Canto I

In middle[160] of the journey of our days
I found that I was in a darksome wood[161]--
The right road lost and vanished in the maze.
Ah me! how hard to make it understood
How rough that wood was, wild, and terrible:
By the mere thought my terror is renewed.
More bitter scarce were death. But ere I tell
At large of good which there by me was found,
I will relate what other things befell.

Scarce know I how I entered on that ground,
So deeply, at the moment when I passed
From the right way, was I in slumber drowned.
But when beneath a hill[162] arrived at last,
Which for the boundary of the valley stood,
That with such terror had my heart harassed,
I upwards looked and saw its shoulders glowed,
Radiant already with that planet's[163] light
Which guideth surely upon every road.
A little then was quieted by the sight
The fear which deep within my heart had lain
Through all my sore experience of the night.

And as the man, who, breathing short in pain,
Hath 'scaped the sea and struggled to the shore,
Turns back to gaze upon the perilous main;
Even so my soul which fear still forward bore
Turned to review the pass whence I egressed,
And which none, living, ever left before.
My wearied frame refreshed with scanty rest,
I to ascend the lonely hill essayed;
The lower foot[164] still that on which I pressed.
And lo! ere I had well beginning made,
A nimble leopard,[165] light upon her feet,
And in a skin all spotted o'er arrayed:
Nor ceased she e'er me full in the face to meet,
And to me in my path such hindrance threw
That many a time I wheeled me to retreat.

It was the hour of dawn; with retinue
Of stars[166] that were with him when Love Divine
In the beginning into motion drew
Those beauteous things, the sun began to shine;
And I took heart to be of better cheer
Touching the creature with the gaudy skin,
Seeing 'twas morn,[167] and spring-tide of the year;
Yet not so much but that when into sight
A lion[168] came, I was disturbed with fear.
Towards me he seemed advancing in his might,
Rabid with hunger and with head high thrown:
The very air was tremulous with fright.

A she-wolf,[169] too, beheld I further on;
All kinds of lust seemed in her leanness pent:
Through her, ere now, much folk have misery known.
By her oppressed, and altogether spent
By the terror breathing from her aspect fell,
I lost all hope of making the ascent.
And as the man who joys while thriving well,
When comes the time to lose what he has won
In all his thoughts weeps inconsolable,
So mourned I through the brute which rest knows none:
She barred my way again and yet again,
And thrust me back where silent is the sun.
And as I downward rushed to reach the plain,
Before mine eyes appeared there one aghast,
And dumb like those that silence long maintain.
When I beheld him in the desert vast,
'Whate'er thou art, or ghost or man,' I cried,
'I pray thee show such pity as thou hast.'
'No man,[170] though once I was; on either side
Lombard my parents were, and both of them
For native place had Mantua,' he replied.
'Though late, _sub Julio_,[171] to the world I came,
And lived at Rome in good Augustus' day,
While yet false gods and lying were supreme.
Poet I was, renowning in my lay
Anchises' righteous son, who fled from Troy
What time proud Ilion was to flames a prey.

But thou, why going back to such annoy?
The hill delectable why fear to mount,
The origin and ground of every joy?'
'And thou in sooth art Virgil, and the fount
Whence in a stream so full doth language flow?'
Abashed, I answered him with humble front.
'Of other poets light and honour thou!
Let the long study and great zeal I've shown
In searching well thy book, avail me now!
My master thou, and author[172] thou, alone!
From thee alone I, borrowing, could attain
The style[173] consummate which has made me known.
Behold the beast which makes me turn again:
Deliver me from her, illustrious Sage;
Because of her I tremble, pulse and vein.'
'Thou must attempt another pilgrimage,'
Observing that I wept, he made reply,
'If from this waste thyself thou 'dst disengage.
Because the beast thou art afflicted by
Will suffer none along her way to pass,
But, hindering them, harasses till they die.
So vile a nature and corrupt she has,
Her raging lust is still insatiate,
And food but makes it fiercer than it was.
Many a creature[174] hath she ta'en for mate,
And more she'll wed until the hound comes forth
To slay her and afflict with torment great.

