Dante’s Inferno, Canto I

(Poem by Dante Alighieri / translation by J. Simon Harris in terza rima)

In the middle of the journey of our life
I found myself again in a dark forest,
for I had lost the pathway straight and right.

Ah how hard it is to describe, this forest
savage and rough and overwhelming, for
to think of it renews my fear before it!

It is so bitter, death is little more;
but to discuss the good I found, I’ll say
the other things I witnessed there before.

How I got there, I cannot rightly say,
I was so full of sleep at that point still
at which I had abandoned the true way.

But where that valley ended which had filled
my heart with fear, I came upon a slope;
and standing at the bottom of that hill,

I looked on high, and saw its shoulders clothed
already in that planet’s rays of light
that yet leads others straight on every road.

My fear was calmed a little at the sight,
though the lake within my heart endured the dread
while I’d passed with such pity through the night.

And as a man, who with exhausted breath
emerges from the sea onto the shore,
turns to the dangerous waters he has left,

so, as it fled away, my mind once more
turned back to look again upon the pass
that no one living ever left before.

I paused my weary body to relax,
then took the way along the desert slope,
the firm foot always lower on the path.

And behold, just where the hill begins to slope,
a leopard light and lithe and very fast,
and covered over with a spotted coat;

she did not leave before my face, but had
my journey so impeded as I climbed,
that most times I was turned and driven back.

The beginning of the morning was the time,
and the sun was mounting upwards with those stars
that had been with it when the Love divine

had first moved those beautiful things afar;
so that, despite the beast with the dappled coat,
the hour of time and the sweet season are

occasion nonetheless to have good hope;
but not so much that I was not afraid
when there appeared a lion on the slope.

Against me he appeared to make his way,
with his head high and with furious hunger,
so that the air itself appeared to quake.

And then a wolf, who seemed to be encumbered
with every craving, looking lean and light,
and she’s made wretched lives for many others—

with the fear that issued from her very sight,
she put upon me such a heavy strain
that I lost hope of getting to the height.

And as is he who willfully makes gains,
and the time comes that causes him to lose,
who weeps in all his thoughts and grieves with pain;

so then that peaceless beast had made me too,
who, moving towards me, little by little came
to drive me back to where the sun is mute.

And then before my eyes a figure came,
as I was falling to a lower place,
who through the long silence seemed soft and faint.

When I saw him in the great deserted waste,
“Have mercy on me,” I cried through the expanse,
“whatever you may be, a man or shade!”

He said: “No man, yet once I was a man,
and both my parents were Lombards, and they
were Mantuan by their native fatherland.

I was born sub Julio, though it was late,
and lived in Rome under good Augustus’ reign
in the time when the false and lying gods were praised.

I was a poet, and it was I who sang
of Anchises’ righteous son, who came from Troy
after proud Ilium went up in flames.

But why do you turn back, just to rejoin
such trouble? why not climb the lovely mountain
which is the start and cause of every joy?”

“Then are you that same Virgil and that fountain
who spills out speech in such a fluent brook?”
I answered him with shame upon my brow, then.

“O light and honor of the poets, look—
may the long study and the great love garner
your favor, which have made me search your book.

You are my master and you are my author;
you are alone the one from whom I take
the beautiful style that has brought me honor.

You see the beast for which I turn away;
help me to get beyond her, famous sage,
for she has made my veins and pulses quake.”

“There is another path that you must take,”
he answered when he saw me shedding tears,
“if you want to survive this savage place;

for this beast, for which you’ve cried out in tears,
allows no one to pass across her path,
but so impedes him that it kills him here;

and has a nature so wicked and bad,
that never will she glut her greedy will,
but has more hunger after her repast.

She weds with many creatures, and she still
will breed with more, until the greyhound first
arrives, who painfully will have her killed.

He will not feed on pewter nor on earth,
but on wisdom, love and virtue, and soon
between felt and felt will be his nation’s birth.

For that lowly Italy he’ll be a boon
for which the virgin Camilla is deceased,
and Euryalus, Turnus and Nisus died of wounds.

Through every city will he hunt the beast,
until he sends her back to the Inferno,
there where by envy she was first released.

It’s best if you, as I think and discern, will
now follow me, and I will be your guide,
and I will bring you through a place eternal,

where you will hear the hopeless desperate cries,
and you will see the ancient spirits suffer,
who scream and beg for second deaths to die;

and you’ll see those who are content to suffer
in fire, because they hope that they will reach,
whenever it may be, those blessed others.

If you’ll then want to climb as high as these,
there is a soul much worthier than I:
with her I’ll leave you, when I take my leave;

because that Emperor who reigns on high,
since I rebelled against His law, declares
that in His city, through me, none arrive.

From there He rules, and governs everywhere;
there is His city, and there the high seat:
oh happy, those He chooses to be there!”

And I to him: “Poet, I ask you please
by that same God whom you had never known,
so I from this evil and worse may flee,

to lead me to the place of which you spoke,
that I might see the gateway of Saint Peter
and those whom you make out to be so low.”

Then he moved on, and I kept after the leader.

The Mask of Dante

By J. Simon Harris

How vain, to want to see the poet’s face
so long after his death. As if I’d find
some vestige of his wisdom, or some trace

of all his words, some aspect of his mind
within his face. What, even, would I ask
of these sad eyes, this craggy nose, these lines

set in by his life’s grief, if these lips cast
in stone began to speak? The face, perhaps
like every face, is nothing but a mask;

and I try not to see, but wear, the mask.


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10 Responses

  1. Morgan Downs

    Funny, I was just trying to read through Dante the other day with a bilingual text.

