The Right Way Lost

Sculpture of Dante Alighieri, Meridian Park, Washington, DC

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita
mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,
ché la diritta via era smarrita.

Midway down life’s road
I found myself in a dark woods
Where the right way was erased.

When I first encountered the Inferno in college, I thought it was the most beautiful poetry I’d ever heard. I read the Italian stanzas out loud while skimming the prosaic translation on the opposing pages, a kind of printed subtitle. (I had the sound of the language in my ear from having lived in Italy for nearly a year as a child.)

Having made it to my own middle-age, his words are even more piercing:

Ahi quanto a dir qual era è cosa dura
esta selva selvaggia e aspra e forte
che nel pensier rinova la paura!

How can I say what a hard thing
It was, that wild wood, how bitter and harsh—
Just thinking of it brings back the fear.

Dante needed a poet-guide, a mentor, someone to help him get through Hell. Don’t we all?

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