Canto II

It was the close of day;[183] the twilight brown
All living things on earth was setting free
From toil, while I preparing was alone[184]
To face the battle which awaited me,
As well of ruth as of the perilous quest,
Now to be limned by faultless memory.
Help, lofty genius! Muses,[185] manifest
Goodwill to me! Recording what befell,
Do thou, O mind, now show thee at thy best!
I thus began: 'Poet, and Guide as well,
Ere trusting me on this adventure wide,
Judge if my strength of it be capable.
Thou say'st that Silvius' father,[186] ere he died,
Still mortal to the world immortal went,
There in the body some time to abide.

Yet that the Foe of evil was content
That he should come, seeing what high effect,
And who and what should from him claim descent,
No room for doubt can thoughtful man detect:
For he of noble Rome, and of her sway
Imperial, in high Heaven grew sire elect.
And both of these,[187] the very truth to say,
Were founded for the holy seat, whereon
The Greater Peter's follower sits to-day.
Upon this journey, praised by thee, were known
And heard things by him, to the which he owed
His triumph, whence derives the Papal gown.[188]
That path the Chosen Vessel[189] later trod
So of the faith assurance to receive,
Which is beginning of salvation's road.
But why should I go? Who will sanction give?
For I am no Æneas and no Paul;
Me worthy of it no one can believe,
Nor I myself. Hence venturing at thy call,
I dread the journey may prove rash. But vain
For me to reason; wise, thou know'st it all.'
Like one no more for what he wished for fain,
Whose purpose shares mutation with his thought
Till from the thing begun he turns again;
On that dim slope so grew I all distraught,
Because, by brooding on it, the design
I shrank from, which before I warmly sought.

'If well I understand these words of thine,'
The shade of him magnanimous made reply,
'Thy soul 'neath cowardice hath sunk supine,
Which a man often is so burdened by,
It makes him falter from a noble aim,
As beasts at objects ill-distinguished shy.
To loose thee from this terror, why I came,
And what the speech I heard, I will relate,
When first of all I pitied thee. A dame[190]
Hailed me where I 'mongst those in dubious state[191]
Had my abode: so blest was she and fair,
Her to command me I petitioned straight.
Her eyes were shining brighter than the star;[192]
And she began to say in accents sweet
And tuneable as angel's voices are:
"O Mantuan Shade, in courtesy complete,
Whose fame survives on earth, nor less shall grow
Through all the ages, while the world hath seat;
A friend of mine, with fortune for his foe,
Has met with hindrance on his desert way,
And, terror-smitten, can no further go,
But turns; and that he is too far astray,
And that I rose too late for help, I dread,
From what in Heaven concerning him they say.
Go, with thy speech persuasive him bestead,
And with all needful help his guardian prove,
That touching him I may be comforted.

Know, it is Beatrice seeks thee thus to move.
Thence come I where I to return am fain:
My coming and my plea are ruled by love.
When I shall stand before my Lord again,
Often to Him I will renew thy praise."
And here she ceased, nor did I dumb remain:
"O virtuous Lady, thou alone the race
Of man exaltest 'bove all else that dwell
Beneath the heaven which wheels in narrowest space.[193]
To do thy bidding pleases me so well,
Though 'twere already done 'twere all too slow;
Thy wish at greater length no need to tell.
But say, what tempted thee to come thus low,
Even to this centre, from the region vast,[194]
Whither again thou art on fire to go?"
"This much to learn since a desire thou hast,"
She answered, "briefly thee I'll satisfy,
How, coming here, I through no terrors passed.

