Introduction to The Inferno
The journey Dante offers us in his Divine Comedy stretches before us from the dark
wood of its beginning, down through the chasm of hell, up the terraces of purgatory, and
into the spheres of heaven, as a record of a living experience. Opening in bitterness,
mounting through hope, and ending in vision, the poet insists that the person he is now,
fashioning the poem, is the person who then walked into and out of that other world. His
work is more than fiction — the poet insists on this acceptance — it is a literal
recapitulation of what happened to him in mind, heart, and spirit.
What happened to him, in turn, is meant to happen to the reader — otherwise, why write
the poem? The 14,233 lines are the poet's free gift to the reader: what Dante has already
experienced awaits each one who sits down with this journey in words before him or her.
He challenges each one to be the wayfarer here and now that he was then and there. First
he had to meet the challenge himself, of course, by going back to the experience and
putting it all into a poem.
For Dante, there are no apathetic wayfarers: they lie outside hell, purgatory, and heaven;
they travel no farther than the third canto. The reader who circles into the inner unknown
world of this poet's making finds that one is never alone, however. For Dante speaks,
time and again, directly to his reader:
May God so grant you, reader, to find fruit
In your reading: now ponder for yourself
How I could keep the eyes in my head dry ...
(Inferno XX. 19-21)
The invitation to do more than read, to live the journey, motivates every line of the
On Good Friday of 1300, Dante began a week of religious experience that transformed
his whole life. From near-despair at his own sinfulness — especially his own pride and
apathy — he found a hope for change of heart and mind. More than he expected awaited
him, for more than reform occurred: he was swept up in vision so that his entire being —
before and after — came into focus and he truly converted, turned around, and became
another man. Saint Paul, he recalled, had spoken of something similar happening to him:
"I knew a man in Christ more than fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I cannot tell;
or whether out of the body, I cannot tell: God knows;) such a one caught up to the third
heaven" (2 Corinthians 12:2). Later Saint Ignatius of Loyola would cast this opportunity
for conversion and contemplation in the form of a spiritual retreat. The world had been
created in the same span of time and with it man and woman. The creation of the new
man and woman should take no longer than that.
Where did this conversion take place? As specific as he is about the time, Dante remains
deliberately vague about the location. In his native Florence? In Rome, where Pope
Boniface VIII had declared 1300 to be a Jubilee year of special grace? Or in some rural
and remote area of Italy that the poet describes so vividly at moments in his journey? The
place does matter because for the poet it is a real spot, a crossroad of crisis and decision,
but he has sublimated it into anywhere for the reader's sake, since the experience of the
journey was — and is — inward, downward, upward, and beyond to a center that is
everywhere and a circumference nowhere as in Saint Bonaventure's definition of God.
Dante's Holy and Easter Week vision changed his view of the world which, up to this
time, he had worked to reform as a citizen, a soldier, a politician, and a poet. Its failure to
live up to Christ's call for love of God and neighbor shocked him, especially in the
practices of an official religion that had fallen, politically, militarily, and financially, into
the same bad ways of the people whom Christ had sent it to redeem. For Dante, there
could be no middle ground, no halfway measures between commitment and compromise.
The worst sins loomed as the systematic evils of everyday life, the taking of bribes,
selling of church goods and offices, the deceit, scandal, and treachery on which the
century thrived. Italy lay in shambles because of the crass pettiness of important leaders
in Church and state.
Total honesty, candor, openness, these virtues Dante now saw to be the fruits of the
searing and uplifting call that he had heard and heeded. Ironically, he was soon to
become the victim of all the vices opposed to these virtues. He would be exiled from his
beloved Florence, sentenced to death in his absence, allowed only later to return if he
would confess to a list of the offenses he lived to despise. He refused. How would he lie
about his own person? Like Saint Thomas More he knew that his own conscience would
act as his final judge. That conscience few men have honed to such a sharp edge of
sureness, steadiness, and pointed truth.
Such is the confidence of saints and seers. Dante's vision in that way was like Paul's —
although in canto two he demands that we not compare him to that Chosen Vessel —
since the event left him another man, a self within his still weak and fallible ego. Having
known profoundly the purifying of consciousness beyond all thought and emotion, the
flight of the mystics, Dante for the next dozen years lived with the memory of emptiness,
searching, and filling with light. Perhaps other glimpses and moments came back to him -
- still that week remained as the turning point in his life when, at thirty-five, halfway
through the traditional lifespan of seventy years, he woke to find himself deep in a
darkened forest and ended moving with the sun and the other stars in utter harmony with
Love: "But to describe the good discovered there / I here will tell the other things I saw."
Dante did not rush to begin writing down what he had seen. The experience, he reminds
us, was beyond his own or anyone's expression. How could words describe or picture
what it had been like for the self to harrow the depths of human existence, to rid itself of
egotism, and to be filled with joy in the presence of the unseen Trinity of Love, Loving,
and Loved? No one before had dreamed of putting his own inner autobiography in prose
or poetry. Saint Augustine had offered the events in a chronology of outward events
leading to an interior ascent to God and he addressed his book to his Maker; but Dante's
experience was entirely different: he was a man of another age, temperament, and vision.
Initially, the poet turned not into himself, but to the experience of the learned minds of
the past. He began writing the Convivio or The Banquet, an invitation to his Tuscan
readers to feast at the table of knowledge: political, ethical, and above all philosophical
wisdom which might give direction to the present. Written in his native Italian rather than
in Latin, the work was to cover fourteen parts, but Dante only completed the introduction
and the first three sections. What had he in mind in attempting this compendium of the
learning of the ancient pagan and Christian traditions? The Banquet reveals a great deal
about Dante: it is the work of a Christian gnostic, as Clement of Alexandria portrayed
him, "the perfecting of man as man, by acquaintance with divine character, life, and
word, conforming to itself and to the divine Word" (Stromata VII, 10). The gnostic or
knower reaches out to embrace the whole, not as a specialist or theorist, but to live
knowledge and to share its fruit with others. The gnostic is not a mystic, but yearns to be
one with divine things. Of course, the mystic may be a gnostic, for both are swept up with
the longing to make the hidden known, the invisible seen, the unimaginable imaged-forth,
and the inexpressible worded. The mystic fulfills what the gnostic seeks to impart; the
one possesses in a moment what the other searches in a lifetime.
Gnosticism and mysticism have a common goal: the secret knowledge of God. From the
early Middle Ages up to the sixteenth century, as David Knowles observes, this meaning
of mysticism as the sight of things unseen drew its currency from the title of Dionysius
the Areopagite's Theologia Mystica, translated by an English mystic as Denis Hid
Divinity. The difference, then, between Christian Gnosticism and Mysticism is one of
degree: faith gives way to a totally new kind of knowing, given and received at the
deepest levels of the personality. Through the gate one passes on to travel out of one's
own orbit and into an entirely other dimension. Again, one is not alone: another guides:
And with that, putting his own hand in mine,
With smiling face, just to encourage me,
He led me to things hidden from the world.
(Inferno III, 19-21)
Before Dante thought of writing his poem years later, the vision was already wholly his.
In the months immediately after Easter Week he turned not to the religious life but to the
political turmoil of Florence. On June 15, 1300, he became one of the six Priors
appointed to rule the city. While his term lasted only two months, he made some
personally hard decisions. To settle the civil war between Dante's own White Guelph
party and the hostile Black Guelphs, the priors banished leaders of both factions. Among
the White Guelphs forced to leave was Guido Cavalcanti, Dante's close friend and fellow
poet. In a few months Guido sickened in exile and, allowed to return to Florence, died
shortly afterwards. After his term in office, Dante took on even more serious
commitments and, while on a mission of appeal to Pope Boniface VIII for peace, learned
in November of 1301 that he had been exiled in his absence. In early 1302 he was
accused of bribery, trafficking in offices, and other crimes, punishable not only by
banishment but burning at the stake.
