‘We walked. I followed as he led me on.’
Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part 1 Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse By Alasdair Gray
By Dante Aligheri & Alasdair Gray
Published by Canongate
1 In middle age I wholly lost my way,
finding myself within an evil wood
far from the right straight road we all should tread,
4 and what a wood! So densely tangled, dark,
jaggily thorned, so hard to press on through,
even the memory renews my dread.
7 My misery, my almost deadly fear
led on to such discovery of good,
I’ll tell you of it, if you care to hear.
10 I cannot say how I had wandered there,
when dozy, dull and desperate for sleep
my feet strayed out of the true thoroughfare,
13 till deep among the trees an upward slope
gave to my fearful soul a thrill of hope
as rising ground at last became a hill,
16 and looking up I saw a summit bright
with dawn – the rising sun that shows us all
where we should travel by its heavenly light.
19 This quieted a little while the fright
that churned the blood within my heart’s lagoon
through the long journey of that gloomy night.
22 Like shipwrecked swimmers in a stormy sea
who, tired and panting but at last ashore,
look back on swamping breakers thoughtfully,
25 I turned to view, though wishing still to leave,
the terrifying forest in the glen
no living soul but mine had struggled through.
28 My weary body rested then until,
rising, I climbed the sloping wilderness,
so that each footstep raised me higher still.
31 But see! The uphill climb had just begun
when suddenly a leopard, light, quick, gay
and brightly spotted, sprang before my feet,
34 dodging from side to side, blocking the way
so swiftly and with such determination
she sometimes nearly forced me to retreat.
37 The sun had reached a height dimming the stars
created with him on the second day,
after the birth of time and space and light,
40 and this recalled God’s generosity,
letting me feel some good at least might be
within the leopard’s carnival ferocity,
43 so dappled, bright and jolly was that beast,
but not so bright to stop me shuddering
at a fresh shock – a lion came in sight,
46 his mighty head held high, his savage glare
fixed upon me in such a hungry way
it seemed to terrify the very air.
49 A wolf beside him, rabid from starvation,
horribly hungry, far more dangerous,
has driven multitudes to desperation,
52 me too! For she established my disgrace,
(that worst of beasts) by killing my desire
to climb up higher to a better place.
55 A millionaire made glorious by gain
then hit by sudden loss of all he has,
cries out in vast astonishment and pain.
58 So did I, shoved down backwards, foot by foot,
by pressure of that grim relentless brute
till forced into the sunless wood again.
61 Appearing in its shade a human shape
both seemed and sounded centuries away,
murmuring words almost beyond my hearing,
64 therefore I yelled, “Pity and help me, please,
whether you be a living man or ghost!”
and pleaded, crouching down before his knees.
67 “Not man – though once I was, in Lombardy,
where both my parents dwelled in Mantua,
and I was born in Caesar’s reign,” said he,
70 “but educated in Augustan Rome
when the false gods were worshipped everywhere.
I sang the epic of Anchises’ son,
73 pious Aeneas, who fled blazing Troy
and founded Rome. I was a poet there.
Why are you here? Why turn back from your climb
76 towards the bright height of eternal bliss
and come again to a bad place like this?”
“You must be Virgil!” Awestruck, I replied,
79 “Fountain of all our pure Italian speech!”
Rising, I bowed and told him, “All I know
of poetry derives from what you teach!
82 The style which makes me famed in Italy
I learned from you who are my dominie!
Help me again, for see at the hill foot
85 the brute whose threats have rendered me distraught!
Master, please save me – show me the right way.
That rabid wolf has driven me so mad
88 my pulse and every sense have gone agley.”
I wept and, “Take another road,” he said,
“and leave this wasteland, leave that wolfish whore
91 who lets none pass before she bites them dead.
Her starving greedy lust is never sated.
Her appetite increases as she feasts.
94 Mated with many beasts, she’ll mate with more
till one great greyhound comes to hunt her down
whose fangs will end her life in deadly pain.
97 Wisdom, love, courage are his nourishment,
not gold nor land nor any earthly gain.
From birth among the lowly he will rise,
100 bringing new glory to the Italian plain
like the old Trojan colonists and kings
whose wars created Rome’s establishment.
103 Out of each city state he will expel
the wolf before he fixes her at last
back in the place she came from, which is Hell.
106 That is not yet; so now you’ll come with me
on a straight downward path into the jail
envy released her from, and see God’s wrath
109 afflicting sinners who forever wail –
no second death will end their agony!
Then a high fiery mountain we’ll ascend
112 past burning climbers, happy in their flame,
for they will one day join the heavenly choir.
The summit reached, since Heaven is your aim,
115 we two must part. A better guide than me
will lead you then. Living I did not know,
could not obey the last great law of He
118 who made the whole celestial universe.
His highest city, capital and throne
are places that I cannot hope to see.
121 Happy are those chosen to join Him there!”
I answered, “Poet, sent by the God whom you
(alas) can’t know, let us be gone, I pray,
124 out of this danger, down that hard, hard road,
then to the heavenly gate Saint Peter guards,
seeing the poor damned souls upon our way.”
127 We walked. I followed as he led me on.
Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Part 1 Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse By Alasdair Gray is published by Canongate, priced £14.99