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The Divine Comedy: Inferno

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












































After the invocation, which poets are used to prefix to their works, he shows that, on a consideration of his own strength, he doubted whether it sufficed for the journey proposed to him, but that, being comforted by Virgil, he at last took courage, and followed him as his guide and master.

DAY was departing, and the embrowned air 1
Released the animals that are on earth
From their fatigues; and I the only one

Made myself ready to sustain the war,
Both of the way and likewise of the woe,
Which memory shall retrace, that erreth not.

O Muses, O high genius, now assist me!
O memory, that didst write dowll what I saw,
Here thy nobility shall be manifest!

And I began: "Poet, who guidest me,
Regard my manhood, if it be sufficient.
Ere to the arduous pass thou dost confide me.

Thou sayest, that of Silvius the parent, 13
While yet corruptible, unto the world
Immortal went, and was there bodily.

But if the adversary of all evil
Was courteous, thinking of the high effect
That issue would from him, and who, and what,

To men of intellect unmeet it seems not;
For he was of great Rome, and of her empire
In the empyreal heaven as father chosen;

The which and what, wishing to speak the truth,
Were stablished as the ho]y place, wherein
Sits the successor of the greatest Peter. 24

Upon this journey, whence thou givest him vaunt, 25
Things did he hear, which the occasion were
Both of his victory and the papal mantle.

Thither went afterwards the Chosen Vessel,
To bring back comfort thence unto that Faith,
Which of salvation's way is the beginning.

But I, why thither come, or who concedes it?
I not Aenas am, I am not Paul,
Nor I, nor others, think me worthy of it.

Therefore, if I resign myself to come,
I fear the coming may be ill-advised;
Thou'rt wise, and knowest better than I speak."

And as he is, who unwills what he willed,
And by new thoughts doth his intention change,
So that from his design he quite withdraws,

Such I became, upon that dark hillside,
Because, in thinking, I consumed the emprise,
Which was so very prompt in the beginning. 42

"If I have well thy language understood,"
Replied that shade of the Magnanimous,
"Thy soul attainted is with cowardice,

Which many times a man encumbers so,
It turns him back from honoured enterprise,
As false sight doth a beast, when he is shy.

That thou mayst free thee from this apprehension,
I'll tell thee why I came, and what I heard
At the first moment when I grieved for thee.

Among those was I who are in suspense, 52
And a fair, saintly Lady called to me
In such wise, I besought her to command me.

Her eyes where shining brighter than the Star; 55
And she began to say, gentle and low, 56
With voice angelical, in her own language

'O spirit courteous of Mantua,
Of whom the fame still in the world endures,
And shall endure, long-lasting as the world;

A friend of mine, and not the friend of fortune,
Upon the desert slope is so impeded
Upon his way, that he has turned through terror,

And may, I fear, already be so lost,
That I too late have risen to his succour,
From that which I have heard of him in Heaven.

Bestir thee now, and with thy speech ornate, 67
And with what needful is for his release,
Assist him so, that I may be consoled.

Beatrice am I, who do bid thee go; 70
I come from there, where I would fain return;
Love moved me, which compelleth me to speak.

When I shall be in presence of my Lord,
Full often will I praise thee unto him.'
Then paused she, and thereafter I began:

'O Lady of virtue, thou alone through whom
The human race exceedeth all contained
Within the heaven that has the lesser circles, 78

So grateful unto me is thy commandment,
To obey, if 'twere already done, were late;
No farther need'st thou ope to me thy wish.

But the cause tell me why thou dost not shun
The here descending down into this centre,
From the vast place thou burnest to return to.' 84

'Since thou wouldst fain so inwardly discern,
Briefly will I relate,'she answered me,
'Why I am not afraid to enter here.

Of those things only should one be afraid
Which have the power of doing others harm;
Of the rest, no; because they are not fearful.

God in his mercy such created me
That misery of yours attains me not,
Nor any flame assails me of this burning

Gentle Lady is in Heaven, who grieves 94
At this impediment, to which I send thee,
So that stern judgment there above is broken.

In her entreaty she besought Lucia, 97
And said, " Thy faithful one now stands in need
Of thee, and unto thee I recommend him."

Lucia, a, foe of all that cruel is,
Hastened away, and came unto the place
Where I was sitting with the ancient Rachel. 102

"Beatrice" said she, " the true praise of God,
Why succourest thou not him, who loved thee so,
For thee he issued from the vulgar herd?

Dost thou not hear the pity of his plaint?
Dost thou not see the death that combats him
Beside that flood, where ocean has no vaunt?"

Never were persons in the world so swift
To work their weal and to escape their woe,
As I, after such words as these were uttered,

Came hither downward from my blessed seat
Confiding in thy dignified discourse,
Which honours thee, and those who've listened to it.'

After she thus had spoken unto me,
Weeping, her shining eyes she turned away;
Whereby she made me swifter in my coming;

And unto thee I came, as she desired;
I have delivered thee from that wild beast,
Which barred the beautiful mountain's short ascent.

What is it, then ? Why, why dost thou delay?
Why is such baseness bedded in thy heart?
Daring and hardihood why hast thou not,

Seeing that three such Ladies benedight
Are caring for thee in the court of Heaven,
And so much good my speech doth promise thee ?"

Even as the flowerets, by nocturnal chill, 127
Bowed down and closed, when the sun whitens them,
Uplift themselves all open on their stems;

Such I became with my exhausted strength,
And such good courage to my heart there coursed,
That I began, like an intrepid person:

"O she compassionate, who succoured me,
And courteous thou, who hast obeyed so soon
The words of truth which she addressed to thee!

