Myth Meets History, Isaiah Meets Aristotle

  • Life = voyage, an equivalence expressed in the opening metaphor: “cammin di nostra vita” (path of our life), inherited from the “nuovo e mai non fatto cammino di questa vita” (the new and never before traveled path of this life) of Convivio 4.12.15
  • Divine love  — “l’amor divino” — first caused the stars to move (Inf. 1.39-40), initiating the creation of the universe
  • A blueprint of the afterlife in three realms
  • The mixing of classical with Christian yields a uniquely hybrid “middling” textuality
  • “Nel mezzo” as a middle-point/meeting-point of cultural imbrication: to the traditional glosses of ”Nel mezzo”, which include Isaiah 38:10 and Horace’s Ars Poetica, I add: 1) the existential mezzo, from Aristotle’s definition of time as a “kind of middle-point” in the Physics (Aristotle on time is cited by Dante in the Convivio) and 2) the ethical mezzo, from Aristotle’s definition of virtue as residing at the mean (cited by Dante in the canzone Le dolci rime and later in the Convivio)
  • The voyager who is lost at sea and the Ulysses theme: on “Ulyssean” as an epithet in The Undivine Comedy and in this Commento
  • Mythic binaries in a visionary landscape
  • The she-wolf — la lupa — is the embodiment of negative desire, cupiditas
  • Vergil/Virgilio and the introduction of (Roman) history
  • The development of a virtual reality and the construction of character
  • The use of dialogue to build diegetic complexity and to construct character
  • Classical culture both in bono and in malo
  • “Con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire” (Inf. 1.123): Dante’s ability to conjure real affect in real time

[1] Inferno 1 and Inferno 2 are both introductory canti, although in quite different ways: Inferno 1 is more universal and world-historical in its focus, while Inferno 2 is more attentive to the plight and history of one single man. The hero’s journey through Hell does not begin until Inferno 3. So what happens before we get to Inferno 3? What happens in Inferno 1 and Inferno 2?

[2] Following the first half of Inferno 1, devoted to the agon of being lost, Inferno 1 and Inferno 2 feature long conversations between Dante-protagonist and Vergil/Virgilio. In these conversations the poet lays out the ideological premises of the journey that the protagonist is about to undertake. Inferno 1 and Inferno 2 do not advance Dante-protagonist’s material journey so much as they provide the underlying ideological foundation on which Dante-poet can build. In other words, Inferno 1 and Inferno 2 lay the ideological foundation without which the pilgrim’s journey would lack credibility.

[3] The reader will note that in the above paragraphs I use the terms “hero”, “protagonist”, and “pilgrim”, all terms that I chooose in order to distinguish Dante as protagonist from Dante the “poet”. I am introducing the reader to the “bifocals” that we wear as readers of the Commedia, the hermeneutic lenses with which we are able to keep track of the distinction between the poet — the narrator of the story — and the protagonist: the character who participates in the story as it is narrated. One way that we can distinguish the two is by noting the tense used by the author.

[4] The poet writes in the present tense of his writing (which occurs long after the experience of the vision, placed by Dante in 1300); in other words, the poet writes in the present tense about the act of narrating. The same poet writes in the past tense of his journey through the afterlife in the spring of 1300, a journey of which he is the protagonist. The protagonist or hero or pilgrim is the voyaging-self within the fiction, as described by the writing poet.The protagonist is the traveler whose story comprises the Commedia’s plot; the poet is the maker of the plot.

[5] Dante himself offers a useful primer to these categories — maker of the plot and protagonist of the plot — in the first verses of the poem, a primer that we can access by tracking verb tenses. The pilgrim’s story takes place in the past, and thus the first verb of the Commedia is in the past absolute (passato remoto in Italian), a past tense that describes a specific past occurrence: “mi ritrovai in una selva oscura” (2). In the next verse we are introduced to the workhorse of the plot, the imperfect tense. This is the tense of ongoing action in the past that is the Commedia’s narrative motor: “che la diritta via era smarrita” (3). The first terzina in this way introduces the voyaging-self and launches the storyline of his journey.

[6] The next terzina introduces the poet, the narrator who is telling the story, and therefore we encounter two verbs in the present tense. One (“è”) refers to the experience of writing and the other (“rinova”) refers to the experience of remembering: “Ah quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura” (4) and “che nel pensier rinova la paura” (6). In verse 4 the imperfect tense of the verb to be (“era”) — the descriptor of what the protagonist’s experience was like in the past — is placed next to the present tense of the verb to be (“è”), which describes the experience of the writer: how difficult it is (“è” in the present) to speak (“dir”) of what that experience was (“era“) in the past! That past experience was so fearsome that the thought of it still now renews his fear (the verb “rinova” is in the present tense of the writing writer): “rinova la paura” (6).

[7] The third terzina continues with the writer and his recollections in the present of an experience so bitter that death is barely more so, using two present-tense forms of the verb essere (to be) to communicate the ongoing nature of such an experience: “Tant‘è amara che poco è più morte” (7). But the ultimate goal of the bitter experience was to find the good, and in order to treat the good that he found on the journey (thus in the past: “per trattar del ben ch‘io vi trovai” [8]), the poet “will tell“ of the other things that he saw: “dirò dell’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte” (9). In verse 8 we see the return to the past absolute (“trovai”) and in verse 9 the introduction of two new tenses: the future tense of the author and what he will say — “dirò” — and a new past tense for the protagonist, the passato prossimo (“ho scorte”). Hence by the time the poet arrives at the end of terzina 3 he has put in an array of temporal markers and accustomed us to his toggling back and forth between the events of the past and his recollections of them in the present. The past already has three variants, and the present extends to the future.