Not the road of service to his brother and sister wayfarers lay before him, as he had
envisioned it, but another road stretched ahead, physically more painful and exhausting,
of literal exile, without his family, his home, friends, or library. Under such hardships,
undertaking at least three prose works and completing his Comedy show that the
inspiration to reach the minds and hearts of others had not changed: it simply assumed a
new shape and purpose. What he could not accomplish by his personal presence and
actions, he would achieve through the pen. He would reach the men and women of Italy
in their own tongue and on his terms, not on theirs.
Two problems confront us today in reading the Divine Comedy as an account of a real
inner experience (Dante's contemporaries did not have these problems): the prejudice that
poetry like myth is purely fictitious and the shocked feeling that many scenes of the
Inferno are too cruel and even mean-spirited. The first misunderstanding dates back to
Plato's dismissal of poets from his ideal Republic because they imitate illusions rather
than reality. Plato himself expressed the true possibilities for poetic myth in his Phaedrus
— and he was a poet himself — when he shows that myth, rightly inspired, may embody
the archetypal Good. His student Aristotle went further in the Poetics by arguing that true
imitation is more important, moving, and actual than ordinary experience. For Dante the
fruition of his conversion was not to be found in the rationalistic approach of The
Banquet but in an inspired Comedy. The creative self in him had to overcome the
dynamic and practical, or orient that activity back to the East, the moment of dawn when
his life moved out of the dark woods and into the light. The right-side of his brain, the
image-making and intuitive force, had to dominate in this most reasonable and
methodical of men -- or rather, the two sides had to fuse and answer the higher call, the
summons of the Muses, his muses, the three female spirits of his original vision.
In Canto II of the Inferno, Dante reveals the eternal origin of his historic journey. He has
his guide Virgil say that Beatrice -- the poet's love of his younger and idealistic years —
came to him on the poet's behalf at the request of Saint Lucia, patron saint of light and
seeing, who in turn was responding to a plea from the Virgin Mary. Dante quotes Virgil
who quotes Beatrice who quotes Mary and Lucia — a quotation within a quotation within
a quotation — as circles inside circles take us to the heart of the poem. At the beginning
we touch the end: in an instant there becomes here.
The inspiration of the moment is already complete before it comes to the poet's listening;
he has been called before he answers. Notice that the links are all conversations, for the
poem itself progresses in a series of interviews, face to face, until the final encounter with
God in the human person of his Son. Notice, too, that this trinity of feminine requests
begins and ends after the poem itself has opened, when panic has already driven the
pilgrim back from the barren slope, thwarted by the three beasts that blocked his way: the
leopard of greed, the lion of violence, and the she-wolf of intemperance. But heaven acts
quickly to save the pilgrim. What starts at the celestial heights spirals down to hell with
the speed of light to bring Virgil immediately to Dante's side while he is still breathless
and baffled on the hillside.
Although the poet's journey — from the darkened forest to a never-ending vision of God
— takes only a week, from Good Friday to Thursday of Easter Week, the actual writing
of the Comedy took years, years of painstaking labor, as we have seen, without a settled
home or place to study and create. What sustained Dante and made it possible for him to
conceive such a task and to carry it out? The poem would be in three parts, corresponding
to the three stages of the soul's ascent to God through purgation, illumination, and unity,
and to the nature of God himself, the justice of the Father, the redemption through the
Son, and the love from the Holy Spirit. Dante fashioned a new poetic form in his rhyming
cantos, thirty-three for each canticle and one to introduce the entire work — a total of one
hundred. He invented a new rhyme scheme to achieve this unity, the terza rima, an
interlocking pattern to keep the flow of lines moving from stanza to stanza until the final
end rhyme for each canto, each canticle, the full poem had been reached in the Love that
moves the sun and the other stars. The pattern rose up from deep within his
consciousness, but, still, what sustained him to attempt such a poem?
The answer lies in the beginning of the poem in the triple summons Dante received on
that Good Friday of 1300, a Jubilee year of graces and blessings. Only when the poet
rediscovered Beatrice — not as the innocent fascination of his childhood and
adolescence, but as the mature, life-in-death wellspring of his own deep inner life —
when he found in her the way to symbolize and express the visionary journey, only then
could he resolve to write as a poet and to live as a man the power of the original vision.
The second canto, then, really does reveal the origin of Dante's quest through the
intercession of Mary, Lucia, and Beatrice. At last he was able to answer the invitation and
begin to write the poem, the whole work before him already known and possessed, just
waiting to be told, flowing from him like a river of words.
The wellspring of Beatrice held the sources of the mystical life. She possessed the
beatific vision since she was already in the presence of the light seen here only through a
glass darkly. She lived in Dante now — his higher, deeper self. He had known her in life
and loved her: now he would know and love her in death, beyond death, in herself as a
mirror of divine Light. With this consciousness —crystallized at the deepest level of
being — of spiritual realities, of the individuality of God discovered in another human
being, and of the three divine persons ever present within his one soul — the trinity of
women reflecting the Trinity of God — the mystic becomes sensitive to spiritual beings
of all sorts. An awareness of evil grows with an appreciation of the Good. After one has
been swept into the third heaven, the earth wears a darker look.
After Dante had the vision that concludes his Comedy — the title simply means his work
has a happy ending and not a tragic one — then the process of seeing the world again
from within and out into its borders of history began for the poet. Saint Anthony in the
desert beset by demons in animal shapes, Saint Ignatius of Loyola later at Manresa ready
to hurl himself down into a black hole in his cave, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux in modern
times enduring years of unrelieved aridity, these hint at the other dark side of the moon of
reflected divine light. Jesus' own mission begins in the wilderness of afflicting temptation
and ends with the desolation and abandonment of Gethsemane and Golgotha.
The mystic's journey follows the road of Dante's Comedy and, while it does not always
begin in the Inferno, it never leaves that vision of human selfishness behind, for the saint
rightly protests that he or she is the greatest of sinners. It is an easy matter to dismiss
these statements as simple-hearted, saintly hyperbole, but the vision of the mystic reaches
to the depths of evil within each heart, often inspiring the visionary to a denunciation and
prophetic indignation at least equal to Dante's. As Georges Bernanos observed for us, the
problem today has more to do with our cavalier sense toward Satan and sinning than with
modem materialism or its drive for progress. We have to discover the communion of
sinners if we are to reach the communion of saints. It takes a visionary to see the wealth
of wicked transfigurations that permeate any given culture — and some eras, as Dante
suggests, are much worse than others.
Along with the disappearance of God, we need to remark on the disappearance of the
devil. Students to whom I teach the Divine Comedy inevitably state their preference for
the Inferno; the images seem to rise right out of their own rock albums, comic books,
television programs, and movies. What we miss seeing is what Anthony, Ignatius,
Thérèse, and Dante saw: these demons issue from the black hole of the human heart,
from the dense and rugged terrain of lost spiritual purpose, from the center where ice has
formed in our love for one another and for God. When Dante finally approaches Satan in
the pit of Cocytus, he compares him — it seems innocuous enough — to a windmill.
Lucifer's wings stir a freezing breeze; it is the only movement in this treacherous world.
In our descent, the journey makes us aware that the pilgrim grows heavier and firmer as
he travels on, and the world around him becomes also longer to walk, darker, tighter-
bound, and colder. Satan is the absolute essence of hell, the heaviest, largest, coldest,
darkest, and fiercest thing that exists. He is completely mechanical, like a windmill, but
instead of being a source of purposeful energy, he devours human lives. The worst sin
imaginable is betrayal. And Lucifer — as Dante demonstrates — has betrayed us all.
The mystic encounters this satanic force face to face. As Saint John of the Cross tells us
in his Dark Night of the Soul: "When there is a naked contact of spirit with spirit, the
horror is intolerable which the evil spirit causes in the soul" (11, 2,3). The Inferno offers
us a chain of naked contacts with sinners who have become the sin that they chose
instead of its opposite virtue: the lustful lost all sense of purity; the gluttons forgot self-
restraint; the wasters and miserly refused to moderate their use of possessions; the
wrathful never calmed down long enough to enjoy the peace of patience. All these
suffering souls occupy the first level of hell for the intemperate or incontinent. The rest of
human sinfulness the poet graciously outlines for his readers in Canto XI, and he
provides a much better plan than any explication or paraphrase which the critic or scholar
or translator has managed to muster up.