Thou hast my heart so with desire disposed
To the adventure, with these words of thine,
That to my first intent I have returned.

Now go, for one sole will is in us both,
Thou Leader, and thou Lord, and Master thou."
Thus said I to him; and when he had moved,

I entered on the deep and savage way.

Footnotes 2

Canto 2

1. The evening of Good Friday. Dante, Convito III. 2, says: "Man is called by philosophers the divine animal." Chaucer's Assemble of Foules:--

The daie gan failen, and the darke night
That reveth bestes from hir businesse
Berafte me by boke for lacke of light."

Mr. Ruskin, Modern Painters, III. 240, speaking of Dante's use of the word " bruno," says:--

"In describing a simple twilight--not a Hades twilight, but an ordinarily fair evening `brown' air took the animals away from their fatigues;--the waves under Charon's boat are `brown' (Inf. iii. 117); and Lethe, which is perfectly clear and yet dark, as with oblivion, is `bruna-bruna', `brown, exceeding brown.' Now, clearly in all these cases no warmth is meant to be mingled in the color. Dante had never seen one of our bog-streams, with its porter-colored foam; and there can be no doubt that, in calling Lethe brown, he means tht it was dark slategray, inclining to black; as, for instance, our clear Cumberland lakes, which, looked straight down upon where they are deep, seem to be lakes of ink. I am sure this is the color he means; because no clear stream or lake on the Continent ever looks brown, but blue or green, and Dante, by merely taking away the pleasant color, would get at once to this idea of grave clear gray. So, when he was talking of twilight, his eye for color was far too good to let him call it brown in our sense. Twilight is not brown, but purple, golden, or dark gray; and this last was what Dante meant. Farther, I find that this negation color is always the means by which Dante subdues his tones. Thus the fatal inscription on the Hades gate is written in `obscure color', and the air which torments the passionate spirts is `aer nero', black air (Inf. v. 51), called presently afterwards (line 81) malignant air, just as the gray cliffs are called malignant cliffs."

13. Aeneas, founder of the Roman Empire. Virgil, Aenid, B. VI.

24. "That is," says Boccaccio, Comento, "St. Peter the Apostle, called the greater on account of his papal dignity, and to distinguish him from many other holy men of the same name."

28. St. Paul. Acts, ix. 15: "He is a chosen vessel unto me." Also, 2 Corinthians, xii. 3, 4: "And I knew such a man, whether in the body, or out of the body, I cannot tell; God knoweth; how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter."

42. Shakespear, Macbeth, IV. i:

"The flighty purpose never is o'ertook,
Unless the deed go with it."

52. Suspended in Limbo; neither in pain nor in glory.

55. Brighter than the star; than "that star which is brightest," comments Boccaccio. Others say the Sun, and refer to Dante's Canzone, beginning:

"The star of beauty which doth measure time,
The lady seems, who has enamored me,
Placed in the heaven of Love."

56. Shakespeare, King Lear, V. 3:--

"Her voice was ever soft,
Gentle, and low; an excellent thing in woman."

67. This passage will recall Minerva transmitting the message of Juno to Achilles, Iliad, II.: "Go thou forthwith to the army of the Achaeans, and hesitate not, but restrain each man with thy persuasive words, nor suffer them to drag to the sea their double-oared ships. "

70. Beatrice Portinari, Dante's first love, the inspiration of his song and in his mind the symbol of the Divine. He says of her in the Vita Nuova:--

"This most gentle lady, of whom there has been discourse in what precedes, reached such favour among the people, that when she passed along the way persons ran to see her, which gave me wonderful delight. And when she was near any one, such modesty took possession of his heart, that he did not dare to raise his eyes or to return her salutation; and to this, should any one doubt it, many, as having experienced it, could bear witness for me. She, crowned and clothed with humility, took her way, displaying no pride in that which she saw and heard. Many, when she had passed said, `This is not a woman, rather is she one of the most beautiful angels of heaven.' Others said, `She is a miracle. Blessed be the Lord who can perform such a marvel.' I say, that she showed herself so gentle and so full of all beauties, that those who looked on her felt within themselves a pure and sweet delight, such as they could not tell in words."--C.E. Norton, The New Life, 51, 52.

78. The heaven of the moon, which contains or encircles the earth.

84. The ampler circles of Paradise.

94. Divine Mercy.

97. St Lucia, emblem of enlightening Grace.

102. Rachel, emblem of Divine Contemplation. See Par. XXXII. 9. 108. Beside that flood, where ocean has no vaunt; "That is," says Boccacio, Comento, "the sea cannot boast of being more impetuous or more dangerous than that."

127. This simile has been imitated by Chaucer, Spenser, and many more. Jeremy Taylor says:--

"So have I seen the sun kiss the frozen earth, which was bound up with the images of death, and the colder breath of the north; and then the waters break from their enclosures, and melt with joy, and run in useful channels; and the flies do rise again from their little graves in walls, and dance awhile in the air, to tell that there is joy within, and that the great mother of creatures will open the stock of her new refreshment, become useful to mankind, and sing praises to her Redeemer."

Rossetti, Spirito Antipapale del Secolo di Dante, translated by Miss Ward, II. 216, makes this political application of the lines: "The Florentines, called Sons of Flora, are compared to flowers; and Dante calls the two parties who divided the city white and black flowers, and himself white-flower,--the name by which he was called by many. Now he makes use of a very abstruse comparison, to express how he became, from a Guelph of Black, a Ghibelline or White. He describes himself as a flower, first bent and closed by the night frosts, and then blanched or whitened by the sun (the symbol of reason), which opens its leaves; and what produces the effect of the sun on him is a speech of Virgil's, persuading him to follow his guidance."

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