Similar to the mystery of how Dante gets lost in a forest in the opening lines of the Divine Comedy’s Inferno, I’m not entirely sure what led me to Dante’s writings on Hell more or less midway upon the journey of my own life. I have a recollection of opening a book of poems by T.S. Eliot where I found the poem, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which begins with a canto from the Inferno.
The opening lines of the Inferno got me hooked — wanting to know what happened to Dante in his 14th C journey. A further study led to 3 passages that inspired a series of paintings in 2007.
Outside of being a lesson on civics and ethics, Dante’s Comedy is a work of art. His mastery of poetry is moving in the same way a piece of art or music can take one’s breath away.
Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura
ché la diritta via era smarrita.
Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
[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.]
INFERNO CANTO 12 (lines 46-51)
Ma ficca li occhi a valle, ché s’approccia
la riviera del sangue in la qual bolle
qual che per violenza in altrui noccia.
Oh cieca cupidigia e ira folle,
che sì ci sproni ne la vita corta,
e ne l’etterna poi sì mal c’immolle!
[But fix your eyes below, upon the valley,
for now we near the stream of blood, where
those who injure others violently, boil.
O blind cupidity and insane anger,
which goad us on so much in our short life,
then steep us in such grief eternally!]
PURGATORIO CANTO 1 (lines 1-6)
Per correr miglior acque alza le vele
omai la navicella del mio ingegno,
che lascia dietro a sé mar sì crudele;.
e canterò di quel secondo regno
dove l’umano spirito si purga
e di salire al ciel diventa degno.
[To course across more kindly waters now
my talent’s little vessel lifts her sails,
leaving behind herself a sea so cruel;
and what I sing will be that second kingdom,
in which the human soul is cleansed of sin,
becoming worthy of ascent to Heaven.]
PARADISO CANTO 16 (lines 16-21)
Io cominciai: «Voi siete il padre mio;
voi mi date a parlar tutta baldezza;
voi mi levate sì, ch’i’ son più ch’io.
Per tanti rivi s’empie d’allegrezza
la mente mia, che di sé fa letizia
perché può sostener che non si spezza.
[So did my speech begin: “You are my father;
you hearten me to speak with confidence;
you raise me so that I am more than I.
So many streams have filled my mind with gladness-
so many, and such gladness, that my mind must
rejoice that it can bear this and not burst.]