[8] The poet’s deployment of verb tenses in the opening verses of Inferno 1 introduces the reader to some fundamental narrative premises of the Commedia. And, indeed, in Inferno 1 and Inferno 2 Dante-poet is creating the premises that enable the subsequent action to occur. He is laying down the premises that enable the reader to suspend credibility and to “believe” in that action. Thus, the poet is already engaged in the Commedia’s great project of creating a virtual reality.

[9] Another way in which Dante sets about creating his possible world is by indicating the parameters of his universe. He does this by presenting the Commedia’s first explanation of how God created that universe: “’l sol montava ’n su con quelle stelle / ch’eran con lui quando l’amor divino / mosse di prima quelle cose belle” (the sun was rising now in fellowship / with the same stars that had escorted it / when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty [Inf. 1.38-40]). In other words, the sun is in Aries, and it is springtime.

[10] The verses that tell us that the season is springtime constitute the Commedia’s first astronomical periphrasis. The conjuring of the moments when “Divine Love first moved those things of beauty” (the “cose belle” are the stars in the heavens) is also effectively the first of the Commedia’s many creation discourses, a first installment in Dante’s meditation (foregrounded in the Paradiso) whereby the One became the Many. We sometimes forget that the poem’s first creation discourse is embedded in Inferno 1’s astronomical periphrasis for springtime.

[11] We note too that the ground of being is also the ground of aesthetics: God made cose belle — things of beauty. Moreover, this use of belle is the first occurrence of any form of the adjective “beautiful” in the Commedia. There is a cluster of first occurrences of forms of bello in Inferno 1-3, which appear in this order: “cose belle” (Inf. 1.40), “lo bello stilo” (Inf. 1.87), “donna . . . bella” (Inf. 2.53), “bel monte” (Inf. 2.120), “i ciel . . . men belli” (Inf. 3.40).

[12] Inferno 1 features both the beauty of the universe (“cose belle”) and the beauty of Dante’s poetic style (“lo bello stilo”): in other words, the canto features being, that which is, and Dante’s poetry, that which represents being. The two — being and the representation of being — will go self-consciously in tandem throughout the Commedia. A term more familiar to literary critics than “being” is “reality”; thus, it is not surprising that reality and realism are themes that pulse through Dante Studies.

[13] Inferno consists of 34 canti, Purgatorio of 33 canti, and Paradiso of 33 canti, making Inferno 1 the “extra” unit of text, as befits a canto that offers a prelude to the journey as a whole. Inferno 1 concludes with a schematic outline of the three regions of the afterlife: verses 114-117 describe Hell, verses 118-120 describe Purgatory, and verses 121-129 describe Paradise. Together, this section offers a blueprint of the entire journey, of all 100 canti of the poem. Therefore, when Dante wrote Inferno 1 he knew, at least in schematic terms, that the Commedia would comprise three regions, likely corresponding to three books.

* * *

 [14] Ideas of the afterlife have histories, like all ideas. Dante has a place in the history of the imagining of the Christian afterlife, a place that can be traced and debated. Dante’s signature moves in the forging of his afterlife are the mixing of classical with Christian sources and of high with low culture:

Therefore, although Dante reflects the most informed theological thought on hell, he is certainly not constrained by it. Moving from the theological template, he widens the range of cultural resources available to him in two fundamental ways: one, he utilizes pagan sources as well as Christian ones; two, he does not limit his Christian sources to the high culture of theology. Thus, he explicitly borrows from such (high culture) pagan sources as Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which he credits as a source for the structure of his hell, and Vergil’s underworld in Aeneid 6, various of whose characters and features he appropriates and transforms. But Dante’s hell also demonstrates clear links to the established popular iconography of hell and to popular cultural forms like sermons, visions, and the didactic poetry of vernacular predecessors such as Bonvesin da la Riva and Giacomino da Verona. As Alison Morgan correctly notes in Dante and the Medieval Other World, Dante ‘‘is the first Christian writer to combine the popular material with the theological and philosophical systems of his day’’ (“Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” cited in Coordinated Reading, p. 103).

[15] The mixing of classical with Christian sources is a Dantean trait already established in the poem’s first verse. Here the pilgrim is lost in a dark wood at the midway point of life’s path, which is to say, at thirty-five years old. Very conveniently, Dante was born in 1265 and in 1300, the year that he stipulates for his afterlife journey, he was precisely thirty-five, midway through a lifespan of seventy years (see Psalm 90:10: “Our days may come to seventy years”)

[16] The poet has combined biblical and classical motifs to create a uniquely hybrid “middling” textuality. Dante’s beginning in the middle, “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita” (Midway upon the journey of our life [Inf. 1.1]), evokes, as critics have long noted, both biblical and classical precedents, both Isaiah 38:10 (“In the middle of my days I must depart”) and Horace’s injunction in Ars Poetica to commence a narrative “in medias res” (in the midst of things [Ars Poetica, 148]). The concept of middleness thus boasts both classical and biblical pedigrees.

[17] To the above well-known intertexts for “Nel mezzo” I would add the Aristotelian understanding of time. In the Physics, Aristotle describes time as “a kind of middle-point, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time” (Physics 8.1.251b18-26). In his philosophical prose treatise, Convivio, Dante shows that he is acquainted with Aristotle’s writings on time, citing the Physics as follows: “Lo tempo, secondo che dice Aristotile nel quarto de la Fisica, è ‘numero di movimento, secondo prima e poi’” (Time, according to Aristotle in the fourth book of the Physics, is “number of movement, according to before and after” [Conv. 4.2.6]).

[18] When Dante uses  the word “mezzo” in the first verse of the Commedia he therefore alerts us to our existential being in time, to our being ineluctably tethered to “number of motion, according to before and after”, to the Aristotelian “middle-point”. The word mezzo thus possesses a metaphysical valence.

