“Midway along the journey of our life” – Great Medieval Verses

From Canto I of Dante’s Inferno:

Midway along the journey of our life
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
for I had wandered off from the straight path.

These are the opening lines to Dante’s great poem, and probably the most famous poem of the Middle Ages. What better way to start off a new series of posts about great poetic verses from Medieval poetry.

There is so much going on in these three lines, a lot of symbolism and allegory already, but also a suggestion of the clear descriptive style that Dante uses to such great effect in his poetry. Let us take the verse line by line:

Midway along the journey of our life

With the word “our” Dante makes this poem not only about him but about us as well, an allegory that we should be taking note of as well. In the Middle Ages mortal life was seen as a journey or pilgrimage, with the ultimate goal being Heaven, thus the journey that the poet travels is through the three possibilities for a person after death: Hell, Purgatory or Heaven. The poet is notionally midway through his life in the setting of the poem as he was born in 1265 and the poem takes place in 1300.

I woke to find myself in a dark wood,

Oh dear, things can’t be good for Dante, he’s in  dark wood, which I imagine can’t be bad thing. The simple phrase “dark wood” is a great example of the simple descriptive style, it conjures up so many allusions to being lost, to being afraid, to being isolated and outcast and to being in a dangerous place, that Dante need to say very little more than this (although he does expand on the bitterness and savagery of the place in subsequent verses).

for I had wandered off from the straight path.

And now we know why Dante is in a “dark wood”. He has gone off the straight path to God for some reason. He has sinned perhaps or has let his attention drift from the proper goal of a Christian’s life – i.e. the pilgrimage or journey towards God mentioned in the first line of the poem.

It’s not the religious content that attracts me to this verse, but the sheer simplicity and depth of meaning which is conveyed by these three lines. They effectively set-up the whole premise for the Divine Comedy.

Here’s an alternative translation and the original Italian from the Princeton Dante Project:

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

Midway in the journey of our life
I came to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.

Expect to see a few more choice verses from Dante’s work coming up in future posts.

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