The first part of Dante’s Divine Comedy (translated by Henry Francis Cary), the “Inferno” (or “Hell”) begins on the night before Good Friday in the year 1300, “halfway along our life’s path”. Dante is thirty-five years old, half of the biblical life expectancy of 70, lost in a dark wood, assailed by beasts he cannot evade, and unable to find the straight way to salvation. Conscious that he is ruining himself and that he is falling into a deep place where the sun is silent, Dante is at last rescued by Virgil, and the two of them begin their journey to the underworld. Each sin’s punishment in Inferno is a contrapasso, a symbolic instance of poetic justice. (source: Wikipedia)
In the midway of this our mortal life, I found me in a gloomy wood, astray Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell It were no easy task, how savage wild That forest, how robust and rough its growth, Which to remember only, my dismay Renews, in bitterness not far from death. Yet to discourse of what there good befell, All else will I relate discover'd there. How first I enter'd it I scarce can say, Such sleepy dullness in that instant weigh'd My senses down, when the true path I left, But when a mountain's foot I reach'd, where clos'd The valley, that had pierc'd my heart with dread, I look'd aloft, and saw his shoulders broad Already vested with that planet's beam, Who leads all wanderers safe through every way. Then was a little respite to the fear, That in my heart's recesses deep had lain, All of that night, so pitifully pass'd: And as a man, with difficult short breath, Forespent with toiling, 'scap'd from sea to shore, Turns to the perilous wide waste, and stands At gaze; e'en so my spirit, that yet fail'd Struggling with terror, turn'd to view the straits, That none hath pass'd and liv'd. My weary frame After short pause recomforted, again I journey'd on over that lonely steep, The hinder foot still firmer. Scarce the ascent Began, when, lo! a panther, nimble, light, And cover'd with a speckled skin, appear'd, Nor, when it saw me, vanish'd, rather strove To check my onward going; that ofttimes With purpose to retrace my steps I turn'd. The hour was morning's prime, and on his way Aloft the sun ascended with those stars, That with him rose, when Love divine first mov'd Those its fair works: so that with joyous hope All things conspir'd to fill me, the gay skin Of that swift animal, the matin dawn And the sweet season. Soon that joy was chas'd, And by new dread succeeded, when in view A lion came, 'gainst me, as it appear'd, With his head held aloft and hunger-mad, That e'en the air was fear-struck. A she-wolf Was at his heels, who in her leanness seem'd Full of all wants, and many a land hath made Disconsolate ere now. She with such fear O'erwhelmed me, at the sight of her appall'd, That of the height all hope I lost. As one, Who with his gain elated, sees the time When all unwares is gone, he inwardly Mourns with heart-griping anguish; such was I, Haunted by that fell beast, never at peace, Who coming o'er against me, by degrees Impell'd me where the sun in silence rests. While to the lower space with backward step I fell, my ken discern'd the form one of one, Whose voice seem'd faint through long disuse of speech. When him in that great desert I espied, "Have mercy on me!" cried I out aloud, "Spirit! or living man! what e'er thou be!" He answer'd: "Now not man, man once I was, And born of Lombard parents, Mantuana both By country, when the power of Julius yet Was scarcely firm. At Rome my life was past Beneath the mild Augustus, in the time Of fabled deities and false. A bard Was I, and made Anchises' upright son The subject of my song, who came from Troy, When the flames prey'd on Ilium's haughty towers. But thou, say wherefore to such perils past Return'st thou? wherefore not this pleasant mount Ascendest, cause and source of all delight?" "And art thou then that Virgil, that well-spring, From which such copious floods of eloquence Have issued?" I with front abash'd replied. "Glory and light of all the tuneful train! May it avail me that I long with zeal Have sought thy volume, and with love immense Have conn'd it o'er. My master thou and guide! Thou he from whom alone I have deriv'd That style, which for its beauty into fame Exalts me. See the beast, from whom I fled. O save me from her, thou illustrious sage!"