Thursday, October 23, 2008

Inferno, Song I

Dante lost in the dark wilderness


Halfway upon the road of our life,
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
The path of righteousness lost to me.

Oh, to talk about it is difficult,
That wilderness. So brutal and harsh and unrelenting,
The very thought of it brings back my fear!

It was so bitter; death is hardly worse.
But, to convey the goodness I found,
I’ll tell of the other things I came across.

I can’t exactly say how I entered that place,
So sleepy was I at the point where
The road of virtue was left behind.

But then, when I’d arrived at the foot of the hill,
The place where the valley ended,
Fear overwhelmed my heart, which was already so filled with doubt.

I looked up and then…then I saw that the sides of the hill
Were draped already in the rays of the sphere
That show the straight road to those of every walk of life.

My fear then calmed a bit,
Although it lasted in the lake of my heart throughout
That night, which I spent wallowing in self-pity.

And like one who, exhausted and half-drowned,
Emerges from the sea at the shore
And looks back at the menacing waters,

My soul, still panicky,
Turned to look back on the pass
That no living person had yet left behind.

And then, at last, having rested my tired body a bit,
I continued to make my way up that barren hill,
So impatiently that the steady foot was always below the other.

And it was there, almost at the peak of that steep slope,
That a great cat, fast and sure on its feet, suddenly appeared,
The fur of its coat covered with spots.

And it would not leave my presence;
Instead, it headed me off from the many routes
That I turned and returned to time and again.

The time was the start of the morning
And the sun was rising with the stars,
Standing together when divine love

Began to move them, such things of beauty;
I was led to hope for better in my dealings
With this spot-covered beast—

Oh, the hour of time and the sweet season.
But it was not enough to dispel my fear:
I caught sight of a lion,

Which appeared to be charging towards me,
Head raised and hunger raging--
The very air around him seemed to tremble.

And then a she-wolf, of whom all hunger
Seemed embodied in her haggard form,
In addition to the many already made to live in misery.

This burdened me all the more;
With the fear brought by the vision of her,
I lost hope of scaling the heights.

And like one who lives for material gain
When he loses everything,
His every thought making him break down and cry,

Such was how the beast made me lose peace.
Her opposing me, little by little,
Drove me back beyond the sun’s reach.

And, as I fell into the lower depths,
Someone, before my eyes, offered himself to me,
One who, in the long silence, appeared dim.

When I saw him in this great wasteland,
I cried, “Take pity on me,
Whatever you may be, whether a ghost or a true man.”

He replied: “Not a man; a man I was once.
My parents were Lombards,
Mantuans by homeland, both of them.

I was born during the reign, though late, of Julius C├Žsar,
And lived in Rome under the good Augustus
In the time of the false and lying gods.

A poet I was, and I sang of that righteous
Son of Anchises who came from Troy
After that splendid city of Ilium went up in flames.

But you—why step back to such great ennui?
Why not climb the Mountain of Delight
Which is the beginning and cause of all joy?”

“Now, are you Virgil, that spring
Which pours so wide a river of speech?,”
I answered him, my manner bashful.

“Oh, from other poets honored and bright,
I have realized the need for long study, as well as the great love,
That has compelled me to explore your work.

You are my master and progenitor;
It is from you alone that I’ve taken
The beautiful style that has brought me honor.

See the beast from whom I turn away.
Help me be rid of her, famous sage,
For she leaves my veins and pulse all atremble.”

“I would advise you to travel another road,”
He replied, upon seeing my tears.
“If you are to get by this savage place.

This beast, against whom you cry out,
Does not allow others to pass her way,
But, rather, thwarts them unto death.

And her nature is so wicked and base
That she can never satisfy her rapacious drives;
After a meal she is more ravenous than before.

Many are the animals with whom she mates,
And there will be more still, until, finally, the Greyhound
Will come, and make her die in pain.

This one will not sustain himself upon earth or tripods,
But upon wisdom, love, and virtue,
And his nation will stand between the cities of Feltro.

He will bring salvation to this humble Italy
For whom the maiden Camilla died
In blood, as did Euryalus, Turnus, and Nisus.

He will hunt the she-wolf through every village
Until he has sent her back to the hell
Where envy first unleashed her.

Therefore, I think and discern it best for you
That you follow me. I will be your guide,
And, from here, take you to an eternal place.

There you will hear the shrieks of despair.
You will see the ancient spirits, full of sorrow,
Each crying out in the second death of damnation.

You will also see those who are content
In the flames, for they hope of coming to
That day when they will be among the blessed people.

Then, if it is to the blessed that you wish to climb,
There will be, for that purpose, a soul worthier than my own.
With her I shall leave you upon my parting.

For the Emperor who reigns above,
Because I was rebellious to His law,
Does not will for others to come to His city through me.

He rules there, He rules everywhere.
By “there” I mean His city and His throne.
Oh, “there”--So happy is the one chosen for that place.”

And I said to him: “Poet, I beseech you,
By the God whom you did not know,
Grant that I escape this evil and worse,

That you will lead me to the places of which you’ve told,
So that I may see the gates of St. Peter
And those whom you make to be the despondent many.”

And then he moved on, and I kept behind him.


Continue to Song II

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