Virgil, of course, makes the presentation because he has been down there before — for
pagans too can know the harrowing effects of wickedness and long for a virtuous life.
Virgil, too, as the voice of reason, offers interpretations that are precise and pointed. The
reader, in fact, in search for guidance and a map of some kind — Dante, thank heaven,
drew none for he left it to our imagination to recreate his inner world — can find
immense help in reading the Inferno by going over Canto XI from time to time as a
reminder of the whole pattern that stretches down beneath until it reaches the center.
By now the reader should perceive that not only does Dante's poem have a circular
structure: down through the hollow cone of hell, up along the winding terraces of
purgatory, and straight up into the whirling spheres of heaven, but that reading the poem
must be a circular experience. Since Dante the poet only started to write after Dante the
man had looked into the Circle and Center of God, so the reader has no linear work to
read in order to get through and finish the poem. The Comedy intends us to find our way
through its labyrinth in as many ways as there are readers, by returning to the beginning
at the end, by studying one sin or one virtue or one saintly example intently, by
comparing one canto with its parallel in another canticle, by turning back as well as
forward, by moving around within the poem until we know every stone and leaf of the
landscape and every intonation of the human voices that call out to speak to us.
Such is the ideal reader Dante has in mind. In a sense, James Joyce in our century
expected the same dedication and response. Amazingly, both authors have received such
readership. But Dante does not have the specialist or scholar in mind as, perhaps, Joyce
must, given the nature of his temperament and times. No, Dante wanted the Tuscans of
his day to see as he had seen the distortions sin causes in our makeup as human beings,
the beauty that the practice of virtue fashions in the human spirit, and the joy that peering
beyond our small world into the vast rose of the universe brings to the beholder. And if
the Tuscans of his day refused to follow him seriously, then the poet hoped that
generations ahead would see his vision of Beatrice: the possibility of rising in this life
above petty self-indulgence, violence, and greed.
The way to vision is a negative way, as the mystics have shown us, a journey into not-
knowing, isolation, error and trial. No one wrote the poem for Dante, and no one will
read it in your place. The other side of gnostic insight, guidance, and assurance is the
absence of all these as we go:
Silent, solitary, without escort
We walked along, one behind the other
Like minor friars traveling the road.
(Inferno XXIII, 1-3)
The same sense of traveling the road alone opens the journey into the underworld, as the
wayfarer sets out in Canto II, the beginning of the Inferno after the prologue to the
Comedy itself. As evening falls, the pilgrim readies himself for what lies before him,
confident of what he knows in his own mind and feels in his heart:
Day was now fading, and the dusky air
Released the creatures dwelling here on earth
From tiring tasks, while I, the only one,
Readied myself to endure the battle
Both of the journey and the pathos,
Which flawless memory shall here record.
(Inferno II, 1-6)
This sense of solitude in life is the hidden secret of the poem. For what immediately
awaits the reader is utterly devoid of solitude. The descent first confronts us not with
sights but wailing and screaming swirling up out of the pit. In the crowded cramping of
hell, no privacy exists. Even the most isolated there, Judas, Cassius, and Brutus, each
being chewed in the jaws of Lucifer, have one another and the eternal claustrophobia of
hellmouth. They are inside Satan himself, the most intimate and terrible of punishments.
Above them, souls are harried, whipped, whirled in the wind, boiled in blood, muck and
excrement, beaten, torn, stuffed, turned into serpents or trees, pronged, peeled, burned,
and caked in ice.
The drama of these tortures should not distract us from the inner drama of the wayfaring
soul. At the bottom of the universe, in Antenora among those who have been treacherous
to their homeland, Dante tells us of people locked in ice:
After that I saw a thousand faces so
Purpled by cold that a shivering still
Grips me, and it always will, at frozen ponds.
(Inferno XXXII, 70-72)
Dante reminds us that it is the world of our own seasons and living that concerns him and
that the memory he has of these events is now to be ours. Out of his own solitude, he
speaks to ours, reminding us that the only difference between the people here and there is
The damned are never alone and they have been denied the greatest privacy of all — that
of their own death: "These people have no hope of again dying." Dante's poem, then, is
the mystic's experience beyond death, the glory of vision and the agony of not yet being
partaker completely in that beatitude. It is the most Christian of poems because it is
grounded in the resurrection, and not simply as life after death but as the presence of the
risen life already in lives transformed by grace. There has become here, then is now.
"Halfway in the journey we are living" — each reader sets out on the same road. Dante
begins his poem not with "I" but "we". The darkness and light take shape within each
self, the voices reach only these ears, and the images form only to these eyes. After
writing the Comedy, the poet himself became another reader like the rest of us. We join
him in meeting that world he left behind him. And who would not be glad, even in hell,
to encounter Farinata, Brunetto Latini, Ulysses, or Count Ugolino? And what a good
guide Dante is, urging the reader onward, with Virgil by his side, the author and sustainer
of the journey.
We are the company we keep in our reading. Thanks to Dante, each of us is welcomed to
that company, as he pictures his own reception among the poets he had read and loved:
Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and, of course, Virgil himself. Each reader can say of that
time and moment:
This way we walked together toward the light,
Speaking of things as well unmentioned here
As there it was as well to speak of them.
(Inferno IV, 103-105)
Dante creates a new conversation with each reader he meets, speaking of things
unmentioned in his lines, but part of what reading does is to impart such secrets to each
person setting out in solitude along that winding path.
May this translation, reader, help you to read more carefully and clearly the lines — and
between the lines — of the Divine Comedy. For helping me prepare it, I want to thank
friends and colleagues and a patient family, all who gave me encouragement and
assistance, particularly Professor Charles Franco who has unstintingly supported the
work for over a decade. My greatest debt is to Frederick Morgan who made many
specific suggestions which I have followed. I have relied also on the scholarship and
guidance of commentators and critics in attempting to make each line the closest possible
imitation of the original. For my failure to do so, I alone am responsible. For my
successes, I again acknowledge my gratitude to all the people mentioned here.
For this new edition, I have made numerous changes and corrections in the text and the
expanded notes. Again, I am deeply indebted to Professor Charles Franco for his help in
preparing this revision and its Web site
Dante Alighieri — born in Florence in 1265 under the sign of Gemini, probably some
time in the last two weeks of May. In 1274, on May Day, he meets Beatrice Portinari,
daughter of a wealthy Florentine family. Nine years later, in 1283, they meet again, and
Beatrice speaks to him for the first time. Dante — whose mother had died when he was in
infancy — comes of age after his father's death. On June 11, 1289, he takes part in the
battle of Campaldino in which the Guelphs of Florence and Lucca defeat the Ghibellines
of Arezzo and Pisa. The next year Beatrice dies and a few years later Dante marries
Gemma Donati, also of an old and prominent Florentine family. Dante begins his
philosophical studies and develops the "sweet new style" of poetry; both aspects of his
talent result in his writing the prose-verse book Vita Nuova (The New Life) which
examines his relationship to Beatrice. In 1295, after meeting Charles Martel, Dante enters
political life in Florence, becoming a member of the People's Council of the Commune.
