by Harrison J. Sheppard
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon, I woke to find myself in a dark wood, Where the right road was wholly lost and gone. Ah, tongue cannot describe how it oppressed, This wood, so harsh, dismal and wild, that fear At thought of it now strikes into my breast. So bitter it is, death is scarce bitterer. Yet there I gained such good, that to convey The tale, I’ll write what else I found therewith– Dante, Inferno, Canto I, 1-9
When I first read Dante in college, I was fascinated by his tale of Hell and awed by the intellectual challenge of the Divine Comedy. Like most students, I remembered Dante for the Inferno, virtually forgot the Purgatorio and Paradiso, and did not feel that the poem had much to do with me. But when, more than ten years later, I opened the Divine Comedy and read the lines quoted above, I was startled by the thought that I was about to read the story of a journey I could relate to my own experience. Dante’s terror of the “dark wood” and the apparent absence of any guide to the “right road” is at least akin to the anxieties and confusion commonly suffered midway in our lives as we wonder how we have come to be where we are and how we can best find our way along the paths that remain to us.
I followed Dante, therefore, with much more attention during this rereading than I had as a student, and I found that his poem has, in fact, a lot to do with me, as it does with anyone whose condition has, at one time or another, raised painful questions about the perplexities of life and the limitations of our rational understanding. Perhaps the most difficult question posed by Dante’s account of his journey (and ours) is the one raised by the inscription he sees on the gate to Hell as he stands before it:
Justice moved my Great Maker; God Eternal Wrought Me: The Power and The Unsearchable High Wisdom, and The Primal Love Supernal.1
That Justice demands punishment for evil is easy to accept; but it is almost impossible for the rational mind not to recoil from the idea that “Primal Love” is the creator of the torments of Hell. It was not until Dante’s images had become a living part of my own life that I felt myself capable of accepting this terrible paradox.
The following story is true. It is not the whole truth –which is, after all, known only to God– but it is the truth and nothing but the truth; so far, at least, as I am able to tell it in a short space of time.
After more than eleven years of marriage, when I was thirty-five years old, I was separated from my wife. I lived by myself in a small, dark wood paneled apartment, pleasantly located among eucalyptus trees on the crest of a hill at the end of a road. During this period I spent much time alone in my austerely furnished rooms, often thinking the thoughts of a man alone.
One afternoon, after a succession of evenings wondering too self consciously about my place in the world, the idea struck me with the force of a cannon shot that I was, after all, a free man. Many of the limitations of my life, I realized, were largely self-imposed. I could, if I wished, break altogether with my present life and career as a lawyer by trying, as others have done, to begin an entirely new life. I could, for example, become a sort of mendicant, devote myself to religious studies, to a political cause, or even to debauchery. Not that I could make such choices without costs to my body and soul. But I was free to make them if I was also willing to bear their costs.
This idea of freedom, not novel, was nevertheless exhilarating. But after the initial force of the awakened idea had passed, it paralyzed me. Confronted with the reality of so many choices, I felt incapable of exercising my will to choose at all; no path seemed the “right” one for me. My capacity for reasoning to a sound, practical conclusion seemed deadened. I could see no clear direction home. I found myself, in other words, in a very dark wood, where any “right” road was wholly lost and gone.
How I got into it, I cannot say Because I was so heavy and full of sleep When first I stumbled from the narrow way. 2
This bogglement led to a crushing despair. The world and all of its possibilities lay before me in my imagination and, alone with an arrogant freedom, I could do nothing. Surely, I thought to myself, I am among the damned: I am free and cannot choose to use my freedom at all, let alone well. Dante, I recalled, had a special damnation for indecisive souls who do not even deserve a place in Hell but must, instead, spend eternity in its vestibule:
And I, whose mind failed to discern aright, Said: “Master, what is it that my ear affrays? Who are these that seem so crushed beneath their plight?’ And he to me: “These miserable ways The forlorn spirits endure of those who spent Life without infamy and without praise. They are mingled with that caitiff regiment Of the angels, who rebelled not, yet avowed to God no Loyalty, on themselves intent. Heaven chased them forth, lest their allegiance cloud Its beauty, and the deep Hell refused them, For, beside such, the sinner would be proud.” 3
The sun was beginning to set; the light in my room was dimming. The approaching night seemed the mirror of my own feelings; I was losing the sun and would soon be covered by a solitary darkness. Terror joined the despair I felt at the possibility, so clear to me, of a perennial, isolated damnation. With anguish I thought, for a moment, of the tears of Christ for lost souls and then looked around for some sword with which to cut through my paralysis. To do anything would be better than to allow myself to stick in self-wallowing despair.
