Purgatory | Study Guide

Dante Alighieri

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Purgatory | Canto 28 | Summary

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Summary

Dante marvels at the beauty of the Earthly Paradise, a garden of dark, lush trees and cool streams. He encounters a beautiful donna (i.e., lady) singing to herself by the riverbank and tries to listen in. The lady, whose name is later given as Matelda, responds by moving closer and continuing her song. Recognizing Dante and Virgil as newcomers, she explains the nature and history of the Earthly Paradise.

The garden, Matelda says, is literally the Garden of Eden, once intended for the eternal delight of humankind but then abandoned through sin. Its trees and plants are all of divine origin, as is its perennially pleasant weather. Two rivers, Lethe and Eunoe, cross the Earthly Paradise. Drinking the waters of Lethe allows a soul to forget its sins, while drinking from Eunoe sharpens the soul's remembrance of its virtuous deeds.

Analysis

In describing the Earthly Paradise Dante fuses biblical and classical imagery in a striking way—something he has done on a smaller scale throughout Purgatory. In Greek and Roman mythology Lethe is the "river of oblivion" which flows through the underworld. Those drinking from it forget not just their past deeds, but their entire earthly lives. Dante innovates here by making Lethe induce a forgetfulness of sin while allowing the imbiber to remember everything else.

The other river, Eunoe, does not exist in classical mythology, but is Dante's own contribution. Its name comes from Greek roots meaning "good memory," reflecting its role in enhancing memories of virtue. Both rivers spring from a single source and flow through a Garden of Eden which is otherwise presented much as it appears in the Bible. Although the Book of Genesis makes no mention of Eden's position atop a mountain, this Dantean touch helps to explain the Garden's inaccessibility to humankind after the Fall. The image of a mountaintop Paradise also echoes the medieval notion of mountains as safe havens where fortresses could be built and various evils escaped. In Dante's time, high ground was even thought to provide refuge from contagious illness; during a plague outbreak, people would quite literally head for the hills.

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