In the Jubilee year of 1300, during Holy and Easter Week, Dante experiences a profound
conversion. On June 15 he is elected one of six Priors of the city. To settle civil strife
between the White Guelphs, Dante's own party, and Black Guelphs, the priors banish
leaders of both sides. In November of 1301, Dante joins an embassy to Rome in an
appeal to Boniface VIII to stop Charles of Valois from taking control of Florence. Still on
his mission, Dante learns of a sentence of exile against him, dated January 27, 1302. In
March, banishment, under pain of death, is made permanent. Between 1304 and 1308,
Dante writes portions of the Convivio (The Banquet) and De Vulgari Eloquentia (On the
Vulgar Tongue), both left unfinished. In 1310, Emperor Henry VII, with the support of
Pope Clement V, arrives in Italy, and Dante welcomes him with a letter of enthusiastic
approval. By 1312, however, Clement had withdrawn support, and in the next year Henry
died. At this time Dante is writing his De Monarchia (On Monarchy), a treatise in behalf
of the Ghibelline cause and the central power of the Holy Roman Emperor in temporal
matters. Around 1312 he begins writing his Divine Comedy which occupies him until the
end of his life. Up to this time he has made numerous efforts to have his sentence
repealed, but in 1311 he is excluded from general amnesty offered to the Whites. In 1316
he refuses to return to Florence on the condition that he admit his guilt. Dante spends
these years of exile mostly in Romagna, then in Ravenna. He stays at the court of Can
Grande della Scala of Verona to whom he dedicates the Paradise and writes him a letter
on how to interpret the poem. In September 1321, after becoming ill on a diplomatic
mission, Dante dies in Ravenna.
Inferno -- Canto I
The Three Beasts, Virgil
Notes Halfway through the journey we are living
I found myself deep in a darkened forest,
For I had lost all trace of the straight path.
1 It was Good Friday morning in
1300, a Jubilee year proclaimed by
Pope Boniface VIII. Since Dante was Ah how hard it is to tell what it was like,
born in 1265, he is now thirty-five old, 5 How wild the forest was, how dense and rugged!
halfway through the biblical span of To think of it still fills my mind with panic.
So bitter it is that death is hardly worse!
But to describe the good discovered there
I here will tell the other things I saw.
10 I cannot say clearly how I entered there,
So drowsy with sleep had I grown at that hour
When first I wandered off from the true way.
But when I had reached the base of a hill,
There at the border where the valley ended
15 That had cut my heart to the quick with panic,
I looked up at the hill and saw its shoulder
17 In the Ptolemaic system, the sun is Mantled already with the planet's light
a planet. That leads all people straight by every road.
With that my panic quieted a little
20 After lingering on in the lake of my heart
Through the night I had so grievously passed.
And like a person who with panting breath
Struggles ashore out of the wide ocean
Only to glance back at the treacherous surf,
25 Just so my mind, racing on ahead,
Turned back to marvel at the pass no one
Ever before had issued from alive.
After resting awhile my worn-out body,
I pressed on up the wasted slope so that
32 The allegorical meaning of the 30 I always had one firm foot on the ground.
three beasts is not clear. One
tradition maintains that the leopard is But look! right near the upgrade of the climb
probably symbolic of fraud; the lion (l Loomed a fleet and nimble-footed leopard
.45) of violence; and the she-wolf (l. With coat completely covered by dark spots!
49) of incontinence. Since these
make up the three chief divisions of He did not flinch or back off from my gaze,
hell, the poet first encounters them in 35 But blocking the path that lay before me,
reverse order. Time and again he forced me to turn around.
The hour was the beginning of the morning,
And the sun was rising with those stars
That first attended it when divine Love
40 Set these lovely creations round in motion,
So that the early hour and the pleasant season
Gave me good reason to keep up my hopes
Of that fierce beast there with his gaudy pelt.
But not so when — to add now to my fears —
45 In front of me I caught sight of a lion!
He appeared to be coming straight at me
With head held high and furious for hunger,
So that the air itself seemed to be shaking.
And then a wolf stalked, ravenously lean,
50 Seemingly laden with such endless cravings
That she had made many live in misery!
She caused my spirits to sink down so low,
From the dread I felt in seeing her there,
I lost all hope of climbing to the summit.
55 And just as a man, anxious for big winnings,
But the time comes instead for him to lose,
Cries and grieves the more he thinks about it,
So did the restless she-beast make me feel
When, edging closer toward me, step by step,
60 She drove me back to where the sun is silent.
While I was falling back to lower ground,
Before my eyes now came a figure forward
Of one grown feeble from long being mute.
64 Virgil (70-19 B. C.), born in the
When I saw him in that deserted spot,
time of Julius Caesar, is the author of
65 "Pity me!" I shouted out to him,
the Aeneid which describes Aeneas,
"Whoever you are, a shade or living man."
son of Anchises, journeying through
the underworld (Book VI) before
battling to found Rome. Camilla, "Not a man," he answered. "Once a man,
Turnus, etc. (ll. 107-08) are Of parents who had come from Lombardy;
characters in the poem. Both of them were Mantuans by birth.
70 "I was born late in Julius's reign
And dwelt at Rome under the good Augustus
In the period of false and lying gods.
"A poet I was, and I sang of the just
Son of Anchises who embarked from Troy
75 After proud Ilium was burned to ashes.
"But why do you turn back to so much grief?
Why not bound up the delightful mountain
Which is the source and font of every joy?"
"Are you then Virgil and that wellspring
80 That pours forth so lush a stream of speech?"
Shamefacedly I responded to him.
"O glory and light of all other poets,
May the long study and the profound love
That made me search your work come to my aid!
85 "You are my mentor and my chosen author:
Alone you are the one from whom I have taken
The beautiful style that has brought me honor.
"Look at the beast that drove me to turn back!
Rescue me from her, celebrated sage,
90 For she causes my veins and pulse to tremble."
"You are destined to take another route,"
He answered, seeing me reduced to tears,
"If you want to be clear of this wilderness,
"Because this beast that forces you to cry out
95 Will not let anyone pass by her way
But harries him until she finally kills him.
"By nature she is so depraved and vicious
That her greedy appetite is never filled:
101 The Greyhound may refer to The more she feeds, the hungrier she grows.
Dante's patron Can Grande della
Scala, lord of Verona, which lies
100 "Many the animal she has mated with,
between two towns of Feltro in
And will with more to come, until the Greyhound
Northern Italy. Another interpretation
That shall painfully slaughter her arrives.
considers the appearance of the
Greyhound as the second coming of
Christ who will deliver humankind "He shall not feast on property or pelf
from evil (the she-wolf). But on wisdom, love, and manliness,
105 And he shall be born between Feltro and Feltro.
"He shall save low prostrated Italy
For which Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus,
And the virgin Camilla died of wounds.
"He shall hunt the beast through every town
110 Until he chases her back down to hell
From which envy first had thrust her forth.
"I think and judge it best for you, then,
To follow me, for I will be your guide,
Directing you to an eternal place
115 "Where you shall listen to the desperate screams
115-120 In these lines the poet is And see the spirits of the past in torment,
anticipating his journey through hell, As at his second death each one cries out;
purgatory, and paradise.
"And you shall also see those who are happy
Even in flames, since they hope to come,
120 Whenever that may be, among the blessed.
"If you still wish to ascend to the blessed,
A soul worthier than I shall guide you:
124 Virgil refers to himself as a rebel On my departure I will leave you with her.
of the Emperor's (God's) laws since
he was not consciously aware of "For the Emperor who rules there above,
Christ as the Redeemer of humanity 125 Since I lived in rebellion to his law,
(see Canto IV, and Purgatorio XXII). Will not permit me to enter his city.
"Everywhere his kingdom comes: there he reigns,
There his heavenly city and high throne.
Oh happy the one elected to go there!"
130 And I said to him, "Poet, I entreat you,
By the God whom you have never known,
So may I flee from this and from worse evil,
"Lead me to the place you just described
That I may come to see Saint Peter's gate
135 And those you say are deeply sorrowful."
Then he moved on and I walked straight behind.
Inferno -- Canto II
Beatrice, the Virgin Mary and Lucia
Notes Day was now fading, and the dusky air
Released the creatures dwelling here on earth
From tiring tasks, while I, the only one,
1 Good Friday evening, the beginning
of the descent.
Readied myself to endure the battle
5 Both of the journey and the pathos,
7 Here Dante is following the poets' Which flawless memory shall here record.
traditional invocation to the Muses,
but he also adds his reliance on his
own poetical power (O memory ...). O Muses, O high genius, aid me now!
O memory that noted what I saw,
Now shall your true nobility be seen!
10 I then began, "Poet, you guide me here:
13 Aeneas is the father of Silvius. Be on your guard lest my power fail me
Before you make me face that plunging pass.
