HELL I

CANTO I

Dante lost in a dark wood; the leopard, the lion and the she–wolf; Virgil offers to guide him.

canto summary and diagram

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1     In the middle of our life's way  *

          I found myself in a wood so dark  *

       That I couldn't tell where the straight path lay.

                                                             inferno i

4     Oh how hard a thing it is to embark

          Upon the story of that savage wood,

       For the memory shudders me with fear so stark

 

7     That death itself is hardly a more bitter food;

          Yet whatever I observed there I'll convey,

       In order to tell what I found that was good.

 

10    So full of sleep was I when I left the true way

            That exactly how I entered that wild place

        It's impossible for me to say;

                                                             inferno i

13    But when I'd cleared that dark space

           Which had turned my heart into a cavern

        Of fear, I found myself at the base

 

16    Of a hill upon whose shoulders I could discern  

           The rays of that brilliant planet  *

        Which guides men straight through every turn.

 

19    With what relief a sense of quiet

           Was welcomed by a heart tossed all night

        So piteously, surely I can never forget.

                                                             inferno I

22    And like a man who, reaching shore, turns his sight

           Still shivering upon the raging sea

        From whose clutch he's just made frantic flight,

 

25    So my spirit, driven even now to flee,

           Looked back at that pass which had never

        Let a single living soul go free.

 

28    When I had let my tired body recover,

           And was once more on the lonely slope, I found

        That for balance my firm foot was forever

                                                             inferno i

31     Lower than the other on the ground.

           But then suddenly!—at the start of a steep ascent  *

         There appeared a spotted leopard, jumping all around

 

34    With great nimbleness and plain intent  

           To block my path.  The hour was early morning, *

        And rising with the sun were those very stars present

 

37    When Divine Love first breathed life into each fair thing;

           Such a fortuitous conjunction

        Of time and sweet season sent my hopes soaring,

                                                             inferno I

40    Until I was thrown into agitation

           By the sudden, stunning sight

        Of a fierce, ravenous lion.

 

43    He came at me with such manifest might

           And hunger that the very air which surrounded

        His proud head seemed to cringe with fright.

 

46    My anxiety was compounded

           When a lean, craven she–wolf drew near,

        (That same by whom so many have been wounded

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49    And now live in despair), a beast whose mere

           Appearance shook me with a terror so great

        That never again did I expect to steer

 

52    An upward course against the fearful weight

           Crushing all my hopes of ascent.

        And like someone whose fortunes of late

 

55    Have collapsed—so that from the heights he's sent

           Plunging down into losses so terrible

        That all he can do is wail and lament

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58    That times have become so horrible –

           So did I fret while that restless beast turned me about

        And drove me back toward where the sun is inaudible.

 

61    As I was rushing back down full of doubt

           And panic I saw a figure blurred and dim,  *

        As if long silence had washed his image out.

 

64    "Oh have pity on me," I cried to him

           In the midst of that desert.  "Have pity on me,

        Whoever you be, solid man or my own whim! "

                                                             inferno i

67    "No man am I," he replied, "though what you see

           Here was once a man, of Lombard parentage,

        Mantua the soil of my family tree.

 

70       Under Julius I was born, though late in that age

              And lived in Rome under the shining

           Augustus, when false and lying gods held the stage.

 

73    It was then that I began to sing

           Of Anchises' righteous son, to narrate  *

        His return from proud Ilium's burning.

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76    But you, why do you make such a desperate

           Descent toward misery, instead of climbing that mountain

        From which all the world's joy and gladness emanate? "

 

79    "Are you then," I answered, unable to restrain

           My tongue, "that Virgil from whose lips spring

        Rich words in such a bountiful fountain?

 

82    O glory and light of all others who sing

           In verse, please show me favor

        For having lovingly studied every little thing

                                                             inferno i

85    In your volume.  You are my master, my author,

           For only through careful imitation

        Of your noble style am I granted any honor.

