Myth Meets History, Isaiah Meets Aristotle

  • life=voyage: Aristotle’s definition of time as a “middle-point” (“mezzo”)
  • mythic binaries in a visionary landscape
  • the universe governed by love: “l’amor divino” caused the stars to move in the moment of creation (verses 39-40)
  • la lupa as the embodiment of negative desire: from the existential to the ethical mezzo
  • Vergil/Virgilio: the introduction of history, from Roman history to that of contemporary “Italia” (106), from Roman poetry (the Aeneid) to contemporary Italian poetry (Dante describes himself as a poet who owes his “beautiful style” to Vergil)
  • the development of a virtual reality and the construction of character
  • mixing of classical with Christian yields a new hybrid textuality; classical culture both in bono and in malo
  • a blueprint of the afterlife

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 2?

In the first two canti of the Commedia, Dante-protagonist engages in conversations (with Virgilio, to whom we shall return) that lay out the ideological premises of the journey that he is about to undertake. Inferno 1 and 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 2 lay the ideological foundation without which the pilgrim’s journey would lack credibility.[1] 

Because, in Inferno 1 and 2, Dante-poet is creating the premises that enable the subsequent action to occur—and that enable the reader to suspend credibility and to “believe” in that action—he is already engaged in the Commedia’s great project of creating a virtual reality.

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 114-17 describe hell, verses 118-20 describe purgatory, and verses 121-29 refer to paradise. Together, this section offers a blueprint of the entire journey, of all 100 canti of the poem.

The Commedia is the story of a journey: a journey through the Christian “after-life” of hell, purgatory, and paradise. Ideas of the afterlife have histories, like all ideas, and Dante has a place in the history of the imagining of the Christian afterlife, one that can be traced and debated. His 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).

The premise of Dante’s journey as related in Inferno 1 is that he has lost his way—“ché la diritta via era smarrita” (for the straight way was lost [Inf. 1.3])—and that he is then found and aided by Virgilio. His guide was sent to rescue him by the same transcendent principle—the “divine love” of verse 39—that at the beginning of time first set the stars to moving in the heavens: “quando l’amor divino / mosse di prima quelle cose belle” (when Divine Love first moved those things of beauty [Inf. 1.39-40]). Dante will tell us more about the force that sent Virgilio in Inferno 2.

In the first verses of the poem, the pilgrim is lost in a dark wood at the mid-way point of life’s path, which is to say, at 35 years old. Very conveniently, Dante was born in 1265 and in 1300, the year he stipulates for his afterlife journey, he was precisely 35, midway through a lifespan of 70 years (see Psalm 90:10: “Our days may come to seventy years). The poet has combined biblical and classical motifs to create a uniquely hybrid “mixed” 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” (Ars Poetica, 148).

To the above intertexts for the concept of being in the middle (“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 cites Aristotle on time 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]).

Dante’s use of the word “mezzo” in the first verse of his poem alerts us to our existential being in time—“a kind of middle-point” according to Aristotle—and possesses a metaphysical valence.

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” (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, but the path is one, for the experience of life as a journey through time and space is an experience shared by all.

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: 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 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 part of the poem.[2]

The protagonist sets out to climb a hill whose heights are bathed in divine light. He is repulsed three times and forced backward and downward by three beasts: by the leopard (lonza), by the lion (leone), and ultimately by the she-wolf (lupa). Particularly important for the essential Dantean theme of desire is the lupa, for the she-wolf represents the negative pole of the Commedia’s spectrum of desire.

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)

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)

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, 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 Introduction to Inferno 5.

Dante’s interest in the regulation of desire by reason leads him to value misura, the mean or mezzo in the Aristotelian ethical sense. 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 on the topic of desire, he does not keep his analysis within a binary structure, but opens it to a spectrum, for 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 the Introductions to Inferno 5Inferno 7, and Inferno 11.

The word mezzo in the poem’s first verse thus possesses both metaphysical and moral significance.

* * *

Structurally, Inferno 1 is a canto that divides into 2 parts: the part that precedes the arrival of Virgilio, and the part that follows the arrival of Virgilio.[3] 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.

In the dialogue between the pilgrim and Virgilio, Dante-poet moves his narrative from the mythic and visionary exordium (the visionary “sleep” of verse 11) toward that mimetic and historical engagement with “reality” for which the Commedia is renowned. Indeed, the suture marks that tie the mythic to the historical are apparent when we consider that the lupa is—rather unrealistically—present during the entire encounter with Virgilio. The lupa drives Dante back and, in verse 62, Virgilio appears and the encounter between the two poets ensues. In verse 88, 26 verses later, the encounter with Virgilio ends; now finally the pilgrim points to the lupa that had terrified him prior to the Latin poet’s arrival, and asks for help:

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.

Virgilio’s first words embed the 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 history.