We are, of right, such things alarmèd by,
As have the power to hurt us; all beside
Are harmless, and not fearful. Wherefore I--
Thus formed by God, His bounty is so wide--
Am left untouched by all your miseries,
And through this burning[195] unmolested glide.
A noble lady[196] is in Heaven, who sighs
O'er the obstruction where I'd have thee go,
And breaks the rigid edict of the skies.
Calling on Lucia,[197] thus she made her know
What she desired: 'Thy vassal[198] now hath need
Of help from thee; do thou then helpful show.'
Lucia, who hates all cruelty, in speed
Rose, and approaching where I sat at rest,
To venerable Rachel[199] giving heed,
Me: 'Beatrice, true praise of God,' addressed;
'Why not help him who had such love for thee,
And from the vulgar throng to win thee pressed?
Dost thou not hear him weeping pitiably,
Nor mark the death now threatening him upon
A flood[200] than which less awful is the sea?'
Never on earth did any ever run,
Allured by profit or impelled by fear,
Swifter than I, when speaking she had done,
From sitting 'mong the blest descended here,
My trust upon thy comely rhetoric cast,
Which honours thee and those who lend it ear."
When of these words she spoken had the last,
She turned aside bright eyes which tears[201] did fill,
And I by this was urged to greater haste.
And so it was I joined thee by her will,
And from that raging beast delivered thee,
Which barred the near way up the beauteous hill.

What ails thee then? Why thus a laggard be?
Why cherish in thy heart a craven fear?
Where is thy franchise, where thy bravery,
When three such blessed ladies have a care
For thee in Heaven's court, and these words of mine
Thee for such wealth of blessedness prepare?'
As flowers, by chills nocturnal made to pine
And shut themselves, when touched by morning bright
Upon their stems arise, full-blown and fine;
So of my faltering courage changed the plight,
And such good cheer ran through my heart, it spurred
Me to declare, like free-born generous wight:
'O pitiful, who for my succour stirred!
And thou how full of courtesy to run,
Alert in service, hearkening her true word!
Thou with thine eloquence my heart hast won
To keen desire to go, and the intent
Which first I held I now no longer shun.
Therefore proceed; my will with thine is blent:
Thou art my Guide, Lord, Master;[202] thou alone!'
Thus I; and with him, as he forward went,
The steep and rugged road I entered on.


[183] _Close of day_: The evening of the Friday. It comes on us with
something of a surprise that a whole day has been spent in the attempt
to ascend the hill, and in conference with Virgil.

[184] _Alone_: Of earthly creatures, though in company with Virgil, a
shade. In these words is to be found the keynote to the Canto. With the
sense of deliverance from immediate danger his enthusiasm has died away.

After all, Virgil is only a shade; and his heart misgives him at the
thought of engaging, in the absence of all human companionship, upon a
journey so full of terrors. He is not reassured till Virgil has
displayed his commission.

[185] _Muses_: The invocation comes now, the First Canto being properly
an introduction. Here it may be pointed out, as illustrating the
refinement of Dante's art, that the invocation in the _Purgatorio_ is in
a higher strain, and that in the _Paradiso_ in a nobler still.

[186] _Silvius' father_: Æneas, whose visit to the world of shades is
described in the Sixth _Æneid_. He finds there his father Anchises, who
foretells to him the fortunes of his descendants down to the time of

[187] _Both of these_: Dante uses language slightly apologetic as he
unfolds to Virgil, the great Imperialist poet, the final cause of Rome
and the Empire. But while he thus exalts the Papal office, making all
Roman history a preparation for its establishment, Dante throughout his
works is careful to refuse any but a spiritual or religious allegiance
to the Pope, and leaves himself free, as will be frequently seen in the
course of the _Comedy_, to blame the Popes as men, while yielding all
honour to their great office. In this emphatic mention of Rome as the
divinely-appointed seat of Peter's Chair may be implied a censure on the
Pope for the transference of the Holy See to Avignon, which was effected
in 1305, between the date assigned to the action of the poem and the
period when it was written.

[188] _Papal gown_: 'The great mantle' Dante elsewhere terms it; the
emblem of the Papal dignity. It was only in Dante's own time that
coronation began to take the place of investiture with the mantle.

