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The Divine Comedy: Inferno

by Dante Alighieri (Tr. H.W. Longfellow)












































The writer, having lost his way in a gloomy forest, and being hindered by certain wild beasts from ascending a mountain, is met by Virgil, who promises to show him the punishments of Hell, and afterward of Purgatory; and that he shall then be conducted by Beatrice into Paradise. He follows the Roman poet.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life 1
I found myself within a forest dark, 2
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.

I cannot well repeat how there I entered,
So full was I of slumber at the moment
In which I had abandoned the true way.

But after I had reached a mountain's foot, 13
At that point where the valley terminated, 14
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

Upward I looked, and I beheld its shoulders
Vested already with that planet's rays 17
Which leadeth others right by every road.

Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart's lake had endured throughout 20
The night, which I had passed so piteously

And even as he, who, with distressful breath,
Forth issued from the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the water perilous and gazes;

So did my soul, that still was fleeing onward,
Turn itself back to re-behold the pass
Which never yet a living person left. 27

After my weary body I had rested,
The way resumed I on the desert slope,
So that the firm foot ever was the lower. 30

And lo! almost where the ascent began, 31
A panther light and swift exceedingly, 32
Which with a spotted skin was covered o'er!

And never moved she from before my face,
Nay, rather did impede so much my way,
That many times I to return had turned. 36

The time was the beginning of the morning,
And up the sun was mounting with those stars 38
That with him were, what time the Love Divine

At first in motion set those beauteous things;
So were to me occasion of good hope,
The variegaled skin of that wild beast,

The hour of time, and the delicious season;
But not so much, that did not give me fear
A lion's aspect which appeared to me. 45

He seemed as if against me he were coming
With head uplifted, and with ravenous hunger,
So that it seemed the air was afraid of him; 48

And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings 49
Seemed to be laden in her meagreness,
And many folk has caused to live forlorn!

She brought upon me so much heaviness,
With the affright that from her aspect came,
That I the hope relinquished of the height.

And as he is who willingly acquires
And the time comes that causes him to lose,
Who weeps in all his thoughts and is despondent,

E'en such made me that beast withouten peace,
Which, coming on against me by degrees
Thrust me back thither where the sun is silent 60

While I was rushing downward to the lowland,
Before mine eyes did one present himself,
Who seemed from long-continued silence hoarse. 63

When I beheld him in the desert vast,
"Have pity on me," unto him I cried,
"Whiche'er thou art, or shade or real man!"

He answered me: "Not man; man once I was,
And both my parents were of Lombardy,
And Mantuans by country both of them.

Sub Julio was I born, though it was late, 70
And lived at Rome under the good Augustus,
During the time of false and Iying gods.

A poet was I, and I sang that just
Son of Anchises, who came forth from Troy,
After that Ilion the superb was burned

But thou, why goest thou back to such annoyance?
Why climb'st thou not the Mount Delectable
Which is the source and cause of every joy?"

"Now, art thou that Virgilius and that fountain 79
Which spreads abroad so wide a river of speech?
I made response to him with bashful forehead.

"O, of the other poets honour and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!

Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honour to me. 87

Behold the beast, for which I have turned back;
Do thou protect me from her, famous Sage,
For she doth make my veins and pulses tremble.'

"Thee it behoves to take another road,"
Responded he, when he beheld me weeping,
"If from this savage place thou wouldst escape;

Because this beast, at which thou criest out,
Suffers not any one to pass her way,
But so doth harass him, that she destroys him;

And has a nature so malign and ruthless,
That never doth she glut her greedy will,
And after food is hungrier than before.

Many the animals with whom she weds,
And more they shall be still, until the Greyhound 101
Comes, who shall make her perish in her pain.

He shall not feed on either earth or pelf,
But upon wisdom, and on love and virtue;
'Twixt Feltro and Feltro shall his nation be;

Of that low Italy shall he be the saviour, 106
On whose account the maid Camilla died,
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus, of their wounds;

Through every city shall he hunt her down,
Until he shall have driven her back to Hell,
There from whence envy first did let her loose.

Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide,
And lead thee hence through the eternal place,

Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations,
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate, 116
Who cry out each one for the second death;

And thou shalt see those who contented are
Within the fire, because they hope to come,
Whene'er it may be, to the blessed people;

To whom, then, if thou wishest to ascend,
A soul shall be for that than I more worthy; 122
With her at my departure I will leave thee;

Because that Emperor, who reigns above,
In that I was rebellious to his law,
Wills that through me none come into his city.

Governs evervwhere and there he reigns:
There is his city and his lofty throne;
O happy he whom thereto he elects!"

And I to him: " Poet, I thee entreat,
By that same God whom thou didst never know,
So that I may escape this woe and worse,

Thou wouldst conduct me there where thou hast said,
That I may see the portal of Saint Peter,
And those thou makest so disconsolable."

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

Footnotes 1

Canto 1

1. The action of the poem begins on Good Friday of the year 1300, at which time Dante, who was born in 1265, had reached the middle of the Scriptual threescore years and ten. It ends on the first Sunday after Easter, making in all ten days.