[19] The metaphor “cammin di nostra vita”/“journey of our life” begins the work of conflating the journey of the poem with the existential and personal journeys through time and space that each of us on this planet experiences every day. As Dante had previously written in the Convivio, human life is a “new and never before traveled path”: “[il] nuovo e mai non fatto cammino di questa vita” (the new and never before traveled path of this life [Convivio 4.12.15]). The Commedia’s work of creating a virtual reality, of encouraging its readers to feel that they are journeying along with Dante, begins with the metaphor of life as a path on which we all walk. The walkers are plural and many, and each has her own path; in this sense the paths are many. But we all walk the cammino di questa vita: in this existential sense the path is one. The experience of life as a journey through time and space is an experience shared by all.

[20] The opening metaphor of the path, of the voyage by land, will shortly be enriched by the simile of a disastrous voyage by sea. The shipwrecked man who climbs from the watery deep to the shore is the first “Ulyssean” reference of the poem (Inf. 1.22-24). The mythic Greek hero Odysseus, Ulysses in Latin, as Dante encountered him in Vergil’s Aeneid and Cicero’s De Finibus and other Latin texts, is a prime reference point in the Commedia, as well as the featured soul of Inferno 26: Ulysses is the quintessential voyager who comes to perdition, who is lost at sea. As many have noted, Ulysses is Dante-pilgrim’s negative double. However, as my book The Undivine Comedy argues, Dante-poet becomes ever more transgressive and Ulyssean as the Commedia proceeds. From the point of view of the writing poet, Paradiso is the most transgressive — the most Ulyssean — part of the poem. The Ulyssean component of the Commedia is a major theme of The Undivine Comedy and of this Commento, and my usage of the epithet “Ulyssean” will be clarified as we proceed.

[21] The premise of Dante’s journey is that, like Ulysses, he has lost his way: “ché la diritta via era smarrita” (for the straight way was lost [Inf. 1.3]). Moreover, he is not just passively lost; he has actively abandoned the true way: “la verace via abbandonai” (Inf. 1.12). However, he spies a way forward. He arrives at a hill whose shoulders are clothed by the rays of the sun, named in periphrasis as the planet that leads men straight by all paths:

Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,
guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
(Inf. 1.13-18)
But when I’d reached the bottom of a hill—
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear—
I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.

[22] After resting, the protagonist sets out to climb the hill, “colle” in verse 13 (later called a mountain, in verse 77), whose heights are “dressed” in divine light. He attempts to climb the hill three times and three times he is repulsed and forced backward and downward, to perdition. The poet here creates a “stuttering” narrative texture of repeated “new beginnings” (see chapter 2 of Undivine Comedy), thus giving narrative life to the bumpy and ever-impeded paths of our existential lives. The three beasts who block the pilgrim’s way grow ever more fearsome: the first is a leopard (lonza), then comes a lion (leone), and finally a she-wolf (lupa). Traditionally the three beasts have been identified with lust (lonza), pride (leone), and avarice (lupa). Particularly important for the essential Dantean theme of desire as it will be unfolded throughout the Commedia is the lupa, who will be specifically recalled in Purgatorio 20.10-12 for her “fame sanza fine cupa” (dark hunger without end; these verses are quoted in the long passage from page 110 of The Undivine Comedy cited in paragraph 24 below). The she-wolf goes beyond a narrow definition of avarice and embodies the negative polarity in the spectrum of desire: cupiditas.

[23] Desire is defined in the Convivio as that which we lack: “ché nullo desidera quello che ha, ma quello che non ha, che è manifesto difetto” (for no one desires what he has, but what he does not have, which is manifest lack [Conv. 3.15.3]). Desire is defective, as I write in The Undivine Comedy:

Desire is defective, while the cessation of desire is happiness, beatitude, in a word perfection. Beatitude as spiritual autonomy — as emancipation from the new — is introduced as early as the Vita Nuova, where Dante learns to place his beatitudine not in Beatrice’s greeting, which can be removed (thus causing him to desire, to exist defectively), but in that which cannot fail him: “quello che non mi puote venire meno” (VN 18.4). Since nothing mortal can satisfy these conditions, we either learn from the failure of one object of desire to cease to desire mortal objects altogether, or we move forward along the path of life toward something else, something new. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 26)

[24] The description of the lupa connotes desire as lack, for she eats and remains hungry, embodying Augustinian cupidity and lack of peace:

The lupa of Inferno 1 illuminates the negative side of the basic human condition whereby disire è moto spiritale and recalls Augustine’s own reduction of all desire to spiritual motion, either in the form of “charity,” desire that moves toward God, or “cupidity,” desire that remains rooted in the flesh. As cupidity, our dark desire, the lupa is quintessentially without peace, “la bestia sanza pace” (Inf. 1.58). Her restlessness and insatiability denote unceasing spiritual motion, unceasing desire: heavy “with all longings” — “di tutte brame” (49) — her greedy craving is never filled, and after eating she is more hungry than before: “mai non empie la bramosa voglia, / e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria” [Inf. 1.98-99]). Her limitless hunger is both caused by unsatisfied desire and creates the condition for ever less satisfaction, since, in Augustine’s words, “When vices have emptied the soul and led it to a kind of extreme hunger, it leaps into crimes by means of which impediments to the vices may be removed or the vices themselves sustained” (De Doctrina Christiana 3.10.16). When the “antica lupa” is recalled as an emblem of cupidity on purgatory’s terrace of avarice (again indicating the common ground that underlies all the sins of inordinate desire), her “hunger without end” is once more her distinguishing characteristic: “Maladetta sie tu, antica lupa, / che più che tutte l’altre bestie hai preda / per la tua fame sanza fine cupa!” (Cursed be you, ancient wolf, who more than all the other beasts have prey, because of your deep hunger without end! [Purg. 20.10-12]). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 110)

[25] Desire is lack, but therefore it is also the imperative of forward motion: the “spiritual motion” in which we engage to fill the lack. As Dante tells us in Purgatorio 18, as part of the same discourse on desire that leads to the malediction of the “antica lupa” of Purgatorio 20.10-12, desire is spiritual motion: “disire, / ch’è moto spiritale” (Purg. 18.31-32]). Desire leads us astray, but desire also leads us to the good. How we negotiate our impulse of desire, whether we regulate it with our reason — these are the keys to our destiny. Desire for Dante is not wrong per se, but must always be controlled by reason, as discussed in the Commento on Inferno 5.

