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.
Previous Canto: Dante Arrives in Hell
The day was going, and the dusky air was releasing the living things of the earth from their fatigue into sleep, and I was prepared to continue my struggle with both the road and the woe which the mind that is without error retraces. Muses, and lofty creativity, assist me! Let my mind that inscribed what I saw reveal it nobly.
“Poet,” I began, “as you guide me, decide whether my virtue is sufficient before you bring me to the deep pass. You wrote that Aeneus descended to the underworld while still alive in body. It does not surprise a man of understanding that the Almighty, foe of all evil, was courteous to him, knowing his high destiny. For he was chosen by Heaven to be the father of revered Rome, which was ordained as the holy place where the successors of Saint Peter have their Papal seat. And by going there, which you so celebrated, Aeneus learned things which led to his victory and insured the papal mantle. Afterward, Saint Paul, the Chosen Vessel, came to hell to bring comfort to the those with faith, which is the beginning of the way of salvation. But why am I allowed go there, and who allows it? I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul. Neither I nor any others think me worthy of this. If I give myself up to go, I fear that going may be a fool’s errand. You are wise; you understand better than I can.”
On that dark hillside, I no longer wished for what I had. I changed my mind and hesitated to make a start, and thought to abandon the journey which I had so hastily begun.
“If I have understood you correctly,” replied that magnanimous shade, “your soul is hurt by cowardice, which often encumbers a man, turning him back from honorable enterprises, like a beast when it is startled. To help you free yourself from this fear, I will tell you why I have come, and what I heard in the first moment that I grieved for you.
* * *
I was among those who are suspended in Limbo, when a Lady called me. She was so blessed and beautiful that I asked her to command me. Her eyes were more luminous than the stars, and she began to speak to me sweetly and quietly, with an angelic voice, in her own tongue.
“Courteous Mantuan soul,” she said, “whose fame still lasts in the world, and shall last as long as the world endures! A unfortunate friend of mine is so hindered upon the barren hillside that he has turned back from his path in fear. I am afraid, from what I have heard of him in heaven, that he has already gone so far astray that I may have come to his aid too late. Now go, and with your gilded tongue, do whatever is needed for his deliverance, and assist him so that I may stop worrying for him. I am Beatrice and I have come from a place I desire to return to. Love moved me, and makes me speak. When I am before my Lord, I will commend you often to Him.”
“Lady of Virtue,” I replied, “the human race surpasses all within the heavenly circle of the moon, which is the smallest of those circles, through you alone. Your command is so pleasing to me that I cannot obey it quickly enough. You have no need to further explain your wishes to me. But tell me why you do not fear to descend into this place, from the abundant place to which you burn to return.”
“Since you wish to know, I will tell you,” she replied. “One ought to fear only those things that have power to do one harm; other things need not be dreaded. I was made by God, thankfully, so that your misery does not touch me, nor does this burning flame assail me. The gentle Virgin in heaven is sympathetic to this errand on which I send you, and she has broken a stern commandment from above. She summoned Lucia, saying, ‘Thy faithful one now has need of you, and unto you I commend him.’ Lucia, the foe of every cruelty, rose and came to the place where I was, seated with the ancient Rachel. She said, ‘Beatrice, true praise of God, why aren’t you helping the one who loved you so much that he came forth from the vulgar throng for you? Can’t you hear how pitifully he cries out? Don’t you see the deadly beast that combats him beside the stream which never reaches the sea?’ No mortal person ever went as swiftly as I, after these words were uttered. I came here, from my blessed seat, trusting in your upright words, which honor you and all those who have heard them.”
After she said this to me, tears fell from her luminous eyes, and she turned away, which made me come here even more quickly.
* * *
“I came to you as she asked,” said Virgil. “I’ve delivered you from the wild beast that halted your ascent of the beautiful mountain. Now what is it? Why do you hold back? Why do you harbor such cowardice in your heart? Why aren’t you daring and bold, since three blessed Ladies in the court of Heaven care for you, and I pledge to help you?”
As flowers, bent and closed by the chill of night, straighten after the sun shines on them and open on their stems, so I, with my weak virtue, felt daring fill my heart. I felt like one set free.
“Oh compassionate lady who aids me! And you, who courteously and quickly obeyed the command that she gave you! Your words have so filled my heart with the desire to go on that I have returned to my original intent. Let us continue now, for a single will is in us both. You are my leader, my lord and master.”
When he moved on, I followed him along the deep and savage road.
- When Dante speaks of St. Paul visiting hell, he’s referring to The Apocalypse of Paul, an apocryphal (non canonical) book from the third century
- A Mantuan is a person from Mantua, the capitol of the Italian province of Lombardy
- The place from which Beatrice comes is heaven
- The heavenly circle of the moon is the first circle of heaven in Dante’s cosmology, inhabited by souls who broke their religious vows
- Lucia is Saint Lucy, the patron saint of the blind
- Rachel is the wife of Jacob in Genesis
Next Canto: Charon