Then I looked up, and saw the morning rays Mantle its shoulder from that planet bright Which guides men’s feet aright on all their ways;
And this a little quieted the affright That lurking in my bosom’s lake had lain Through the long horror of that piteous night.4
While I noticed the setting sun and continued in the gloom of my own thoughts and aloneness, I left my apartment and drove my van to the nearest busy street, where I saw a line of hitchhikers. The emphatic signaling of some of them suggested that they had been waiting there for a long time. Their pleasure at my stopping could have been no greater than mine. I felt, I believe, the same relief that Dickens’ Scrooge must have felt when the ghost of Christmas-Yet-To-Come had departed and Scrooge found himself out of his nightmare and still alive. I invited every one of the five hitchhikers into my van and vowed, impulsively and joyously, that I would take every one of them as far as my van would go.
True to my vow to take the hitchhikers as far as the van would go, I drove until I ran out of gas a few miles short of my last passenger’s destination &emdash; a ranch, where I was invited to spend the night. But I thought instead that I would try to make my way to some campgrounds I owned in common with some friends. My last passenger walked off into the fog and I was again alone.
It was not until I had turned out the headlights of my van that I realized how dark it had become. It was a moonless night. The fog had rolled in thickly from the ocean and, on the deserted dirt side road of a side road on which I found myself, there was almost no light at all. After a few minutes of walking, in a direction I thought would take me back to the main highway, I lost the road and realized that I was in the middle of a bramble field.
And as a swimmer, panting from the main Heaves sate to shore, then turns to face the drive Of perilous seas, and looks, and looks again, So, while my soul yet fled, did I contrive To turn and gaze on that dread pass once more Whence no man yet came ever out alive. Weary of limb, I rested a brief hour, Then rose and onward through the desert hied
Dante, Inferno, Canto I, 22-29
I paused for a moment to consider the direction I should take. This time I was alone in a real and practically complete absence of light. I took a few tentative steps and found myself moving on to marshy ground. Retracing my steps, I thought, my feet became entangled in bushes and briers. Every direction now seemed a wrong one. I sat down against the slope of a little rise of land, feeling the way with my hands to a spot in small bushes. A rush of fear arose in my chest. I became aware now of the cold and the damp June fog. I listened for sounds, hoping at least for crickets, and heard none. There was only an infernal stillness, dark, and damp cold.
As I crouched there in my shivers, it occurred to me that the only sense on which I might rely in this still darkness was my sense of touch. I reached out to a bush in front of me. It felt both soft and rough; soft to the light touch and rough to the hard. I grasped the bush for some time, considering it a kind of friend, my only companion in this strange, black night. The fact is that the bush and I had more than a spatial relationship; we were helping each other live. I breathed the molecules of oxygen it released, now or later perhaps, and it lived on my breaths as well. We were related to each other, the bush and I, in the cycles of life on earth; mutually dependent creatures of the same Creator, bound together in physical being.
I thought for a moment of the reciprocity of love, of giving and receiving. Of the joy felt with the hitchhikers earlier in the evening and the mutuality of our enjoyment for the short time we had spent together, serving each other well. And as these thoughts gave some warmth to that strange, dark night, the bush was suddenly bathed in light.