[26] Dante’s interest in the regulation of desire by reason leads him to value misura, the moderating force in the Aristotelian ethical scheme. Aristotle wrote on virtue as the mean between two vicious extremes in Nicomachean Ethics and Dante, by the time he came to write Inferno 1, had already meditated at length on the idea of virtue as the mean. Indeed, in his canzone Le dolci rime (ca. 1294), Dante translates Aristotle from Latin into Italian, referring to the Aristotelian “mean” in Italian as “mezzo”: “Quest’è, secondo che l’Etica dice, / un abito eligente / lo qual dimora in mezzo solamente” (This is, as the Ethics states, a “habit of choosing which keeps steadily to the mean” [Le dolci rime, 85–87; Foster-Boyde trans.]).

[27] One of the themes of this commentary is the degree to which the Aristotelian idea of virtue as the mean permeates the deep structures of Dante’s thought. In other words, although Dante certainly resonates to Augustine and other dualist Christian thinkers on the topic of desire, he does not keep his analysis within a binary structure, but opens it to an Aristotelian spectrum. It is important to grasp that Aristotle’s idea of the mezzo belongs within a unified and non-dualistic construction of human behavior. On this topic, see my essay “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” cited in Coordinated Reading above, and, for further elaboration of this belief-system, see the Commento on Inferno 5Inferno 7, and Inferno 11.

[28] As a further supplement to the commentary tradition on “Nel mezzo”, I propose that the word “mezzo” in the first verse of Inferno 1 reflects two fundamental Aristotelian usages. The first is metaphysical. I discussed above the echo of Aristotle’s Physics: Dante’s “mezzo” reprises the Aristotelian definition of time from the Physics, in which time is “a kind of middle-point, uniting in itself both a beginning and an end, a beginning of future time and an end of past time” (Physics 8.1.251b18-26). As was noted above, Aristotle on time was already cited by Dante in his prose treatise, Convivio. 

[29] The second Aristotelian usage implied in the word “mezzo” is ethical, for the word reflects as well the Aristotelian definition of virtue as the mean between vicious extremes from Nicomachean Ethics. As we saw, Dante explicitly translates Aristotle on the virtuous “mezzo” in the early canzone Le dolci rime (1294), a canzone to which he returns more than ten years later in Book 4 of the Convivio, devoted to a discussion of Aristotle’s ethical system in which virtue is the mean.

[30] Both these Aristotelian understandings — of virtue as the mean and of time as a middle-point, inform the first verse of the Commedia. The word mezzo in the Commedia’s first verse is thus Aristotelian as well as biblical and Horatian. It resonates both to Aristotle on time, in the metaphysical dimension, and to Aristotle on virtue, in the moral-ethical sphere.

* * *

[31] Throughout this reading of Inferno I use Italian “Virgilio” to refer to the character in Dante’s poem. In this way I distinguish the character “Virgilio” (invented by Dante Alighieri) from the historical person, Vergil, the Roman author of the Aeneid who lived from 70 BCE to 19 BCE. (On the reasons for my choice of spelling of “Vergil,” see Dante’s Poets, p. 207, n. 25.)

[32] The narrative structure of Inferno 1 makes the figure Virgilio a literally pivotal presence in the action of the first canto. Structurally and narratologically, Inferno 1 is a canto that divides into two parts: the part that precedes the arrival of Virgilio, and the part that follows the arrival of Virgilio. The first part of Inferno 1 takes place in an ambiguous surreal topography, one that is dream-like and uncanny, organized around mythic binaries: up/down, straight/crooked, light/dark, true/false, life/death. The actual landscape does not change until the entrance into Hell at the beginning of Inferno 3, but the narrative atmosphere, the poem’s tonality, shifts with the arrival of Virgilio, whose presence historicizes and grounds the text.

[33] In the first conversation between the pilgrim and Virgilio, Dante-poet moves his narrative from the mythic and visionary exordium of the poem (consider the visionary “sleep” of verse 11) toward that mimetic and historical engagement with “reality” for which the Commedia is renowned. 

[34] Indeed, the suture marks that tie the mythic to the historical are not hidden, but left visible, rendered visible by a detail that is worth noting, although to my knowledge not picked up by the secolare commento: the lupa is — remarkably, and quite unrealistically — present during the entire opening dialogue between Dante and Virgilio. What was Dante’s goal in writing this scene as he does? Why does he choose to construct the deeply unrealistic overlap between the presence of the daunting lupa, so fearsome that she blocks all passage, all forward motion, and the arrival of the Roman poet?

[35] With complete lack of verisimilitude, the terrifying beast waits quietly and patiently during many tercets of conversation. The dialogue between Dante and Virgilio begins in verse 65, when Dante-protagonist calls out, beseeching pity of the unknown shade who has just appeared, and yet only in verse 88 does Dante finally ask the Roman poet for help. Twenty-six verses have thus elapsed from the beginning of their conversation until the pilgrim, in verse 88, finally points to the lupa and asks for succor:

Vedi la bestia per cu’ io mi volsi:
aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
ch’ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi.  
(Inf. 1.88-90)
You see the beast that made me turn aside;
help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
for she has made my blood and pulses shudder.

