Dante Alighieri: Inferno 1 (From Italian)

Inferno 1
By Dante Alighieri
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
   Midway through our life's journey I came round
within a darkwood, having gone astray 
from the right pathway to the Other ground.
   Oh what it was is a hard thing to say,
so overgrown with things savage, harsh and raw.
The thought renews the fear in me today!
   Barely less bitter than death. But to draw
in words the good that I found there as well,
I will relate those Other things I saw.
   How I got into it, I still can't tell,
so full with sleep I was the moment where
I had begun to wander off and fell
    from the true path. But once I had drawn near
the foot of a hill at the far outer bound
of the black ravine which pierced my heart with fear, 
    I looked up and there saw its shoulders gowned
in the first light of that sun whose sweet ray
leads every step aright on every ground.
    Then some of the fear began to melt away
which my heart's curdled lake had had to bear
all through the worry of the night till day
   and like a halfdrowned man still gasping for air,
who escapes the riptide and comes safe ashore,
might turn back on the lethal waves and stare,
   so did my soul, still fugitive, once more
turn back and slowly look that passage over
which none had ever left alive before.
   I paused a bit to let my tired flesh recover
then resumed my way up the lone barren slope,
my firm foot always lower than the other.
   Then just where the slope started to turn up
a spot-pelt leopard sprang up to face me down.
Lissom and very sleek, it came at a lope
  wherever I tried to turn, and gave no ground
but kept blocking every way that I could try
and forced me over and over to turn round.
  The time was early morning. In the sky
the sun was mounting with those stars above
that rode with it when all that panoply
  of lovely things was set by God's own Love
into first motion. The fine hour of grace

and gentle season were enough to move
  my hope despite the beast that blocked my pace
with its festive pelt. But that could not stop fear
that struck when a lion appeared before my face.
  He seemed prepared to pounce upon me there
with head primed high, his roar so ravenous
it seemed to terrify the very air.
  And then a she-wolf whose starved scrawniness
seemed glutted with all cravings. Her physique
has run so many down to wretchedness. 

  The very sight of her set on my weak
spirit such weight of fear that once again
I lost all hope of making it to the peak,
   And as a miser eager in his gain 
when fortune's wheel has turned him destitute
has his thoughts turn into misery and pain,
   so was I before that beast. That feral brute
that knows no peace came at me, bit by bit,
driving me down to where the sun goes mute.
   While I went plunging even lower yet 
my eyes were presented with a being, wan
as if vast silence enervated it.
   Seeing it in that great friendless hinterland
I cried out "O miserere on me
whatever you are, shade or bodied man"
   He spoke: "not man, though man I used to be.
My parents were Mantuans. On either side
their lineage goes back to Lombardy. 
   I was born before Julius Caesar died 
and lived under august Octavian
in Rome, in the era of false gods that lied.    
   I was a poet, and hymned the righteous son
of old Anchises, refugee from Troy
after the burning of proud Ilion.  

   But why revisit all these sorrows? Why
don't you ascend that blissful mountain instead,
the origin and cause of every joy."
   "Are you that Virgil then, the fountainhead
that pours such fluent streams of eloquence"
with shame upon my humbled brow I said
   "Honor and light of poets! Let my immense
love and long study of your poetry
avail me in my black hour. My work begins
   with you, my author and authority.

It is from you alone I took the whole
heroic style for which they honor me.
   You see the beast that bars me from my goal.
Time-gloried sage! I beg you, help me face 

this thing that makes my veins quake and run cold" 
   He answered seeing tears upon my face:
"You'll need another way to travel by
if you plan to escape this savage place:
   that fleering beast that gives you cause to cry
will not let anybody get past her.
She hunts and harries them, and they will die.
   She is of such vicious depraved character 
that nothing sates her appetite of greed,
and when she feeds she just gets hungrier. 
  She's bred with many creatures, and shall breed
with many more till she is tracked down and dealt
her death of pain by the Greyhound. He will feed  
  and feed himself on no man's land or pelf
but on wisdom, justice, love and bravery,  
and his race of birth shall run from Welf to Welf.
  He shall redeem that fallen Italy
which Euryalus, Turnus, maid Camille,
and Nisus bled to death for. Doggedly
  he'll hunt that bitch through burg and town until
he's dragged her back to Hell from which she was
loosed by Primeval Envy for the kill.
  So for your sake I think the two of us

should go together. You follow, and I  
will lead you out of here and on across
  an eternal place where you will hear the high
shriekings of deep despair, and come to see    
the ancient spirits under torture cry 
  at the second death of souls. Then you shall be
witness to those who are hopeful in the fire
of welcome among the blessed ultimately
  to which you will be led, should you desire,
by a soul worthier than mine. I shall
entrust you to her when I can go no higher,
  for the King of Time who rules there above all,
since I lived against His law, will let none see 
entry through me into his capital.
  His rule is everywhere, but there reigns He,
there is His city, His throne and retinue.
Lucky they who live there by His Majesty."

