The last canti of Purgatorio, canti 28-33, take place in the garden of Eden, aka the earthly paradise. This is the place on earth that retains prelapsarian perfection, the “place chosen as the nest for human nature” (Purg. 28.77-78), the place given to Adam and Eve as a “mortgage on their eternal home [paradise] until they defaulted on the loan” (Purg. 28.93-94). Much of the “action” of the final canti of Purgatorio is devoted to the pilgrim gazing at the sights that are here presented to him to witness.
In these canti, Dante’s role as witness will be formally assigned to him by Beatrice. In Purgatorio 33, Beatrice instructs the pilgrim to take note, for he is charged to transmit the words that come from her to the living. Beatrice tells Dante that when he returns to earth, it will be his job to write down the visions that he has seen while in the earthly paradise:
Tu nota; e sì come da me son porte, così queste parole segna a’ vivi del viver ch’è un correre a la morte. (Purg. 33.52-54)
Take note; and even as I speak these words, do you transmit them in your turn to those who live the life that is a race to death.
An unusual feature of Purgatorio 28 to 33 is that these six canti form a dense narrative block: “six cantos of carefully layered historical masques and personal dramas encompassing the supreme drama of the exchange of one beloved guide for another” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 162).
Purgatorio 28 is a pastoral prelude to the macro-historical material presented in the earthly paradise: the procession of the books of the Bible in Purgatorio 29, the allegorical tableau of ecclesiastical and imperial history in Purgatorio 32, and the world-historical prophecies in Purgatorio 33.
Purgatorio 28 is also a prelude to the micro-historical material of the earthly paradise: the intensely personal dramas of the arrival of Beatrice in Purgatorio 30 and the pilgrim’s personal confession in Purgatorio 31.
Attached is a diagram that visualizes the canti of the earthly paradise as the microcosm of Purgatorio 30-31 (the inner circle) contained by the macrocosm of Purgatorio 29 and 32-33 (the outer circle).
Purgatorio 28 has a pastoral and idyllic feeling that is unique among the canti of the earthly paradise and that will prevail until the canto takes a doctrinal turn in verse 85.
The beginning of Purgatorio 28 is one of the most intensely beautiful descriptions conjured by Dante’s pen. The pilgrim is now free to desire and therefore to move about as he pleases. The canto’s first word “Vago” (desirous) registers the pilgrim’s freedom to follow his desire “sanza più aspettar” (4), without awaiting anyone’s permission:
Vago già di cercar dentro e dintorno la divina foresta spessa e viva, ch’a li occhi temperava il novo giorno, sanza più aspettar, lasciai la riva, prendendo la campagna lento lento su per lo suol che d'ogne parte auliva. (Purg. 28.1-6)
Now keen to search within, to search around that forest—dense, alive with green, divine— which tempered the new day before my eyes, without delay, I left behind the rise and took the plain, advancing slowly, slowly across the ground where every part was fragrant.
The “divina foresta spessa e viva” of Purgatorio 28.2 (in Mandelbaum’s beautiful rendition “that forest—dense, alive with green, divine”) is, obviously, the in bono counterpart to the “dark wood” (“selva oscura”) of of Inferno 1.2 and to the wood of the suicides in Inferno 13: “un bosco / che da neun sentiero era segnato” (a wood on which no path had left its mark [Inf. 13.2-3]).
But the divina foresta spessa e viva is so much more than part of an in bono/in malo hermeneutic scheme. It is the absolute perfection of natural beauty, a natural beauty raised to the level of art. We feel and hear its natural art in Dante’s beautiful language. The “aura dolce” (sweet breeze [Purg. 28.7]) of Petrarchan memory blows without alteration, making the leaves of the trees incline toward the morning, but never so much as to disturb the little birds in their branches or to cause them to leave off “ogne lor arte” (their arts [Purg. 28.15]). The musical art of the little birds consists of singing in counterpoint to the rhythmic undertone provided by the rustling leaves (Purg. 28.16-18). The sound of the leaves is compared to that of “the wind that sounds from branch to branch along the shore of Classe, through the pines” (Purg. 28.19-20), a reference to the ancient pine forest that lines the seashore outside of Ravenna, famous in antiquity and in Dante’s age and still beautiful in ours.
Into this beautiful setting walks a lady; like Lia in the dream of Purgatorio 27 this lady is picking flowers. She is evoked in language that echoes the love lyric, in particular Cavalcanti’s poem to a shepherdess or pastorella, and famous Ovidian lovers:
Purgatorio XXVIII opens with a musical symphony whose chief contributors are the singing birds and the rustling leaves; the words “augelletti” (14), “cantando” (17), and “foglie” (17) are all bits of the Cavalcantian mosaic being created. Twice in the prelude to Matelda’s arrival Dante uses the unusual double adjective intensifier that marks the progress of Cavalcanti’s shepherdess, “che sola sola per lo bosco gia” (the pilgrim heads into the countryside “lento lento” in line 5, and the water is moving “bruna bruna” in line 31), only to switch to Cavalcanti’s characteristic diminutive in the verses that bring Matelda into view: “una donna soletta che si gia / e cantando e scegliendo fior da fiore” (a lady all alone who went along singing and choosing flower from flower [40-41]). The pilgrim addresses Matelda as the lyric poet addresses his lady, saying “Deh, bella donna” (43); his love for her is figured in the three similes of profane classical love that are rehearsed in the scene following their encounter: she reminds him of Proserpina in the moment when she is ravished by Pluto and loses “spring,” i. e. the beautiful world in which she lived before her abduction (49-51; the word primavera, with its Cavalcantian echoes, is here used for the first time in the poem); the splendor of her eyes (of which she gives him a “gift,” as the shepherdess gives a gift of her heart) is like that of Venus’ eyes, in the moment that she falls in love with Adonis (64-66); the width of the stream between them seems like that of the Hellespont separating Hero and Leander (70-75). The flowers Matelda picks are, like those of the ballata, “d’ogni colore”; they “paint” the way on which she walks (42), and are referred to metonymically as “colors”: “trattando più color con le sue mani” (arranging many colors with her hands ). Finally—were the singing birds, the colored flowers, the solitary damsel, the atmosphere of profane and lyric love, and the evocation of “primavera” not enough—Dante adds a last overt quote from the ballata. The first verse of canto XXIX, “Cantando come donna innamorata,” is a replay of Guido’s “cantava come fosse ’namorata,” and thus serves to cast the lyric episode of canto XXVIII into final relief before passing into the new mode signaled by the allegorical procession. (Dante’s Poets, pp. 151-52)
The lady will not be named until Purgatorio 33 (much as the senhal or code-name of the lady in a troubadour canso is not presented until the envoi, or final strophe of the poem). Her name, whose significance has posed a continuous puzzle to commentators, will turn out to be Matelda.
