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The Divine Comedy, Canto 2
by Dante Alighieri  /  poetry  /  13 Oct 2007

ARGUMENT:  Dante, feeling fearful and unworthy, doesn't wish to proceed.  Virgil convinces him by revealing that he, Virgil, was sent to aid Dante by Beatrice (who was in turn sent from Heaven by Lucia, in turn sent by an unnamed woman).  Dante finds courage, and the poets proceed.

      The day was departing, and the browning air
      released all living things on earth
      from their tiring work, and I alone

      prepared myself to sustain the conflict,
5     both of the journey and the sadness,
      which my memory, without error, will retrace.

      O, Muses!  O, high genius!  Lend me your aid!
      O, memory, that did inscribe all that I saw,
      now is the time to show your excellence.

10   I began:  "Poet, you who are my guide,
      consider whether this man has enough strength
      before you conduct me to that difficult pass.

      You say that the man who fathered Silvius
      found entrance into the immortal world
15   while still corruptible, still in his living body.

      But if the opposite of all that is evil
      granted him this favor, considering the glories
      that would issue from him, both what and who,

      that seems perfectly comprehensible,
20   since he was chosen in imperial Heaven
      to father the greatness of Rome and her empire,

      and both of these, to tell the truth,
      were destined to become the holy place
      where the successor to the great Peter now sits,

25   and in his honored journey, of which you wrote,
      he heard and learned things that brought about
      both his victory and the papal throne.

      Much later, the chosen vessel also traveled there
      to bring back to us assurance of that faith
30   which is the start on the path to salvation.

      But why should I go there?  Who permits it?
      I am no Aeneas, I am no Paul.
      Neither I, nor others, think me so worthy.

      Therefore, if I agree to undergo this voyage,
35   I fear the journey will prove ill-advised.
      You are wise and know more than I can convey."

      Like someone who wishes away what he has wished
      and with new thoughts changes his intention,
      so that he turns away from what he had begun,

40   so I was on that dark mountainside,
      annulling in thinking the enterprise
      which I had been so quick to undertake.

      "If I have understood your words rightly,"
      replied that magnanimous shade,
45   "your soul is attacked by cowardness,

      which often burdens a man so heavily
      that he retreats from honorable trials
      like some beast, frightened at phantoms in shadows.

      So that you may free yourself from this terror,
50   I'll tell you why I came, and what I heard,
      when I first was moved to feel compassion for you.

      I was among the souls who stay suspended in limbo
      when a woman called to me, so beautiful and blessed
      that I begged her to command me.

55   Her eyes were brighter than the sun,
      and she began to speak to me, gently
      and softly, and with an angelic voice:

      'O, courteous shade of Mantua,
      whose fame still lives in the mortal world
60   and will endure as long as the world itself:

      my friend, though not the friend of fortune,
      is so impeded, in his path on that deserted slope,
      that he has turned away in terror.

      From what I've heard of him in Heaven,
65   I worry that he's already so astray
      that I've risen too late to help him.

      Go now, and with your persuasive speech,
      and by every mean at your disposal, help him
      so that I can take comfort in his escape.

70   I am Beatrice, who sends you on this errand,
      I come from a place I long to return.
      Love spurred me to leave and guides my speech.

      When I am again in the presence of my lord,
      I will often sing your praises to him.'
75   Then she was silent, and I began:

      'Virtuous lady, by whose influence alone
      mankind surpasses all that falls
      beneath the smallest circle of Heaven,

      I am so grateful to obey your commandment
80   that, if it were already done, I would still feel slow.
      You need do no more than let me know your wish.

      But tell me why you didn't refuse to descend,
      down to this central level, leaving
      that spacious place to which you burn to return'

85   'Since you want to know so much,'
      she replied, 'I'll tell you, quickly,
      why I'm not afraid to enter here.

      One should only be afraid of those things
      that have the power to do us harm –
90   everything else is harmless and need not be feared.

      God, in his mercy, has created me
      impervious to your misery, which can touch me
      no more than the fires burning here.

      In Heaven, there's a gentle woman
95   mourning the distress that I now send you to remove:
      by this, the stern judgment above is broken.

      She sought out Lucia and begged of her:
      "Your faithful servant needs you now,
      and I praise his worth to you."

100  Lucia, foe to everything cruel,
      rushed at once to where I was,
      sitting beside the ancient Rachel.

      "Beatrice, the true praise of God," she addressed me,
      "Why haven't you helped the man who so loved you
105  that, for you, he left the common people?

      Don't you hear how pitifully he wails?
      Can't you see death that threatens him
      in a great flood of torment rougher than the sea?"

      No one in the world ever rushed
110  to seek his profit or flee his harm so quickly
      as I, when she had said those words,

      came down here, from my blessed place,
      trusting in your refined speech,
      which honors you and those who've heard you.'

115  After she finished these words,
      she turned away, her shining eyes filled with tears,
      which made me hurry all the more to serve.

      As she willed, so have I come to you:
      I saved you from the ferocious beast
120  that barred the shortest up the beautiful mountain.

      What is it, then?  Why, why do you hesitate?
      Why is your chest so filled with cowardice?
      Don't you have any daring and manliness

      while three such blessed women
125  are worried for you, even in the court of Heaven,
      and my words promise you so much good?"

      As little flowers, by the chill of night
      bent down and closed, when the sun brightens them
      rise straight on and fully open their stems,

130  so did I, despite my exhausted strength,
      and such warm courage ran into my heart
      that I began, like someone undaunted:

      "That compassionate woman who helped me!
      And you, who obeyed so quickly
135  the words of truth that she addressed to you!

      Your words have so moved my heart
      to long for this adventure
      that I return to my first intention.

      Now go!  A single will fills both of us,
140  You are my guide, my lord, my master."
      So I said to him, and when he led onward,

      I entered on the deep and savage way.

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 Beatrice, as quoted by Virgil.  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
More Coming