by Jeff Vamos
Of the 14,000 (or so) lines of the poem, here’s where we begin: “Midway on our life’s journey, I found myself…lost”.
I first read, and fell in love with, The Divine Comedy when I was about 39 years old. Like Dante, right smack in mid-life. Typical of that stage, I found myself in my own dark wood, wandering in the mist of dissatisfaction and confusion. (And for anybody reading this – I won’t bore you with the specifics; suffice it to say it was painful). And somehow, this poem washed up on the troubled shores of my life.
And I discovered in its strangeness, its otherness, a certain balm for my soul. A giant prayer-wheel that spoke to my spirit’s longing. Dante’s story somehow became my story; his lostness my lostness. And I realized that this time in my life required something of me, something important. Something that needed to be examined and experienced, and not just gotten past. And this poem seemed to offer the symbolic landscape with which I might understand that struggle.
The poem begins with a paradox. Do you get it? “Midway through our life’s journey, I found myself…lost.” For those of us who have heard “Amazing Grace” about a billion times, it should be clear. The only way to be found is by being lost. Finding oneself means the willingness to embrace lostness, not to wallow in it, but to be present to it, to be willing to learn from it.
This is how the poem begins: with Dante–in his era the cultural equivalent of a rock star–getting lost in some woods at night. He is totally unconscious of how he got there: “how I came to enter, I cannot well say, being so full of sleep”. And he tries to get past this painful reality on the cheap: the irony is that he sees the goal of his journey at the very beginning of it. He sees the holy mountain (the mount of purgatory he’ll get to later), and the heavenly sun beyond, and he starts climbing. He “sees the light” from the very beginning, and feels some sense of relief that it’s only a little way off.
But here’s the deal: you can’t get there from here.
Three mysterious beasts – a leopard, a lion and a she-wolf – prevent him. What these symbolize is not terribly important to us, methinks – Pinsky’s notes give us the traditional understanding: that they are symbols of the sins of lust, pride and avarice. The things that have probably gotten us lost in the first place. The thing that prevent us from getting to where we’re going.
But the message is clear: the only way past hell is through it. You can’t go around. T. S. Eliot, in Four Quartets, puts it this way: “the way up is the way down”.
But Dante – like many of us who’ve been lost – does not have to journey alone; he finds a guide that had been sent to him. Not just any guide, his mentor. The person who inspired his own poetic fame: the Roman poet Virgil. And Virgil speaks of another guide who will come later, one even more “worthy” than he – Beatrice. The female Christ-figure who is the inspiration and the destination of the journey in the first place (who will be a primary character in the next canto).
I’ll end on this note – a few lines at the end of this canto that tell something of the nature of the hell he’s about to enter. Dante’s moral instruction will happen by witnessing the “lostness” of other souls who “lament…the second death they must abide.” But this kind of existence, this mode of living, is contrasted with that of those existing in the realm just beyond hell – in purgatory, the second stage of the journey (and the subject of the second Canticle):
“Then you shall see those souls who are content / to dwell in fire because they hope some day / to join the blessed…”.
What we shall learn in a few cantos here is that the souls in hell want to be there; that’s the irony. And their torment is their inability to imagine any other way of being. In that is true suffering: ultimate stuckness in one’s own pain. They “have lost the good of the intellect” (III.14, 15)
But on the other hand, at the very beginning of the poem, we understand what it takes to get to heaven: to see suffering as meaningful, literally “purgative,” purifying. A willingness to dwell in the pentecostal flame.
I suppose I learned that lesson in my own “lost” experience. But the only way to see that – the meaning of one’s suffering – is on the other side of it.
Postscript: If you’ve made it this far – hope you will keep reading. A few things to note:
1) This blog is a group effort, among my colleagues who have agreed to share their insights and reactions to the poem; and hope you’ll chime in too (via the comments).
2) I’ve set up a page (which I hope my colleagues might contribute to as well) of “Dante Basics” – some basic information about the poem to help get you oriented as to some general information about Dante and his Medieval context.