I is for Inferno I.4-9


Well, the promised (threatened?) post on Dante is here! I’ve already explained my love of Dante, now for some of the details.

A (long) while ago, I wrote a post introducing Dante, followed by one on the first three lines of the Divine Comedy, analysing them in some detail. I have long wanted to do this for the whole poem, which will obviously take a while as it’s, you know, over 14,000 lines long. Still, it’s something I intend to putter along with, quite possibly for years, and here is the next bit.

To recap (but go read the first post), Dante is in a dark wood. It’s the middle of his life, he’s lost, and just comes back to himself. The next few lines we get a bit more detail about the wood:

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!
Tant’è amara che poco è più morte;
ma per trattar del ben ch’i’ vi trovai,
dirò de l’altre cose ch’i’ v’ho scorte.

(Inferno I.4-9)

Some translations:

“Ah, how hard it is to tell what that wood was, wild, rugged, harsh; the very thought of it renews the fear! It is so bitter that death is hardly more so. But, to treat of the good that I found in it, I will tell of the other things I saw there.”

(Trans. Charles Singleton)


“How hard it is to tell what it was like,
this wood of wilderness, savage and stubborn
(the thought of it brings back all my old fears),
a bitter place! Death could scarce be bitterer.
But if I would show the good that came of it,
I must talk about things other than the good.”

(Trans. Mark Musa.)


“The keening sound / I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me —
Merely to think of it renews the fear —
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It led to good things too, eventually,
But there and then I saw no sign of those…”

(Trans. Clive James)

What do we do with this?

Well, strangely enough I quite like the Clive James translation (a new one to me), despite the fact that he drops the selva selvaggia — the wild wood — completely. Maybe I just like his poetic sensibility; I’ll be interested to see how it works as I go through the rest of his translation. Still, his choice works for the poetry, but less for the sense, and kind of ruins part of the allegorical framework of the poem.

The wild wood, the savage forest, isn’t something inessential to drop. It’s not just the location for the opening; it actually refers to the whole material world. This is kind of the point of the poem. The living world is so bitter and full of sin, we discover, that death itself is hardly bitterer — and that brings us to a hint of the other part of the story, that this is a tale about what happens after death. Dante also tells us that despite that bitter hardship, that dreadful fear, it is in this wilderness that he finds the good.

As we will discover, fear is the primary difficulty Dante faces: that is what ensnares him in sin, forces him down, nearly prevents him from salvation. It’s introduced here as an aside, but it runs through as a major concern of the whole work, even long after the selva selvaggia has been dropped as a literal place in favour of its allegorical signification.

There are echoes here to various other texts: to Eccelesiastes 7:27, which speaks of mulierem amariorem morte, “a woman more bitter than death” — a bit misogynistic, I admit, but the feminisation of the world is an ancient one; to Ecclesiasticus 41:1, “O mors! quam amara est memoria tua” (“O death! how bitter the thought of you”), and Augustine, In Ioannem (Tractates on the Gospel of John) XVI, 6: Amara silva mundus hic fuit, “A bitter forest was this world,” which makes the allegorical significance of the selva absolutely clear.

As for the ben, the good, that Dante is to find — Singleton suggests it’s his rescue by Virgil, which will happen shortly, but along with that near-term good there are the wider reaches that lead to the final vision of the Good itself at the end of the Comedy. The beginning of the poem holds the end, which is one of the reasons why I’m spending so long on each tercet (set of three lines, the basic unit of the poem). The significance that these words hold extends all the way through the entire work. Which I find utterly compelling. Even here, which is basically an expansion of the initial tercet, we can see the deepening of meaning, of sense and significance.

I’m going to add in a page with references (to translations, to the basic scholarship, to the various bits of this project), so you can find the bibliographical details there. Although I’m not sure when I’ll get to the next few lines, because of the A-to-Z challenge, I am intending to work on them more regularly going forward. Perhaps on Sundays? We’ll see.

Dante outside Santa Croce





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