Inferno -- Canto I

The Three Beasts, Virgil



1 It was Good Friday morning in 1300, a Jubilee year proclaimed by Pope Boniface VIII. Since Dante was born in 1265, he is now thirty-five old, halfway through the biblical span of seventy years.






17 In the Ptolemaic system, the sun is a planet.









32 The allegorical meaning of the three beasts is not clear. One tradition maintains that the leopard is probably symbolic of fraud; the lion (l .45) of violence; and the she-wolf (l. 49) of incontinence. Since these make up the three chief divisions of hell, the poet first encounters them in reverse order.



















64 Virgil (70-19 B. C.), born in the time of Julius Caesar, is the author of the Aeneid which describes Aeneas, son of Anchises, journeying through the underworld (Book VI) before battling to found Rome. Camilla, Turnus, etc. (ll. 107-08) are characters in the poem.





















101 The Greyhound may refer to Dante's patron Can Grande della Scala, lord of Verona, which lies between two towns of Feltro in Northern Italy. Another interpretation considers the appearance of the Greyhound as the second coming of Christ who will deliver humankind from evil (the she-wolf).







115-120 In these lines the poet is anticipating his journey through hell, purgatory, and paradise.





124 Virgil refers to himself as a rebel of the Emperor's (God's) laws since he was not consciously aware of Christ as the Redeemer of humanity (see Canto IV, and Purgatorio XXII).

          Halfway through the journey we are living
          I found myself deep in a darkened forest,
          For I had lost all trace of the straight path.
          Ah how hard it is to tell what it was like,
5         How wild the forest was, how dense and rugged!
          To think of it still fills my mind with panic.
          So bitter it is that death is hardly worse!
          But to describe the good discovered there
          I here will tell the other things I saw.
10       I cannot say clearly how I entered there,
          So drowsy with sleep had I grown at that hour
          When first I wandered off from the true way.
          But when I had reached the base of a hill,
          There at the border where the valley ended
15       That had cut my heart to the quick with panic,
          I looked up at the hill and saw its shoulder
          Mantled already with the planet's light
          That leads all people straight by every road.
          With that my panic quieted a little
20       After lingering on in the lake of my heart
          Through the night I had so grievously passed.
          And like a person who with panting breath
          Struggles ashore out of the wide ocean
          Only to glance back at the treacherous surf,
25       Just so my mind, racing on ahead,
          Turned back to marvel at the pass no one
          Ever before had issued from alive.
          After resting awhile my worn-out body,
          I pressed on up the wasted slope so that
30       I always had one firm foot on the ground.
          But look! right near the upgrade of the climb
          Loomed a fleet and nimble-footed leopard
          With coat completely covered by dark spots!
          He did not flinch or back off from my gaze,
35       But blocking the path that lay before me,
          Time and again he forced me to turn around.
          The hour was the beginning of the morning,
          And the sun was rising with those stars
          That first attended it when divine Love
40       Set these lovely creations round in motion,
          So that the early hour and the pleasant season
          Gave me good reason to keep up my hopes
          Of that fierce beast there with his gaudy pelt.
          But not so when — to add now to my fears —
45       In front of me I caught sight of a lion!
          He appeared to be coming straight at me
          With head held high and furious for hunger,
          So that the air itself seemed to be shaking.
          And then a wolf stalked, ravenously lean,
50       Seemingly laden with such endless cravings
          That she had made many live in misery!
          She caused my spirits to sink down so low,
          From the dread I felt in seeing her there,
          I lost all hope of climbing to the summit.
55       And just as a man, anxious for big winnings,
          But the time comes instead for him to lose,
          Cries and grieves the more he thinks about it,
          So did the restless she-beast make me feel
          When, edging closer toward me, step by step,
60       She drove me back to where the sun is silent.
          While I was falling back to lower ground,
          Before my eyes now came a figure forward
          Of one grown feeble from long being mute.
          When I saw him in that deserted spot,
65       "Pity me!" I shouted out to him,
          "Whoever you are, a shade or living man."
          "Not a man," he answered. "Once a man,
          Of parents who had come from Lombardy;
          Both of them were Mantuans by birth.
70       "I was born late in Julius's reign
          And dwelt at Rome under the good Augustus
          In the period of false and lying gods.
          "A poet I was, and I sang of the just
          Son of Anchises who embarked from Troy
75       After proud Ilium was burned to ashes.
          "But why do you turn back to so much grief?
          Why not bound up the delightful mountain
          Which is the source and font of every joy?"
          "Are you then Virgil and that wellspring
80       That pours forth so lush a stream of speech?"
          Shamefacedly I responded to him.
          "O glory and light of all other poets,
          May the long study and the profound love
          That made me search your work come to my aid!
85       "You are my mentor and my chosen author:
          Alone you are the one from whom I have taken
          The beautiful style that has brought me honor.
          "Look at the beast that drove me to turn back!
          Rescue me from her, celebrated sage,
90       For she causes my veins and pulse to tremble."
          "You are destined to take another route,"
          He answered, seeing me reduced to tears,
          "If you want to be clear of this wilderness,
          "Because this beast that forces you to cry out
95       Will not let anyone pass by her way
          But harries him until she finally kills him.
          "By nature she is so depraved and vicious
          That her greedy appetite is never filled:
          The more she feeds, the hungrier she grows.
100     "Many the animal she has mated with,
          And will with more to come, until the Greyhound
          That shall painfully slaughter her arrives.
          "He shall not feast on property or pelf
          But on wisdom, love, and manliness,
105      And he shall be born between Feltro and Feltro.
          "He shall save low prostrated Italy
          For which Nisus, Turnus, and Euryalus,
          And the virgin Camilla died of wounds.
          "He shall hunt the beast through every town
110      Until he chases her back down to hell
          From which envy first had thrust her forth.
          "I think and judge it best for you, then,
          To follow me, for I will be your guide,
          Directing you to an eternal place
115      "Where you shall listen to the desperate screams
          And see the spirits of the past in torment,
          As at his second death each one cries out;
          "And you shall also see those who are happy
          Even in flames, since they hope to come,
120      Whenever that may be, among the blessed.
          "If you still wish to ascend to the blessed,
          A soul worthier than I shall guide you:
          On my departure I will leave you with her.
          "For the Emperor who rules there above,
125      Since I lived in rebellion to his law,
          Will not permit me to enter his city.
          "Everywhere his kingdom comes: there he reigns,
          There his heavenly city and high throne.
          Oh happy the one elected to go there!"
130      And I said to him, "Poet, I entreat you,
          By the God whom you have never known,
          So may I flee from this and from worse evil,
          "Lead me to the place you just described
          That I may come to see Saint Peter's gate
135      And those you say are deeply sorrowful."
          Then he moved on and I walked straight behind.


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