David Bruce: Dante’s PURGATORY: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 31: Forest of Eden — Lethe”

Canto 31: Forest of Eden — Lethe

  • How does Dante react to the harsh accusations Beatrice made in Canto 30?

Beatrice wants something from Dante. He must confess that he has erred:

“O thou who art beyond the sacred river,”

Turning to me the point of her discourse,

That edgewise even had seemed to me so keen,

She recommenced, continuing without pause,

“Say, say if this be true; to such a charge,

Thy own confession needs must be conjoined.”

(Longfellow 31.1-6)

Dante still has the memories of the sins he has committed because he has not yet drunk from the stream Lethe. Beatrice calls those memories of sin “bitter memories” (31.11). This is a good description. Many people — those who are not pathological — remember with bitterness things that they have done in the past but should NOT have done. Sometimes, these bitter memories keep us awake at night.

Dante gives Beatrice the answer she wants. To her question of whether he is guilty of the “grave charge” (Musa 31.6) she has made against him, he answers with “a miserable ‘yes’” (Musa 31.14).

From this we can see that Dante has learned from the trip that he has taken through the Afterlife:

1) One thing that Dante has learned is to take responsibility for his sins. This is something that the sinners in the Inferno did not do.

2) Dante has also learned to repent his sins. This is also something that the sinners in the Inferno did not do.

Many people may become defensive when they are charged with something serious. Instead of admitting their guilt, they blame someone or something else: Love made me do it, or A book made me do it, or The Devil made me do it. Instead of blaming someone or something else, Dante simply admits that he is guilty — he made himself do it.

We read about Dante,

Confusion and dismay together mingled

Forced such a Yes! from out my mouth, that sight

Was needful to the understanding of it.

(Longfellow 31.13-15)

My fear and deep chagrin, between them, forced

Out of my mouth a miserable “yes” —

Only by eyes with ears could it be heard.

(Musa 31.13-15)

Dante recognizes that confession of his sins is important, and in fact he does confess his sins:

Weeping I said: “The things that present were

With their false pleasure turned aside my steps,

Soon as your countenance concealed itself.”

(Longfellow 31.34-36)

  • Dante was impressed by Beatrice’s physical beauty. Where is that beauty now?What should he have learned from this?

Beatrice was beautiful while she was alive, but now all of that beauty is in a tomb:

 “You never saw in Nature or in Art

a beauty like the beauty of my form,

which clothed me once and is now turned to dust;”

(Musa 31.49-51)

From Beatrice’s death, Dante should have learned a lesson:

“and if that perfect beauty disappeared

when I departed from the world, how could

another mortal object lure your love?”

(Musa 31.52-54)

Beatrice was physically beautiful, but that physical beauty did not last. When she died, her physical beauty turned to dust. Dante should have learned from Beatrice’s death to turn his attention to the things that last. Instead of physical beauty, Dante should have pursued spiritual beauty.

  • We can ask what are the eternal things — what are the good things that last? What are some possible answers?

Here are some possible answers:

  • Family can last. Families can have children, who then have children, who then have children, and so on. The propagation of the species is important. Some human beings will go to Paradise, and so the human species will last.
  • Love can last. Beatrice died, but Dante continued to love her. Presumably, that kind of love is highly regarded by God.
  • Art can last.The Divine Comedyhas lasted for 700 years, and it will likely last for 700 more years. Limbo has a library; a copy of it is there.
  • Spiritual things last. What are spiritual things? They are such things as love, truth, and beauty. These things appear in the love we experience on Earth, and these things are part of great works of art. These things are also important in Paradise.

The big lesson that Dante must learn here is to turn his attention to the important things. Because he wroteThe Divine Comedyafter learning this lesson, writing The Divine Comedyis one of the important things.

Other things are not eternal. All of Dante’s material possessions are gone now. Dante’s friendship lives on in his Divine Comedy, as we see when he writes about Forese Donati and other of his friends.

Dante recognizes his guilt, and his sense of remorse is so strong that he faints.

  • What is the stream Lethe, and why must Dante the Pilgrim drink of it?

When Dante revives, Matelda pulls him across the stream Lethe. She allows him to drink its waters. Matelda’s job is to ensure that the purged souls drink from the two streams at the proper time. In Canto 33, she will ask Statius to drink from the stream Eunoë. By the way, Matelda can walk on water. She pulls Dante’s body across the stream named Lethe, walking on water as she does so: “now drawing me along she glided light, / and with a shuttle’s ease, across the stream” (Musa 31.95-96).

The stream named Lethe washes away the memory of one’s sins. In Paradise, we will see souls who remember their sins, but the sting of the memory of their sins is gone. These souls are grateful to God for forgiving their sins.

  • What happens after Dante drinks from the stream Lethe?

The ladies who are Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, and Temperance raise their hands over Dante. They take Dante to the Griffin, and they then tell him to look into Beatrice’s eyes. He does, and he sees the twofold nature of the Griffin, Who is Christ, Who is fully divine and fully human. Dante does not see both natures at the same time, but he does see separately both natures. (At the end of Paradise, Dante will see the triune God.)

Dante looks into Beatrice’s eyes, which are looking at the Griffin:

Like sunlight in a mirror, shining back,

I saw the twofold creature in her eyes,

reflecting its two natures separately.

(Musa 31.121-123)

The ladies who are Faith, Hope, and Charity/Love ask Beatrice to look at and smile at Dante. She obliges, and Dante is unable to describe her beauty.

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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