"You tell us how the father of Silvius,
While in the flesh, to the eternal world
15 Journeyed, with all his senses still alert.
"But if the Enemy of every evil
Was kind to him, considering the high purpose
He performed, and who and what he was,
"This is not hard for us to understand,
20 Since in the highest heaven he was chosen
Father of honored Rome and of her empire.
"The two — city and empire — to tell the truth,
Were destined to become the holy place
Where the successor of mighty Peter sits.
25 "By this journey which you praise him for
He came to comprehend what was to bring
Triumph to him and mantle to the pope.
28 The Chosen Vessel is Paul, who "Later the Chosen Vessel journeyed beyond
died in Rome; he describes his To bring back reassurance in the faith
mystical journey to the third heaven in 30 Which is the source of the way to salvation.
the Second Epistle to the Corinthians
(12:2-4) "But I, why should I go? Who gives permission?
I am not Aeneas, nor am I Paul!
Not I nor anyone else would judge me worthy.
33 Dante, an ordinary human being, is "So, if I surrender myself to going there,
called to be a hero, a new creature in 35 I fear the undertaking shall prove folly.
Christ. His transformation into the You are wise, you see more than I say."
image of the God-Man is human by
means of Virgil and divine through the Just as the man who, unwilling what he wills,
intercession of Beatrice. Thinks back over each thing he proposes
And ends by giving up all he has started,
40 So I acted in that darkened place
As I undid, by thinking, the same task
I had so readily right away accepted.
"If I have grasped the meaning of your words,"
That soul of generosity responded,
45 "Your heart has been beset by cowardice
"Which often places burdens on a man
To turn him back from honorable deeds
Like some animal frightened by its shadow.
"Once and for all to rid you of that fear
50 I will tell you why I came and what I heard
From the first moment I felt sorry for you.
52 Virgil was in Limbo (see Canto IV). "I was among those spirits in suspense:
A lady called me, so beautiful and blessed
That I at once implored her to command me.
55 "Her eyes outshone the light of any star.
Sweetly and softly she began to speak
With the voice of an angel, in her own words:
" 'O courteous spirit from Mantua
Whose fame has lasted in the world till now
60 And shall endure as long as does the world,
" 'My friend, who is no longer fortune's friend,
On a wasted slope has been so thwarted
Along his path that he turns back in panic.
" 'I fear that he already is so lost
65 I have arisen too late to bring him aid —
At least from what I hear of him in heaven.
" 'Hasten now, and with your polished words
And all that is required for his rescue,
Help him, so that I can be consoled.
70 Beatrice is the girl Dante loved in
his youth. Dante had written an 70 " 'I am Beatrice who urges you to journey,
account of his love for Beatrice in his Come from a place to which I long to return.
Vita Nova. She will return later in the Love moved me to speak my heart to you.
poem as the poet's second guide (see
" ' When I stand once more before my Lord,
I shall often sing your praises to him.'
75 With that she fell silent, and I ventured:
"O lady of virtue, through whom alone
The human race surpasses all contained
Within the heavens to the smallest sphere,
"Your command pleases me so thoroughly
80 That already to have done it would seem tardy:
Only let me know what it is you want.
"Tell me, however, why you are so bold
To descend as far as to this center
Out of the wide sky to which you would return?"
85 " 'Since you wish to know the inmost reason,
I will tell you directly,' she answered me,
' Why I do not dread to come down here.
" 'The only things we really need to fear
Are those that have the power to do harm:
90 Nothing else should cause us to be fearful.
" 'God in his mercy has so fashioned me
That I am not affected by your pain;
The fires burning here do me no hurt.
94 The Lady is the Virgin Mary; Lucia,
the second lady, (l. 100) represents
" 'There is a noble Lady who weeps in heaven
divine light; she was sitting next to
95 For this thwarted man to whom I send you,
Rachel (l. 102) who later in the poem
will symbolize the contemplative life. So that heaven's strict decree is broken.
The third lady is Beatrice (l. 103),
Dante's love from the Vita Nuova " 'That Lady called on Lucia with her request
And said: "Your faithful follower has now
Such need of you that I commend him to you."
100 " 'Lucia, the foe of every cruelty,
Started up and came to where I was,
Sitting at the side of the aged Rachel.
" 'She said, "Beatrice, true credit to our God,
Will you not help the man who so loves you
105 That for your sake he left the common crowd?
" ' "Do you not hear his pathetic grieving?
Do you not see the death besieging him
On the river which the ocean cannot sway?"
" 'No one in this whole world was ever quicker
110 To take advantage or escape from harm
Than I — when such words as these were spoken —
" 'To come below here from my blessed seat,
Putting my trust in your honest speech
Which honors you and those who listen to it.'
115 "After she had discussed these matters with me,
She turned her eyes, glittering with tears,
And so made me more diligent to come.
"And I did come to you, just as she wished:
I saved you from the fierce beast barring you
120 From the short route up the lovely mountain.
"So — what is this? Why? why do you stay?
Why entertain such cowardice of heart?
Why not be courageous and straightforward
"When there are three such blessed ladies
125 Caring for you in the court of heaven
And my words guarantee you so much good?"
As little flowers in the chill of night
Drooping and shriveled, when the sun lights them,
Straighten up all open on their stalks,
130 So I, with my limp stamina, now bloomed.
And such good warmth coursed boldly to my heart
That like a free man I once more began:
"O tender-hearted lady who came to aid me,
And you, too, so kind to obey swiftly
135 The words of truth that she proposed to you!
"You, by your words, have so filled my heart
With fervor to go with you on this journey
That I am turned again to my first purpose.
"Now go — one will within the both of us —
140 You the leader, you the lord and master!"
These things I said to him. When he moved on,
I entered on the rank and plunging path.
Inferno -- Canto III
The Gate of Hell, The Apathetic, Charon
Notes Through Me Pass into the Painful City,
Through Me Pass into Eternal Grief,
Through Me Pass among the Lost People.
Justice Moved My Master-Builder:
5 Heavenly Power First Fashioned Me
With Highest Wisdom and with Primal Love.
Before Me Nothing Was Created That
Was Not Eternal, and I Last Eternally.
All Hope Abandon, You Who Enter Here.
10 These words in dim color I beheld
Inscribed on the lintel of an archway.
"Master," I said, "this saying's hard for me."
And he — as someone who understands — told me:
"Here you must give up all irresolution;
15 All cowardice must here be put to death.
"We are come to the place I spoke to you about
Where you shall see the sorrow-laden people,
Those who have lost the Good of the intellect."
And with that, putting his own hand on mine,
20 With smiling face, just to encourage me,
He led me to things hidden from the world.
Here heartsick sighs and groanings and shrill cries
Re-echoed through the air devoid of stars,
So that, but started, I broke down in tears.
25 Babbling tongues, terrible palaver,
Words of grief, inflections of deep anger,
Strident and muffled speech, and clapping hands,
All made a tumult that whipped round and round
Forever in that colorless and timeless air,
30 Like clouds of sand caught up in a whirlwind.
And I, my head enwreathed with wayward doubts,
Asked, "Master, what is this that I am hearing?
Who are these people overwhelmed by pain?"
34 At the threshold of hell are And he told me: "This way of wretchedness
stranded the apathetic; having 35 Belongs to the unhappy souls of those
chosen neither good nor evil, they Who lived without being blamed or applauded.
have no place to go, but race in
circles. "They are now scrambled with that craven crew
Of angels who elected neither rebellion
Nor loyalty to God, but kept apart.
40 "Not to mar its beauty, heaven expelled them,
Nor will the depths of hell take them in there,
Lest the damned have any glory over them."
And I: "Master, what is so burdensome
To them that they should wail so dismally?"
45 He answered, "Very briefly, I will tell you.
"These people have no hope of again dying,
And so deformed has their blind life become
That they must envy every other fate.
50 "The world will not allow a word about them;
Mercy and justice hold them in disdain.
Let us not discuss them. Look and pass on."
