Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy”, written around 1300 A.D., tells a of his fantastic vision of hell, purgatory, and heaven. The first volume, the Inferno, has had incredible influence over our modern conception of hell. There are several free English translations available, but, while researching the Inferno for a book I’m writing (working title: Journey to Erebus), I decided to try to turn Dante’s work into an easy to read book in modern English. Here is the first Canto:
When I was middle aged, I found myself in a dark wood, having lost my way. Even now it is hard to tell of this wild, rough, dense wood; just the thought of it renews my fear! It was so bitter that death is little worse. But in order to tell of the good that I found there, I will tell of the other things that I saw. I cannot easily say how I entered the wood; I was so sleepy at the point where I left the right path. I arrived at the foot of a hill, where the valley that had pierced my heart with fear ended; I looked up, and saw its shoulders clothed with the rays of the Sun, which makes every path clear. Then the fear that had lasted in the lake of my heart through the night that I passed so piteously was quieted a little. Like one who issues out of breath from the sea onto the shore will turn to the perilous water and gaze, so my soul, which was still in flight, turned back to look upon that pass which no living person had ever left.
After I had rested a little, I made my way up the barren slope, always keeping my firm foot lower. Almost at the beginning of the incline, a leopardess appeared, light and very nimble, with a spotted coat. She did not move from my path, but rather hindered me so that to continue I often had to turn back before doubling back. It was daybreak, and the sun was mounting upward with the stars of spring, which were with Yahweh when he first set all beautiful things in motion. The hour and the sweet season gave me hope that I could evade that wild, dappled skinned beast. But what I saw next renewed my fear. A lion came at me, with head high. He was so ravenous with hunger that even the air seemed afraid of him. With him came a wolf who seemed heavy with hunger in her meagerness. I was sure she had ruined many lives. She scared me so much that my limbs grew heavy at the sight of her, and I lost hope of reaching the hilltop. I was like a man who takes his gains willingly, but when the time comes to lose, weeps and is full of sadness. The beasts came at me and little by little pushed me back down the slope toward the dark wood, where the sun did not shine.
While I was descending back into the valley, a man appeared. He seemed hoarse through long silence.
“Have pity on me!” I cried to him, “whatever you are, shade or living man.”
“I am not living,” he answered, “though I was once a man. My parents were from the town that is now called Mantua, in Lombardy. I was born late in the reign of Julius Caesar, and I lived in Rome under the good Augustus, in the time when we worshiped the old gods. I was a Poet, and sang of the just son of Anchises, who came from Troy after proud Illium had been burned.”
“Are you Virgil, the one who poured forth such a great stream of words,” I replied, “the most honored, the light of all other poets? May my long study profit me, and the great love which made me study your works! You are my master and my inspiration, and emulating your fair style has brought me honor.”
“Tell me, why do you return to this sorrowful place?” he asked. “Why don’t you ascend this mountain, the source and cause of all joy?”
“A beast made me turn back,” I replied. “Help me against her, famous sage, for she would make any man’s heart tremble.”
“You need to take another course if you wish to escape from this savage place,” he replied, when he saw me weeping. “The beast against which you cry out won’t let anyone pass her way, but hinders those who try until she has killed them! She is so malign, so evil, that she never sates her greed, and after eating is hungrier than before. She has coupled with many animals, and there shall be many more, until the hound comes that will bring her to grief. He shall not feed on land or goods, but wisdom, love and valor, and his birthplace shall be between the two towns of Feltro. He will be the savior of humbled Italy, for which the virgin Camilla, Euryalus, Turnus and Nisus died of their wounds. He shall hunt her through every town until he sends her back to hell, from which envy first sent her forth. I think it would be best if you follow me. I will be your guide, and lead you through this eternal place, where you shall hear despairing shrieks and see ancient sorrowful spirits who proclaim the second death. You will see those who are content in the fire, because they hope to join, whenever it may be, the blessed folk. When you ascend, it shall be with a soul more worthy than me. I will leave you with her when you depart. He who reigns above wills that I shall not enter His city with because I did not follow His law. He governs all parts of his domain and reigns over its inhabitants, in His city from His lofty seat. Happy are those whom He elects to that place!”
“Poet,” I said, “I beg you by the God whom you never knew to help me escape this ill fortune and worse, and lead me where you will, so that I may see the gate of St. Peter, and those whom have so afflicted you.”
He led on, and I followed behind him.
The wood,”that pass from which no living person had ever left”, represents the valley of death. The hill leads upward to heaven, but like the souls of the damned, Dante is prevented from going that way. He is met by the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, the great epic poem that was to the Romans what the Illiad was to the Greeks. Virgil offers to guide him through the infernal realm until another, one more worthy, can take Dante on to realms that Virgil is not allowed to enter.
Next Canto: Virgil is Sent by Beatrice