sin. It would be breaking God’s will, if Dante were to pass Lethe without some form of repentance.
The canto can be divided into four sections:
- the arrival of the angels out of the chariot (1-21)
- the appearance of Beatrice, and the disappearance of Virgil (22-55)
- Beatrice’s rebuke, and the angel’s compassion (56-99)
- Beatrice’s explanation of why Dante should be admonished (100-145).
Discussion point: Virgil's departure
In the midst of this procession, which encompasses all of time, and appears so difficult and dense, come two of the most important events in Dante’s personal story in the Commedia: finally, the longed-for moment in which he sees Beatrice; and the dreaded moment in which Virgil leaves him.
First, look at the passage in which Virgil disappears (43-49). How does Dante heighten the poignancy of this moment? Now consider the appearance of Beatrice. How does Dante recognise her? (Notice how the process of recognition is tied up with the figure of Virgil, and how losing Virgil and recognising Beatrice seem to occur in the very same narrative moment.) How does Beatrice address Dante? Did you expect her to be like this?
Discussion point: Dante's name
Why might Dante emphasise that it is necessary for him to write down his own name (‘mi volsi al suon del nome mio,/che di necessità qui si registra’ [‘turning now to hear my own name voiced/ I here record it of necessity’] (62-3))? What is the effect of Dante’s name appearing?
Discussion point: Psalm 30
Dante is very specific about which lines of the Psalm the angels sing (82-4): it is Psalm 30 (which begins with the words ‘In you, Lord, I have hoped’), and they sing through to line 9. Read the psalm. Why do you think the fact that they sing these particular lines is so moving to Dante-personaggio?
Discussion point: Dante's spiritual history
Beatrice’s description of Dante’s spiritual history is found in lines 109-139. This is a fundamental moment in the Commedia, in which we understand how the journey of the Commedia is related to Dante’s biography. Notice that all of the action of this canto takes place within the framework of the pageant. As we have seen, the pageant encompasses all of human time; but within that, confused and humbled, confronted with his own failings, we have a single individual, named emphatically and directly for the only time in the poem as Dante.
Beatrice addresses Dante again, asking him to say whether or not what she says is true. He breaks down, and is able only to croak out the word ‘sì’. Eventually he says that material things had distracted him after Beatrice’s death. Beatrice explains that her death should have in fact directed him away from the things of the world, as he should have realised that no mortal thing was worth desiring. She makes Dante raise his head; he sees that the angels have stopped scattering flowers, and that Beatrice is turned towards the Gryphon. Dante passes out, and enters the river of Lethe; she is drawing him across the river. Another psalm is being sung. Dante is submerged in the water, and enters the dance of the four women, who tell Dante that they were nymphs when here, and stars in the sky. They lead him to the Gryphon, and he gazes at Beatrice’s eyes, which are directed towards the Gryphon. The other three women ask Beatrice to turn to Dante.
The canto can be divided into three sections:
Dante’s confession and Beatrice’s admonishment (1-63)
Dante sees the Gryphon reflected in Beatrice’s eyes (64-81)
Dante faints and is taken through Lethe by Beatrice; the angels ask Beatrice to talk to Dante (82-145).
Discussion point: Beatrice and Francesca
Dante’s experience of Beatrice involves a complicated play of glances. Her mouth is also referred to. How might this compare with another pair of lovers in the Commedia, Paolo and Francesca in Inferno V What are the parallels? What are the differences?
Discussion point: the Gryphon
The Gryphon is generally identified as Christ, because it is ‘una persona in due nature’ (81) - Christ was believed to be both man and God at the same time. There is some debate over this identification - the Gryphon has also been held to represent the emperor - but most commentators consider the Gryphon to be in some sense representative of Christ. Dante withholds any direct explanation of the Gryphon. In what ways might the figure of Christ be important at this moment in Dante-personaggio’s journey?
Dante stares at Beatrice, and the nymphs beside him admonish him for looking at her too fixedly. The procession had turned, and heads through the wood. Dante and Statius follow. Beatrice descends from the chariot, and everyone murmurs the word ‘Adam’, as they surround a tree which is completely bare. The crowd praises the Gryphon for not eating the tree. The Gryphon then tethers himself to the tree. The tree then begins to blossom; Dante faints to the sound of a hymn he does not recognise. Dante is called awake, and the first lady he had encountered in the Earthly Paradise is standing over him. She points out Beatrice, who is on the tree, surrounded by the seven nymphs. Beatrice tells him to look at the chariot, and to be sure to write down all that he sees when he returns to the world. An eagle comes crashing down from the tree; a vixen runs towards the chariot; and Beatrice chases it off. The eagle descends into the chariot, and the chariot is left covered in feathers. The earth opens up, and a dragon drives its tail into the chariot, and runs off aimlessly. Seven heads grow out of the chariot, and Dante sees a whore sitting on it, and a giant stands beside her. The giant whips the whore whenever she looks at Dante, and then unleashes the monster, and draws it into the wood.
This canto can be divided into three sections:
the procession to the tree (1-64)
Dante’s sleep; Beatrice’s instruction to him to write down what he sees (65-105)
the eagle; the dragon; the whore and the giant (105-160).
Once again, we are in the realm of extremely difficult symbolism. But the mention of the name ‘Adam’ provides a very clear clue that we are witnessing the broad sweep of human history, starting with the fall of man. The notes in your text will provide some of the possible meanings of the procession and ritual.
Notice the moment in the text where Dante is told by Beatrice to write down all he sees. This gives a reason for Dante to be experiencing what he sees in the Earthly Paradise: he is to write it all down, ‘in pro del mondo che mal vive’ [to aid the world that lives all wrong’](103).
The seven nymphs, weeping, sing a Psalm, and Beatrice, too, is grieving. Beatrice asks Dante, Statius and Matelda to follow close behind her. She explains that the chariot no longer exists, and prophesies that the whore and the giant will be slain by a messenger from God. Dante asks Beatrice why she speaks in such difficult language; she answers that this is so that he can understand how the school that he has followed is distant from God. Dante does not remember being estranged from Beatrice, because he has passed through Lethe. The procession arrives at a spring, with two rivers flowing from it; Beatrice tells him to ask Matelda (who is named for the first time here). Matelda indicates that she has already explained this to him. Dante enters the river of Eunoè, and emerges pure, ready to pass on to heaven.
This canto can be divided into three sections:
Beatrice grieves, and presents her prophecy to Dante (1-72)
Beatrice asks Dante to write all this down, and explains why her speech is so obscure; Dante has forgotten ever betraying Beatrice (73-102)
they arrive at the spring from which Lethe and Eunoè flow; Dante passes through Eunoè (103-145).
Dante at last raises the problem of the difficulty of Beatrice’s language (by implication, he is also asking her about the difficulty of all that he sees) (82-4). Her explanation is that it is necessary for her to speak in difficult language in order for Dante to see how far his way is from God (89-90). This helps us to understand why the pageant of the Earthly Paradise is so difficult to interpret. We can make some sense of it, but it is strange, difficult and unfamiliar - because it is expressing a divine truth, which may be beyond human understanding. This is a comforting thought for us as readers: it is meant to be difficult. It is not to say that we mustn’t try to understand the symbolism, but it is to say that its difficulty might be part of the point of it.
And even without fully understanding what he has seen, Dante is still able to pass through the river Eunoè, and emerge ‘puro e disposto a salire a le stelle’ [‘pure and prepared to reach the stars’](145).
© Vittorio Montemaggi, Matthew Treherne, Abi Rowson