[189] _Chosen Vessel_: Paul, who like Æneas visited the other world,
though not the same region of it. Throughout the poem instances drawn
from profane history, and even poetry and mythology, are given as of
authority equal to those from Christian sources.

[190] _A dame_: Beatrice, the heroine of the _Vita Nuova_, at the close
of which Dante promises some day to say of her what was never yet said
of any woman. She died in 1290, aged twenty-four. In the _Comedy_ she
fills different parts: she is the glorified Beatrice Portinari whom
Dante first knew as a fair Florentine girl; but she also represents
heavenly truth, or the knowledge of it--the handmaid of eternal life.
Theology is too hard and technical a term to bestow on her. Virgil, for
his part, represents the knowledge that men may acquire of Divine law by
the use of their reason, helped by such illumination as was enjoyed by
the virtuous heathen. In other words, he is the exponent of the Divine
revelation involved in the Imperial system--for the Empire was never far
from Dante's thoughts. To him it meant the perfection of just rule, in
which due cognisance is taken of every right and of every duty. The
relation Dante bears to these two is that of erring humanity struggling
to the light. Virgil leads him as far as he can, and then commits him to
the holier rule of Beatrice. But the poem would lose its charm if the
allegorical meaning of every passage were too closely insisted on. And,
worse than that, it cannot always be found.

[191] _Dubious state_: The limbo of the virtuous heathen (Canto iv.).

[192] _The star_: In the _Vita Nuova_ Dante speaks of the star in the
singular when he means the stars.

[193] _In narrowest space_: The heaven of the moon, on the Ptolemaic
system the lowest of the seven planets. Below it there is only the
heaven of fire, to which all the flames of earth are attracted. The
meaning is, above all on earth.

[194] _The region vast_: The empyrean, or tenth and highest heaven of
all. It is an addition by the Christian astronomers to the heavens of
the Ptolemaic system, and extends above the _primum mobile_, which
imparts to all beneath it a common motion, while leaving its own special
motion to each. The empyrean is the heaven of Divine rest.

[195] _Burning_: 'Flame of this burning,' allegorical, as applied to the
limbo where Virgil had his abode. He and his companions suffer only from
unfulfilled but lofty desire (_Inf._ iv. 41).

[196] _A noble lady_: The Virgin Mary, of whom it is said (_Parad._
xxxiii. 16) that her 'benignity not only succours those who ask, but
often anticipates their demand;' as here. She is the symbol of Divine
grace in its widest sense. Neither Christ nor Mary is mentioned by name
in the _Inferno_.

[197] _Lucia_: The martyr saint of Syracuse. Witte (_Dante-Forschungen_,
vol. ii. 30) suggests that Lucia Ubaldini may be meant, a
thirteenth-century Florentine saint, and sister of the Cardinal (_Inf._
x. 120). The day devoted to her memory was the 30th of May. Dante was
born in May, and if it could be proved that he was born on the 30th of
the month the suggestion would be plausible. But for the greater Lucy is
to be said that she was especially helpful to those troubled in their
eyesight, as Dante was at one time of his life. Here she is the symbol
of illuminating grace.

[198] _Thy vassal_: Saint Lucy being held in special veneration by
Dante; or only that he was one that sought light. The word _fedele_ may
of course, as it usually is, be read in its primary sense of 'faithful
one;' but it is old Italian for vassal; and to take the reference to be
to the duty of the overlord to help his dependant in need seems to give
force to the appeal.

[199] _Rachel_: Symbol of the contemplative life.

[200] _A flood, etc._: 'The sea of troubles' in which Dante is involved.

[201] _Tears_: Beatrice weeps for human misery--especially that of
Dante--though unaffected by the view of the sufferings of Inferno.

[202] _My Guide, etc._: After hearing how Virgil was moved to come,
Dante accepts him not only for his guide, as he did at the close of the
First Canto, but for his lord and master as well.