We have just concluded the journey on which Virgil takes his hero, Aeneas, through Hades with the Cumaean Sybil as his guide. Some 1300 years later, the Florentine Poet Dante Alighieri wrote the Divina Commedia, in which he makes a great metaphysical journey through the Christian Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. This journey too calls for a guide, and Dante chose Virgil, no doubt mainly on the strength of Aeneas’s underworld travels in Book 6 of the Aeneid.
In this extract near the beginning of Dante’s poem, he meets Virgil for the first time and acknowledges the poetic debt that he owes to him. As it opens, the narrator has become lost in a dark wood. He sees the sun light the top of a mountaintop before him. He attempts to climb it in the belief that the light will lead him home, but is confronted by three symbolic beasts – a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf – and has begun a hasty retreat. The reader is Daniel Servini.
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Mentre ch’i’ rovinava in basso loco,
dinanzi a li occhi mi si fu offerto
chi per lungo silenzio parea fioco.
Quando vidi costui nel gran diserto,
«Miserere di me», gridai a lui,
«qual che tu sii, od ombra od omo certo!».
Rispuosemi: «Non omo, omo già fui,
e li parenti miei furon lombardi,
mantoani per patrïa ambedui.
Nacqui sub Iulio, ancor che fosse tardi,
e vissi a Roma sotto ’l buono Augusto
nel tempo de li dèi falsi e bugiardi.
Poeta fui, e cantai di quel giusto
figliuol d’Anchise che venne di Troia,
poi che ’l superbo Ilión fu combusto.
Ma tu perché ritorni a tanta noia?
perché non sali il dilettoso monte
ch’è principio e cagion di tutta gioia?».
«Or se’ tu quel Virgilio e quella fonte
che spandi di parlar sì largo fiume?»,
rispuos’ io lui con vergognosa fronte,
«O de li altri poeti onore e lume
vagliami ’l lungo studio e ’l grande amore
che m’ha fatto cercar lo tuo volume.
Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore;
tu se’ solo colui da cu’ io tolsi
lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore. »
While I was rushing down again,
before my eyes there stood one who
seemed through long silence dim.
When I saw him in the wide solitude,
I cried to him, “have pity on me,
whether you are shade or living man!”
He answered me, “no man, though once a man I was,
and my parents were Lombard,
Mantuans both by country.
I was a poet, and sang of the upright
son of Anchises who came from Troy
when proud Ilium had been burnt.
But why are you turning back to such difficulty?
Why do you not climb the delightful mount,
which is the origin and cause of every joy?”
“Then are you that Virgil, and the fount
that poured out so broad a river of eloquence?”
I replied hesitantly,
“O you light and honour of the other poets,
may the long study and great love, which have made me
search your works, stand to my advantage!
You are my master and my author;
you are the sole source from whom I took
the fine style which has done me honour.”