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In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself astray in a dark wood
where the straight road had been lost sight of.
How hard it is to say what it was like
in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense and gnarled
the very thought of it renews my panic.
It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.
But to rehearse the good it also brought me
I will speak about the other things I saw there.
How I got into it I cannot clearly say
for I was moving like a sleepwalker
the moment I stepped out of the right way,
But when I came to the bottom of a hill
standing off at the far end of that valley
where a great terror had disheartened me
I looked up, and saw how its shoulders glowed
already in the rays of the planet
which leads and keeps men straight on every road.
Then I sensed a quiet influence settling
into those depths in me that had been rocked
and pitifully troubled all night long
And as a survivor gasping on the sand
turns his head back to study in a daze
the dangerous combers, so my mind
Turned back, although it was reeling forward,
back to inspect a pass that had proved fatal
heretofore to everyone who entered.
I rested a little then, for I was weary,
then began to climb up the waste slopes once more
with my firm foot always the lower one beneath me
When suddenly the spotted fluent shape
of a leopard crossed my path
not far up from the bottom of the slope,
Harrying me, confronting my advance,
loping round me, leaping in my face
so that I turned back downhill more than once.
The morning was beginning all above,
the sun was rising up among the stars
that rose with him when the Divine Love
First set those lovely things in motion,
so I was encouraged to face with better hope
the beast skipping in its merry skin
By the time of day, the sweetness of the season:
but not enough not to be frightened by
the sudden apparition of a lion
That came for me with his head in the air
and so maddened by hunger that it seemed
the air itself was bristling with fear.
And a she-wolf, so thin she looked as if
all her appetites were gnawing at her.
She had already brought many to grief
And I was so overcome at the sight of her
my courage broke and I immediately lost heart
in climbing the mountain any farther.
And as somebody who thinks he is going to win
every time will be the most distressed one
whenever his turn comes to be the loser
I was like that as I retreated from
the animal's turbulent head-on attack
gradually, to where the sun is dumb.
While I was slipping back, about to sink
back to the depths, I caught sight of one
who seemed through a long silence indistinct.
When I saw him in that great waste land
I cried out to him, "Pity me,
whatever you are, shade or a living man."
He answered me, "No, not a living man
though I was once alive, and had Lombards
for parents, both of them Mantuan.
Although I was born sub Julio, my prime
was spent in the heyday of the false gods
when I lived in Rome, in good Augustus' time.
I was a poet, and I sang of that just son
of Anchises who came out of Troy
after the burning of proud Ilion.
But why do you face back into misery?
Why do you not keep on up the sweet hill,
the source and cause of all felicity?"
"Oh, are you then Virgil, are you the fountainhead
of that wide river of speech constantly brimming?"
I answered and for shame kept my head bowed.
"You are the light and glory of other poets.
0 let it avail me now, the long devotion
that made me love your book and cleave to it.
You are my master, my authority.
I learned from you and from you alone
the illustrious style for which they honor me.
Look at the beast that has forced me to turn back.
Help me, 0 famous sage, to confront her
for she makes my veins race and my pulses shake."
"You will have to go another way around,"
he answered, when he saw me weeping,
"to escape the toils and thickets of this ground;
Because this animal you are troubled by
lets no man pass but harasses him
until she kills him by her savagery,
And she is so consumed by viciousness
hat nothing fills her, and so insatiable
that feeding only makes her ravenous.
There are many animals she couples with
and there will be more of them, until the Hound
shall come and grind her in the jaws of death.
He will not glut himself on ground or riches,
but wisdom, love, and virtue will sustain him
and the two Feltros will vie to be his birthplace.
To humble Italy, for which the virgin
Camilla died bleeding, and Turnus died, and Nisus
and Euryalus, he will bring salvation.
He will pursue the wolf through every town
until he has hunted and hounded her to hell
where envy unleashed her first and set her on.
Therefore, for your own good, I think the best course
is to follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you from here through an eternal place
Where you will hear desperate screaming and will see
those long-lost spirits in torment suffering
the second death in perpetuity.
And then you will see those who are not distressed
in the fire because they hope to come,
whenever their time comes, among the blessed.
If you want to ascend among these, then you
will be guided by a soul worthier than I
and I will leave you with her when I go;
For that Emperor above does not allow
me or my like to come into His city
because I was a rebel to His law.
His empire is everywhere but His high seat
and city are there, in His proper kingdom.
0 happy is the man He calls to it."
And I said to him, "I ask you, poet,
in the name of that God you were ignorant of
and to help me to escape my own worst fate,
Lead me to that place described by you
so that I may see St. Peter's Gate
and those other ones you spoke of in their sorrow."
Then he set off and I began to follow.
Excerpted from Dantes Inferno by D. Halpern Copyright © 2003 by D. Halpern
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.