I explain to myself that there must have been a road above me and at an angle, and a single car’s headlights passed at that exact moment and shined upon the bush. I never saw or heard the car, and no other passed that way while I was in the field. But that must have been what happened. My friend, the bush, stayed with me, lightly, for some days after that. It had been poison oak.
Awed some and cheered much by my experience with the lighted bush, I decided to try again to make my way out of the field. This time my step was surer, until I found myself entering a bushy terrain. I hesitated, changed directions, and was stymied again. I stood still, aware of my heartbeat and praying for another clue to help me out of this lightless night and a resurgence of fear.
There was a sound. I did not recognize it. It repeated; a long vibrating sound. I still was not sure what it was. The same sound, a third time. A bleating. A lamb, I thought, perhaps a lost lamb. The a-a-a-a-a-a-a again; I was certain, it was a sheep or a lamb. “The Lord is my shepherd,” I thought, “I shall not want.” I meditated on the words of the Psalm until I heard in my mind’s voice “Thy rod and they staff, they comfort me.” That means, doesn’t it, that if the sheep strays, the shepherd will gently but firmly poke it to safety? Trust in the Lord, I thought, He will lead you in the right direction despite yourself. Once again, I seemed to know my direction, and in a few minutes I found myself on an asphalt road which led me, after an easy two or three mile walk in the dark, to the main highway.
The dawn was moving the dark hours to flee Before her, and far off amid their wane I could perceive the trembling of the sea.5
Walking along the highway I allowed myself, for the first time that night, to feel fatigue. It was pointless, at that hour of the pre-dawn morning, on that quiet road, to try to hitch a ride. The rhythms of the ocean, a few hundred feet away, rolling on to the beach, soothed and comforted. I lay down on the side of the road, fell asleep, and awoke to a misty dawn and the fragrant aroma of dewy clover.
Now eager to search out through all its maze The living green of the divine forest Which to my eyes tempered the new sun’s rays, I left the mountain’s rim, nor stayed to rest But took the plain by slow and slow degrees Where with sweet smells all the earth around is blest. 6
Refreshed by my short sleep, I decided to continue, through the ocean forests to the campsite. After some waiting, I was able to hitch rides to a point nine miles or so from the campgrounds. From this point I knew I would have to travel on foot.
This part of my journey was tedious. It was hot. The last few miles on the way to the land wound over steeply hilled and rocky roads. My feet, inside thin-soled boots, ached with blisters. After a hard trek up the last and steepest hill, I reached a flat of yellow-grassy land within a mile of my own. It was late in the afternoon. I paused to look at the bright terrain and the cloudless sky. The sun’s light was pure and clear and mellow. The flatland sloped softly downward, yellow-brown in all directions. I stared at the surrounding landscape and began to feel its sunny peace. It relaxed me in my weariness and, now grateful for the gently warming sun, I dozed for a time in the yellow grass.
As when his First beams tremble in the sky There, where his own Creator shed his blood, While Ebro is beneath the Scales on high, And noon scorches the wave on Ganges’ flood, Such was the sun’s height; day was soon to pass.7
The night sky is clear there at that time of year, and the stars are ordinarily in brilliant constellation. But I didn’t see the sunless sky. I fell asleep at twilight. It was a rich and dreamless sleep, in a silent night, and ended with the crow of a cock at dawn. When I awoke, I felt it was now time to start for home.
How I attained to this transhuman state, No words can tell: let this example, then, Suffice for him whom grace permits to feel it. If I was but that part of me which Thou, 0 Love that rulest heaven, didst last create, Thou knowest, who didst lift me by They light. That sphere which turns forever by Thy love, Had focused my attention on itself By means of Thy celestial harmony: And kindled by the flaming of the sun, Before me lay a reach of heavens far wider Than lake e’er formed by river or by rain.
