Dante finds himself astray in a dark Wood, where he spends a night of great misery. He says that death is hardly more bitter, than it is to recall what he suffered there; but that be will tell the fearful things be saw, in order that be may also tell bow be found guidance, and first began to discern the real causes of all misery. He comes to a Hill; and seeing its summit already bright with the rays of the Sun, be begins to ascend it. The way to it looks quite deserted. He is met by a beautiful Leopard, which keeps distracting his attention from the Hill, and makes him turn back several times. The hour of the morning, the season, and the gay outward aspect of that animal, give him good hopes at first; but he is driven down and terrified by a Lion and a She-wolf. Virgilcomes to his aid, and tells him that the Wolf lets none pass her way, but entangles and slays everyone that tries to get up the mountain by the road on which she stands. He says a time will come when a swift and strong Greyhound shall clear the earth of her, and chase her into Hell. And he offers to conduct Dante by another road; to show him the eternal roots of misery and of joy, and leave him with a higher guide that will lead him up to Heaven.
IN THE middle of the journey of our life1 I came to myself in a dark wood2 where the straight way was lost.
Ah! how hard a think it is to tell what a wild, and rough, and stubborn wood this was, which in my thought renews the fear!
So bitter is it, that scarcely more is death: but to treat of the good that I there found, I will relate the other things that I discerned.
I cannot rightly tell how I entered it, so full of sleep was I about the moment that I left the true way.
But after I had reached the foot of a Hill3 there, where that valley ended, which had pierced my heart with fear, I looked up and saw its shoulders already clothed with the rays of the Planet4 that leads men straight on every road.
Then the fear was somewhat calmed, which had continued in the lake of my heart the night that I passed so piteously.
And as he, who with panting breath has escaped from the deep sea to the shore, turns to the dangerous water and gazes: so my mind, which still was fleeing, turned back to see the pass that no one ever left alive.
After I had rested my wearied body a short while, I took the way again along the desert strand, so that the right foot always was the lower.5
And behold, almost at the commencement of the steep, a Leopard,6 light and very nimble, which was covered with spotted hair.
And it went not from before my face; nay, so impeded my way, that I had often turned to go back.
The time was at the beginning of the morning; and the sun was mounting up with those stars,7 which were with him when Divine Love first moved those fair things: so that the hour of time and the sweet season caused me to have good hope of that animal with the gay skin; yet not so, but that I feared at the sight, which appeared to me, of a Lion.8
He seemed coming upon me with head erect, and furious hunger; so that the air seemed to have fear thereat; and a She-wolf,9 that looked full of all cravings in her leanness; and has ere now made many live in sorrow.
She brought such heaviness upon me with the terror of her aspect, that I lost the hope of ascending.
And as one who is eager in gaining, and, when the time arrives that makes him lose, weeps and afflicts himself in all his thoughts: such that restless beast made me, which coming against me, by little and little drove me back to where the Sun is silent.
Whilst I was rushing downwards, there appeared before myeyes one10 who seemed hoarse from long silence.
When I saw him in the great desert, I cried: “Have pity on me, whate’er thou be, whether shade or veritable man!”
He answered me: “Not man, a man I once was; and my parents were Lombards, and both of Mantua by country.
I was bornsub Julio,11 though it was late; and lived at Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying Gods.
A poet I was; and sang of that just son of Anchises, who’ carne from Troy after proud Ilium was burnt.12
But thou, why returnest thou to such disquiet? why ascendest not the delectable mountain, which is the beginning and the cause of all gladness?”
“Art thou then that Virgil, and that fountain which pours abroad so rich a stream of speech?” I answered him, with bashful front.
“O glory, and light of other poets! May the long zeal avail me, and the great love, that made me search thy volume.
Thou art my master and my author; thou alone art he fromwhom I took the good style that hath done me honour.
See the beast from which I turned back; help me from her, thou famous sage; for she makes my veins and pulses tremble.”
“Thou must take another road,” he answered, when he saw me weeping, “if thou desirest to escape from this wild place: because this beast, for which thou criest, lets not men pass her way; but so entangles that sheslays them; and has a nature so perverse and vicious, that she never satiates her craving appetite; and after feeding, she is hungrier than before.
The animals to which she weds herself are many;13 and will yet be more, until the Greyhound14 comes, that will make her die with pain.
