Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within dark woods,
Having lost the right road.
From the opening lines of The Divine Comedy, Dante signals to readers that his journey is not merely personal. It is also allegorical, standing for the spiritual journey to which all souls are summoned. Dante conveys this universality in the diction of the opening line: Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita. Dante points to nostra vita—“our life”—rather than simply his own. From the start, it is clear that readers are welcome to join Dante in his travels and imaginatively participate in his trials, tribulations, and triumphs.
The opening lines contain several key details. Dante is in the middle of life’s journey. Precisely speaking, he is thirty-five years old, the midpoint of the expected seventy-some-year lifespan described in the Bible. Having reached the midpoint of life, Dante finds himself in difficult circumstances: “within dark woods, / Having lost the right road.” There are different ways to interpret Dante’s predicament.
From one angle, he is undergoing a midlife crisis. He does not enumerate the specifics of the crisis, but the experience of “having lost the right road” signals a desire to reorient himself in life.
From another angle, Dante’s crisis is a spiritual one. His “having lost the right road” points to a straying from faith and a frayed connection to God. In his classic volume The Varieties of Religious Experience, philosopher William James describes a category of people he names “sick souls.” Such people become so aware of the suffering and evil in the world that they must become “twice born.” That is to say, during adulthood, such people need to reorient themselves in a way that accounts for the world’s darkness. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a perfect example of a “sick soul”—lost amid dark woods—seeking a new orientation towards life.
Through me you pass into the grievous city,
Through me you pass into eternal pain . . .
Abandon all hope, you who enter here.
Dante’s introduction to hell at the start of canto 3 is a grim prelude to the rest of his journey. The gates of hell bear an ominous message telling of the boundless suffering that awaits those who pass through. Perhaps more dispiriting than the promise of suffering is that of hopelessness. “Abandon all hope,” the gates silently say. More chilling, perhaps, than the gate’s dire warning is the throng of dead souls marching into hell. As Dante remarks, the throng of souls is so great that he would not have believed death had undone so many. This passage is Dante’s first encounter with the shocking misery of the souls bound in hell.
This episode draws attention to the peculiarity of Dante’s pilgrimage through hell in Inferno. He is the only living soul to traverse the realms of the dead. His presence is a surprise to many of the shades whose paths he crosses. In this way, Dante is special; he is the exceptional soul who can enter hell, witness the “eternal pain” therein, and depart, returning to the living world. Thus, the grim message—“Abandon all hope, you who enter here”—clutches Dante’s heart more loosely than it does the hearts of the damned.
There we climbed, he first and I the second,
Till through an aperture I gazed upon
Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears.
Then we came forth to glimpse again the stars.”
The final lines of Inferno closely mirror the final lines of Purgatorio and Paradiso. All three cantiche, or volumes, of Dante’s Divine Comedy end with a wonder-filled glimpse of the heavens. All three end with the word stelle, meaning “stars.” This stellar figure signifies the general movement and aim of the epic, which is from sin to salvation, from debasement to transcendence. There is no deeper image for aspiration than that of stars. Thus, each cantica concludes with such an upward look.