2. The dark forest of human life, with its passions, vices, and perplexities of all kinds; politically the state of Florence with its fractions Guelf and Ghibelline. Dante, Convito, IV. 25, says: "Thus the adolescent, who enters into the erroneous forest of this life, would not know how to keep the right way if he were not guided by his elders."

Brunetto Latini, Tesoretto, II. 75:

"Pensando a capo chino
Perdei il gran cammino,
E tenni alla traversa
D'una selva diversa."

Spenser, Faerie Queene, Iv. ii. 45: --

"Seeking adventures in the salvage wood."

13. Bunyan, in his Pilrim's Progress, which is a kind of Divine Comedy in prose, says: "I beheld then that they all went on till they came to the foot of the hill Difficulty..... But the narrow way lay right up the hill, and the name of the going up the side of the hill is called Difficulty.... They went then till they came to the Delectable Mountains, which mountains belong to the Lord of that hill of which we have spoken before."

14. Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress: -- "But now in this valley of Humiliation poor Christian was hard put to it; for he had gone but a little way before he spied a foul fiend coming over the field to meet him; his name is Apollyon. Then did Christian begin to be afraid, and to cast in his mind whether to go back or stand his ground. ...Now at the end of this valley was another, called the valley of the Shadow of Death; and Christian must needs go through it, because the way to the Celestial City lay through the midst of it."

17. The sun, with all its symbolical meanings. This is the morning of Good Friday.

In the Ptolemaic system the sun was one of the planets.

20. The deep mountain tarn of his heart, dark with its own depth, and the shadows hanging over it.

27. Jeremiah ii. 6: "That led us through the wilderness, through a land of deserts and of pits, through a land of drought, and of the shadow of death, through a land that no man passed through, and where no man dwelt."

In his note upon this passage Mr. Wright quotes Spenser's lines, Faerie Queene, I. v. 31, --

"there creature never passed
That back returned without heavenly grace."

30. Climbing the hillside slowly, so that he rests longest on the foot that is lowest.

31. Jeremiah v. 6: "Wherefore a lion out of the forest shall slay them, a wolf of the evening shall spoil them, a leopard shall watch over their cities: every one that goeth out thence shall be torn in pieces."

32. Wordly Pleasure; and politically Florence, with its factions of Bianchi and Neri.

36. Piu volte volto. Dante delights in a play upon words as much as Shakespeare.

38. The stars of Aries. Some philosophers and fathers think the world was created in Spring.

45. Ambition; and politically the royal house of France.

48. Some editions read temesse, others tremesse.

49. Avarice; and politically the Court of Rome, or temporal power of the Popes.

60. Dante as a Ghibelline and Imperialist is in opposition to the Guelfs, Pope Boniface VIII., and the King of France, Philip the Fair, and is banished from Florence, out of the sunshine, and into "the dry wind that blows from dolorous poverty."

Cato speaks of the "silent moon" in De Re Rustica, XXIV., Evehito luna silenti; and XL., Vites inseri luna silenti. Also Pliny, XVI. 39, has Silens luna; and Milton, in Samson Agonistes, "Silent as the moon."

63. The long neglect of classic studies in Italy before Dante's time.

70. Born under Julius Caesar, but too late to grow up to manhood during his Imperial reign. He florished later under Augustus.

79. In this passage Dante but expresses the universal veneration felt for Virgil during the Middle Ages, and especially in Italy. Petrarch's copy of Virgil is still preserved in the Ambrosian Library at Milan; and at the beginning of it he has recorded in a Latin note the time of his first meeting with Laura, and the date of her death, which, he says, "I write in this book, rather than elsewhere, because it comes often under my eye."

In the popular imagination Virgil became a mythical personage and a mighty magician. See the story of Virgilius in Thom's Early Prose Romances, II. Dante selects him for his guide, as symbolizing human science or Philosophy. "I say and affirm," he remarks, Convito, V. 16, "that the lady with whom I became enamored after my first love was the most beautiful and modest daughter of the Emperor of the Universe, to whom Pythagoras gave the name of Philosophy."

87. Dante seems to have been already conscious of the fame which his Vita Nuova and Canzoni had given him.

101. The greyhound is Can Grande della Scala, Lord of Verona, Imperial Vicar, Ghibelline, and friend of Dante. Verona is between Feltro in the Marca Trivigiana, and Montefeltro in Romagna. Boccaccio, Decameron, I. 7, speaks of him as "one of the most notable and magnificant lords that had been known in Italy, since the Emperor Frederick the Second." To him Dante dedicated the Paradiso. Some commentators think the Veltro is not Can Grande, but Ugguccione della Faggiola. See Troya, Del Veltro Allegorico di Dante.

106. The plains of Italy, in contradistinction to the mountains; the humilemque Italiam of Virgil, AEneid, III. 522: "And now the stars being chased away, blushing Aurora appeared, when far off we espy the hills obscure, and lowly Italy."

116. I give preference to the reading, Vedrai gli antichi spiriti dolenti.

122. Beatrice.

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