Dante Alighieri – Canto I

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[Intro: Mark Musa]
Halfway through his life, Dante The Pilgrim wakes to find himself lost in a dark wood. Terrified at being alone in so dismal a valley, he wanders until he comes to a hill bathed in sunlight, and his fear begins to leave him. But when he starts to climb the hill his path is blocked by three fierce beasts: first a Leopard, then a Lion, and finally a She-Wolf. They fill him with fear and drive him back down to the sunless wood. At that moment that figure of a man appears before him; it is the shade of Virgil, and the Pilgrim begs for help. Virgil tells him that he cannot overcome the beasts which will obstruct his path; they must remain until a "Greyhound" comes who will drive them back to Hell. Rather by another path will the Pilgrim reach to sunlight, and Virgil promises to guide him on that path through Hell and Purgatory, after which another spirit, mor fit than Virgil, will lead him to Paradise. The Pilgrim begs Virgil to lead on, and the Guide starts ahead. The Pilgrim follows

[Verse 1]
(1-3)
Midway upon the road of our life
I found myself within a Dark Wood

For the right way had been missed
(4-6)
Ah! how hard a thing it is to tell
What this wild and rough and dense wood was
Which in thought renews the fear!
(7-9)
So bitter is it that death is little more
But in order to treat of the good that there I found
I will tell of the other things that I have seen there
(10-12)
I cannot well recount how I entered it
So full was I of slumber at that point
Where I abandoned the true way
(13-15)
But after I had arrived at the foot of a hill
Where that valley ended
Which had pierced my heart with fear
(16-18)
I looked on high, and saw its shoulders clothed
Already with the rays of the planet
That lead the men aright along every path.
(19-21)
Then was the fear a little quieted
Which in the lake of my heart had lasted
Through the night that I passed so piteously.
(22-24)
And even as one who with spent breath,
Issued out of the sea upon the shore,
Turns to the perilous water and gazes,
(25-27)
So did my soul, which still was flying,
Turn back to look again upon the pass
Which never had a living person left
(28-30)
After I had rested a little my weary body
I took my way again along the desert slope,
So that the firm foot was always the lower.
(31-33)
And ho! almost at the beginning of the steep
A she-leopard, light and very nimble,
Which was covered with a spotted coat.
(34-36)
And she did not move from before my face,
Nay, rather hindered so my road that
To return I oftentimes had turned
(37-39)
The time was at the beginning of the morning,
And the Sun was mounting upward with those stars
That were with him when Love Divine first set

In motion those beautiful things;[1] so that the hour of the time and the sweet season were occasion of good hope to me concerning that wild beast with the dappled skin. But not so that the sight which appeared to me of a lion did not give me fear. He seemed to be coming against me, with head high and with ravening hunger, so that it seemed that the air was affrighted at him. And a she-wolf,[2] who with all cravings seemed laden in her meagreness, and already had made many folk to live forlorn,—she caused me so much heaviness, with the fear that came from sight of her, that I lost hope of the height And such as he is who gaineth willingly, and the time arrives that makes him lose, who in all his thoughts weeps and is sad,—such made me the beast without repose that, coming on against me, little by little was pushing me back thither where the Sun is silent
[1] According to old tradition the spring was the season of the creation
[2] These three beasts correspond to the triple division of sins into those of incontinence, of violence, and of fraud. See Canto XI
While I was falling back to the low place, before mine eyes appeared one who through long silence seemed hoarse. When I saw him in the great desert, "Have pity on me!" I cried to him, "whatso thou art, or shade or real man." He answered me: "Not man; man once I was, and my parents were Lombards, and Mantuans by country both. I was born sub Julio, though late, and I lived at Rome under the good Augustus, in the time of the false and lying gods. Poet was I, and sang of that just son of Anchises who came from Troy after proud Ilion had been burned. But thou, why returnest thou to so great annoy? Why dost thou not ascend the delectable mountain which is the source and cause of every joy?"
"Art thou then that Virgil and that fount which poureth forth so large a stream of speech?" replied I to him with bashful front: "O honor and light of the other poem I may the long seal avail me, and the great love, which have made me search thy volume! Thou art my master and my author; thou alone art he from whom I took the fair style that hath done me honor. Behold the beast because of which I turned; help me against her, famous sage, for she makes any veins and pulses tremble." "Thee it behoves to hold another course," he replied, when he saw me weeping, "if thou wishest to escape from this savage place; for this beast, because of which thou criest out, lets not any one pass along her way, but so hinders him that she kills him! and she has a nature so malign and evil that she never sates her greedy will, and after food is hungrier than before. Many are the animals with which she wives, and there shall be more yet, till the hound [1] shall come that will make her die of grief. He shall not feed on land or goods, but wisdom and love and valor, and his birthplace shall be between Feltro and Feltro. Of that humble
[2] Italy shall he be the salvation, for which the virgin Camilla died, and Euryalus, Turnus and Nisus of their wounds. He shall hunt her through every town till he shall have set her back in hell, there whence envy first sent her forth. Wherefore I think and deem it for thy best that thou follow me, and I will be thy guide, and will lead thee hence through the eternal place whew thou shalt hear the despairing shrieks, shalt see the ancient spirits woeful who each proclaim the second death. And then thou shalt see those who are contented in the fire, because they hope to come, whenever it may be, to the blessed folk; to whom if thou wilt thereafter ascend, them shall be a soul more worthy than I for that. With her I will leave thee at my departure; for that Emperor who reigneth them above, because I was rebellious to His law, wills not that into His city any one should come through me. In all parts He governs and them He reigns: there in His city and His lofty seat. O happy he whom thereto He elects!" And I to him, "Poet, I beseech thee by that God whom thou didst not know, in order that I may escape this ill and worse, that thou lead me thither whom thou now hest said, so that I may see the gate of St. Peter, and those whom thou makest so afflicted."
[1] Of whom the hound is the symbol, and to whom Dante looked for the deliverance of Italy from the discorda and misrule that made her wretched, is still matter of doubt, after centuries of controversy
[2] Fallen, humiliated
Then he moved on, and I behind him kept

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