Dante’s Inferno Canto I, Translated by Seamus Heaney


In the middle of the journey of our life

I found myself astray in a dark wood

where the straight road had been lost sight of.

How hard it is to say what it was like

in the thick of thickets, in a wood so dense

and gnarled

the very thought of it renews my panic.

It is bitter almost as death itself is bitter.

But to rehearse the good it also brought me

I will speak about the other things I saw there.

How I got into it I cannot clearly say

for I was moving like a sleepwalker

the moment I stepped out of the right way,

But when I came to the bottom of a hill

standing off at the far end of that valley

where a great terror had disheartened me

I looked up, and saw how its shoulders glowed

already in the rays of the planet

which leads and keeps men straight on every road.

Then I sensed a quiet influence settling

into those depths in me that had been rocked

and pitifully troubled all night long

And as a survivor gasping on the sand

turns his head back to study in a daze

the dangerous combers, so my mind

Turned back, although it was reeling forward,

back to inspect a pass that had proved fatal

heretofore to everyone who entered.

From “Dante’s Inferno: Translations by 20 Contemporary Poets” edited by Daniel Halpern (Ecco: $24.95; 199 pp.). In this new translation, some of our finest contemporary poets, Amy Clampitt, Carolyn Forche, Robert Haas, Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, W.S. Merwin, Robert Pinsky and Mark Strand to name a few, join forces in an effort to put, as Halpern says, “one of our ‘sacred’ texts back into the hands of the keepers of the language.” 1993 by the Ecco Press.