Dante, Paradise; Canto I, 70-81
The morning air still cooled a cloudless day when I began my way down the rocky hillroads to the highway. The lands’ through which I was passing had been logged until six or seven years before. Disintegrated stumps and branches and larger remains of great trees lay messily about the curving road; the signs of their working their way back into the earth, their reblending, made the land seem less violated than it was. In contrast to the rough sufferings of the past few days, fear and hunger and cold and foot soreness, I began to think of my wife, and her gracious, loving nature. My memory and imaginings of her eased my walk, in fact, hastened it, until I could see the intersection from which I could hope to hitch a ride. I sat down on the side of the highway and waited.
Behold the sun, which shines upon your brow; Behold the grass, the shrubs, and all the flowers That grow so blithely in this region’s soil. Until you may behold those lovely eyes Which, when they wept, brought me to succor you, You may sit down, or walk upon the meadow. Expect no further speech or sign from me.8
At midafternoon I was deposited at the place where, for the last time, I would leave the highway, on my way home. The few hours drive had given me and my feet enough rest so that I looked forward to this final hike through pastures and brightly flowered hills. As I passed some Holstein cattle grazing I had to stop to look at all I saw. There was a picture before me, of which I was a part, in which each thing that was belonged to every other and shared a common sun. I watched the motion of some bees and saw the brightness of their yellow and black, and then, as I looked up to the pure blue sky, the rolling land and the cattle closer by, I felt in soft clear tones the thought St. Augustine heard when he looked upon the Alps: “God gave me being.” And, thinking of the blackness out of which this journey had begun, I joyously remembered Dante’s sun.
I beheld leaves within the unfathomed blaze Into one volume bound by love, the same That the universe holds scattered through its maze. Substance and accidents, and their modes became As if together fused, all in such wise That what I speak of is one simple flame. Verily I think I saw with my own eyes The form that knits the whole world, since I taste, In telling of it, more abounding bliss. One moment more oblivion has amassed Than five and twenty centuries have wrought Since Argo’s shadow o’er wandering Neptune passed. Thus did my mind in the suspense of thought Gaze fixedly, all immovable and intent, And ever fresh fire from its grazing caught. 9
Dante is an extraordinary friend. He wrote out of an agony and joy of living which we, being human like him, share. He is not a dandified poet or a bloodless intellectual or an archaic theologian. What he says is accessible to us. He not only shares with us the painfully discovered secrets of our souls, but the open truths which our worldly cares and inattention to our true selves may lead us to forget.
Dante was a wandering exile, in his own words, “. . . a ship without a sail and without rudder, wafted to divers havens and inlets and shores, by the parching wind which woeful poverty exhales.” 10 But the wealth of his spirit, the human and eternal spirit given to him and to us, permitted him to endure his sufferings with a thankfulness and humor that gave us the Divine Comedy.
Dante was, above all perhaps, a robust Christian. His vision of the joyful message distilled in the Comedy “is not a vision by a mind in absolute contemplation, it is rooted in the immediate Christian world of the year 1300, as seen by a Tuscan exile.”