Virgilio asks Dante why he is going in the wrong direction, why he isn’t climbing the mountain that is “the origin and cause of every joy” (78). Dante does not answer these questions, although they offer the opportunity to address the presence of the she-wolf. In effect the pilgrim turns down the opportunity to beg for protection from the lupa, because he is much more interested by the identity of the shade whom he has just met.

Dante replies 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, which pertains to the canto’s major plot-line of Dante’s distress, and the 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—we see how Dante-poet uses dialogue to generate new plot-lines and to construct character.

After his arrival Virgilio explains the nature of the lupa and the threat that the beast poses. The all-encompassing negative desire that she embodies is cupidigia, an ever-unsatisfied hunger and greed that can never be filled: “e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria” (when she has fed, she’s hungrier than before [Inf. 1.99]). The lupa is so fierce an impediment that the hill she blocks cannot be climbed. 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]).

This verse, “con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire”—”With her at my departure I will leave thee”—provides a benchmark for the reader to measure Dante’s ability to conjure real affect in real time through the medium of language. 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 most readers) will be distraught, experiencing Virgilio’s “partire” as a personal abandonment.

Inferno 1 ends with the pilgrim’s embrace of Virgilio as his leader and guide. In the canto’s last verse the journey apparently begins: “Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro” (Then he moved on, and I behind him followed [Inf. 1.136]). And yet, the beginning will be delayed, and Inferno 2 will again end with verses that signal the beginning of the journey: “Così li dissi; e poi che mosso fue, / intrai per lo cammino alto e silvestro” (These were my words to him; when he advanced / I entered on the steep and savage path [Inf. 2.141-2]).

Dante in this way stages the beginning of the Commedia with multiple new beginnings, using a textured and layered approach that functions as a mimetic signifier of lived experience: life accrues incrementally as a function of time and is a state in which there are no beginnings and endings, for 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” (Aristotle, Physics 8.1.251b18-26). As discussed in chapter 2 of The Undivine Comedy, the poem’s rhyme scheme, terza rima, is a metrical embodiment of these same principles:

If we consider aba/bcb/cdc, we see that in each tercet the new enters in the form of the second or middle rhyme, while the rhyme that was “new” in the previous tercet becomes “old,” becomes the base onto which the newer new is added. This process, whereby an alterity, the new rhyme, becomes the identity of the subsequent tercet, imitates the genealogical flow of human history, in which the creation of each new identity requires the grafting of alterity onto a previous identity. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 25)

I mentioned 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 story-line that he devises for him, Dante-poet engages his deep feelings about classical antiquity, a key theme of this poem.

Dante’s feelings about classical culture are authentic and conflictual: Dante’s adoration of classical culture is real, as is his concern about the non-Christianity of that culture. Thus, he 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]). Dante’s love for Virgilio, and by extension for classical culture, is a great theme of the Commedia.

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. Let me note here that at the end of Inferno 1 Dante makes enormous claims for Vergil, and hence for classical poetry. In chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets, I trace Dante’s usage in the Commedia of four words that he uses for Virgilio in Inferno 1, namely poeta, saggio, 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)

Compared to the words volume and autore, used only for Virgilio and God, the word poeta traces an important trajectory in the Commedia. This trajectory leads to Dante himself, in a crescendo that moves from Vergil to Statius to Dante (thus the sub-titles of chapter 3 of Dante’s Poets are: “Vergil: Poeta fui”, “Statius: Per te poeta fui”, and “Dante: ritornerò poeta”):

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)

The story that both singles out Virgilio for special honor and displaces him ultimately with Dante himself will unfold incrementally throughout the Commedia, as life unfolds incrementally for all of us.

The history that pierces the mythic penumbra of the Commedia’s overture is Roman history. The first historic stage that we encounter in this Christian poem is that of classical antiquity, which is immediately sutured to contemporary Italy. “Italia” in the present (it is far from transparent what “Italia” is in the fourteenth century, as Dante is well aware) is invoked as the place 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.

Myth meets history, and the Commedia has begun.


[1] I will use terms like “hero,” “protagonist,” and “pilgrim” to refer to the character who says “I” in this story, in order to distinguish him from the poet. The poet is the man named Dante Alighieri, who was born in Florence in 1265 and died in Ravenna in 1321.

[2] My usage of “Ulyssean” will be clarified going forward and is a major theme of The Undivine Comedy.

[3] I will throughout this commentary use “Virgilio” for the character in Dante’s poem to distinguish that character from Vergil, the Roman author of the Aeneid who lived from 70 BCE to 19 BCE. On the issue of the spelling of “Vergil,” see Dante’s Poets, p. 207, n. 25.

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, chapter 3.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 1: Myth Meets History, Isaiah Meets Aristotle.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-1/

About the Commento

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.

Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 1

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