 

88    But behold, famous sage, where trepidation

           Gallops my pulse, and makes my veins pound;

        Save me from that beast's intimidation! "

 

91    "If you hope to escape this wild ground, "

           He advised when he saw me shiver,

        "You must take another way around,

                                                             inferno i

94    For this beast that makes you quiver

           And cry out in dread

        Is cruel and malicious; no one gets by her,

 

97    She blocks everyone until they're dead.

           And her greedy appetite's impossible to quench—

        She's just hungrier than ever once she's fed.

 

100   Many a creature is wedded to this wench,

            And many more will suffer equal degradation,

         Until at last that greyhound comes to make her blench  *                                                         

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103   With pain, the same who marks his nation

            Between Feltro and Feltro, that embodiment

         Of wisdom, love, and virtue, the salvation

 

106   Of lowly Italy, for whose sake were sent 

            To their deaths Euryalus, Camilla the virgin,  *

         Turnus and Nisus, and others of the noble intent.

 

109   He'll chase that Hell 'scaped beast through thick and thin

            Until at last, where envy first turned her free,

         He'll thrust her back and lock her in.

                                                             inferno I

112   All considered, I think it best for you to follow me.

            I'll be your guide through scenes you'd never meet

         On your own, eternal scenes where you will see

 

115   Ancient spirits writhing hopelessly in the heat

            And clamoring—such pain to do they endure

         In that Inferno—for blessed death's repeat.

 

118   Later you'll see those to whom the raging fire's cure *

            Brings contentment, for by such cleansing they hope one day

         To enter the ranks of the blessed and pure.

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121   And thirdly, if you still wish to pursue the way,

            A soul more worthy than I will be your guide,  *

         For the emperor above decrees that I must stay

 

124   Below and never enter inside 

            That city whose law I once rejected.

         Great is that ruler whose will I denied,

 

127   And fortunate are those collected

            In blessedness about His high throne;

         Happy are those He has elected. "

                                                             inferno i

130   "Poet," I replied, "I beseech you by that God unknown

            To you, help me escape my present state

         And others to which you lend an even ghastlier tone.

 

133   Lead me on that journey you relate,

            So that I may see those you paint so sorrowed,

          And stand myself before Saint Peter's gate."  *

 

136   Then he moved, and close behind I followed.

 

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NOTES

 

1. In the Convivio, Dante puts life's midpoint at 35 years, which is half the lifespan of three score and ten in Psalms 90:10. Born in 1265, the poet begins his journey the eve of Good Friday, 1300. ^

 

2. The dark wood is not only the poet's life, but also the political wilderness of Florence and Italy.^

 

17. In the Ptolomeic system the sun—here symbolizing God—was a planet circling the earth.^

 

32–60. Commentators disagree, but many take the leopard to symbolize lust, the lion pride, and the wolf avarice; the three may also represent Hell's division into the sins of Fraud, Violence and Incontinence. See Jeremiah 5:6. ^

 

35–39. The sun was supposed to have been in Aries when God created the world; this astronomical arrangement is actually impossible for the year 1300, so that Dante is creating an idealized Easter. The "sweet season" is spring. ^

 

62. The figure is Virgil, who in line 70 says that he was born in the time of Julius Caesar—actually, in 70 B.C. While the Latin poet's name was Vergilius, Dante utilizes the traditional medieval Virgilio, which we modernize to Virgil. ^

 

74. Aeneas. ^

 

102–104. The greyhound, identified with Henry VII, Charles Martel, Christ, Dante, and others, is most plausibly Dante's benefactor Can Grande della Scala of Verona, whose birthplace is between Feltre in Venetia and Montefeltro in Romagna. In any event , he is to be a national savior. ^

 

107–108. All figures in Virgil's Aeneid. ^

 

118. The souls in Purgatory. ^

 

122–124. Virgil and reason can guide Dante only through Hell and Purgatory; Grace or revelation must lead him through Paradise in the form of Beatrice. Virgil is excluded from the city of the God he did not worship, having been born before Christ. Canto IV explains his place among the virtuous pagans in Limbo. ^

 

135. Most likely the gate of Purgatory, since Dante mentions no gate in Paradise. ^

 
 

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