[36] Virgilio begins to speak in verse 67, and his first words embed his character in temporal and geographical specificity (at times resulting in curious anachronisms, like his reference to his family as “Lombard” in verse 68). In the phrase “Nacqui sub Julio” (I was born under Julius [Inf. 1.70]), Virgilio situates himself in the time of Julius Caesar, thus locating himself with precision in the flow of human history. He then announces that he was a poet and explains, by circumlocution, that he wrote the Aeneid (73-75). Virgilio at this point focuses on his interlocutor and asks Dante why he is going backwards rather than forwards. Why is he returning to the darkness whence he came?: “Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?” (But why do you return to wretchedness? [Inf. 1.76]). Why isn’t he climbing the “delightful mountain” (a reference to the colle of verse 13) that is “the origin and cause of every joy”: “perché non sali il dilettoso monte / ch’è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?” (77-78). Dante-traveler does not answer these questions, although they offer the opportunity to address the presence of the she-wolf. In effect the pilgrim rejects the opportunity to beg for protection from the lupa. Why? Because he experiences overwhelming desire to focus on the identity of the shade whom he has just met.

[37] Dante replies to the shade of the Roman poet by posing his own amazed question, which amounts to “Are you really Virgilio?”: “Or se’ tu quel Virgilio . . . ?” (And are you then that Vergil . . . ? [Inf. 1.79]). In the slippage between the question posed by Virgilio, which pertains to the canto’s major plot-line of Dante’s failure, fear, and distress, and the protagonist’s digressive reply, which opens a new plot-line regarding Dante’s overpowering love for Vergil and his poetry — a love that in the moment takes precedence even over seeking refuge from the lupa and being able to climb the mountain that leads to salvation — we learn something new about this poet. We see how Dante-poet uses dialogue to generate new plot-lines and thus diegetic complexity. He also uses dialogue to construct character.

[38] Virgilio now explains figuratively the nature of the lupa and the threat that the beast poses: “e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria” (when she has fed, she’s hungrier than before [Inf. 1.99]). We infer that the negative desire the lupa embodies is cupiditas, an ever-unsatisfied hunger and greed that can never be filled. The lupa is so fierce an impediment that the hill that she blocks cannot be climbed; in the next canto she is called precisely the beast “che del bel monte il corto andar ti tolse” (that barred the shortest way up the fair mountain [Inf. 2.120]). Unable to go directly upward, Dante must take a much longer route to the heights by traversing the three realms of the afterlife. Describing the three realms, Virgilio tells Dante that he will eventually come to a place where he must leave him and where another guide, a woman, will take his place: “con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire” (With her at my departure I will leave thee [Inf. 1.123]).

[39] This verse, “con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire” (With her at my departure I will leave thee), is signally important: it provides a benchmark that the reader can use to measure Dante’s ability to conjure real affect in real time. Right now, in Inferno 1, Dante-protagonist (and mirroring him the reader) pays little attention to this announcement of Virgilio’s eventual departure. However, when that departure occurs in Purgatorio 30, much time and textual space later, the protagonist (and in my experience as a teacher, most readers) will be distraught, experiencing Virgilio’s “partire” as a personal abandonment. Between Inferno 1 and Purgatorio 30, therefore, Dante-poet moves Dante-pilgrim from a poetic enthusiast who does not care that Virgilio will ultimately leave him to the man whose sorrow at his loss of his father-guide will momentarily eclipse the arrival of his original lost beloved, Beatrice.

[40] Let us return to the lovely interlude in which the pilgrim reacts with amazement to being in the presence of a poet whose work has been of seminal importance to him in his own poetic self-fashioning (Inf. 1.82-87). We readers, too, in mimetic reflection of the pilgrim, should be amazed: the guide chosen for this quintessentially Christian quest is the great author of the Latin epic of the founding of Rome. Through the creation of the character of Virgilio and the storyline that he devises for him, Dante-poet engages his deep feelings about classical antiquity, a major theme of this poem.

[41] Dante’s feelings about classical culture are authentic and conflictual, not in any way ironic. Dante’s adoration of classical culture is real: in historiographic terms, Dante’s veneration of classical culture certainly qualifies as an early form of humanism, as will be discussed in the Commento on Inferno 4. But, if Dante’s veneration of classical culture is real, so too is his concern about the non-Christianity of that culture. It is typical of Dante to present us with a paradoxical and challenging both/and, rather than with a simplistic either/or.

[42] Thus, Dante has his character Virgilio announce that he lived “in the time of the false and lying gods” (“nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi” [Inf. 1.72]), but he also makes clear his “great love” for the Roman poet: “O de li altri poeti onore e lume / vagliami ’l lungo studio e ’l grande amore / che m’ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume” (O light and honor of all other poets, / may my long study and the intense love / that made me search your volume serve me now [Inf. 1.82-84]). Both statements reflect genuine belief and genuine feeling: Dante does indeed consider Vergil to have lived in a time of false deities, and at the same time he does truly love and honor Vergil’s poetry. Dante’s love for the poet Vergil, which takes poetic form as the protagonist’s love for the character Virgilio, structures conflict and tension into the Commedia. In retrospect we understand that this conflict and tension are already present in the first canto.