And I, looking again, observed a banner
Which, as it circled, raced on with such speed
It did not seem ever to want to stop.
55 And there, behind it, marched so long a file
Of people, I would never have believed
That death could have undone so many souls.
After I had recognized some there,
I saw and then identified the shade
60 Of that coward who made the great refusal.
60 The first soul Dante recognizes is Immediately I understood for certain
not identified for us. The great That this troop was the sect of evil souls
refusal may be Celestine V's Displeasing both to God and to his enemy.
abdication from the papacy in 1294,
or Pontius Pilate's failure to free These wretches, who had never been alive,
Jesus at his trial. 65 Went naked and repeatedly were bitten
By wasps and hornets swarming everywhere.
The bites made blood streak down upon their faces;
Blood mixed with tears ran coursing to their feet,
And there repulsive worms sucked the blood back.
70 Then, looking again a little farther on,
I saw people at the shore of a vast river.
At that I said, "Master, permit me now
"To know who these souls are and what law
Makes them appear so eager to cross over,
75 As, even in this weak light, I can discern."
And he: "These things will become clear to you
After the two of us come to a halt
Upon the gloomy banks of the Acheron."
Then, with eyes downcast, deeply abashed,
80 In fear that what I said offended him,
I spoke no more until we reached the river.
83 Charon appears here as a wild And look! coming toward us in a boat,
old salt, the boatman in charge of An old man, his hair hoary with age, rose
carrying souls across the river Yelling, "Woe to you, you wicked souls!
85 "Have no hope of ever seeing heaven!
I come to take you to the other shore,
To endless darkness, to fire, and to ice.
"And you over there, the living soul,
Get away from those who are already dead!"
90 But when he saw that I had not moved off,
He said, "By other routes, by other harbors,
Not here -- you shall cross over to this shore.
A lighter skiff will have to transport you!"
And my guide: "Charon, do not rack yourself!
95 This deed has so been willed where One can do
Whatever He wills — and ask no more questions."
With these words he silenced the wooly cheeks
Of the old ferryman of the livid marshes
Who had two rings of flame around his eyes.
100 Those souls, however, who were weak and naked
Began to lose color and grind their teeth
When they heard the ferryman's cruel words.
They called down curses on God and their parents,
The human race, the place, the time, the seed
105 Of their conception and of their birth.
At that they massed all the closer together,
Weeping loudly on the malicious strand
Which waits for those who have no fear of God.
The demon Charon, with burning-ember eyes,
110 Gave a signal and gathered all on board,
Smacking lagging stragglers with his oar.
As in the autumn the leaves peel away,
One following another, until the bough
Sees all its treasures spread upon the ground,
115 In the same manner that evil seed of Adam
Drifted from that shoreline one by one
To a signal — like a falcon to its call.
So they departed over the dark water,
And even before they landed on that side
120 Already over here a new crowd mustered.
"My son," my kindly master said to me,
"Those who have perished by the wrath of God
Are all assembled here from every land,
"And they are quick to pass across the river
125 Because divine justice goads them on,
Turning their timidity to zeal.
"No good soul ever crossed by this way.
If Charon, therefore, has complained about you,
You now know clearly what he meant to say."
130 Just as he finished, the blackened landscape
Violently shuddered — with the fright of it
My memory once more bathes me in sweat.
The harsh tear-laden earth exhaled a wind
That hurtled forth a bright-red flash of light
135 That knocked me right out of all my senses,
And I fell as a man drops off to sleep.
Inferno -- Canto IV
Limbo, the Good Pagans
Notes A loud thunderclap shattered the deep
Sleep in my head, so that I started up
Like someone shaken forcibly awake.
1 Dante wakes to find himself in Limbo,
where virtuous non-Christians and
unbaptized children go. Then, looking all around with rested eyes,
5 I stood straight up with a steady stare,
Attempting to discover where I was.
The truth is I found myself upon the edge
Of the chasm of the valley of salt tears
Which stores the clamor of unending crying.
10 Dark and deep and foggy was the valley:
So, when I strained my eyes to see the bottom,
I was not able to discern a thing.
"Now let us descend to the blind world
Below," the poet, pale as death, began:
15 "I will be first, and you shall follow me."
And I, observing the change in his color,
Asked, "How can I come if you are frightened,
You who strengthen me when I have doubts?"
And he told me, "The anguish of the people
20 Who are down here blanches my complexion
With the pity that you mistake for fear.
"Let us go on: the long road makes it urgent."
So he went down, and so he had me enter
The first circle ringing the abyss.
25 Here, as far as listening could tell,
The only lamentations were the sighs
That caused the everlasting air to tremble.
Suffering without torments drew these sighs
From crowds, multitudinous and vast,
30 Of babies and of women and of men.
My gracious teacher said, "Do you not question
Who these spirits are whom you observe?
Before you go on, I would have you know
"They did not sin: yet even their just merits
35 Were not enough, for they lacked baptism,
The gateway of the faith that you profess.
"And, if they lived before the Christian era,
They did not worship God in the right way:
And I myself am one of those poor souls.
40 "For this failure and for no other fault
Here we are lost, and our sole punishment
Is without hope to live on in desire."
Deep sorrow crushed my heart when I heard him,
Because both men and women of great worth
45 I knew to be suspended here in limbo.
"Tell me, my master, tell me, my good lord,"
I then began, wishing to be assured
Of that belief which conquers every error,
"Have any left here, either through their merits
50 Or someone else's, to be blessed later on?"
And he, grasping my unexpressed appeal,
53 Christ's harrowing of hell is referred Responded, "I was newly in this place
to here. Old Testament patriarchs,
When I saw come down here a mighty One
beginning with Adam (l. 55),
accompanied him in his return. Crowned with the symbol of his victory.
55 "He snatched away the shade of our first parent,
Of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
Of Moses, the obedient lawgiver,
"Of Abraham the patriarch, King David,
59 Israel is Jacob whose twelve sons Israel with his father, with his children,
were the founders of the twelve tribes of 60 And with Rachel for whom he worked so hard,
Israel. His father was Isaac and his wife
Rachel (see Genesis 29). "And many others, and he made them blessed.
But I would have you know, before these souls
No human being ever had been saved."
68 The fire is "the light of nature" We did not keep from walking while he talked,
(Romans 2:14) that emanates from the 65 But all along we journeyed through the forest —
seven-walled castle which encloses the I mean the forest that was dense with spirits.
meadow where the good pagans dwell
(ll. 106-111). The seven walls and gates Our path had not yet led us far away
may represent the seven liberal arts From where I'd slept, when I descried a fire
(grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, That overcame a hemisphere of shadows.
geometry, astronomy, music) and/or the
seven cardinal virtues (prudence, 70 We were still a little distance from it
temperance, justice, fortitude, But close enough for me to dimly see
understanding, knowledge, wisdom), That honored people tenanted that place.
and the stream, eloquence.
"O you, glory of the arts and sciences,
Who are these souls who here have the high honor
75 Of being kept distinct from all the rest?"
And he told me, "Their distinguished names
Which yet re-echo in your world above
Win for them heaven's grace which furthers them."
Meanwhile I could hear a voice that called,
80 "Honor to the most illustrious poet!
His shade that had departed now returns."
88 Homer, poet of the Iliad, carries a After the voice had ceased and all was still,
sword; the others are well-known I saw four lofty shades approaching us,
Roman poets. In their appearance neither sad nor joyful.
85 My worthy teacher now began by saying,
"Notice there the one with sword in hand,
Coming before the three others like a lord:
"That is Homer, the majestic poet.
The next who comes is Horace, the satirist;
90 Ovid is third, and Lucan last of all.
"Since each one shares with me the name of poet,
The name you heard the single voice call out,
They honor me, and they do well to do so."
So I saw that brilliant schola meeting
95 Under the master of sublimest song
Who above all others soars like an eagle.
After conversing for some time together,
They turned to me with a cordial greeting:
With that, my master broke into a smile.
100 And then they showed me a still greater honor,
For they included me within their group,
So that I was the sixth among those minds.
