Canto 1

IN the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e'en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discover'd there.
How first I enter'd it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dullness in that instant weigh'd
My senses down, when the true path I left,
But when a mountain's foot I reach'd, where clos'd
The valley, that had pierc'd my heart with dread,
I look'd aloft, and saw his shoulders broad
Already vested with that planet's beam,
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.

Then was a little respite to the fear,
That in my heart's recesses deep had lain,
All of that night, so pitifully pass'd:
And as a man, with difficult short breath,
Forespent with toiling, 'scap'd from sea to shore,
Turns to the perilous wide waste, and stands
At gaze; e'en so my spirit, that yet fail'd
Struggling with terror, turn'd to view the straits,
That none hath pass'd and liv'd.  My weary frame
After short pause recomforted, again
I journey'd on over that lonely steep,
The hinder foot still firmer.  Scarce the ascent
Began, when, lo! a panther, nimble, light,
And cover'd with a speckled skin, appear'd,
Nor, when it saw me, vanish'd, rather strove
To check my onward going; that ofttimes
With purpose to retrace my steps I turn'd.

The hour was morning's prime, and on his way
Aloft the sun ascended with those stars,
That with him rose, when Love divine first mov'd
Those its fair works: so that with joyous hope
All things conspir'd to fill me, the gay skin
Of that swift animal, the matin dawn
And the sweet season.  Soon that joy was chas'd,
And by new dread succeeded, when in view
A lion came, 'gainst me, as it appear'd,
With his head held aloft and hunger-mad,
That e'en the air was fear-struck.  A she-wolf
Was at his heels, who in her leanness seem'd
Full of all wants, and many a land hath made
Disconsolate ere now.  She with such fear
O'erwhelmed me, at the sight of her appall'd,
That of the height all hope I lost.  As one,
Who with his gain elated, sees the time
When all unwares is gone, he inwardly
Mourns with heart-griping anguish; such was I,
Haunted by that fell beast, never at peace,
Who coming o'er against me, by degrees
Impell'd me where the sun in silence rests.

While to the lower space with backward step
I fell, my ken discern'd the form one of one,
Whose voice seem'd faint through long disuse of speech.
When him in that great desert I espied,
"Have mercy on me!"  cried I out aloud,
"Spirit! or living man! what e'er thou be!"

He answer'd: "Now not man, man once I was,
And born of Lombard parents, Mantuana both
By country, when the power of Julius yet
Was scarcely firm.  At Rome my life was past
Beneath the mild Augustus, in the time
Of fabled deities and false.  A bard
Was I, and made Anchises' upright son
The subject of my song, who came from Troy,
When the flames prey'd on Ilium's haughty towers.
But thou, say wherefore to such perils past
Return'st thou?  wherefore not this pleasant mount
Ascendest, cause and source of all delight?"
"And art thou then that Virgil, that well-spring,
From which such copious floods of eloquence
Have issued?"  I with front abash'd replied.
"Glory and light of all the tuneful train!
May it avail me that I long with zeal
Have sought thy volume, and with love immense
Have conn'd it o'er.  My master thou and guide!
Thou he from whom alone I have deriv'd
That style, which for its beauty into fame
Exalts me.  See the beast, from whom I fled.
O save me from her, thou illustrious sage!
"For every vein and pulse throughout my frame
She hath made tremble."  He, soon as he saw
That I was weeping, answer'd, "Thou must needs
Another way pursue, if thou wouldst 'scape
From out that savage wilderness.  This beast,
At whom thou criest, her way will suffer none
To pass, and no less hindrance makes than death:
So bad and so accursed in her kind,
That never sated is her ravenous will,
Still after food more craving than before.
To many an animal in wedlock vile
She fastens, and shall yet to many more,
Until that greyhound come, who shall destroy
Her with sharp pain.  He will not life support
By earth nor its base metals, but by love,
Wisdom, and virtue, and his land shall be
The land 'twixt either Feltro.  In his might
Shall safety to Italia's plains arise,
For whose fair realm, Camilla, virgin pure,
Nisus, Euryalus, and Turnus fell.
He with incessant chase through every town
Shall worry, until he to hell at length
Restore her, thence by envy first let loose.
I for thy profit pond'ring now devise,
That thou mayst follow me, and I thy guide
Will lead thee hence through an eternal space,
Where thou shalt hear despairing shrieks, and see
Spirits of old tormented, who invoke
A second death; and those next view, who dwell
Content in fire, for that they hope to come,
Whene'er the time may be, among the blest,
Into whose regions if thou then desire
T' ascend, a spirit worthier then I
Must lead thee, in whose charge, when I depart,
Thou shalt be left: for that Almighty King,
Who reigns above, a rebel to his law,
Adjudges me, and therefore hath decreed,
That to his city none through me should come.
He in all parts hath sway; there rules, there holds
His citadel and throne.  O happy those,
Whom there he chooses!" I to him in few:
"Bard! by that God, whom thou didst not adore,
I do beseech thee (that this ill and worse
I may escape) to lead me, where thou saidst,
That I Saint Peter's gate may view, and those
Who as thou tell'st, are in such dismal plight."

Onward he mov'd, I close his steps pursu'd.


  1. One reason Virgil serves as Dante's guide through Inferno is that Virgil represents an artistic hero to Dante—both the protagonist of the epic and the poet himself. Indeed, Virgil has long been considered by many the greatest poet of Italian antiquity, an opinion Dante holds. Dante calls Virgil "that well-spring, from which such copious floods of eloquence have issued," as well as "my master."

