Canto 1 of Dante’s Inferno
In middle-age I found myself
in an obscure wood,
for the straight road had long since been lost.
Christ, how hard it is for me now
to even contemplate how harsh and savage
a place it was, without renewing my old fears!
It is a place so bitter that death might come as a relief;
But to speak of the good
I will tell of the other things too that I found.
I don’t know how I can begin to describe how I entered,
having been so drugged in a kind of sleep
that I had long since abandoned the straight way.
But, when I reached the foot of the hill,
there where the valley ends,
and where my heart had been seized with such anguish,
I looked up, and I saw its shoulders
dressed in the rays of the planet
which directs us all to where we need to go.
Then the fear was a little quieted,
which had endured well into the night
in the lake of my heart.
And like someone trying to find his breath
on the bank after surfacing from the depths,
looking back over the perilous waters;
So my soul, still reeling,
looked back at the pass,
which had never before let anyone through alive.
Then, after I had rested my weary body,
I looked up once again on the deserted hill,
my left foot treading heavily behind me.
Almost as soon as I had started
a stealthy and light moving leopard appeared,
his fur covered by those distinctive spots.
It did not depart on seeing me,
but instead impeded my movements, blocking my way.
So I had to beat a retreat, over and over again.
It was early in the morning,
the sun was rising with the stars still out,
a sight which still evokes the divine
and that almost mythic time before the big bang;
so I no longer feared the beast as much,
with all it signs of debilitating luxury,
from that hour onto the sweet season.
But, not so much that I didn’t fear
the lion, which next appeared.
He approached me, coming towards me
with his head held high. He had a hungry look,
so much so that the very air about him seemed affected.
Next a she-wolf with all its ravenousness,
seeming to eat into its own need,
and the cause of much misery for so many on earth.
So much heaviness and fear did I feel,
at the sight of her, that I seemed to lose all hope
of ever reaching the summit.
And so, like one just on the brink,
yet time catches up causing them to lose heart,
so who in all thoughts weep, and becomes even more wretched.
So she made me, this restless wolf,
who kept approaching me, little by little,
forcing me back to where the sun sinks,
and while I descended to a very low place,
it was then that my eyes were offered the sight of one
who, as if originating from a great silence, appeared hoarse to me!
When I saw him in that great wilderness
I cried out, ‘ O for Pity’s sake, HELP ME!
Whatever you might be; shade or certain man!’
And he responded: ‘ Not man, but man once
was I. My parents were from Lombardy,
Mantuans both by birth.
I was born sub Julio, though it was late,
and so I also saw Rome during the good Augustus’ reign;
a time of both false and dying gods.
A poet was I, telling principally of that man who was
known as Aeneas, and who came from Troy,
from where the great Iliad come to us.
But why do you turn your back so?
Why don’t you climb that mountain
which is the reason and cause for all possible joy?
‘Are you really the same Virgil who created
that fountain of discourse which flows out like a river?’
I asked, with sudden shame upon hearing my own words.
‘All honour and light to other poets, yet loving
study, and great love, had me searching
through your volumes…
You are my Master, my author.
You alone are to be credited with the
beautiful style, which has brought me great honour and fame.
But, do you see this beast which has been forcing me back?
Please help me, great sage,
for she makes the very blood in my veins tremble.’
‘Ah, you must take another road,’
he replied, when he saw my tears,
‘If you want to escape from this savage place.
For this beast which makes you cry out
will never let you pass by this way,
such is its force that it would murder you in the end.
She has such an evil and malignant nature,
so that when her greed and desire are momentarily
appeased, her fierce appetites are once again renewed.
Many are the animals which she further mates with,
and many more, no doubt, will come. Until, finally
the grey hound will come and put an end to her.
This hound doesn’t feed on anything else found upon the earth
but love, wisdom and virtue;
her estate being built on human emotions.
It alone can be the salvation of the humble Italy
for whom the virgin Camilla died,
Euryatus, Turmus and Nisus, among others…
Only it can chase this ravenous beast out of every town,
until it has been sent back to hell,
where envy alone spawned it.
So, I think it best that you should
follow me, I will be your guide,
taking you far from here to an eternal place
where you will hear desperate shrieking,
coming from the ancient spirits in pain,
and who always cry out, at their second death.
And you will see also those happy to be in the flames
because they believe that hope will still come,
whenever it is the moment to be, to those beatified.
And then, in your own time you will rise up,
a soul more worthy than I,
and with her I shall leave you, taking my leave.
For the Emperor who so reigns, where I will take you,
was unknown to me, my mere birth being an act of rebellion.
So that he doesn’t wish for my kind to be even seen in his city.
In every place there he reigns, and he alone.
There in his city he sits on his high throne,
And happy are they who are chosen.’
And I said to him: ‘ Poet, I beg you.
In the name of the God whom you did not know,
so that I may flee this evil, and worse.
That you might take me to where you spoke of,
so that I may see the gates of Saint Peter,
and all who are assembled there.’
And than he moved, and I followed him.
This transversion is © Peter O’Neill