Thursday, September 19, 2013


Chapter 1: Introduction

The little ship of my intelligence
            furls sails, drops anchor, leaves the cruel sea.
            I stand upon the second kingdom’s beach                                          3

and now can sing of where each sinful soul
            is purified, made good by reaching up
            to paradise. O teach me, poetry!                                                        6

Be with me Calliope, holy muse
            of epic song who treats voices that sing
            of lesser things as if unpardonable                                                      9

magpie chattering! In Heaven’s clear height
            I saw sweet blueness deepening down to
            the horizon where that lover’s planet                                                 12

Venus gladdened my eyes, shining above
            the constellation of the fishes, now
            rising from the sea. To the right I saw                                                15

a galaxy unknown to living folk
            except the first, before they came to sin –
            four great stars, points of a brilliant cross.                                         18

Poor northern sky, to be without that sight!
            Looking away I saw beside me one
            lit by that starlight, bearded and white-haired,                                   21

his face so full of venerable might
            I wanted to adore him as his son.
            He demanded, “What are you that have fled                                      24

the eternal jail? What guide led, what lamp
            lit your path out? Has Heaven’s decree changed
to let damned souls free? Tell me by what right                                 27

you stand below my cliffs!” By word and hand
            my guide made me bow knee and head then said,
            “We have not come by our own will. Hear Why.                              30

When this man was in peril of his soul
            Heaven sent a lady, saying I should
            lead him through Hell up to the highest good.                                    33                   

He has seen the deeps. May I show him how
            sinners are purified upon the steeps
where you preside? Be kind to him. He seeks                                    36

the liberty that you in Utica
            perished to keep, shedding your coat of clay
            to proudly wear it on the Judgment Day.                                          39

Our journey breaks no law. This man still lives.
            Minos never judged him or me. I dwell
            in the virtuous ring of Hell, close to                                                   42

chaste Marcia, the wife who worships you.
            For her sake let us climb the blesséd stairs
            that lead to Heaven’s grace. When I return                                         45

to that place she will hear of your kindness.”
I saw this warden of Purgatory
            was Cato, Caesar’s honest foe, he who                                              48

stabbed himself, not to outlive the Roman
            Republic that he loved. Shaking his head
            he said, “Aye, Marcia delighted me.                                                   51

All kindness that she asked, I gave, but since
            she went beyond death’s river, Acheron,
            she cannot move me now. But you obey                                           54

Heaven’s commands so need not flatter me
            for I obey them too. Lead him you guide
            down to this island’s shore. Above the beach                                    57

reeds grow in soft mud. No leaf there hardens
            or dies. Pluck a reed. Tie it round his waist.
            Wash his face. No angel likes to see grime.                                       60

from Hell under an eye. Don’t come back here.
            The rising sun will show a better place
to start your climb. Goodbye.” He disappeared.                                63

I stood up when my leader said, “Dear child,
            this plain slopes seaward. Let’s do as he told.”
            A morning breeze fleeing before the dawn                                        66

came from the distant glitter of the sea.
            We crossed that lonely plain like wanderers
            seeking a path who fear they seek in vain.                                         69

The low sun’s level rays began to warm
            the turf we trod, when my guide paused beside
            a boulder’s shadow on a patch of grass                                              72

 still misted with pearls of dew. I halted,
            knowing what he would do. He stooped, wet hands,
            washed my face clean of crusts left by fearful,                                  75

pitiful tears, restoring how I looked
            before entering Hell. We reached the shore
            no living foot had ever touched before.                                             78

As instructed, here he pulled up a reed.
            While it was bound around my waist I saw
            a miracle – where that rush once stood                                              81

sprang up another, just as tall and good. 


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