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. Dante has backslidden, though apparently more from inattention rather than a direct, willful act of disobedience against God. We do not know, however, if this inattention led him to commit specific sins that require restoration to the "path direct."

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Dante personalizes the spiritual journey of The Inferno by presenting himself as the first-person protagonist. He is a middle-aged wanderer who lost his way and now finds himself on the wrong path—"Gone from the path direct"—in the dark forest. He doesn't remember how he lost his way, only that he was sleepy and unintentionally strayed from "the true path."

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. Virgil's situation—being stuck in Limbo—is a difficult dilemma. Because he is a good and just man, he does not get sent to hell to be punished; but because he is a pagan and not a Christian, he cannot go to Heaven.  Like all other good and just pagans, as well as infants who die before they are baptized, Virgil must remain eternally in the "holding tank" that is Limbo.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. Another reference to Dante having left the right path, that is, the path that would lead him to a relationship with God.  A by-product of leaving the right path is that his senses are disordered.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. In this case, to "con" is to study carefully. Dante has become very familiar with the Aeneid, which includes a long and detailed account of Aeneas' journey to the underworld to learn what the gods have in store for him and the Trojan race.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. This is the first appearance of the Roman poet Virgil, Dante's guide to the Inferno and Purgatorio. Virgil (70–19 BCE), best known for the Aeneid, was born is a village near Mantua and lived in Rome during the reign of Julius Caesar and, later, Augustus Caesar.  Virgil, because he recounted Aeneas' journey through the underworld in the Aeniad, is an appropriate guide for Dante on the same journey.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. Again, the lion, which represents insatiable hunger and ambition, is one of three animals mentioned in Jeremiah 5:6 that destroys sinners who remain unrepentant.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. This reference to a panther is unclear at this point but could allude to one of three animals in the Book of Jeremiah—a lion, a wolf, and a leopard (panther)—that destroy sinners who fail to confess their sins.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. This is Dante's way of indicating that he has strayed from the "path direct," or, in more conventional religious terms, the right way.  Straying from the right way may be emblematic of estrangement from God, which is why he finds himself in the selva oscura, the dark wood.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Virgil, a pagan who lived prior to Jesus's cleansing of sin, died unabsolved. Therefore, he is not allowed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Grace can only be given by God to Christian believers; it cannot be obtained either through virtue or reason. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  12. There is scholarly controversy over the meaning of Saint Peter's gate in this line. Many argue that the "gate" is the gate of Heaven, often referenced in the Bible and elsewhere in literature, but not in "Inferno." Therefore, the stronger argument is likely that the gate here is not to Heaven but to Purgatory, a gate that is actually mentioned in Dante's poem. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  13. Dante is referring to Beatrice, whose name means "one who makes blessed."  There was a "real" Beatrice, Beatrice Portinari (1255-1290), who was Dante's neighbor and with whom Dante fell deeply in love as an adolescent. She appears in Dante's 1295 poem "La Vita Nuova," wherein the poet extols her beauty and example of spiritual perfection.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  14. Camilla was the daughter of the king of the Volscians. Nisus and Euryalus were young Trojan soldiers. Turnus was the king of the Rutulians.  All were leaders of indigenous Italians; enemies in life, here they are patriots, key elements in the founding of Rome.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  15. The symbolism of the greyhound is one of the most contested elements of the entire work, attributed to various religious and historical figures as well as the second coming of Christ. However, the most frequent attribution is to the ruler Cangrande della Scala, who governed Verona from 1308 to 1329; his name suggests "Great Dog."

    — Jamie Wheeler
  16. This is a reference to Aeneas, the Trojan price, son of the goddess Venus and the mortal Anchises. Aeneas sailed Italy following the fall of Troy (also known as Ilium) and became the legendary founder of Rome.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  17. Virgil was born prior to the reign of Julius Caesar, who was assassinated when Virgil was in his mid-twenties.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  18. The three beasts in this passage (the she-wolf, the leopard, and the lion) are among the most discussed and analyzed of the entire work. Most often, the she-wolf is said to symbolize lust; the leopard, pride; the lion, greed.  But they have also been said to stand for incontinence, violence, and fraud (respectively). These are the three primary categories of sin identified by Virgil in Canto XI. The appearance of these three symbolic animals foreshadows the broader structure of the journey Dante will take through the layers of Inferno.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  19. From an astrological perspective, the sun is in Aries. It is the morning of Good Friday, the supposed time of creation, and thus Dante is flooded with a momentary feeling of beneficence.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  20. One may interpret this line metaphorically as well as literally.  The feet were thought to be the limbs of the soul: the right symbolizing the will and the left symbolizing the intellect. Dante requires both in his journey.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  21. The "planet" to which Dante refers is the sun. This reflects a pre-Copernican model (1543) of the cosmos, postulated by Claudius Ptolemy (100–170 CE), in which Earth was the fixed center of the universe.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  22. Dante Alighieri (1265–1321) was thirty-five years old in 1300, the year the poem takes place.  the Bible's projection for a human lifespan was threescore years (sixty) and ten—seventy years. Thus, Dante-the-protagonist begins his journey when he is precisely "midway" through his life. Dante-the-author began composing the poem in 1308, when he was forty-three years old.

    — Jamie Wheeler