As I mentioned in the first of the Lenten series on the Divine Comedy, the opening of the poem finds Dante on the morning of Good Friday, lost in a dark wood, gone far astray from the straight path which leads towards salvation.
I cannot clearly say how I had entered
the wood; I was so full of sleep just at
the point where I abandoned the true path.
But when I'd reached the bottom of a hill-
it rose along the boundary of the valley
that had harassed my heart with so much fear-
I looked on high and saw its shoulders clothed
already by the rays of that same planet*
which serves to lead men straight along all roads.
(Inf. I, 10-18)
Before long, however, Dante finds his progress checked by a succession of three wild beasts: first a leapord, then a lion, and finally a she-wolf.
These three creatures represent the sins by which Dante has found himself led astray, and which now block his return to the straight road towards salvation. Different commentators give various opinions as to which sins the beasts correspond to. My personal opinion is that the leopard ("very quick and lithe, a leopard covered with a spotted hide") represents sins of desire/passion, perhaps specifically lust. The lion ("His head held high and ravenous with hunger") represents pride, while the she-wolf ("she seemed to carry every craving in her leanness") represents greed. Blocked from progress by his attachment to sin, Dante despairs.
The very sight of her so weighted me
with fearfulness that I abandoned hope
of ever climbing up that mountain slope.
(Inf. I, 52-54)
It is at this point that Dante meets the spirit who will be his guide through the first to stages of his journey, the Roman poet Virgil. Once he has recognized this newcomer, he asks him for help.
You see the beast that made me turn aside;
help me, o famous sage, to stand against her,
for she has made my blood and pulses shudder,"
"It is another path that you must take,"
he answered when he saw my tearfulness,
"if you would leave this savage wilderness;
the beast that is the cause of your outcry
allows no man to pass along her track,
but blocks him even to the point of death;
(Inf. I, 88-96)
Therefore, I think and judge it best for you
to follow me, and I shall guide you, taking
you from this place through an eternal place,
where you shall hear the howls of desperation
and see the ancient spirits in their pain,
as each of them laments his second death;
and you shall see those souls who are content
within the fire, for they hope to reach-
whenever that may be-the blessed people.
(Inf. I, 112-120)
Dante's path is blocked by his attachment to sin, and while that attachment persists, he can make no progress. Virgil will, thus, take him on a grand tour of the afterlife. Going through hell he will come to understand the true nature of sin, and to reject it. Then, travelling through purgatory he will and thence to heaven, he will come to understand virtue. They set out together on their journey.
As they walk, Dante begins again to fear, and asks Virgil how he, a living and obviously sinful man, can hope to go through the pits of hell and yet be allowed to leave again. Newly conscious of his sin, Dante fears that he will be trapped in hell forever.
Virgil reassures him by explaining how this journey is under the protection of heaven, and originated through the intercession of the Virgin Mary. The lady Beatrice (a woman to whom Dante had a deep and chaste devotion, who had died some years before) came to Virgil in limbo with the request:
'O spirit of the courteous Mantuan,
whose fame is still a presence in the world
and shall endure as long as the world lasts,
my friend, who has not been the friend of fortune,
is hindered in his path along that lonely
hillside; he has been turned aside by terror.
From all that I have heard of him in Heaven,
he is, I fear, already so astray
that I have come to help him much too late.
(Inf. II, 58-66)
Beatrice then went on to explain to Virgil how this request was due to the intercession of the Virgin Mary:
In Heaven there's a gentle lady-one
who weeps for the distress toward which I send you,
so that stern judgment up above is shattered.
And it was she who called upon Lucia,
requesting of her: "Now your faithful one
has need of you, and I commend him to you."
Lucia, enemy of every cruelty,
arose and made her way to where I was,
sitting beside the venerable Rachel.
(Inf. II, 94-102)
Thus, as Dante is about to set out on the path which will show him harrowing images of God's justice, we hear that this journey itself is the result of intercessory prayer (and specifically the gentle hand of the Virgin, who saw Dante in his extremety) which like a beacon on shore, is leading Dante across the troubled waters that, were he left unaided, would certainly have consumed him.
Dante is moved, and finds his courage once again. He announces himself ready to make the pilgrimage assigned to him.
"O she, compassionate, who has helped me!
And you who, courteous, obeyed so quickly
the true words that she had addressed to you!
You, with your words, have so disposed my heart
to longing for this journey-I return
to what I was at first prepared to do.
Now go; a single will fills both of us:
you are my guide, my governor, my master."
These were my words to him; when he advanced
I entered on the steep and savage path.
(Inf. II, 136-142)
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum
And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.