He will not batten upon pelf or earth;
But he shall feed on valour, love, and lore;
Feltro and Feltro[175] 'tween shall be his birth.
He will save humbled Italy, and restore,
For which of old virgin Camilla[176] died;
Turnus, Euryalus, Nisus, died of yore.
Her through all cities chasing far and wide,
He at the last to Hell will thrust her down,
Whence envy[177] first unloosed her. I decide
Therefore and judge that thou hadst best come on
With me for guide;[178] and hence I'll lead thee where
A place eternal shall to thee be shown.

There shalt thou hear the howlings of despair
In which the ancient spirits make lament,
All of them fain the second death to share.
Next shalt thou them behold who are content,
Because they hope some time, though now in fire,
To join the blessed they will win consent.
And if to these thou later wouldst aspire,
A soul[179] shall guide thee, worthier far than I;
When I depart thee will I leave with her.

Because the Emperor[180] who reigns on high
Wills not, since 'gainst His laws I did rebel,[181]
That to His city I bring any nigh.
O'er all the world He rules, there reigns as well;
There is His city and exalted seat:
O happy whom He chooses there to dwell!'
And I to him: 'Poet, I thee entreat,
Even by that God who was to thee unknown,
That I may 'scape this present ill, nor meet
With worse, conduct me whither thou hast shown,
That I may see Saint Peter's gate,[182] and those
Whom thou reportest in such misery thrown.'
He moved away; behind him held I close.


[160] _Middle_: In his _Convito_ (iv. 23), comparing human life to an
arch, Dante says that at the age of thirty-five a man has reached the
top and begins to go down. As he was born in 1265 that was his own age
in 1300, the year in which the action of the poem is laid.

[161] _Darksome wood_: A state of spiritual darkness or despair into
which he has gradually drifted, not without fault of his own.

[162] _A hill_: Lower down this hill is termed 'the origin and cause of
all joy.' It is symbolical of spiritual freedom--of the peace and
security that spring from the practice of virtue. Only, as it seems, by
gaining such a vantage-ground can he escape from the wilderness of
doubt--the valley of the shadow of death--in which he is lost.

[163] _That planet_: On the Ptolemaic system, which, as perfected by the
Arabian astronomers, and with some Christian additions, was that
followed by Dante, the sun is reckoned as one of the seven planets; all
the others as well as the earth and the fixed stars deriving their light
from it. Here the sunlight may signify the Divine help granted to all
men in their efforts after virtue.

[164] _The lower foot, etc._: This describes a cautious, slow ascent.

[165] _A nimble leopard_: The leopard and the lion and wolf that come
with it are suggested by Jeremiah v. 6: 'A lion out of the forest shall
slay them,' etc. We have Dante's own authority for it, in his letter to
Can Grande, that several meanings are often hidden under the incidents
of the _Comedy_. But whatever else the beasts may signify, their chief
meaning is that of moral hindrances. It is plain that the lion and wolf
are the sins of others--pride and avarice. If the leopard agrees with
them in this, it most probably stands for the envy of those among whom
Dante lived: at _Inf._ vi. 74 we find envy, pride, and avarice classed
together as the sins that have corrupted Florence. But from _Inf._ xvi.

106 it appears that Dante hoped to get the better of the leopard by
means of a cord which he wore girt about his loins. The cord is
emblematical of self-control; and hence the leopard seems best to answer
the idea of sensual pleasure in the sense of a temptation that makes
difficult the pursuit of virtue. But it will be observed that this
hindrance Dante trusts to overcome.

[166] _Stars, etc._: The sun being then in Aries, as it was believed to
have been at the creation.

[167] _Morn, etc._: It is the morning of Friday the 25th of March in the
year 1300, and by the use of Florence, which began the year on the
anniversary of the incarnation, it is the first day of the New Year. The
Good Friday of 1300 fell a fortnight later; but the 25th of March was
held to be the true anniversary of the crucifixion as well as of the
incarnation and of the creation of the world. The date of the action is
fixed by _Inf._ xxi. 112. The day was of good omen for success in the
struggle with his lower self.

[168] _A lion_: Pride or arrogance; to be taken in its widest sense of
violent opposition to all that is good.

[169] _A she-wolf_: Used elsewhere in the _Comedy_ to represent avarice.
Dante may have had specially in his mind the greed and worldly ambition
of the Pope and the Court of Rome, but it is plain from line 110 that
the wolf stands primarily for a sin, and not for a person or corporate

[170] _No man_: Brunetto Latini, the friend and master of Dante, says
'the soul is the life of man, but without the body is not man.'