[43] The Commedia will give us ample opportunity to ponder the novelty and significance of a Christian poet who chooses a Roman poet not only as his poetic model but also as a vehicle of his salvation. In Inferno 1 Dante stakes enormous claims for Virgilio, and hence for classical poetry. This he does through his usage of four key words: poeta, saggio, volume, and autore. In chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets, I trace these four words in the Commedia. The following passage focuses on volume and autore:

As compared to poeta and saggio, terms that describe a trajectory or progression, volume and autore are used in only two contexts: in Inferno for Vergil, and in Paradiso for God. The transition is so immense that it both heightens Vergil, the only poet who is an autore and whose book is a volume, and shrinks him by comparison with that other autore, Who is God, and that other volume, which is God’s book (volume is used variously in the last canticle, but always with relation to texts “written by” God, for instance the book of the future, the book of justice, the universe gathered into one volume). Moreover, when God is termed an author, He is not “’l mio autore” (Inf. 1.85), but the “verace autore” (Par. 26.40). (Dante’s Poets, p. 268)

[44] While the words volume and autore are used only for Virgilio and God, the word poeta traces a poetic lineage in the Commedia. This genealogy leads to Dante himself, in a crescendo that moves from Vergil to Statius to Dante:

If Statius replaces Vergil in Purgatorio 22 when he appropriates for himself (albeit in modified form) the name poeta, the final displacement is accomplished by Dante, when he becomes the only poeta of the last canticle, announcing in Paradiso 25 that he shall return as poet to Florence to receive the laurel crown. Although that hope was never fulfilled, the impact of the phrase “ritornerò poeta” remains undiminished at a textual level, since it reveals the arc Dante has inscribed into his poem through the restricted use of the word poeta: the poetic mantle passes from the classical poets, essentially Vergil, to a transitional poet, whose Christianity is disjunct from his poetic practice (and hence the verse in Purgatorio 22 with its neat caesura: “Per te poeta fui, per te cristiano” [73]), to the poet whose Christian faith is a sine qua non of his poetics. (Dante’s Poets, p. 269)

[45] The poetic genealogy that is inscribed into the Commedia reveals the arc of poetic history moving from Vergil to Statius to Dante himself. It is this arc that I attempt to capture in the sub-titles of chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets: “Vergil: Poeta fui” (“I was a poet”, citing Inf. 1.73), “Statius: Per te poeta fui” (“Through you I was a poet”, citing Purg. 22.73), and “Dante: ritornerò poeta” (“I shall return as poet”, citing Par. 25.8). This poetic genealogy, which is unfolded incrementally, works both to single out Vergil for special honor and ultimately to displace him.

[46] The history that pierces the mythic penumbra of the Commedia’s overture is Roman history. The first historic moment of consequence that we encounter in this Christian poem belongs to classical antiquity, which is then sutured to contemporary Italy. Contemporary Italy — “Italia” of verse 106 (it is far from transparent what “Italia” signifies in the fourteenth century, as Dante is well aware) — is invoked as the “umile Italia” for which Vergilian heroes and heroines gave their lives in the past, in an uninterrupted continuum:

Di quella umile Italia fia salute
per cui morì la vergine Cammilla,
Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.  
(Inf. 1.106-8) 
He will restore humble Italy for which
the maid Camilla died of wounds,
and Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus.

[47] Myth meets history, and the Commedia has begun.

* * *


 

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits: The Poetics of the New,” pp. 21-26, 26-29; Chapter 5, “Purgatory as Paradigm,” p. 110; “Guittone’s Ora parrà, Dante’s Doglia mi reca, and the Commedia’s Discourse of Desire,” 1997, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), pp. 47-69;   “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” 2000, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, pp. 102-21; “Aristotle’s Mezzo, Courtly Misura, and Dante’s Canzone Le dolci rime: Humanism, Ethics, and Social Anxiety,” in Dante and the Greeks, ed. Jan Ziolkowski (Cambridge: Harvard U. Press, 2014), pp. 163-79; Dante's Poets (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1984), chapter 3.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 1: Myth Meets History, Isaiah Meets Aristotle.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-1/
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Commento Table of Contents

1 Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
2 mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
3 ché la diritta via era smarrita.

4 Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
5 esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
6 che nel pensier rinova la paura!

7 Tant’ è amara che poco è più morte;
8 ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
9 dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

10 Io non so ben ridir com’ i’ v’intrai,
11 tant’ era pien di sonno a quel punto
12 che la verace via abbandonai.

13 Ma poi ch’i’ fui al piè d’un colle giunto,
14 là dove terminava quella valle
15 che m’avea di paura il cor compunto,

16 guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
17 vestite già de’ raggi del pianeta
18 che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.

19 Allor fu la paura un poco queta
20 che nel lago del cor m’era durata
21 la notte ch’i’ passai con tanta pieta.

22 E come quei che con lena affannata
23 uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
24 si volge a l’acqua perigliosa e guata,

25 così l’animo mio, ch’ancor fuggiva,
26 si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
27 che non lasciò già mai persona viva.

28 Poi ch’èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
29 ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
30 sì che ’l piè fermo sempre era ’l più basso.

31 Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l’erta,
32 una lonza leggera e presta molto,
33 che di pel macolato era coverta;

34 e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,
35 anzi ’mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
36 ch’i’ fui per ritornar più volte vòlto.

37 Temp’ era dal principio del mattino,
38 e ’l sol montava ’n sù con quelle stelle
39 ch’eran con lui quando l’amor divino

40 mosse di prima quelle cose belle;
41 sì ch’a bene sperar m’era cagione
42 di quella fiera a la gaetta pelle

43 l’ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;
44 ma non sì che paura non mi desse
45 la vista che m’apparve d’un leone.

46 Questi parea che contra me venisse
47 con la test’ alta e con rabbiosa fame,
48 sì che parea che l’aere ne tremesse.

49 Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
50 sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza,
51 e molte genti fé già viver grame,

52 questa mi porse tanto di gravezza
53 con la paura ch’uscia di sua vista,
54 ch’io perdei la speranza de l’altezza.

55 E qual è quei che volontieri acquista,
56 e giugne ’l tempo che perder lo face,
57 che ’n tutti suoi pensier piange e s’attrista;

58 tal mi fece la bestia sanza pace,
59 che, venendomi ’ncontro, a poco a poco
60 mi ripigneva là dove ’l sol tace.

61 Mentre ch’i’ rovinava in basso loco,
62 dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
63 chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.

