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The Divine Comedy, Canto 1
by Dante Alighieri  /  poetry  /  12 Oct 2007

ARGUMENT:  Dante, astray in a wood, reaches the foot of a mountain, but is hindered by three beasts.  He meets Virgil, who proposes to guide him into the world of the eternal.

      Midway through the journey of our mortal life,
      I found myself in a shadowy forest,
      astray, having lost the path.

      Even to tell of it is no easy task,
5     how savage that wild forest, how dense and difficult
      that merely remembering renews my fear,

      in bitterness not far from death.
      But in order to tell the goodness I discovered there,
      I will make myself speak of everything else I saw.

10   I cannot say, with any clarity, how I had gotten there;
      I felt so dull with sleep at the time
      when I abandoned the true path.

      But when I had reached the foot of a mountain,
      which rose up from the end of that valley
15   which had battered my heart with dread,

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

      I felt, then, a little respite to the fear
20   that had made me pass the night so pitifully
      and terrorized the calm recesses of my heart.

      As a man exhausted, short of breath
      from escaping the distressing sea to arrive, at last, on shore,
      turns back and stares at those wide and dangerous waters,

25   so too did my soul, still escaping,
      turn back to see the passage
      that none living has ever survived.

      I rested my weary body for a while,
      then continued on, up that lonely slope,
30   making sure my back foot always had firm footing.

      I had barely begun the climb when, in horror,
      I spotted a leopard, light on his feet and swift,
      its skin covered with spots.

      It never disappeared from sight, but rather
35   took care to stay in my way, so much that,
      again and again, I had to turn back and retreat.

      The morning had just broken, and
      the sun was rising, in brotherhood with
      those same stars that were with it when

40   divine Love first set into motion those beautiful works.
      The morning dawn, that sweet season,
      even the spotted skin of that wild beast,

      all conspired to grant me some joyous hope –
      but not enough to shield me
45   from the fear I felt when I saw a lion coming into view,

      his head held high, ravenous with hunger,
      and when he came towards me, as if to confront me,
      even the air seemed struck with fear.

      At his heels closely followed a she-wolf:
50   in her leanness, she seemed full of every craving,
      and had already brought many to grief.

      She overwhelmed me with such fear,
      and the sight of her so appalled,
      that all hope of continuing the climb fell away from me.

55   Like someone who glories in his gains,
      and comes in turn upon his time to lose,
      then mourns with every thought and turns despondent,

      so was I, stripped of peace by that relentless beast
      which stalked me, hounding me, step by step, backwards
60   by degrees until she thrust me where the sun is mute.

      While I retreated backward, towards the lowland,
      there appeared before my eyes a man
      whose voice seemed faint through long disuse of speech.

      When I saw him in that vast wilderness,
65   I cried out to him, "Have pity on me,
      whatever you may be, whether spirit or a mortal man!"

      He answered me:  "I am not a man, though once I was.
      Both my parents came from Lombardy,
      and both had Mantua as their native city.

70   I was born beneath Julius, though late in his reign,
      but spent my life beneath the good Augustus
      in the time of false gods and fabled lies.

      I was a poet, and I made the subject of my song
      the righteous son of Anchises, who came out of Troy
75   when flames devoured the pride of Ilium.

      But you, why do you return to dangers left behind you?
      Why not ascend this pleasant mountain,
      the source and cause of every joy?"

      "Are you, then, that Virgil, that fountain
80   from which such copious floods of eloquence spring forth?"
      I replied with shame upon my forehead.

      "Light and honor of all other poets,
      may the intense love with which I have long studied
      and searched your volume serve me now!

85   You are my master and my author,
      from you alone have I have drawn
      the noble style for which I have been honored.

      You see this beast, from which I fled.
      Famous sage, save me from her!
90   She has made my blood and pulse tremble."

      "You have to take another path,"
      he answered when he saw that I was weeping,
      "if you wish to escape this savage wilderness.

      This beast which makes you cry out
95   will permit no man to pass,
      and would block you even unto death.

      Her nature is so cursed, so ruthless,
      that her greedy will is never satisfied,
      and only grows hungrier after eating.

100  She fastens in vile wedlock with many an animal,
      and shall again to many more, until the greyhound
      comes who shall kill her – and painfully so.

      He will not feed on earth, nor its metals,
      but instead on wisdom, love, and virtue,
105  and his nation shall be between Feltro and Feltro.

      He will be the savior of low-lying Italy,
      for which the virgin Camilla,
      Nisus, Euryalus, and Turnus died from wounds.

      He will hunt that beast through every town,
110  until he drives her back to Hell,
      where she first left through envy.

      I therefore think it best for you to follow me,
      and I propose be your guide
      and lead you from here through the eternal space.

115  There, you will hear the desperate pleas
      and will see the ancient, tormented spirits,
      as each of them cry begging for a second death.

      And you will see those souls who are content
      within the fire, hoping to reach
120  (whenever that time may be) the blessed people –

      to whom, if you wish to continue to ascend,
      a spirit worthier than me must guide you,
      and I'll leave you in her care when I depart.

      That emperor, who reigns above,
125  because I was rebellion to his law,
      will not permit me to come into his city.

      He governs everywhere, but reigns from there:
      there is his capital and his high throne.
      How happy must be those whom he chooses to be there!"

130  I replied:  "Poet, I beg you,
      by that God you never came to know,
      to lead me where you spoke of,

      that I may escape this evil and worse,
      that I may see gateway of Saint Peter,
135  and those whom you say are so sorrowful."

      He moved onward, and I followed, close in his steps.

Text by Julian Darius in consultation with multiple translations, including H. F. Cary's and H. W. Longfellow's.  Blue text indicates Dante's speech; red text indicates Virgil's; green here inicates that of Minos or Francesca.  Illustrations by Gustave Doré from the 1892 Cary edition.  Argument based on the 1891 Charles Eliot Norton edition.

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The Divine Comedy:
The Divine Comedy, Canto 1
The Divine Comedy, Canto 2
The Divine Comedy, Canto 5
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