He will not feed on land or pelf, but on wisdom, and love, and manfulness; and his nation shall be between Feltro and Feltro.
He shall be the salvation of that low15 Italy, for which Camilla the virgin, Euryalus, and Turnus, and Nisus, died of wounds;16 he shall chase her through every city, till he have put her into Hell again; from which envy first set her loose.
Wherefore I think and discern this for thy best, that thou follow me; and I will be thy guide, and lead thee hence through an eternal place,17 where thou shalt hear the hopeless shrieks, shalt see the ancient spirits in pain, so that each calls for a second death;18 and then thou shalt see those who are contented in the fire:19 for they hope to come, whensoever it be, amongst the blessed; then to these, ifthou desirest to ascend, there shall be a spirit20 worthier than I to guide thee; with her will I leave thee at my parting: for that Emperor ‘who reigns above, because I was rebellious to his law, wills not that I come into his city.21
In all parts he rules and there holds sway; there is hiscity, and his high seat: O happy whom he chooses for it!”
And I to him: “Poet, I beseech thee by that God whom thou knowest not: in order that I may ‘escape this ill and worse, lead me where thou now hast said, so that I may see the Gate of St. Peter,22 and those whom thou makest so sad.”
Then he moved; and I kept on behind him.
* See “Note on Dante’s Hell” and “The Chronology of theInferno,” at pp. 3 and 6.
1. The Vision takes place at Eastertide of the year 1300, that is to say, when Dante was thirty-five years old. Cf.Psalms xc. 10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten.” See alsoConvito iv: “Where the top of this arch of life may be, it is difficult to know.... I believe that in the perfectly natural man, it is at the thirty-fifth year.”
2. Cf.Convito iv: “ ... the adolescent who enters into the Wood of Error of this life would not know how to keep to the good path jf it were not pointed out to him by his elders.”Politically: the wood stands for the troubled state of Italy in Dante’s time.
3. The “holy Hill” of the Bible; Bunyan’s “Delectable Mountains.”
4. Planet, thesun, which was a planet according to the Ptolemaic system. Dante speaks elsewhere (Conv. iv) of the “spiritual Sun, which is God.”
5. Anyone who is ascending a hill, and whose left foot is always the lower, must be bearing to theright.
6. Worldly Pleasure;politically: Florence.
7. According to tradition, the sun was in Aries at the time of the Creation.
8. Ambition;politically: the Royal House of France.
9. Avarice; politically: the Papal See. The three beasts are obviously taken fromJeremiah v. 6.
10. Virgil, who stands for Wordly Wisdom, and is Dante’s guide through Hell and Purgatory (see Gardner, pp. 87, 88).hoarse, perhaps because the study of Virgil had been long neglected.
11. Virgil was born at Andes, near Mantua, in the year 70 B.C. When Caesar was murdered (44 B.C.), Virgil had not yet written his great poem, so that he did not enjoy Caesar’s patronage.
12. In theÆneid.
13. An allusion to the Papal alliances.
14. TheGreyhound is usually explained as Can Grande della Scala (1290–1329), whose “nation” (or, perhaps better, “birthplace”) was Verona, between Feltre in Venetia and Montefeltro in Romagna, and who became a great Ghibelline leader. Cf. Par. xvii. This is, on the whole, the most satisfactory interpretation, though the claims of several other personages (notably Uguccione della Faggiuola and Pope Benedict XI) have been advanced. In any case it is as well to bear in mind that Dante rested his hopes of Italy’s deliverance on various persons in the course of his life.
15. Either “low-lying” or “humble.” If the latter be correct, the epithet is, of course, applied sarcastically.
16. All these personages occur in theÆneid.
18. Cf.Revelation xx. 14.
19. The souls in Purgatory.
20. Beatrice, or Heavenly Wisdom, will guide Dante through Paradise. No student of Dante should omit to read theVita Nuova, in which the poet tells the story of his youthful love (see also Gardner, pp. 8, 9, and 87, 88).
21. Virgil’s position is among the virtuous pagans in Limbo (see Canto iv).
22. The gate of Purgatory (Purg. ix). The Angel at this gate has charge of the two keys of St. Peter.
Copyright © 2013 by Dante Alighieri. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.