Midway in our life's journey, I went astray
from the straight road and woke to find myself
alone in a dark wood. How shall I say
what wood that was! I never saw so drear,
so rank, so arduous a wilderness!
Its very memory gives a shape to fear.
Death could scarce be more bitter than that place!
But since it came to good, I will recount
all that I found revealed there by God's grace.
How I came to it I cannot rightly say,
so drugged and loose with sleep had I become
when I first wandered there from the True Way.
But at the far end of that valley of evil
whose maze had sapped my very heart with fear
I found myself before a little hill
and lifted up my eyes. Its shoulders glowed
already with the sweet rays of that planet
whose virtue leads men straight an every road,
and the shining strengthened me against the fright
whose agony had wracked the lake of my heart
through all the terrors of that piteous night.
Just as a swimmer, who with his last breath
flounders ashore from perilous seas, might turn
to memorize the wide water of his death -
so did I turn, my soul still fugitive
from death's surviving image, to stare down
that pass that none had ever left alive.
And there I lay to rest from my heart's race
till calm and breath returned to me. Then rose
and pushed up that dead slope at such a pace
each footfall rose above the last. And lo!
almost at the beginning of the rise
I faced a spotted Leopard, all tremor and flow
and gaudy pelt. And it would not pass, but stood
so blocking my every turn that time and again
I was an the verge of turning back to the wood.
This fell at the first widening of the dawn
as the sun was climbing Aries with those stars
that rode with him to light the new creation.
Thus the holy hour and the sweet season
of commemoration did much to arm my fear
of that bright murderous beast with their good omen.
Yet not so much but what I shook with dread
at sight of a great Lion that broke upon me
raging with hunger, its enormous head
held high as if to strike a mortal terror
into the very air. And down bis track,
a She-Wolf drove upon me, a starved horror
ravening and wasted beyond all belief.
She seemed a rack for avarice, gaunt and craving.
Oh many the souls she has brought to endless grief!
She brought such heaviness upon my spirit
at sight of her savagery and desperation,
I died from every hope of that high summit.
And like a miser-eager in acquisition
but desperate in self-reproach when Fortune's wheel
turns to the hour of bis loss-all tears and attrition
I wavered back; and still the beast pursued,
forcing herself against me bit by bit
till I slid back into the sunless wood.
And as I fell to my soul's ruin, a presence
gathered before me an the discolored air,
the figure of one who seemed hoarse from long silence.
At sight of him in that friendless waste I cried:
"Have pity an me, whatever thing you are,
whether shade or living man." And it replied:
"Not man, though man I once was, and my blood
was Lombard, both my parents Mantuan.
I was born, though late, sub Julio, and bred
in Rome under Augustus in the noon
of the false and lying gods. I was a poet
and sang of old Anchises' noble son
who came to Rome after the burning of Troy.
But you-why do you return to these distresses
instead of climbing that shining Mount of Joy
which is the seat and first cause of man's bliss?"
"And are you then that Virgil and that fountain
of purest speech?" My voice grew tremulous:
"Glory and light of poets! now may that zeal
and love's apprenticeship that I poured out
an your heroic verses serve me well!
For you are my true master and first author,
the sole maker from whom 1 drew the breath
of that sweet style whose measures have brought me honor.
See there, immortal sage, the beast I flee.
For my soul's salvation, I beg you, guard me from her,
for she has struck a mortal tremor through me."
And he replied, seeing my soul in tears:
"He must go by another way who would escape
this wilderness, for that mad beast that fleers
before you there, suffers no man to pass.
She tracks down all, kills all, and knows no glut,
but, feeding, she grows hungrier than she was.
She mates with any beast, and will mate with more
before the Greyhound comes to bunt her down.
He will not feed an lands nor loot, but honor
and love and wisdom will make straight bis way.
He will rise between Feltro and Feltro, and in him
shall be the resurrection and new day
of that sad Italy for which Nisus died,
and Turnus, and Euryalus, and the maid Camilla.
He shall hunt her through every nation of sick pride
till she is driven back forever to Hell
whence Envy first released her an the world.
Therefore, for your own good, I think it well
you follow me and I will be your guide
and lead you forth through an eternal place.
There you shall see the ancient spirits tried
in endless pain, and hear their lamentation
as each bemoans the second death of souls.
Next you shall see upon a burning mountain
souls in fire and yet content in fire,
knowing that whensoever it may be
they yet will mount into the blessed choir.
To which, if it is still your wich to climb,
a worthier spirit shall be sent to guide you.
With her shall I leave you, for the King of Time,
who reigns an high, forbids me to come there
since, living, I rebelled against his law.
He rules the waters and the land and air
and there holds court, his city and his throne.
Oh blessed are they he chooses!" And I to him:
"Poet, by that God to you unknown,
lead me this way. Beyond this present ill
and worse to dread, lead me to Peter's gate
and be my guide through the sad halls of Hell."
And he then: "Follow." And he moved ahead
in silence, and I followed where he led.