This way we walked together toward the light,
Speaking of things as well unmentioned here
105 As there it was as well to speak of them.
We came up to the base of a royal castle,
Seven times encircled by high walls,
Moated all about by a beautiful stream.
This we crossed as if it were firm ground;
110 Through seven gates I entered with these sages
Until we reached a meadow of fresh grass.
People were here with slow and serious eyes,
Of great authority by their appearance.
They hardly spoke, with their gentle voices.
115 We moved along then over to one side,
Into an open clearing, bright and high up,
In order to view all the persons there.
Straight before me on the enameled green
Such eminent spirits were presented to me
120 That I exult in having witnessed them.
121 Electra, mother of Dardanus the I saw Electra, with many companions,
founder of Troy, was a forbear of Hector Among whom I noted Hector and Aeneas,
and Aeneas. And Caesar, in armor, with his falcon eyes.
124 Camilla was killed by the Trojans in I saw Camilla and Penthesilea,
Italy; Penthesilea, an Amazon queen, 125 And on the other side I saw King Latinus
by Achilles at Troy. Who sat with his daughter Lavinia.
125 Latinus, an Italian leader, I saw that Brutus who banished the Tarquin,
supported Aeneas, and his daughter Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
Lavinia married the Trojan hero. And by himself, I noticed Saladin.
127 Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of 130 When I lifted up my eyes a little higher,
the Roman Republic, led the revolt in I saw Aristotle, the master-knower,
510 B. C. against Tarquin, last of Seated with the family of philosophers.
All look up to him, all do him honor;
128 Lucretia (a suicide), Julia (Caesar's There also I saw Socrates and Plato,
daughter), Marcia (Cato of Utica's wife), Nearest to him, in front of all the rest;
and Cornelia (Scipio Africanus' wife) are
all types of virtuous women. 135 Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Thales, Anaxagoras,
129 Saladin (d. 1193), a Muslim sultan, Empedocles, Zeno, and Heraclitus.
opposed Richard the Lion-Heart, but
won the admiration of the Third I saw the worthy categorizer of herbs,
Crusade for his generosity. 140 Dioscorides, I mean; and I saw Orpheus,
Tully, Linus, Seneca the moralist,
131 Aristotle, with Socrates and Plato,
were Greek philosophers; Democritus Euclid the geometer, Ptolemy,
and the others were pre-Socratic Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna,
thinkers. And Averroes, who wrote the Commentary.
140 Dioscorides, a first-century A. D. 145 I cannot here describe them all in full,
scientist, is the father of pharmacy. For my lengthy theme so presses me forward
Orpheus and Linus are mythical poets. That often words fall short of the occasion.
141 Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was a Roman The company of six drops down to two.
statesman and author; Seneca (4 B.C.- My knowing guide leads me another way,
65 A.D.) was a writer of tragedies. 150 Out of the quiet, into the quavering air,
142 Euclid, a fourth-century B.C. And I come to a scene where nothing shines.
mathematician, wrote on geometry;
Ptolemy, a second century A.D.
astronomer, pictured the universe as
earth-centered with nine orbiting
143 Hippocrates, in the fourth century
B.C., began the study of medicine,
practiced by Galen in the second
century A.D. and the Arabian
philosopher Avicenna (980-1037).
144 Averroes (d. 1198), Arabian
scholar, wrote a commentary on
Inferno -- Canto V
Carnal Lovers, Francesca
Notes So I descended from the first circle
Into the second, encompassing less space
But sharper pain which spurs the wailing on.
There Minos stands, hideous and growling,
4 Minos judges the dead in the 5 Examining the sins of each newcomer:
Aeneid (VI, 432). With coiling tail he judges and dispatches.
I mean that, when the ill-begotten spirit
Comes before him, that soul confesses all
And then this master-mind of sinfulness
10 Sees what place in hell has been assigned:
The times he winds his tail around himself
Reveal the level to which the soul is sent.
Always in front of him a new mob stands.
Each, taking a turn, proceeds to judgment:
15 Each owns up, listens, and is pitched below.
"You who approach this dwelling-place of pain,"
Cried Minos when he laid his eyes on me —
Forsaking the performance of his office —
"Watch out how you enter and whom you trust!
20 Do not let the wide-open gateway fool you!"
My guide said to him, "Why do you cry out?
"Do not obstruct his own predestined way:
This deed has so been willed where One can do
Whatever He wills — and ask no more questions."
25 Now the notes of suffering begin
To reach my hearing; now I am arrived
27 The poet arrives at the At where the widespread wailing hammers me.
second circle of the lustful.
I come to a place where all light is muted,
Which rumbles like the sea beneath a storm
30 When waves are buffeted by warring squalls.
The windblast out of hell, forever restless,
Thrusts the spirits onward with its force,
Swirling and mauling and harassing them.
When they alight upon this scene of wreckage,
35 Screams, reproaches, and bemoanings rise
As souls call down their curses on God's power.
I learned that to this unending torment
Have been condemned the sinners of the flesh,
Those who surrender reason to self-will.
40 And as the starlings are lifted on their wings
In icy weather to wide and serried flocks,
So does the gale lift up the wicked spirits,
Flinging them here and there and down and up:
No hope whatever can ever comfort them,
45 Neither of rest nor of less punishment.
And as the cranes fly over, chanting lays,
Forming one long line across the sky,
So I saw come, uttering their cries,
Shades wafted onward by these winds of strife,
50 To make me ask him, "Master, who are those
People whom the blackened air so punishes?"
"The first among those souls whose chronicle
You want to know," he then replied to me,
"Was empress over lands of many tongues.
55 "Her appetite for lust became so flagrant
That she made lewdness licit with her laws
To free her from the blame her vice incurred.
58 Semiramis is a legendary "She is Semiramis, whose story reads
queen of Assyria. That, as his wife, she succeeded Ninus,
60 Controlling the country now ruled by the sultan.
61 Dido, widow of Sychaeus,
was queen of Carthage and fell "The other, Dido, killed herself for love
in love with Aeneas. And broke faith with the ashes of Sychaeus;
Next comes the lust-enamored Cleopatra.
63 Cleopatra and those that
follow — even Achilles — were "See Helen, for whom many years of woe
famed as lovers. 65 Rolled on, and see the great Achilles
Who in his final battle came to love.
64 Helen, whose kidnapping by
Paris led to the Trojan war. "See Paris, Tristan" — and then of a thousand
Shades, he pointed out and named for me
All those whom love had cut off from our life.
67 Paris and Tristan stand for
the ancient and the 70 After I had listened to my instructor
contemporary worlds. Name the knights and ladies of the past,
Pity gripped me, and I lost my bearing.
I began, "Poet, I would most willingly
74 The two are Francesca da Address those two who pass together there
Rimini and Paolo Malatesta her 75 And appear to be so light upon the wind,"
brother-in-law. They became
lovers and were slain by And he told me, "You will see when they draw
Francesca’s husband, Closer to us that, if you petition them
Gianciotto. By the love that propels them, they will come."
As soon as the gust curved them near to us,
80 I raised my voice to them, "O wind-worn souls,
Come speak to us if it is not forbidden."
Just as the doves when homing instinct calls them
To their sweet nest, on steadily lifted wings
Glide through the air, guided by their longing,
85 So those souls left the covey where Dido lies,
Moving toward us through the malignant air,
So strong was the loving-kindness in my cry.
"O mortal man, gracious and tenderhearted,
Who through the somber air come to visit
90 The two of us who stained the earth with blood,
"If the King of the universe were our friend,
We would then pray to him to bring you peace,
Since you show pity for our wretched plight.
"Whatever you please to hear and speak about
95 We will hear and speak about with you
While the wind, as it is now, is silent.
"The country of my birth lies on that coast
Where the river Po with its tributaries
Flows downhill to its place of final rest.
100 "Love which takes quick hold in a gentle heart
Seized this man for the beauty of the body
Snatched from me — how it happened galls me!
