Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Dante's Inferno, Canto 1

Dante's The Divine Comedy has exercised the imagination of poets, artists, historians, theologians, lovers of literature and lovers of poetry for the past seven centuries. Numerous English translations have appeared since Henry Carey published the first widely circulated English translation in the early 1800s. William Blake was so moved by Carey's translation that he spent the last years of his life teaching himself Italian so as to work directly with Dante's text. During the final year of his life, Blake worked relentlessly on a series of watercolour illustrations for The Divine Comedy. The Victorian Arts Centre in Melbourne currently houses 36 of those watercolours.

It has been long recognised by poets that the greater power within poetry manifests more strongly in the hearing rather than in the reading. This has ever been the way since the Greek rhapsodei sang the memory of their Homeric epics through the centuries.

With this in mind, the present posting offers a trance voicing, with accompanying text, of the first canto of Dante's immortal Inferno, the first book of The Divine Comedy. T.S. Eliot wrote in 1929: "Dante and Shakespeare divide the modern world between them; there is no third." Most of us are familiar with at least some of Shakespeare's works. It is hoped that this presentation will help to make the timeless mastery of Dante Alighieri more accessible to an English-speaking audience.

Canto 1 of Dante's Inferno can be streamed using the media player above. A CD quality audio file is also available for download here.

[Audio and text for Canto 2 can be accessed here.
Audio and text for Canto 3 can be accessed here.]


Doc & Lena Selyanina:  Neptune (Internet Archive)
                                   Wanderer (Internet Archive) 
(Remix: vincentd)

Rhapsodize: Crickets (Freesound)
Manda_g: Owl (Freesound)
Soundbytez: African Lion (Freesound)
Viorelvio: Wolf howl (Freesound)

Vincent Di Stefano

The Story

The Divine Comedy (La Divina Commedia) was written by the Florentine poet and political activist Dante Alighieri over a twenty year period after he was banished from Florence by his political enemies in 1301. He remained in exile for the remainder of his life.

The Divine Comedy is in essence a poem of transformation. It tracks the progression of the soul from a state of immersion in ignorance, desire and passion to one of progressive awakening and transcendental insight. This process is described allegorically as Dante journeys through the realms of Hell (Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso).

The first canto of the Inferno both sets the scene and anticipates the full scope of the immense narrative encompassed in The Divine Comedy. It begins midway in Dante's life, a turning point when he realises that he has lost his way. As he tries to find a clear path out of the morass, he serially encounters three wild beasts, a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. These are variously deemed by most commentators to be allegorical representations of the wild and uncontrollable impulses that can distort our lives and relationships. Their presence makes it impossible for him to proceed out of his entangled darkness.

At the point of greatest despair, Dante encounters a shadowy figure who reveals himself to be the ghost of his beloved poet from ancient Roman, Virgil. Dante is reassured by Virgil's obvious familiarity with both the terrain and the nature of the obstacles that confront him.

One of the consistent elements of the Inferno - and in fact the whole of The Divine Comedy - is the appearance throughout the narrative of both historical and mythical characters. This aspect emerges in the opening canto of the Inferno, where Dante offers praise to his patron, Can Grande della Scala ("the great hound"), a powerful warrior and ruler of Verona from 1311 till his death in 1329. Similarly, Virgil speaks of Aeneas, Camilla, Turnus, Nisus and Euryalus, each of whom feature prominently in his own epic poem, The Aeneid.

Virgil offers to lead Dante out of the danger into which he has strayed, but lets him know from the start that they will need to travel through the realms of damnation and of purgation before arriving at the place of "the blessed ones." Virgil further relates that he cannot escort Dante through "that blessed realm" but that he will there meet "one more worthy than myself to guide you" thus alluding to the later appearance of Beatrice.

The Poem

Inferno: Canto I

When midway on the course of our life’s journey,
I found myself within a glooming forest
Lost alone with no clear path before me.

To tell of how it was now tests me sorely
To speak of that dark forest wild and glooming
The thought of which still grips my mind with fear.

So bitter was it death is hardly worse
But to better speak of the good I found therein
I now will tell of other things I saw.

I cannot say how there I came to be
So full of sleep and sloth had I become
Through leaving far behind the ways of truth.

But soon I came upon a sloping hill
Arising from the end of the dark valley
That had so seized my heart with fear and dread.

I looked upon its heights, and saw its shoulder
Newly mantled with the beams of the bright sun
That has ever guided travellers on their way.

And then the fear that had so chilled the waters
Of my heart all through that night of deadly terror
Began to melt as frost turns into dew.

