Stories from Dante Told to the Children - Mary Macgregor

Dante's Dream Journey

Dreamland is a real land, as boys and girls know well. Men and women, as well as boys and girls, have wandered into this land, and they have never doubted that the sights which they have seen, the sounds which they have heard, were true.

Dante was a dreamer, and once, out of the darkness, there came to him a wonderful vision. This vision the dreamer must needs write down in a great poem. Of some of the sights Dante saw, of some of the voices Dante heard as he dreamed, I am going to tell you.

In his poem, then, Dante tells us that as he dreamed he found himself in a dark and fear-some wood. How he had got there he did not know, he knew only that he had lost his way.

No pathway could he find leading through the tangled thicket, no light could he see shining through the dense covering of the leaves. The straight way, if such there were, was lost.

Dante wrote about this wood in which he had lost his way long years after he had dreamed, yet as he wrote he shuddered with wellnigh as great a dread as he had felt in his sleep.

"Ah, how hard a thing it is," he says, "to tell what a wild, rough, and stubborn wood this was! Even to think of it renews my fear, so bitter is it that scarcely more bitter is death."

In his dream Dante wandered now here, now there, seeking to find a way of escape from the terrors of the wood.

As he stumbled blindly along, the tangled branches scratched his face and bruised his hands, gnarled roots ensnared his feet, and, tripping him, made him fall headlong to the ground. When he arose to struggle on with failing heart and faltering steps, it was but to be pricked and goaded by thorns and thistles.

At length he reached the edge of the wood and found himself at the foot of a steep mountain. The sun had risen and her beams were stealing down the sides of the mountain, bathing it in light.

Ah, then he had spent all night in the terrible wood. Dante shivered in his dream, thinking of its terrors. But the sun was shining now, and in the sunlight hope arose in the wanderer's heart.

He would linger yet a little while to rest after the buffeting he had met with from the branches and the thorns, and then he would climb the mountain which towered high above him.

Alas! he had climbed but a little way when he found that his difficulties were not yet ended. Before him he was startled to see a leopard. Yet though he was startled, Dante was scarcely alarmed. He even watched the nimble, easy movements of the animal with delight; he admired its beautiful, gay spotted coat. Only when he found that the leopard was barring his way did the climber's pleasure change into annoyance.

More than once, indeed, Dante turned, meaning to retrace his steps, so determined seemed the leopard that he should ascend no higher.

Yet the sun was shining so brightly overhead, the air was so full of the joys and scents of springtime, that despite the leopard, Dante's heart grew brave.

Turn back! Nay, for that would be to encounter once again the terrors of the wood. With fresh hope Dante stepped forward, upward.

But then indeed his courage failed, and little wonder was it that it failed. For there, advancing toward him, was a lion, a lion with its head thrown back, mad with hunger.

Even the bright spring morning seemed to lose its brightness and grow pale, as though it too were struck with fear at the sight of the monster.

Moreover, worse was to follow, for listen, close at the heels of the lion paced a gaunt she-wolf. So lean was she that her very leanness seemed to tell of her greed for food.

Backward and yet backward the traveller found himself forced by the terrible beasts, until once again he stood at the edge of the dark wood. The sunlight was playing on the mountain-sides, but its beams could not reach to where Dante stood, despairing, beaten.

If he could not climb the mountain would he ever reach the sunlight? In his dream it seemed to him that the shadows were thickening around him, that he was being drawn back into the dreaded wood.

Then, as he peered through the gathering gloom, Dante saw a dim figure coming toward him.

"Have mercy upon me!" he cried, "have mercy upon me, whosoever thou art, man or spirit!"

Out of the gloom came a voice, strange and hollow, as though through long silence it had forgotten how to speak.

"I am Virgil," said the strange, hoarse voice. When Dante heard these words his heart gave a great bound.

Virgil, the great Roman poet! There was none other, save only his lady Beatrice, whom he would so gladly see.

It was true that Virgil had died long long years before Dante was born, yet he knew the Roman poet as friend knows friend. For he had read and studied all that Virgil had written, until much of the poet's wisdom had passed into his own soul. And for the Master, as Dante would often call Virgil, for the Master himself, he had both reverence and love.

In the world of dreams it seemed no strange thing to the traveller to meet the ancient poet. Timid with joy he welcomed him, then wistfully he cried, "Be thou my guide! O lead me out of the gloom; deliver me from the beasts that bar the path toward the sunlit mountain. See how they stand, fierce, watchful," and Dante pointed toward the terrible animals.

In truth Virgil had come to aid the wanderer. For Beatrice, leaving her abode in Paradise, had gone to the poet and begged him to hasten to the help of her friend. Yet even Virgil had no power to drive away the lean she-wolf.

Therefore he answered:

"Thou must needs go by another path if thou wouldst escape from this gloomy wood. The beast which most thou fearest will suffer none to pass upward. Yea, she tears to pieces all who attempt to defy her.

"Yet if thou wilt follow me," cried Virgil, "I will lead thee by another way, a way which will lead thee into the world where spirits dwell.

"Thou shalt see the gloomy abode of those who, having done wrong deeds on earth, are now suffering in this other world for their evil-doing.

"Thereafter shalt thou reach the Mount of Purification, called Purgatory. Here dwell those who have sinned indeed, but who now are sorry for their sins and are being cleansed from all that soiled them in their life on earth.

"If yet further thou wilt go, another spirit shall be thy guide, even Beatrice, who herself dwells, with those who were good and holy, in the very presence of the throne of God."

Dante listened with reverence to his Master's words; then as they ended, he cried, "Bard, lead thou on, I follow close behind."

And indeed, so fearful was Dante, lest he should again find himself alone in this strange land, that he made speed to plant his feet in the very footprints made by his Master as he moved onward.