Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.
Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.
So bitter is it, death is little more;
But of the good to treat, which there I found,
Speak will I of the other things I saw there.
In these opening lines of the text, Dante explains that when he arrived at the middle of his life, he found himself lost in a dark forest, and afraid. He promises to tell the reader what happened next, even though thinking of it makes him uncomfortable, because of the good he thinks it will do for his readers. Dante’s willingness to recount a harrowing event for the betterment of others reveals a selflessness in his actions.
I made response to him with bashful forehead.
“Oh, of the other poets honor and light,
Avail me the long study and great love
That have impelled me to explore thy volume!
Thou art my master, and my author thou,
Thou art alone the one from whom I took
The beautiful style that has done honor to me.”
Dante addresses Virgil, who has emerged from Hell to find and guide Dante on his journey. Virgil lived in Rome around the time of Julius Caesar and was the author of The Aeneid, which Dante considers a masterpiece of literature. Here, Dante acknowledges Virgil as his teacher and a major influence on his own work.
They turned to me with signs of salutation,
And on beholding this, my Master smiled;
And more of honor still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band;
So that the sixth was I, ‘mid so much wit.
Dante describes meeting and being welcomed by the great poets of the ancient world, including Homer, Ovid, Horace, and Lucan. The poets reside with Dante’s guide Virgil in Hell because, having lived before the time of Christ, they were not saved by Christ’s crucifixion. By indicating that these poets welcome him as a sixth great poet, Dante cleverly decides for the reader his status as a poet.
“With weeping and with wailing,
Thou spirit maledict, do thou remain;
For thee I know, though thou art all defiled.”
Dante addresses the spirit of Philippo Argenti, one of Dante’s real-life political enemies. Dante spends most of his time in Hell feeling great pity for the damned, but not in this instance. Dante’s words reveal that he knows this criminal personally and believes the punishment is just. This scenario is just one example of how Dante uses his poem to reveal his personal opinions regarding individuals he knows in real life.
Could I have been protected from the fire,
Below I should have thrown myself among them,
And think the Teacher would have suffered it;
But as I should have burned and baked myself,
My terror overmastered my good will,
Which made me greedy of embracing them.
Then I began: “Sorrow and not disdain
Did your condition fix within me so,
That tardily it wholly is stripped off….”
In the seventh circle Dante sees several Florentine men he admired when they were alive being punished for sodomy. These men were political leaders in the faction that Dante himself supported. If it weren’t for the danger, Dante would have embraced the men and he thinks Virgil would not have disapproved. Dante’s words are a brave social statement at a time when he could have faced consequences for revealing such an opinion.
How could I ever keep my face unmoistened,
When our own image near me I beheld,
Distorted so, the weeping of the eyes
Along the fissure bathed the hinder parts.
Truly I wept, leaning upon a peak
Of the hard crag…
Dante recalls seeing the punishment of “diviners” or fortune-tellers: Their heads have been turned around on their bodies so that they look backwards. The sinners are crying and the tears are falling on their backsides. Dante finds this physical distortion very disturbing and he pities the sinners tremendously. Virgil, however, chides Dante for such an emotion, and explains that this particular punishment fits the crime.
Then I uprose, showing myself provided
Better with breath than I did feel myself,
And said: “Go on, for I am strong and bold.”
After climbing among many crags and boulders, Dante is winded and needs to rest. As Virgil is dead, he doesn’t experience the same physical limitations. Noting this, Dante pretends that he is less exhausted than he truly is and declares he can continue on. Dante feels such admiration for Virgil that he’s willing to push himself to his limit to impress Virgil and show his respect.
Then sorrowed I, and sorrow now again,
When I direct my mind to what I saw,
And more my genius curb than I am wont,
That it may run not unless virtue guide it…
While in the eighth Bolgia, Dante sees something very upsetting. He wants to describe the scene as it truly appeared. Dante explains that in order to do so, he will have to curb his “genius”—his talent for poetry, which sometimes includes exaggeration and figurative language. With these lines, Dante cleverly inserts his opinion of himself as a poet. It will take great effort for Dante to ignore his “genius” for he is a poet of great talent.
When him I heard in anger speak to me,
I turned me round towards him with such shame
That still it eddies through my memory.
And as he is who dreams of his own harm,
Who dreaming wishes it may be a dream,
So that he craves what is, as if it were not;
Such I became, not having power to speak…
Dante describes the shame he feels for giving his hero, Virgil, cause to chastise him. Virgil rebuked Dante for becoming completely absorbed in an amusing argument between two sinners in the eighth circle. Dante is so embarrassed that he can’t respond. Just reflecting on the memory stirs great shame in Dante, emphasizing Dante’s immense respect of Virgil and desire to do no wrong in Virgil’s eyes.
How frozen I became and powerless then,
Ask it not, reader, for I write it not,
Because all language would be insufficient.
I did not die, and I alive remained not.
Think for thyself now, hast though ought of wit,
What I became, being of both deprived.
Here Dante is remembering how he felt upon first seeing Lucifer, also known as Dis. Lucifer once was an angel who rebelled against God, and his expulsion from Heaven created Hell. Lucifer is imprisoned in Hell’s absolutely deepest point, the ninth circle. Dante’s positioning of Lucifer reveals his belief that there is no greater sin than to rebel against God, as Lucifer once did.
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