And like a man who hauls himself exhausted
From a wild and foaming sea to welcome sand
Looks back upon the peril that near took him,

So too my soul, even while still fleeing,
Stared back upon the path now well behind me
That none before had passed through and yet lived.

Now having paused to rest my weary body
I turned again to climb that stony slope
The lower foot placed firmly with each step.

But even as I started I was startled
A leopard light-of-foot and moving swiftly
With skin all sleek that sparkled like the night

Did stop me in my tracks and held me firmly
I had no way of going any further
My racing mind thought only of retreat.

The lightened sky held promise of a morning
As the rising sun moved slow through constellations
Of the ancient stars with which it had long travelled

Since love divine first moved those wondrous spheres.
This brought new hope, despite the dire presence
Of the shining panther with its flashing pelt

In that early hour and in that gentle season.
But hope was crushed when terror then reclaimed me
As a mighty lion suddenly appeared.

It approached me with so menacing a presence
With head held high and with such rabid hunger
That the air itself did seem to shake and quiver.

And then a wolf, more gaunt than all the others
All lean and taut, skeletal in her bearing
Who many a life had claimed and torn asunder.

Her very presence paralysed my mind
The sight of her so froze my limbs with fear
I lost all hope of crossing to the heights.

And who among those having gained great wealth
Confronted with the loss of all they own
Would not bewail and weep their fallen fate?

So too felt I before that restless beast
From which I slow and steadily retreated
Into the dark and sun-abandoned forest. 

And as I languished in that wretched place of woe
A presence faint took form before my eyes
And seemed to whisper hoarsely in the silence.

When I finally descried him in that wasteland
I called out loud: “Have mercy on my soul
Whether you be man or shade from Hades!”

And he replied: “No man am I like you
Though man I was, a son of Lombardy
My parents being citizens of Mantova.
I was born late in the reign of emperor Julius
And lived in Rome under the good Augustus
During the time of false and lying gods.

I was poet then and sang of great Aeneas,
The son of Anchises who fled from Troy
As Ilion the proud burned up behind him.

But why do you turn back? Why are you not
Now climbing the bright hill that stands before you
Which is the source of all delight and joy?”

All shy with blushing face I asked of him,
“Are you then the fountain-mouth-ed Virgil,
From whom has flowed forth mighty tides of verse?

Most radiant and clear of all of the poets,
Now bring to full fruition the great love
That carried me through your heroic verses.

For long you were my master and my mentor.
From you alone I learned that sweet new style
That brought me to such honoured acclamation.

Can you not now see the fearsome beast
That has cast me back and made my pulse atremble?
Beloved sage, I know that you can help me.”

Seeing my tears, he then softly answered:
“There is another path that you must take
To leave behind this place of desolation,

For the beast that holds you in its grip of terror
Will not allow that any pass beyond her
But will destroy the life of all who test her.

And her nature is so violent and so vicious
That even filled with those she has devoured
Her hunger rages wilder than before.

She has satisfied the lusts of packs of wolves
And seeks to draw yet others till that day
When the great hound comes to tear her life asunder.

He will not eat the fruits of earth or metal
But will take his feed from valour, love and wisdom,
And his reign will range from citadel to stable.

He will bring much needed healing to our land
Poor Italy for which Cammilla died
As too did Turnus, Nisus, and Euryalus.

He will hunt this blood-crazed wolf through every village
Until he casts her back into the hell
From which she did so envious emerge.

So I think it best that you now follow me,
As I will serve you as your faithful guide
And lead you onward to a place eternal.

And there you’ll hear the screams of great despair
And there you’ll see the old tormented spirits
Who wish only to die a second death.

But after that you will see the hopeful souls
Who rest within the flames in the great hope
That they will come one day to join the blessed ones.

And should you wish to rise to where they are,
Into that blessed realm, then I must leave you
With one more worthy than myself to guide you.

For the King who reigns therein will not allow
The rebel who I am to stand before him
Or ever deign to walk his streets of splendour.

He is the King of all, and there his kingdom
Shines bright around his jewelled throne of glory.
How great the joy of those that he has chosen!”

I said to him: “I ask you now my poet
In the name of that one God you never knew
To help me flee the evils that assail me,

And guide me through the places that await us,
Through the realms of lost and sad and suffering souls  
To reach at last the gate of great Saint Peter.

He rose and strode ahead.
And I followed close behind.

[translated by Vincent Di Stefano]

A PDF copy of this translation is available on request. Contact