    This is definitely among the best stuff I’ve come across on this site. You convey the directness and pungency of Dante very well, and your small poem is not out of place in mood or diction with the former either. Very unpretentious, understated and hence effective. A good representative of the old, pre-romantic classical style.

    Keep up the good work, I hope very much to see more.

    • J. Simon Harris

      Thank you! I’m glad you like my work. I’ve been translating Dante for about six years now; I actually taught myself Italian just for the purpose. I’m over halfway through the revision process for my Inferno translation, and I will seek publication as soon as I am done.

      In the meantime, if you would like to see a few more cantos, I’ve posted five of them on my website. I’m so excited that I’m able to share the first canto here at the Society of Classical Poets. I admire the Society’s cause of promoting classical poetic forms, and I wanted to contribute something as soon as I discovered the site.

      Anyway, thanks again for your kind words.

  2. Alberdi Ucwese

    I hope your work with Dante’s masterpiece will yield good fruit. I have learned much from him. Perhaps not so ironically, his voice is, of all poets, the most modern to me.

    by Buceli da Werse

    Among the moderns it is Dante, who
    impresses me the most. He interwove
    the flawed with the ideal, the false with true,
    didactic doctrine with the laws of love,
    theology with philosophic thought,
    mundane realities conjoined with an
    encyclopedic vision neatly wrought,
    the present and the past of Western man.
    And he does this all allegorically
    with a breathtaking sweep’s amazing ride,
    belittling little in his Comedy,
    as he goes forth with Vergil as his guide
    below and Beatrice in Heaven, they
    there reaching a new dawn and a new day.

    • J. Simon Harris

      Thank you Alberdi. What I have learned from Dante is immeasurable, and yet I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning from him. I agree that he has a modern voice. Something about the precision and cleanliness of his work–he writes with biblical clarity whether his topic is simple or profound.

      I think your sonnet captures a lot of what makes Dante such an incredible poet. Thank you for posting it.

  3. James Sale

    This is wonderful; and ambitious, to translate this arguably greatest of all poems. It is very relevant to me at the moment as my next collection is based on the Divine Comedy and some excerpts from it have been published on these pages – e.g. my poem Three Last Stars and Hell Arrives in Manchester. I hope the editor in due course will use more when I submit them. But your work here reminds me of the difficulty of Dante: I have read over 6 different translations, and my 3 favourites are – Michael Musa’s straight iambic version, Clive James’ quatrain version, and – relevant here – Peter Dale’s magisterial terza rima version. The point being that English compared with Italian is deficient in rhyme words, and so to do terza rima with any degree of success is fiendishly hard. So I have to congratulate you on what I have seen so far. But if you haven’t read the Dale version, I urge you do, for within the first six lines of his versus your version, you can see immediately some big technical issues being played out. Dale’s first 6 lines are: “Along the journey of our life half way, / I found myself again in a dark wood / Wherein the straight road no longer lay. / Ah, tongue can never make it understand: / So harsh and dense and savage to traverse / That fear returns in thinking on that wood.” Look forward to reading more – will certainly buy the book if you finish even the Inferno!

    • J. Simon Harris

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed the first canto. I always like hearing from fellow admirers of Dante. I tend to think Shakespeare is the greatest poet, but Dante wrote the greatest poem. I thought I had all of the recent translations of Dante, but I must have missed Peter Dale’s. I will definitely pick it up and read through it. Thanks for recommending it.

      While I translate, I refer to Longfellow, Mandelbaum, and Sisson for three different perspectives (in addition to the notes of Singleton and sometimes others). If I had to choose, I’d say I like the Hollanders’ translation the best, followed closely by Anthony Esolen’s. However, I like Longfellow’s version for its unique sort of fidelity to the Italian; and it has moments of greatness that only Longfellow can achieve. Clive James’ recent version is quite an achievement as well, and I admire it as a poem in its own right, but of course it can be a significant departure from Dante.

      But then there are so many translations, and each of them has its merits. I want my version to really get the poetry across in addition to the meaning. It has been very difficult, as you say, but also infinitely rewarding. You’ll be glad to hear that I have already finished the Inferno and am now in the middle of revising it. No word yet on publication, however. If there is a specific canto or scene you are interested in, let me know and I will consider putting it online.

      I read “Three Last Stars” and “Hell Arrives in Manchester”, and I admire them both. I look forward to reading the rest of your collection. Do you have a publication date set?

      J. Simon Harris

      • James Sale

        Hi Simon, I like your point about Shakespeare being the greatest poet, but Dante writing the greatest poem, that seems fair, though I do have special penchant too for The Odyssey – but let’s enjoy them all! Yes, I’d like to see your canto 27 – my email address is james@motivationalmaps.com. That would be fascinating. I hope you are successful in placing this book for publication, for as you say, every translation adds something. The end of canto 29 by Clive James is so brilliant: ‘I did well / In life. but everything in Hell is real’. Thanks for appreciating my poems – it’ll be a while yet as I haven’t finished the collection. All the best – james

      • J. Simon Harris

        I would be remiss not to place Homer in the same league with Dante and Shakespeare. The Odyssey is definitely one of the best pieces of Western literature. If you are interested, I have just begun translating the Iliad into the epic meter (dactylic hexameter). You can read what I have so far on my website (www.jsimonharris.com). I hope to get around to the Odyssey eventually, but I still have Purgatory and Paradise to translate first.

        I sent you an email with a PDF of Canto 27 attached. Unfortunately, I have only revised up to Canto 25, and I don’t want to post it online publicly until I’ve had the chance to revise it. I hope you enjoy the first draft at any rate, and I’ll send you an update once I have completed my revisions.

        Best wishes,
        J. Simon Harris

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