Inferno: Dante and Virgil

As you will see, Dante tells this story in first-person, and it is the story of his "mid-life crisis," so to speak. His guide on the journey he is about to take is the Roman poet Virgil, author of the Aeneid, the epic poem about the founding of Rome. You can read more about Virgil at Wikipedia, which has a special section devoted to the tremendous importance of Virgil for the medieval literary traditions of Europe: Virgil in the Middle Ages.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Dante's Inferno unit. Story source: Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Tony Kline (2002).

Canto 1: Dante and Virgil

The Dark Wood and the Hill

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death, but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there.

(illustration by Gustave Doré)

I cannot rightly say how I entered it; I was so full of sleep at that point where I abandoned the true way. But when I reached the foot of a hill, where the valley that had pierced my heart with fear came to an end, I looked up and saw its shoulders brightened with the rays of that sun that leads men rightly on every road.

Then the fear that had settled in the lake of my heart through the night that I had spent so miserably became a little calmer. And as a man, who, with panting breath, has escaped from the deep sea to the shore, turns back towards the perilous waters and stares, so my mind, still fugitive, turned back to see that pass again that no living person ever left.

After I had rested my tired body a while, I made my way again over empty ground, always bearing upwards to the right. And, behold, almost at the start of the slope, a light swift leopard with spotted coat. It would not turn from before my face and so obstructed my path that I often turned in order to return.

The time was at the beginning of the morning, and the sun was mounting up with all those stars that were with him when Divine Love first moved all delightful things, so that the hour of day and the sweet season gave me fair hopes of that creature with the bright pelt.

(illustration by William Blake)

But not so fair that I could avoid fear at the sight of a lion that appeared and seemed to come at me with raised head and rabid hunger, so that it seemed the air itself was afraid, and a she-wolf that looked full of craving in its leanness and, before now, has made many men live in sadness. She brought me such heaviness of fear from the aspect of her face that I lost all hope of ascending. And as one who is eager for gain, weeps and is afflicted in his thoughts if the moment arrives when he loses, so that creature, without rest, made me like him— and coming at me, little by little, drove me back to where the sun is silent.

Dante meets Virgil

While I was returning to the depths, one appeared, in front of my eyes who seemed hoarse from long silence. When I saw him in the great emptiness, I cried out to him, 'Have pity on me, whoever you are, whether a man, in truth, or a shadow!'

He answered me: 'Not a man: but a man I once was, and my parents were Lombards, and both of them, by their native place, Mantuans. I was born sub Julio, though late, and lived in Rome under the good Augustus, in the age of false, deceitful gods. I was a poet and sang of Aeneas, that virtuous son of Anchises who came from Troy when proud Ilium was burned. But you, why do you turn back towards such pain? Why do you not climb the delightful mountain that is the origin and cause of all joy?'

I answered him, with a humble expression: 'Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain that pours out so great a river of speech? O, glory and light to other poets, may that long study and the great love that made me scan your work be worth something now. You are my master and my author: you alone are the one from whom I learnt the high style that has brought me honour. See the creature that I turned back from. O, sage, famous in wisdom, save me from her, she that makes my veins and my pulse tremble.'

When he saw me weeping, he answered: 'You must go another road if you wish to escape this savage place. This creature that distresses you allows no man to cross her path, but obstructs him to destroy him, and she has so vicious and perverse a nature that she never sates her greedy appetite, and, after food, is hungrier than before. Many are the creatures she mates with, and there will be many more, until the Greyhound comes, who will make her die in pain. He will not feed himself on land or wealth, but on wisdom, love and virtue, and his birthplace will lie between Feltro and Feltro. He will be the salvation of that lower Italy for which virgin Camilla died of wounds, and Euryalus, Turnus, and Nisus. He will chase the she-wolf through every city, until he has returned her to Hell, from which envy first loosed her.'

Virgil will be his guide through Hell

'It is best, as I think and understand, for you to follow me, and I will be your guide and lead you from here through an eternal space where you will hear the desparate shouts, will see the ancient spirits in pain, so that each one cries out for a second death, and then you will see others at peace in the flames, because they hope to come, whenever it may be, among the blessed. Then if you desire to climb to them, there will be a spirit, fitter than I am to guide you, and I will leave you with her when we part, since the Lord, who rules above, does not wish me to enter his city because I was rebellious to his law. He is lord everywhere, but there he rules, and there is his city and his high throne: O, happy is he, whom he chooses to go there!'

And I to him: 'Poet, I beg you, by the God you did not acknowledge, lead me where you said so that I might escape this evil or worse, and see the Gate of St. Peter, and those whom you make out to be so saddened.'

Then he moved, and I moved on behind him.

(1100 words)

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