PART OF THE Around the World ISSUE

Revisiting Dante's Inferno

‘We walked. I followed as he led me on.’

Any publication of new work by Alasdair Gray is a cultural event. And when Gray announced he was translating Dante’s epic The Divine Comedy, we’re sure BooksfromScotland were not the only ones on tenterhooks waiting for publication. The first part of the trilogy, Hell, is published this month, with Purgatory and Heaven to follow. We’re delighted to share with you the first canto.


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

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