lost in a dark wood; the leopard, the lion and the she–wolf; Virgil offers to
canto summary and diagram
1 In the middle of our life's way *
myself in a wood so dark *
That I couldn't tell where the
straight path lay.
4 Oh how hard a thing it is to embark
story of that savage wood,
For the memory shudders me
with fear so stark
7 That death itself is hardly a more bitter
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
exactly how I entered that wild place
It's impossible for me to say;
13 But when I'd cleared that dark space
had turned my heart into a cavern
Of fear, I found myself
at the base
16 Of a hill upon whose shoulders I could
rays of that brilliant planet *
Which guides men
straight through every turn.
19 With what relief a sense of
welcomed by a heart tossed all night
piteously, surely I can never forget.
22 And like a man who, reaching shore, turns his
shivering upon the raging sea
From whose clutch he's
just made frantic flight,
25 So my spirit, driven even now to flee,
back at that pass which had never
Let a single living soul
28 When I had let my tired
was once more on the lonely slope, I found
That for balance my firm foot was forever
31 Lower than the other on the ground.
then suddenly!—at the start of a steep ascent *
There appeared a
spotted leopard, jumping all around
With great nimbleness and
block my path. The hour was early
And rising with the sun
were those very stars present
37 When Divine Love first
breathed life into each fair thing;
time and sweet season sent my hopes soaring,
40 Until I was thrown into agitation
By the sudden, stunning sight
Of a fierce, ravenous
43 He came at me with such manifest might
hunger that the very air which surrounded
His proud head seemed to
cringe with fright.
46 My anxiety was compounded
lean, craven she–wolf drew near,
(That same by whom so many have been wounded
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.
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
58 That times have become so horrible –
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
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
midst of that desert. "Have
pity on me,
Whoever you be, solid man or my own whim! "
67 "No man am I," he replied,
"though what you see
was once a man, of Lombard parentage,
Mantua the soil of my
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
Of Anchises' righteous son,
to narrate *
His return from proud
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
tongue, "that Virgil from whose lips spring
Rich words in such a
82 O glory and light of all
others who sing
verse, please show me favor
having lovingly studied every little thing
85 In your volume. You are my master, my author,
only through careful imitation
Of your noble style am I
granted any honor.
88 But behold, famous sage, where trepidation
pulse, and makes my veins pound;
Save me from that beast's intimidation! "
91 "If you hope to escape
this wild ground, "
advised when he saw me shiver,
"You must take another way around,
94 For this beast that makes you quiver
cry out in dread
Is cruel and malicious;
no one gets by her,
97 She blocks everyone until they're dead.
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
And many more will suffer equal degradation,
Until at last that greyhound comes to make her blench *
With pain, the same who marks his nation
Between Feltro and Feltro, that embodiment
Of wisdom, love,
and virtue, the salvation
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.
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
Ancient spirits writhing hopelessly in the heat
And clamoring—such pain to do they endure
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.
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
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. "
"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.
Lead me on that journey you relate,
So that I may see those you paint so sorrowed,
myself before Saint Peter's gate."
136 Then he moved, and close behind I
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.^
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. ^
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. ^
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. ^