The Introduction to Purgatorio 27 discusses the proleptic role of the Lia/Rachele dream with respect to the earthly paradise: Lia anticipates Matelda, who walks around picking flowers like Lia, while Rachele anticipates Beatrice. The best gloss to how Dante thinks of the active and contemplative life is this passage from Dante’s political treatise, Monarchia:
Duos igitur fines providentia illa inenarrabilis homini proposuit intendendos: beatitudinem scilicet huius vite, que in operatione proprie virtutis consistit et per terrestrem paradisum figuratur; et beatitudinem vite ecterne, que consistit in fruitione divini aspectus ad quam propria virtus ascendere non potest, nisi lumine divino adiuta, que per paradisum celestem intelligi datur. Ad has quidem beatitudines, velut ad diversas conclusiones, per diversa media venire oportet. (Monarchia 3.15.7-8)
Twofold then are the ends which unerring Providence has ordained for man: the bliss of this life, which consists in the functioning of his own powers, and which is typified by the earthly Paradise; and the bliss of eternal life, which consists in the enjoyment of that divine vision to which he cannot attain by his own powers, except they be aided by the divine light, and this state is made intelligible by the celestial Paradise. These two states of bliss, like two different goals, man must reach by different ways.
“Twofold are the ends which unerring Providence has ordained for man” says the Monarchia, and the canti of the earthly paradise are full of doublings (as noted in the diagram included above), which reflect the twofold ends of life. These doublings include Matelda/Beatrice, who are emblems of what the Monarchia calls “the bliss of this life” versus “the bliss of eternal life”.
The garden in which Dante now finds himself is “the bliss of this life”, as per the Monarchia passage above. But this garden is thus also the reminder of all that we lost through the sin of Adam and Eve. We remember that on the terrace of gluttony there was a tree that was grafted from the tree that Eve ate. The tree that Eve ate comes from the garden of Eden; we, Eve’s children, lost the right to inhabit the garden of Eden because of her transgression. Our loss is all around us, as palpable as the lovely breeze and the rustling trees, the singing birds and the beautiful lady.
That transgression and that loss are translated into a classical frame of reference when Dante says to Matelda that she reminds him of Proserpina in the moment that she “lost springtime” (in other words, when she was deprived of life on earth by being raped by Pluto and taken to the underworld):
Tu mi fai rimembrar dove e qual era Proserpina nel tempo che perdette la madre lei, ed ella primavera. (Purg. 28.49-51)
You have reminded me of where and what— just when her mother was deprived of her and she deprived of spring—Proserpina was.
Dante’s enjambment on the verb of loss, “perdette”—“nel tempo che perdette / la madre lei, ed ella primavera” (literally: in the moment when her mother lost her and she lost spring)—tells the story of the our expulsion from this garden: our expulsion from springtime.
Many students over the years have told me that at first they think that this lady is Beatrice, and that they like her more than Beatrice. One point to bear in mind in this regard is that Matelda is characterized in very feminine terms, while Beatrice will appear on the scene not at all charming and feminine, but like an authoritative and intimidating male figure, indeed “just like an admiral” on his ship (Purg. 30.58). We should give some thought to what our expectations are, what they signify, and how and why Dante is thwarting them.
The first part of Purgatorio 28 is saturated with the language of love poetry, both vernacular Italian and Ovidian. Matelda is many things, including the epitome of a love poet’s object of desire. It is as though Cavalcanti’s pastorella (shepherdess) has come to life. Dante desires her, and his desire can no longer err. Matelda is most of all an unfallen Eve, the unfallen version of one of the original inhabitants of this place.
As the travelers’ guide to the garden that she inhabits, Matelda explains at length the self-generating and miraculous nature of this ecosystem. At canto’s end we learn about the rivers of Eden, Lethe and Eunoè, both classical names. Lethe was last mentioned in Inferno 14, à propos the rivers of hell and the Old Man of Crete; at that time Virgilio informed his charge that Lethe is not in hell (as he thought when he wrote the Aeneid!), but in the garden of Eden.
The classical theme of the canto—Proserpina’s loss, Ovidian lovers, the rivers—finds its fulfillment in the last verses, where Matelda explains that when the classical poets of antiquity wrote of the Golden Age, they were perhaps dreaming of Eden.