Down To What’s Low, Canto 1
Just halfway through my own trip in our living
Provisional, short world, I found that I
Had lost my path in dark woods, unforgiving.
It is so hard a thing that I must sigh
If I would say how brutal was that wood,
To think on which will always horrify.
If anything, it’s only dying could
Outdo that acrid wood’s malignity.
But I will turn from horror, towards that good
Which also on that pathway, luckily,
I found, though I can’t say what hid all truth
Away in total blank stupidity.
I cannot work out how it was, in sooth,
That in that gloom awaking, full of stupor,
I’d lost that saving road I took in youth.
I got at last to what you’d call a croup or
Boundary of that dark and dismal hollow,
A bank of rocks which from a mountain do pour,
To that bluff’s scapula my look did follow
Upwards still that guiding morning glow,
Bright from that star so holy to Apollo.
Thus did that anxious horror, which had so
Brought churning with it, all that awful night,
To my soul’s pool, diminish, calm its flow.
And as a man who pants hard, still in sight
Of billows which, almost, brought him to sink,
From land looks back on that main, full of fright,
So did my spirit, panicking, still think
On that grim pass no mortal human can
Go out of without passing living’s brink.
At last my body pausing for a span
Until invigoration from that stop
Could now allow it motion, though no plan
Could show it how to go, with constant prop
On foot in back and downwards, sought to gain,
By climbing always upwards, that mount’s top.
And lo! A cougar stood stock still, though plain
Its quick and light agility. No turning
Could pass it by. Upon its skin a rain
Of spots, which I, that bright and airy morning
(As sun and star-companions Loving God
Had first spun, still did spin) saw as adorning
That cat, a sign of succor I might laud,
During that blissful dawn, but not so bright
That I did not start shaking, on that road,
At what was now arising in my sight:
A lion, drawn up high, intimidating,
So much that air and I, both full of fright,
About how it its stomach might start sating,
Must stop — for what? A wolf, and I was pavid,
So skinny was it, though anticipating
It would sup soon on anything, for avid
It was for food: though lank it was full too:
That wolf so ruinous to man was gravid!
And I was too — with fright! I could not do
What I was hoping for — to climb that hill.
Alas, I found no pathway round nor through.
And as a man who’d got just what his will
Saw as most worth wishing of all things,
Now gasps on losing it, a poignant thrill
Of brutal pain, transfixing with its stings
From that wolf, did I sob at, and I shrank
Darkwards, away from Sol’s loud blazonings.
Back did I go, back to that lowland dank;
Abruptly in my sight shows up a man,
Who, dumb so long, I thought would sound as blank,
As our surround was. Straight to him I ran,
Still crying “Pity!” to him, “Man or shadow
Of a man!” “Not a man, but Mantuan,
By birth” was his account, “Born Sub Julio,
But it was good Augustus, though his gods
Did not say truth nor know your Christian Trio,
Who was my king. My song got many nods,
All praising it as Roman history,
From Trojan loss to gain, against all odds,
From burning Ilion to victory.
But why do you avoid that joyous mountain,
As though to climb you’d no ability?”
“Now art thou Virgil? That riparian fountain,”
All blushingly I said, within his sight,
“Of words that all who follow find a sound in
Which our own songs would sing with. If I might,
I’ll say how much I honor you, what study
I sanctify with loving to your light.
But now look on that animal so bloody,
To you I turn for aid, to you I’m flying.
O horror!” “You must go this path, though muddy,”
Did Virgil say, to try to hush my crying,
“If you would from this dark wood find a way.
For past that wolf can no amount of trying
Attain that goal; whoso will try will pay
With his annihilation; hungrily,
Voraciously that wolf puts him away.
Marrying many animals bodily,
It looks to go on doing so, until
A Grayhound, coming with finality,
Shall bring its pain to culmination, kill
That awful wolf, who did not pity show.
That hound, consuming not, such is its will,
Things of this world, but only what would go
With wisdom — loving all morality —
In fabrics of Franciscan monks will know
His nation. Savior of low Italy,
That hound: our land for which Camilla, dying
A maid, and Nisus, and his loving ally
And Turnus, all lay down for good. Now plying
Its way through any town that it might harry,
That wolf cannot avoid damnation, buying,
Through vicious rivalry, its day to tarry,
So soon to finish. So I think it right
That I conduct you, and that you stay wary.
As onwards through this aways-lasting night
You go, with sounds of always-lasting sorrow
Imploring total dying, not this blight.
But going through, I’ll bring you tomorrow
To souls who though in pain stay happy with it,
Hoping to pay back soon what sin did borrow
And climb salvation’s mount to that first orbit,
To which I must not go. But if you will
You’ll find at that hill’s top a worthy spirit,
Which I am not, as I did not fulfill
Writs laid down by that all-causing King,
Combatting what was law. His codicil
About my task thus says: I may not bring
A pilgrim to his city. Though his might’s
Ubiquitous, from that city starts its ring
Circling all worlds. O, happy, any sights
Of Him; most so, who in that city strong
Find bright salvation in its million lights.”
And I to him: “I pray, by your high song —
And by that God you did not know, I pray—
That you will as conductor, for as long
As you can do so, bring us on that way
Of pain, at last to portals which saints hallow,
And far from this soil’s sorrow.” With no stay
On did Virgil go, downwards did I follow.