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FROM CANTO 1, INFERNO

When in the middle of our lifelong way,
         In darkened woods I found myself once more,
         For I had lost the upright path to stray.
How hard to tell what it was like before —
         That savage wood, that rough and rugged lair;
         The very thought renews the fear I bore!
How bitter! Death is scarcely more to bear.
         But yet, to treat the good I found therein,
         I'll tell of other things I spotted there.
I can't retell, though, how I entered in,
         For at that point I was so full of sleep
         That I forsook what my true path had been.
And when I reached the bottom of a steep,
         Just where the boundary of that valley showed
         Which first had pierced my heart with fear so deep,
I peered on high and saw its shoulders glowed,
         Already dressed in rays the planet cast
         That steers men straight on each and every road.
And then my fear was calmed a bit at last,
         Which in the lake within my heart had stayed
         The night that was so piteously passed.
And just as one who, breathing hard, has made
         His way out from the sea up to the shore
         And turned to see those risky waves displayed,
Just so my spirit, fleeing evermore,
         Turned back to see again the pass I'd quit,
         Which never let one go alive before.
I let my weary body rest a bit,
         Then on the desert slope took up my stride,
         But kept the foot that's firm below on it.
And lo, not far from where the mountain-side
         Begins, there was a leopard light and fleet,
         And it was covered with a spotted hide.
It would not leave my sight to make retreat,
         Impeding me upon that road of mine,
         And so I many times turned back my feet.
It was the time the morning starts to shine;
         The sun was mounting with the stars on high
         That had attended it when Love Divine
First moved those things of beauty through the sky.
         The time of day and gentle season were
         Sufficient cause to have good hope that I
Might yet escape that beast with speckled fur.
         But even so, it put me in such dread
         When next a lion there appeared to stir;
It seemed to charge against me with its head
         Held high and with such rabid appetite
         That through the air, it seemed, a tremor spread.
And then a she-wolf came upon the site,
         And in her leanness every lust seemed pent;
         She's now made many live a wretched plight.
She brought such heaviness upon me, blent
         With terror at the sight of her now had,
         I lost all hope of making my ascent.
And just as one whose winnings make him glad,
         When it is time to lose what he has won,
         In all his thoughts bemoans it and is sad,
So by that restless beast I was undone.
         And bit by bit, still coming ever near,
         She drove me back where silent is the sun.
While I was falling to a lower tier,
         One suddenly appearing there was spied,
         Who, from long silence, now seemed hard to hear.
I saw him there on that great waste and cried:
          "Have mercy on me, whether what I view
         Be shade or truly man!" And he replied:
"Though man no more, I was a man like you.
         My parents issued from the Lombard state,
         And both were Mantuans by city too.
And I was born sub Julio, though late;
         At Rome, with good Augustus, I sojourned
         In times when false and lying gods held weight.
I was a poet, and my singing turned
         Around Anchises' righteous son, who went
         From Troy when haughty Ilium was burned.
But why do you return to discontent?
         Why do you not ascend the blissful mount,
         The source and cause from which all joy is sent?"
"And are you then that Virgil, you that fount
         Which pours so broad a stream of speech to hear?"
         With shameful brow, I answered his account.
"O honor of all poets, light so clear!
         May lengthy zeal and love of great degree
         Which made me search your volume serve me here.
You are my master and my author, he
         From whom alone the comely style I took
         That since has brought such honor unto me.
But there's the beast that made me turn, just look
         At her, O famous Sage, and help me flee —
         Because of her my veins and pulses shook."
"For you a different journey there must be,"
         He answered, when he saw the tears I shed,
          "If from this savage place you would be free."


      — Translated by Stephen Wentworth Arndt