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‘A Forest Dark’
Dante’s Inferno: Canto I
© 2014 James LaFond
Reading from the translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, of the first part of the Divine Comedy, written in 1310 and published in 1317
I am engaged in offering a prose author’s impression of a work of poetry. I am not qualified to write, no less evaluate, verse as a literary medium, nor am I well read on the political circumstances of Dante Alighieri’s time beyond a familiarity with Italian military history and my reading on Leonardo, who lived a full century after Dante. The introduction in this edition by John Lotherington is informative enough to serve as a check on my impressions, which I did by reading it after I had reread Inferno for the second time.
So, for what it is worth, what follows are my impressions of Canto I, which, being a reading of the subtext, falls into the anagogical or metaphysical realm of interpretation.
Canto I
The Dark Forest—The Hill of Difficulty—The Panther, The Lion and the Wolf—Virgil
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
This is the most pleasing passage of the entire work to my mind’s eye. As a novelist, I take it as a synopsis, summarizing the entirety—or at least the theme—of the body of work to come.
In Dante’s time, age 35 was closer to the end than it is generally considered in our own time. However, the mind of a 35 year old man, who a decade on from that point in his life when he is expected to have set his course for the navigation of the world of men, is apt to have common awakenings sometimes emerging as misgivings as to his place in the temporal world, and indeed its very nature.
It is a tendency among the more mindful men of early middle age to develop an appreciation for the duplicity of the temporal world, particularly if they have previously been indoctrinated into a temporal order which is clearly supported by a parallel metaphysical order. When a man such as Dante wakes from a nightmare to find himself suddenly awake to a world of duplicity undergirded by a faith rife with hypocrisy—whether religious in Dante’s case or ideological in the case of the postmodern man who tends to find himself rejecting liberalism and considering conservatism at about this age—the emotive female corners of his mind are tapped. This often results in unappealingly opinionated and contentious behavior among middle aged men as they begin their half-life long argument with a world of a nature not to listen. In the case of an artist like Dante, the experience occasionally erupts in art, and in this case a hauntingly beautiful sketch of Man’s ugliness.
Dante goes on to explore the metaphoric landscape which undergirds the temporal world of men like a ghostly substructure, in terms of natural features such as the forest, the hill, and then according to a description of its beastly occupants, being metaphors for the nations of men. I certainly read the Wolf as Rome and its ancient legacy.
His journey takes on the nature of a ghost’s flight across the world, reminiscent for me of Dickens’ Christmas Carol, that being the first serious literature I read as a boy. I am thrilled to read of Dante’s meeting with Virgil—which was quite a connective stroke on his part—as he now had for his guide a spirit that I, as the reader, was familiar with.
This last part, Dante’s ghost being conducted by Virgil’s ghost toward ‘the portal of Saint Peter’ [the door to Hell], brings to mind the horror writers of the early 20th Century such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Jack London, who wrote horror and dark fantasy as if they were walking with departed ancestors in their dark dreams. This belief in ‘blood memory’ that was so intricately linked to the idea of eugenics and racial determinism in the minds of modernity’s most haunting literary ghosts, strikes me with salient meaning as I read of Dante and Virgil going to Hell.
Dante’s dreamlike journey into ‘a forest dark,’ having lost ‘the straightforward path’ promised his former ignorant self by the lying world, reads like a dreaming man reaching backward into Time for the comforting presence of some venerated ancestor who had not yet been lied to by the world, or perhaps had unraveled those self same lies back when the world of men was young, and whose ghost might offer some guidance.
"Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.”
In my mind, as a prose writer, Dante is engaging in a shamanic vision quest that would be far better understood by Sitting Bull than by Harry Truman.
American Woman
the man cave
A Sign of Lonely Times
by the wine dark sea
the greatest boxer
on combat
'in these goings down'
plantation america
sons of aryas
son of a lesser god
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