  I said "In the name of the God you never knew
in life, my Poet, I pray you get me well
away from this harm and worse. Take me with you
   and lead me to that place of which you tell 
so I may look upon Saint Peter's Gate.
So let me see the multitudes of Hell."
  He started moving, and I followed straight. 



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Notes:

Line 20:
Il lago del cuore "the heart's lake" is a potentially anatomical and psycho-medical term. Medieval Western Eurasian physiology treated the heart not as a pump but as a humoral reservoir. The medieval conception of fear affecting the heart was of cessation: the spirit and heat withdraw from the body and are gathered in the heart which ceases to diffuse them outward. In this passage furthermore, it is the rays of the sun which give relief from this freeze of fear. Whence the melting and curdling in my translation.

Line 70:
A noble cause for which much scholarly ink has been tragically shed. The Italian says "I was born sub Julio though late." Roman periodization commonly involved reference to the reigning consul or government, much as Americans speak of "the Reagan years" or "the Clinton years." Sub Julio would normally mean "during the reign of Julius." But Virgil was not born during the reign of Julius Caesar, who was still a young man at the poet's birth. The answer to the question seems to be that Dante relied on sources for the life of Virgil which offer different dates than those agreed upon by Renaissance and modern scholarship. I have split the difference in my verse-translation by saying something that both is literally true and has the kind of flavor that Dante was going for, in taking Virgil as embodied metonym for the illustrious early Empire both Julian and Augustan.

Line 94-111:
There is Virgilian precedent to Dante's vatic ventriloquization here. Note for example Aeneid I.286-296 where Jupiter foretells the rise of Rome to Venus:

Born of that noble line a Trojan Caesar
Bestrides the narrow world to bound his empire
With ocean, and his glory in the stars.
Julius his name, of the great clan of Iulus.
Him you shall welcome into heaven with us,
Laden with spoils of Asia, come his day,
And he like us shall be invoked in prayers.
War put aside, the bitter times shall mellow
As seasoned Fides, Vesta and Romulus
United with his brother, give the law.  
The Gates of War, baleful with iron bars
Shall be locked shut. Therein unholy Rancor
Of civil gore, crouched on his savage weapons,
Hands bound back by a hundred brazen shackles,
Will bristle black and howl with blood-drunk mouth.

Line 105
E sua nazion sarà tra feltro e feltro. Literally: "And his natio shall be between feltro and feltro."
This canto is full of puzzlers which are, as Alessandro Capomastro put it, abbondanti come le particelle di cocaina sulle fritelle di Berlusconi. But of all the obscure points in this canto from which commentators have fueled their eructations, perhaps none is of higher octane than the question of what or who or where is meant by Feltro e Feltro (or: Feltre e Feltro). Some (per the Feltre version) take it to refer to two placenames in the peninsula. Others take it to refer to the humble and unassuming fabric (feltro means "felt") worn by the Righteous One symbolized as the Greyhound. And there are many more interpretations. It makes some difference whether you capitalize the feltros or not.
Most often nazion is assumed here to have its archaic meaning of "birthplace" rather than "nation" and commentators have generally buttressed this with the claim that the meaning "nation" post-dates Dante. This is an unfounded assumption. At least one of Dante's near-contemporaries (Bocaccio) used the word in the modern sense, and Latin natio commonly had this meaning (Dante's use of Italian words seems occasionally meant to translate the semantic range of their Latin cognates) as did the cognate words in other Romance languages known to Dante.
Nor, however, do I see any reason to pendulate to the opposite hypothesis that it should be taken primarily as meaning "nation" as per 19th century scholarship and more recent commenters such as Hollander. Not exactly. Rather, the word's very ambiguity in an already bemurked passage is what makes it (and maybe originally made it) all the more evocative. Dante scholars are sometimes vulnerable to bouts of acute exegetical narcissism, as if the only reason Dante expressed himself by implication and obliquity was to give commentators something to do. But murk is also a potentially powerful aesthetic device, albeit one easily overused
As to feltro e feltro, I am agnostic as to what to make of it. Chimenz rightly says it is "the most cryptic expression in the whole turbid prophecy" (l’espressione è la più indecifrabile di tutta l’oscura profezia.) Frankly, I do not see why I — or you — should care overmuch, anymore than whether "something is rotten in the state of Denmark" might secretly mean that Shakespeare thought of Claudius as a syphilitic.
Even Dante's near-contemporaries seem to have found it puzzling. The line is by no means alone as a passage in which Dante abuts or crosses the bounds of the fully comprehensible. For all you or I know, Dante was willing to murk the passage with this oblique reference because it allowed him the evocative veltro and peltro as rhymes. Even if Dante never lets himself get dragged into saying something just for the rhyme, the rhymes do sometimes draw him to say things in odd ways. In any case, prophecies (particularly verse prophecies) are by tradition often unclear and meant to be allegorical in ways that only make total sense with further experience or information. The strength of the line, such as it is, is its power not to mean but be. In translating this line I said "fuck it" and plucked something out of the cosmic ass.