[171] _Sub Julio_: Julius was not even consul when Virgil was born. But
Dante reckoned Julius as the founder of the Empire, and therefore makes
the time in which he flourished his. Virgil was only twenty-five years
of age when Cæsar was slain; and thus it was under Augustus that his
maturer life was spent.

[172] _Author_: Dante defines an author as 'one worthy to be believed
and obeyed' (_Convito_ iv. 6). For a guide and companion on his great
pilgrimage he chooses Virgil, not only because of his fame as a poet,
but also because he had himself described a descent to the Shades--had
been already there. The vulgar conception of Virgil was that of a
virtuous great magician.

[173] _The style, etc._: Some at least of Dante's minor works had been
given to the world before 1300, certainly the _Vita Nuova_ and others of
his poems. To his study of Virgil he may have felt himself indebted for
the purity of taste that kept him superior to the frigid and artificial
style of his contemporaries, He prided himself on suiting his language
to his theme, as well as on writing straight from the heart.

[174] _Many a creature, etc._: Great men and states, infected with
avarice in its extended sense of encroachment on the rights of others.

[175] _Feltro and Feltro, etc._: Who the deliverer was that Dante
prophesies the coming of is not known, and perhaps never can be. Against
the claims of Can Grande of Verona the objection is that, at any date
which can reasonably be assigned for the publication of the _Inferno_,
he had done nothing to justify such bright hopes of his future career.
There seems proof, too, that till the _Paradiso_ was written Dante
entertained no great respect for the Scala family (_Purg._ xvi. 118,
xviii. 121). Neither is Verona, or the widest territory over which Can
Grande ever ruled, at all described by saying it lay between Feltro and
Feltro.--I have preferred to translate _nazi-one_ as birth rather than
as nation or people. 'The birth of the deliverer will be found to have
been between feltro and feltro.' Feltro, as Dante wrote it, would have
no capital letter; and according to an old gloss the deliverer is to be
of humble birth; _feltro_ being the name of a poor sort of cloth. This
interpretation I give as a curiosity more than anything else; for the
most competent critics have decided against it, or ignored it.--Henry of
Luxemburg, chosen Emperor in November 1308, is an old claimant for the
post of the allegorical _veltro_ or greyhound. On him Dante's hopes were
long set as the man who should 'save Italy;' and it seems not out of
place to draw attention to what is said of him by John Villani, the
contemporary and fellow-townsman of Dante: 'He was of a magnanimous
nature, though, as regarded his family, of poor extraction' (_Cronica_,
ix. 1). Whatever may be made of the Feltros, the description in the text
of the deliverer as one superior to all personal ambition certainly
answers better to Dante's ideal of a righteous Emperor than to the
character of a partisan leader like Uguccione della Faggiuola, or an
ambitious prince like Can Grande.

[176] _Camilla, etc._: All persons of the _Æneid_.

[177] _Envy_: That of Satan.

[178] _Thou hadst best, etc._: As will be seen from the next Canto,
Virgil has been sent to the relief of Dante; but how that is to be
wrought out is left to his own judgment. He might secure a partial
deliverance for his ward by conducting him up the Delectable Mount--the
peaceful heights familiar to himself, and which are to be won by the
practice of natural piety. He chooses the other course, of guiding Dante
through the regions of the future state, where the pilgrim's trust in
the Divine government will be strengthened by what he sees, and his soul
acquire a larger peace.

[179] _A soul_: Beatrice.

[180] _The Emperor_: The attribution of this title to God is significant
of Dante's lofty conception of the Empire.

[181] _'Gainst his laws, etc._: Virgil was a rebel only in the sense of
being ignorant of the Christian revelation (_Inf._ iv. 37).

[182] _Saint Peter's gate_: Virgil has not mentioned Saint Peter. Dante
names him as if to proclaim that it is as a Christian, though under
heathen guidance, that he makes the pilgrimage. Here the gate seems to
be spoken of as if it formed the entrance to Paradise, as it was
popularly believed to do, and as if it were at that point Virgil would
cease to guide him. But they are to find it nearer at hand, and after it
has been passed Virgil is to act as guide through Purgatory.