"Love which pardons no one loved from loving
Seized me so strongly with my pleasure in him
105 That, as you see, it still does not leave me.
"Love led the two of us to a single death:
Caina awaits him who snuffed out our lives."
These were the words conveyed from them to us.
When I had heard those grief-stricken souls,
110 I bowed my head and held it bowed down low
Until the poet asked, "What are you thinking?"
When I replied, I ventured, "O misery,
How many the sweet thoughts, how much yearning
Has led these two to this heartbroken pass!"
115 Then I turned round again to speak to them,
And I began, "Francesca, your sufferings
Move my heart to tears of grief and pity.
"But tell me, in the season of sweet sighs,
By what signs did love grant to you the favor
120 Of recognizing your mistrustful longings?"
And she told me, "Nothing is more painful
Than to recall the time of happiness
In wretchedness: this truth your teacher knows.
"If, however, to learn the initial root
125 Of our own love is now your deep desire,
I will speak here as one who weeps in speaking.
"One day for our own pleasure we were reading
Of Lancelot and how love pinioned him.
We were alone and innocent of suspicion.
130 "Several times that reading forced our eyes
To meet and took the color from our faces.
But one solitary moment conquered us.
"When we read there of how the longed-for smile
Was being kissed by that heroic lover,
135 This man, who never shall be severed from me,
"Trembling all over, kissed me on the mouth.
That book — and its author — was a pander!
In it that day we did no further reading."
While the one spirit spoke these words, the other
140 Wept so sadly that pity swept over me
And I fainted as if face to face with death,
And I fell just as a dead body falls.
INFERNO -- Canto XXXIV
Notes "‘The Banners of the King of Hell Advance’
Closer to us," my master said; "so look
Straight ahead and see if you can spot them."
1 Vexilla regis prodeunt inferni:
the opening line, quoted in Latin
by Dante, is a slightly parodied Just as when a thick fog starts to settle
version of a sixth-century hymn 5 Or when evening darkens all our hemisphere,
by Fortunatus. The pilgrims Far-off a windmill appears to be rotating,
reach the fourth zone of
Cocytus which is called Judecca So I thought I saw such a structure there.
(l. 117) for the traitor Judas. Then out of the wind I stepped back behind
My guide, because there was no other shelter.
10 I was now — and with fear I set it down
In verse — where the shades were wholly sealed
And yet showed through below like straws in glass.
Some of them lie flat, some stand upright,
One on his head and one upon his soles;
15 Another, like a bow, bends face to foot.
When we had made our way so far forward
That my master sensed it time to show me
The creature who was once so beautiful,
20 Dis is another name that
Dante uses for Lucifer. He is He took a step aside and made me stop;
also addressed as Satan in l. 20 "Look at Dis," he said, "look at the place
73. Where you must arm yourself with steadfastness."
How faint and frozen, reader, I grew then
Do not inquire: I shall not write it down,
Since all my words would be too few and weak.
25 I did not die and still I did not live.
Think for yourself — should you possess the talent —
What I became, robbed of both life and death!
The emperor of the kingdom of despair
Rose up from mid-chest out of the sheer ice;
30 And I come closer to a giant’s height
Than giants match the size of his huge arms:
See now how large the whole of him must be
If it’s proportionate to that one part!
34 Lucifer (a word derived from
Were he once as beautiful as now he’s ugly
Latin, meaning "bearer of light")
35 (And yet he raised his fist against his Maker!)
was beautiful before he rebelled
Well may all our grief come down from him!
Oh how much wonder was it for me when
I saw that on his head he had three faces:
One in front — and it was fiery red —
40 And two others, which joined onto this one
Above the center of his shoulder blades,
And all three came together at his crown.
The right face seemed halfway white and yellow
While the left one looked the color of the race
45 That lives close to the source of the Nile.
Beneath each face there sprouted two large wings,
Suitably massive for such a bird of prey:
I never sighted sails so broad at sea.
They had no feathers but looked just like a bat’s,
50 And he kept flapping these wings up and down
So that three winds moved out from in around him:
This was the cause Cocytus was all iced.
With six eyes he wept, and from his three chins
Dripped down the teardrops and a bloody froth.
55 In each mouth he mashed up a separate sinner
With his sharp teeth, as if they were a grinder,
And in this way he put the three through torture.
For the one in front, the biting was as nothing
Compared to the clawing, for at times his back
60 Remained completely stripped bare of its skin.
61 The sinners in the three
mouths of Lucifer are Judas
Iscariot, the apostle who "That soul up there who suffers the worst pain,"
betrayed Christ,center, and My master said, "is Judas Iscariot —
Brutus and Cassius (ll. 65-67), His head within, he kicks his legs outside.
left, who conspired to
assassinate Julius Caesar. "Of those other two, with their heads hung down,
65 The one who hangs from the black snout is Brutus:
67 Cassius looks brawny Look how he writhes and mutters not a word!
because, with his skin chewed
away, the muscles are exposed. "That other one is Cassius, who seems brawny.
But nightfall rises once again, and we now
68 It is the evening of Holy Must take our leave, since we have seen the whole."
Saturday. When the poet
passes the center point of the 70 As he requested, I held him round the neck,
earth, it will be twelve hours And then he waited the right time and place,
earlier (l. 96). And when the wings spread open wide enough
He caught firm hold of Satan’s shaggy flanks.
Downward from shock to shock he climbed below
75 Between the matted hair and frozen crust.
When we were at the point at which the thigh
Revolves, right where the hip widens out,
My guide, by straining and agonizing effort,
Turned his head round to where his legs had been
80 And grabbed the hair, like a man climbing up,
So that I thought we’d headed back to hell!
"Hold tight! these are the only stairs to take us
Out of this sin-filled hole," said my master,
Panting, like a man worn out, for breath.
85 Then he squeezed through the crevice of a rock
And raised me up onto its rim to sit,
And afterward reached me with one wary step.
I lifted up my eyes, thinking I’d see
Lucifer as I had left him — instead
90 I found him with his legs suspended upward!
And if at that time I became confused
Let dull minds judge: those who do not see
What point it was that I must just have passed.
"Stand up!" my master said, "Up on your feet!
95 The way is long and the path strenuous.
The sun once more turns back to middle tierce."
It was no palace hall, the place where we
Had come, but a natural stone cavern
With scanty lighting and a treacherous floor.
100 "Before we uproot ourselves from this abyss,
My master," said I when I stood up straight,
"Talk to me a bit to clear my error:
"Where is the ice? And how can he be fixed
Upside-down like that? And how in so short time
105 Has the sun moved from dusk to morning?"
And he told me, "You picture yourself still
On the other side of center where I caught
The hair of the vile worm that pierced the earth.
"You were there as long as I climbed downward.
110 When I turned myself round you passed the point
112 Lucifer fell headfirst from To which all weight on every side pulls down.
heaven through the southern
hemisphere. All the land on that "And now you come under the hemisphere
side of the globe rushed to the Opposite that which domes the vast dry land:
north, except for a mound There, beneath its pinnacle of sky,
caused by the impact of his fall:
the Mount of Purgatory. 115 "The Man, sinless in birth and life, was slain.
Your feet stand on a little sphere, a spot
That marks the other side of Judecca.
"Here it is morning when it is evening there,
And he whose hair supplied our ladder down
120 Is still stuck fast, as he was from the first.
"He fell down straight from heaven on this side,
And the land, which once had bulged out here,
In fright at his fall cloaked itself with sea
"And rushed up toward our hemisphere; perhaps,
125 What you see on this side, to flee from him,
Left this space vacant here and spurted upward.
"Below, as far away from Beelzebub
As the limit of his tomb, there is a place
Which is known not by sight but by the sound
130 "Of a small stream that courses down this way
130 The stream of Lethe runs Along the hollow of a rock it wore
down from the Garden of Away with winding flow and trickling fall."
Paradise on the top of
purgatory. Along that hidden path my guide and I
Started out to return to the bright world.
135 And without a thought for any resting-stops,
We bounded up, he first and I second,
Until, through a round opening, I saw
Some of the lovely things the heavens hold:
From there we came out to see once more the stars.