64 Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
65 «Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
66 «qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».

67 Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
68 e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
69 mantoani per patrïa ambedui.

70 Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,
71 e vissi a Roma sotto ’l buono Augusto
72 nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.

73 Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
74 figliuol d’Anchise che venne di Troia,
75 poi che ’l superbo Ilión fu combusto.

76 Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
77 perché non sali il dilettoso monte
78 ch’è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?».

79 «Or se’ tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
80 che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?»,
81 rispuos’ io lui con vergognosa fronte.

82 «O de li altri poeti onore e lume
83 vagliami ’l lungo studio e ’l grande amore
84 che m’ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.

85 Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore;
86 tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi
87 lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore.

88 Vedi la bestia per cu’ io mi volsi:
89 aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
90 ch’ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi».

91 «A te convien tenere altro vïaggio»,
92 rispuose poi che lagrimar mi vide,
93 «se vuo’ campar d’esto loco selvaggio;

94 ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
95 non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
96 ma tanto lo ’mpedisce che l’uccide;

97 e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
98 che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
99 e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria.

100 Molti son li animali a cui s’ammoglia,
101 e più saranno ancora, infin che ’l veltro
102 verrà, che la farà morir con doglia.

103 Questi non ciberà terra né peltro,
104 ma sapïenza, amore e virtute,
105 e sua nazion sarà tra feltro e feltro.

106 Di quella umile Italia fia salute
107 per cui morì la vergine Cammilla,
108 Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.

109 Questi la caccerà per ogne villa,
110 fin che l’avrà rimessa ne lo ’nferno,
111 là onde ’nvidia prima dipartilla.

112 Ond’ io per lo tuo me’ penso e discerno
113 che tu mi segui, e io sarò tua guida,
114 e trarrotti di qui per loco etterno,

115 ove udirai le disperate strida,
116 vedrai li antichi spiriti dolenti,
117 ch’a la seconda morte ciascun grida;

118 e vederai color che son contenti
119 nel foco, perché speran di venire
120 quando che sia a le beate genti.

121 A le quai poi se tu vorrai salire,
122 anima fia a ciò più di me degna:
123 con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire;

124 ché quello imperador che là sù regna,
125 perch’ i’ fu’ ribellante a la sua legge,
126 non vuol che ’n sua città per me si vegna.

127 In tutte parti impera e quivi regge;
128 quivi è la sua città e l’alto seggio:
129 oh felice colui cu’ ivi elegge!».

130 E io a lui: «Poeta, io ti richeggio
131 per quello Dio che tu non conoscesti,
132 acciò ch’io fugga questo male e peggio,

133 che tu mi meni là dov’or dicesti,
134 sì ch’io veggia la porta di san Pietro
135 e color cui tu fai cotanto mesti».

136 Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro.

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter—death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.

I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

But when I’d reached the bottom of a hill—
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear—

I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.

At this my fear was somewhat quieted;
for through the night of sorrow I had spent,
the lake within my heart felt terror present.

And just as he who, with exhausted breath,
having escaped from sea to shore, turns back
to watch the dangerous waters he has quit,

so did my spirit, still a fugitive,
turn back to look intently at the pass
that never has let any man survive.

I let my tired body rest awhile.
Moving again, I tried the lonely slope—
my firm foot always was the one below.

And almost where the hillside starts to rise—
look there!—a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.

He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.

The time was the beginning of the morning;
the sun was rising now in fellowship
with the same stars that had escorted it

when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;
so that the hour and the gentle season
gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing

that beast before me with his speckled skin;
but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.

His head held high and ravenous with hunger—
even the air around him seemed to shudder—
this lion seemed to make his way against me.

And then a she—wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many.

The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.

Even as he who glories while he gains
will, when the time has come to tally loss,
lament with every thought and turn despondent,

so was I when I faced that restless beast
which, even as she stalked me, step by step
had thrust me back to where the sun is speechless.

While I retreated down to lower ground,
before my eyes there suddenly appeared
one who seemed faint because of the long silence.

When I saw him in that vast wilderness,
“Have pity on me,” were the words I cried,
“whatever you may be—a shade, a man.”

He answered me: “Not man; I once was man.
Both of my parents came from Lombardy,
and both claimed Mantua as native city.

And I was born, though late, sub Julio,
and lived in Rome under the good Augustus—
the season of the false and lying gods.

I was a poet, and I sang the righteous
son of Anchises who had come from Troy
when flames destroyed the pride of Ilium.

But why do you return to wretchedness?
Why not climb up the mountain of delight,
the origin and cause of every joy?”

“And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?”
I answered him with shame upon my brow.

“O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.

You are my master and my author, you—
the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored.

You see the beast that made me turn aside;
help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
for she has made my blood and pulses shudder,”

“It is another path that you must take,”
he answered when he saw my tearfulness,
“if you would leave this savage wilderness;

the beast that is the cause of your outcry
allows no man to pass along her track,
but blocks him even to the point of death;

her nature is so squalid, so malicious
that she can never sate her greedy will;
when she has fed, she’s hungrier than ever.

She mates with many living souls and shall
yet mate with many more, until the Greyhound
arrives, inflicting painful death on her.

That Hound will never feed on land or pewter,
but find his fare in wisdom, love, and virtue;
his place of birth shall be between two felts.

He will restore low-lying Italy for which
the maid Camilla died of wounds,
and Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus.

And he will hunt that beast through every city
until he thrusts her back again to Hell,
for which she was first sent above by envy.

Therefore, I think and judge it best for you
to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking
you from this place through an eternal place,

where you shall hear the howls of desperation
and see the ancient spirits in their pain,
as each of them laments his second death;

and you shall see those souls who are content
within the fire, for they hope to reach—
whenever that may be-the blessed people.

