Dante, Eünoè, and The Future of Higher Education

Dante’s imagery crops up in the unlikeliest of places. Here, in Marina Warner’s impassioned defence of the Humanities, the freedom of learning and enquiry, and the importance of ‘good, active knowledge’, the river Eünoè in Dante’s Purgatorio appears as an image for the best kinds of engaged learning, research, and teaching.

I’ve noticed a lot of tricolons in this introductory spiel, perhaps I’ve been ensnared by thoughts of Dante’s terza rima… Here are his lines describing his experience of the waters of Eünoè in the Earthly Paradise:

“Ma vedi Eünoè che là diriva:

menalo ad esso, e come tu se’ usa,

la tramortita sua virtù ravviva.”

Come anima gentil, che non fa scusa,

ma fa sua voglia de la voglia altrui

tosto che è per segno fuor dischiusa;

così, poi che da essa preso fui,

la bella donna* mossesi, e a Stazio**

donnescamente disse: “Vien con lui.”

S’io avessi, lettor, più lungo spazio

da scrivere, i’ pur cantere’ in parte

lo dolce ber che mai non m’avria sazio;

ma perché piene son tutte le carte

ordite a questa cantica seconda,

non mi lascia più ir lo fren de l’arte.

Io ritornai da la santissima onda

rifatto sì come piante novelle

rinovellate di novella fronda,

puro e disposto a salire a le stelle.

   ‘But see Eunoe streaming forth there.

Bring him to it and, as you are accustomed,

revive the powers that are dead in him.’

   As a gentle spirit that makes no excuses

but makes another’s will its own

as soon as any signal makes that clear,

   so, once she held me by the hand, the lady* moved

and, as though she were mistress of that place,

said to Statius**: ‘Now come with him.’

   If, reader, I had more ample space to write,

I should sing at least in part the sweetness

of the drink that never would have sated me,

   but, since all the sheets

readied for this second canticle are full,

the curb of art lets me proceed no farther.

   From those most holy waters

I came away remade, as are new plants

renewed with new-sprung leaves,

pure and prepared to rise up to the stars.

Purgatorio XXXIII, 127-145 (text and translation, as ever, from the Princeton Dante Project)

* The lady here is Matelda, an enigmatic figure who plays I vital role in helping Dante navigate the Earthly Paradise at the top of the mountain of Purgatory.

** Statius is a Roman poet of the Silver Age whose works include The Thebaid and The Achilleid

Marina Warner · Learning My Lesson · LRB 19 March 2015.

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