Canto I

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CANTO I, translated by Tom Phillips

Just halfway through this journey of our life
I reawoke to find myself inside
a dark wood, way off-course, the right road lost.
How difficult a task it is to tell
what this wild, harsh, forbidding wood was like
the merest thought of which brings back my fear;
for only death exceeds its bitterness.
But I found goodness there; I'll deal with that
as I describe the various things I saw.
I can't recall exactly how it was
I entered it, I was so full of sleep
as I forsook the road of truth. But now
I'd reached the bottom of a hill that marked
the valley's end where I'd been terrified
by heart's remorse, and, looking up, I saw
its shoulders cloaked in rays that planet sends
which leads men straight along their several paths.
So then the fear was somewhat set at rest
that gathered in my heart's lake as I spent
the night in such a pitiable state.
And, as a man emerging from the sea,
who scrambles up on shore with heaving lungs,
turns round to scan the dangerous expanse
of water, so my mind, though still in flight,
turned back to stare in wonder at the pass
that never yet had let through living man.
Then, having snatched some rest for wearied limbs,
I carried on across the wasteland slope
my best foot ever forward, planted firm.
And there! near where the ground began to rise,
an agile leopard moving at full speed
and covered with a coat of spotted fur!
It wouldn't go from me but faced me out
and blocked my progress so insistently
I turned and turned in order to head back.
The time was earliest morning and the sun
was climbing upwards with those very stars
that were its company when holy law
gave primal motion to their loveliness.
The hour, the season's sweetness, stirred in me
high hopes of this bright coated animal;
but not enough to check the fear I felt
to see a lion looming into sight.
He seemed to come straight at me, head held high,
so crazed with hunger that the air itself
appeared to quake with horror. Next there came
a she-wolf whose emaciated form
embodied as it seemed all craving known:
already she had made a multitude
pursue grim ways of life. Her form bred fear
reducing me to such a weakened state
that I lost hope of making the ascent.
But as a man, though happy if he wins,
will weep as sorrow overtakes his mind
when time makes him a loser in his turn,
so I reacted as that restless beast
came moving on against me inch by inch
and forced me back to where the sun was mute.
While I was heading down to ruin's depth
a presence whom long silence had made faint
materialised before me as I watched.
And seeing him in all that empty waste,
I cried aloud, 'No matter what your are,
an apparition or an actual man,
have pity on me.' And his answer came,
'I am no man, though man was what I was.
My parents had their roots in Lombardy;
the both of them were Mantuan by birth:
and I was born late on in Julius' time
though, under good Augustus, lived in Rome
when gods were bred of fallacies and lies.
I was a poet, and sang of that just man
Anchises' son who made his way from Troy
when Ilium the proud had been burnt down.
But you, why travel back to so much strife?
Why not climb up this mountain of delight,
the origin and source of every joy?'
Are you that Virgil then, that fountainhead
from which flows such a generous stream of speech?'
I said, my head bowed in humility.
'Oh you who are the glory and the light
of other poets, let me benefit
from my long study, and the powerful love
that made me search your volume through and through.
You are my master, my authority,
the one alone from whom I have acquired
the graceful style that earned me my good name.
You see what beast has caused my turning back.
Lord, famed for wisdom, save me from her now:
she makes my pulse beat through my trembling veins.'
'You must go by some other route than this,'
he answered when he saw me there in tears,
'if you desire to leave this savage place.
This animal that you complain about
lets no one pass along her path; instead
she persecutes them, brings about their death.
Her nature, so malignant and perverse,
breeds appetite that's never satisfied
for after food she's hungrier than before.
The beasts she couples with are numerous
and there will be more yet until the Hound
shall come to bring her down in agony.
He shall not feed on land and property,
but wisdom rather, love and moral strength.
Between twin Feltros shall he rise and reign,
saviour of that downtrodden Italy
which chaste Camilla died for, and for which
Euryalus, Turnus, Nisus perished too.
He'll hunt her through the streets of every town
and at the end despatch her back to hell
whence envy in the first place set her loose.
I think it best, considering your plight,
that you should follow me: I'll be your guide
and lead you out through the eternal world
where you shall hear the helpless shriek, and see
the torment of the spirits of past times
as each cries out against the second death.
You'll also see the souls that are content
amidst the flames, because they hope to come
whenever it may be, to join the blessed.
And it it's these you wish to climb towards
there'll be a spirit worthier than myself
whom I shall leave you with when I depart,
for, high above, that ruling Emperor,
since I was rebel to His laws, will not
allow me entrance to His citadel.
The empire of His rule is space itself
that holds His city and His royal throne.
How happy those He chooses to set there!'
'Poet,' I said to him, 'I beg you now
by that same God you had no knowledge of,
that I escape this evil and worse yet,
you lead me to the place you spoke about
so I may look both on St. Peter's gate
and those whose abject state you have described?'
Then he set off and I came on behind.