If you would then ascend as high as these,
a soul more worthy than I am will guide you;
I’ll leave you in her care when I depart,

because that Emperor who reigns above,
since I have been rebellious to His law,
will not allow me entry to His city.

He governs everywhere, but rules from there;
there is His city, His high capital:
o happy those He chooses to be there!”

And I replied: “O poet-by that God
whom you had never come to know—I beg you,
that I may flee this evil and worse evils,

to lead me to the place of which you spoke,
that I may see the gateway of Saint Peter
and those whom you describe as sorrowful.”

Then he set out, and I moved on behind him.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
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,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

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

Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
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.

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

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
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.

The time was the beginning of the morning,
And up the sun was mounting with those stars
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 variegated 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.

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;

And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
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

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

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,
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
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.

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
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,
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,
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;
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.

He governs everywhere 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 disconsolate.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

When I had journeyed half of our life’s way,
I found myself within a shadowed forest,
for I had lost the path that does not stray.

Ah, it is hard to speak of what it was,
that savage forest, dense and difficult,
which even in recall renews my fear:

so bitter—death is hardly more severe!
But to retell the good discovered there,
I’ll also tell the other things I saw.

I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.

But when I’d reached the bottom of a hill—
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear—

I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.

At this my fear was somewhat quieted;
for through the night of sorrow I had spent,
the lake within my heart felt terror present.

And just as he who, with exhausted breath,
having escaped from sea to shore, turns back
to watch the dangerous waters he has quit,

so did my spirit, still a fugitive,
turn back to look intently at the pass
that never has let any man survive.

I let my tired body rest awhile.
Moving again, I tried the lonely slope—
my firm foot always was the one below.

And almost where the hillside starts to rise—
look there!—a leopard, very quick and lithe,
a leopard covered with a spotted hide.

He did not disappear from sight, but stayed;
indeed, he so impeded my ascent
that I had often to turn back again.

The time was the beginning of the morning;
the sun was rising now in fellowship
with the same stars that had escorted it

when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty;
so that the hour and the gentle season
gave me good cause for hopefulness on seeing

that beast before me with his speckled skin;
but hope was hardly able to prevent
the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.

His head held high and ravenous with hunger—
even the air around him seemed to shudder—
this lion seemed to make his way against me.

And then a she—wolf showed herself; she seemed
to carry every craving in her leanness;
she had already brought despair to many.

The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.

Even as he who glories while he gains
will, when the time has come to tally loss,
lament with every thought and turn despondent,

so was I when I faced that restless beast
which, even as she stalked me, step by step
had thrust me back to where the sun is speechless.

While I retreated down to lower ground,
before my eyes there suddenly appeared
one who seemed faint because of the long silence.

When I saw him in that vast wilderness,
“Have pity on me,” were the words I cried,
“whatever you may be—a shade, a man.”

He answered me: “Not man; I once was man.
Both of my parents came from Lombardy,
and both claimed Mantua as native city.

And I was born, though late, sub Julio,
and lived in Rome under the good Augustus—
the season of the false and lying gods.

I was a poet, and I sang the righteous
son of Anchises who had come from Troy
when flames destroyed the pride of Ilium.

But why do you return to wretchedness?
Why not climb up the mountain of delight,
the origin and cause of every joy?”

“And are you then that Virgil, you the fountain
that freely pours so rich a stream of speech?”
I answered him with shame upon my brow.

“O light and honor of all other poets,
may my long study and the intense love
that made me search your volume serve me now.

You are my master and my author, you—
the only one from whom my writing drew
the noble style for which I have been honored.

You see the beast that made me turn aside;
help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
for she has made my blood and pulses shudder,”

“It is another path that you must take,”
he answered when he saw my tearfulness,
“if you would leave this savage wilderness;

the beast that is the cause of your outcry
allows no man to pass along her track,
but blocks him even to the point of death;

her nature is so squalid, so malicious
that she can never sate her greedy will;
when she has fed, she’s hungrier than ever.

She mates with many living souls and shall
yet mate with many more, until the Greyhound
arrives, inflicting painful death on her.

That Hound will never feed on land or pewter,
but find his fare in wisdom, love, and virtue;
his place of birth shall be between two felts.

He will restore low-lying Italy for which
the maid Camilla died of wounds,
and Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus.

And he will hunt that beast through every city
until he thrusts her back again to Hell,
for which she was first sent above by envy.

Therefore, I think and judge it best for you
to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking
you from this place through an eternal place,

where you shall hear the howls of desperation
and see the ancient spirits in their pain,
as each of them laments his second death;

and you shall see those souls who are content
within the fire, for they hope to reach—
whenever that may be-the blessed people.

If you would then ascend as high as these,
a soul more worthy than I am will guide you;
I’ll leave you in her care when I depart,

because that Emperor who reigns above,
since I have been rebellious to His law,
will not allow me entry to His city.

He governs everywhere, but rules from there;
there is His city, His high capital:
o happy those He chooses to be there!”

And I replied: “O poet-by that God
whom you had never come to know—I beg you,
that I may flee this evil and worse evils,

to lead me to the place of which you spoke,
that I may see the gateway of Saint Peter
and those whom you describe as sorrowful.”

Then he set out, and I moved on behind him.

MIDWAY upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
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,
At that point where the valley terminated,
Which had with consternation pierced my heart,

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

Then was the fear a little quieted
That in my heart’s lake had endured throughout
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.

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

And lo! almost where the ascent began,
A panther light and swift exceedingly,
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.

The time was the beginning of the morning,
And up the sun was mounting with those stars
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 variegated 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.

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;

And a she-wolf, that with all hungerings
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

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

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,
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
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.

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
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,
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,
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;
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.

He governs everywhere 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 disconsolate.”

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

Related video

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Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 1

For more readings by Francesco Bausi, see the Bausi Readings page.