Line 111
There are two possible readings of "là onde 'nvidia prima dipartilla." Either "There whence envy first unleashed her" or "There whence first envy unleashed her." It seems to me that Prima Invidia is parallel to Primo Amore and would therefore be "Prime Envy" i.e. Satan. But really, I don't see why it can't be taken as intentionally ambiguous.

Line 126
This line is sometimes rendered in an infelicitous way by literary translators, as if it meant simply "he does not wish me to come into his city." To be fair, this sense is much easier to paraphrase into English. A clunky literal rendering of non vuol che 'n sua città per me si vegna might be "he does not wish entry to be had into his city by way of me." I.e. I, Virgil, am barred from helping you get any farther than that. Virgil represents, as Dante would have it, the outmost limit of what the reasoned mind can achieve without the aid of the Divine and the grace of Christ. Virgil is, for all his virtue, not allowed to make it to Heaven by way of Purgatory but must content himself with the deficient form of Heaven represented by Limbo.
This is complicated greatly by the first Canto of the Purgatorio where Dante has Cato — a Pagan who committed suicide — presiding over Purgatory and strongly implies that Cato will himself be received into heaven at the end of days. This straightforward interpretation of Purgatorio 1 was unacceptable throughout most of the commentary tradition, but makes by far the most sense artistically and logically. Dante throughout the Commedia seems to wrestle with the problem posed by virtuous non-Christians, and the seeming unfairness of the fact that they were afforded no option.

Dante even formulates the question quite bluntly in the 19th canto of the Paradiso:
                        ...A man is born one night
along the Indus, where there's none to read 
or write or speak to him of Jesus Christ.

And all his desires and acts, let us concede,
are as good as human reason can conceive.
So he lives without sin in word or deed

then dies without the faith, does not receive
baptism. What kind of justice damns his soul?    
Whose fault is it that he did not believe?

                  ...Un uom nasce a la riva
de l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragioni
di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva;

e tutti suoi voleri e atti buoni
sono, quanto ragione umana vede,
sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni.

Muore non battezzato e sanza fede:
ov’ è questa giustizia che ’l condanna?
ov’ è la colpa sua, se ei non crede?

Line 132:
"This harm" would be that of the mortal world. The "worse" is Damnation.   

The Original:

  Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
  Ai quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
  Tant'è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch'i' vi trovai,
dirò de l'altre cose ch'i' v'ho scorte.
  Io non so ben ridir com'i' v'intrai,
tant'era pien di sonno a quel punto
che la verace via abbandonai.
  Ma poi ch'i' fui al piè d'un colle giunto,
là dove terminava quella valle
che m'avea di paura il cor compunto,
  guardai in alto, e vidi le sue spalle
vestite già de' raggi del pianeta
che mena dritto altrui per ogne calle.
  Allor fu la paura un poco queta
che nel lago del cor m'era durata
la notte ch'i' passai con tanta pieta.
  E come quei che con lena affannata
uscito fuor del pelago a la riva
si volge a l'acqua perigliosa e guata,
  così l'animo mio, ch'ancor fuggiva,
si volse a retro a rimirar lo passo
che non lasciò già mai persona viva.
  Poi ch'èi posato un poco il corpo lasso,
ripresi via per la piaggia diserta,
sì che 'l piè fermo sempre era 'l più basso.
  Ed ecco, quasi al cominciar de l'erta,
una lonza leggera e presta molto,
che di pel macolato era coverta;
  e non mi si partia dinanzi al volto,
anzi 'mpediva tanto il mio cammino,
ch'i' fui per ritornar più volte vòlto.
  Temp'era dal principio del mattino,
e 'l sol montava 'n sù con quelle stelle
ch'eran con lui quando l'amor divino
  mosse di prima quelle cose belle;
sì ch'a bene sperar m'era cagione
di quella fiera a la gaetta pelle
  l'ora del tempo e la dolce stagione;
ma non sì che paura non mi desse
la vista che m'apparve d'un leone.
  Questi parea che contra me venisse
con la test'alta e con rabbiosa fame,
sì che parea che l'aere ne tremesse.
  Ed una lupa, che di tutte brame
sembiava carca ne la sua magrezza,
e molte genti fé già viver grame,
  questa mi porse tanto di gravezza
con la paura ch'uscia di sua vista,
ch'io perdei la speranza de l'altezza.
  E qual è quei che volontieri acquista,
e giugne 'l tempo che perder lo face,
che 'n tutt'i suoi pensier piange e s'attrista;
  tal mi fece la bestia sanza pace,
che, venendomi 'ncontro, a poco a poco
mi ripigneva là dove 'l sol tace.
  Mentre ch'i' rovinava in basso loco,
dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
  Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
  Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patria ambedui.
  Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,
e vissi a Roma sotto 'l buono Augusto
nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
  Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
figliuol d'Anchise che venne di Troia,
poi che 'l superbo Ilión fu combusto.
  Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
perché non sali il dilettoso monte
ch'è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?».
  «Or se' tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?»,
rispuos'io lui con vergognosa fronte.
  «O de li altri poeti onore e lume
vagliami 'l lungo studio e 'l grande amore
che m'ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
  Tu se' lo mio maestro e 'l mio autore;
tu se' solo colui da cu' io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m'ha fatto onore.
  Vedi la bestia per cu' io mi volsi:
aiutami da lei, famoso saggio,
ch'ella mi fa tremar le vene e i polsi».
  «A te convien tenere altro viaggio»,
rispuose poi che lagrimar mi vide,
«se vuo' campar d'esto loco selvaggio:
  ché questa bestia, per la qual tu gride,
non lascia altrui passar per la sua via,
ma tanto lo 'mpedisce che l'uccide;
  e ha natura sì malvagia e ria,
che mai non empie la bramosa voglia,
e dopo 'l pasto ha più fame che pria.
  Molti son li animali a cui s'ammoglia,
e più saranno ancora, infin che 'l veltro
verrà, che la farà morir con doglia.
  Questi non ciberà terra né peltro,
ma sapienza, amore e virtute,
e sua nazion sarà tra Feltro e Feltro.
  Di quella umile Italia fia salute
per cui morì la vergine Cammilla,
Eurialo e Turno e Niso di ferute.
  Questi la caccerà per ogne villa,
fin che l'avrà rimessa ne lo 'nferno,
là onde 'nvidia prima dipartilla.
  Ond'io per lo tuo me' penso e discerno
che tu mi segui, e io sarò tua guida,
e trarrotti di qui per loco etterno,
  ove udirai le disperate strida,
vedrai li antichi spiriti dolenti,
ch'a la seconda morte ciascun grida;
  e vederai color che son contenti
nel foco, perché speran di venire
quando che sia a le beate genti.
  A le quai poi se tu vorrai salire,
anima fia a ciò più di me degna:
con lei ti lascerò nel mio partire;
  ché quello imperador che là sù regna,
perch'i' fu' ribellante a la sua legge,
non vuol che 'n sua città per me si vegna.
  In tutte parti impera e quivi regge;
quivi è la sua città e l'alto seggio:
oh felice colui cu' ivi elegge!».
  E io a lui: «Poeta, io ti richeggio
per quello Dio che tu non conoscesti,
acciò ch'io fugga questo male e peggio,
  che tu mi meni là dov'or dicesti,
sì ch'io veggia la porta di san Pietro
e color cui tu fai cotanto mesti».
  Allor si mosse, e io li tenni dietro.

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