And, despite the rigors of a strict moral order, which condemned at last to Hell many whom he revered and some he loved, he could not withhold his human admiration and respect for those who yearned, as he did, to know life in all its aspects. 12
Dante’s moral order, deeply influenced by the doctrines of Aristotle and St. Thomas Acquinas, is not a representation of anachronistic or pettifogging prohibitions. It is, rather, a profoundly experienced and considered reflection of the psychology of offenses against the spirit; and since so much of ourselves is evident in Dante’s poem, it is evident that that psychology has not changed much. Dante’s insights have a brutal simplicity that cuts through the masks of changing times. Despite its claims to a novel starkness and candor, contemporary art, even film, does not achieve the frankness, horrors or poignancy of Dante’s poetic images. No cinema verite has depicted more vividly, for example, how it is in the nature of anger that those who are entrapped and ruled by it suffer violence to themselves13; how those enjoying an illicit love may come to be painfully driven by its special tempests as well as its sweetness14; how to betray a benefactor is, to the extent of the betrayal, to act out a living death in which all warmth of natural feeling is cut off15; or how to flatter others is to cover our respectable Godmade selves with excrement.16
It is, in part, this depiction of all that is human and less than humane in us that makes Dante transcend his time and, true to his intention, makes labored scholarship unnecessary for a rich appreciation of his art, even in translation. If we read ourselves as we are reading him, we do not have to read the footnotes; although we might very much want to do so for an even fuller understanding. But Dante’s worldliness is perhaps the smaller part of what makes him so enduring a poet. Just as Virgil, the image of reason and art, is Dante’s guide through an earthly experience of Hell and Purgatory, Dante is a guide to insights that go beyond reason. Only an inspired poetry could give such life to the mixture of pain, faith and hope resonant in the words
For now we see through a glass, darkly, but then face to face: Now I know in part, but then I shall know even also as I am known.I Corinthians 13:12
The entire image of the Comedy suggests that God gave us our heads to lead us out of Hell and through Purgatory and our hearts to lead us to Heaven, and when the first falters or seems beyond its depth, we have the second to carry us forward. A shallow look inward, Dante’s images say, will give us many reasons to be mired in ourselves and deadened to the world; a deeper look can lead us, with the grace of God, to forget our smaller selves and rejoice in the flow of all Creation. Dante’s moral structure is built in part on an understanding that it is within us to choose a smaller or a larger self and that alienation and aloneness are often things we mistakenly choose for ourselves. The Divine Comedy is thus “precisely the drama of the soul’s choice”17 as it struggles down to the utter dark of the deepest Hell, through the painful hopes of Purgatory, to the radiance of Paradise.
Our own experience may seem to tell us that this Heaven is infinitely distant, an ecstatic myth contradicting our own painful journeys. Why a God who is Love would give us the sufferings of Hell as well as the capacity for bliss is a mystery. The inscription on the Gate of Hell confounds; the reasoned explanation does not satisfy.18 The suffering of the innocent on earth is beyond all reason. But Dante has drawn for us a picture of the diffusing and pervasive power of the Light; when reason falters in the darkness he can help lead us to remember that Light, however dimly, and hope for a restoration of a personal experience of the Love that gave birth to all Creation and every day redeems its sufferings. Faith and Love, and perhaps even just the memory of them, can accept and embrace mysteries reason cannot abide. To any who seek to remember, Dante is an extraordinary friend.
1. Inferno, Canto II, 46. The passages quoted from Dante come from three different translations of the text; in the order in which they are used they are 1) the Dorothy Sayers translation, cited in Note 17 below; (2) the Laurence Binyon translation, cited in Note 11 below; and (3) the Lawrence Grant White translation, Pantheon Books, Inc., 1948.
2. Inferno, Canto I, 10-12,
3. Inferno, Canto 111.31-42.
4. Inferno, Canto I, 16-22.
5. Purgatorio, Canto 1,116-118.
6. Purgarorio, Canto XXVIII, 1-6.
7. Purgatorio, Canto XXVII, 1-5.
8. Purgatorio, Canto XXVII, 133-139
9. Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 85-99.
10. II Convivio, I. 3.
11. Editor’s Introduction to The Portable Dante, translated by Laurence Binyon, The Viking Press, eleventh edition, 1958, p. xxiii.
12. Inferno, Canto XXVI,64-72;94-99.
13. Inferno, Canto VII, 97-117.
14. Inferno, Canto V, 25-142.
15. Inferno, Canto XXXIV, 10-69 (esp. 25-27)
16. Inferno, Canto XVIII, 103-126.
17. Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Divine Comedy: Hell translated by Dorothy Sayers, 21st edition, 1972. p. 11.
18. “If there is God, if there is free will, then man is able to choose the opposite of God, Power, Wisdom, Love gave man Free Will; therefore Power, Wisdom, Love created the gate of hell and the possibility of hell.” Charles Williams, The Figure of Beatrice, p. 113, quoted in the Sayers’ Dante, supra, note 17, at p. 90.
Copyright © 1976 by Harrison J. Sheppard.
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