I once saw Dante in a dream –
But dreams are dim and once removed,
Still it was night and I asleep
And Dante has been dead six hundred years.
I say this yet feel nothing proved,
For steadfastness in memory
And everything that makes it seem
That things are real lets me say,
As if it was the street and in broad day,
I have seen Dante –
I thought that he and Virgil made
Their way through hell and I afraid
Walked after them ten steps behind;
Even in the dream I could not call to mind
What went before, nor how I had got there,
But all my cowardice was piled
High in one place, and hell beside was made
As little dangerous as a green field.
All that I saw lies in my mind
Under a thin film,
But scrutinise – it shrinks and dives
Back into sleep,
Leaving the flavour only of a scene
But Dante and Virgil clear as life.
Dante’s face – the features were the same,
The nose and lip we know in that frozen mask;
The face so different that all
The faces of the world could come between –
A face that played
Like water in a running stream.
He wore a long voluminous cloak
That as he walked he lifted in his hand;
But he would let it go and stand
Suddenly for something he had seen,
And bow himself and weep and sob and rock;
Then all at once clutch Virgil’s arm,
And laugh and let his voice run high,
Or straighten out his face with wonder;
While Virgil at his side
Waited with the infinite
Patience of one released from time.
Virgil was grey,
As grey as mist,
Straight up and down like rain
In a gliding shower along a line of hills.
He never seemed to step, but moved
As smoothly as a drifting boat –
No broken line nor gesture to distress
The straight grey fluting of his dress.
His voice ran on one low prolonged pale note.
Dante’s twined round it and would sink and soar.
Of all they said
I’ve lost no single shade,
Sound or significance, yet if I try
To give their words I’m like a child that tries
To pick up spots of sunlight from the floor.
They walked along from scene to scene,
I followed them ten steps behind.
My wish to follow dragged against my fear,
As a man will sometimes drag a reluctant beast.
I feared that if there came a flaw
In Dante’s deep absorption, and he saw Me
there with him and Virgil in that place,
Scorn would pour on me from his face.
I feared as one’s skin fears boiling pitch
His first ‘Who’s this?
How is this creature here?’
The motion of his arm to drive me back
I feared, until I had no drop of fear
To spare for all the dangers that must lie
Along our track.
Of Virgil I’d no fear, I wonder why;
He was so quiet, perhaps, and so serene –
Grown tolerant because he had been
For centuries a futile ghost.
We walked until we came at last
To where they must descend on Geryon.
But what of me?
To follow had become necessity.
Surely they would devise some way, some plan,
Virgil, that understanding man,
Would not leave me here.
Then Dante took his place on Geryon’s back.
In front on Geryon’s neck I saw some space;
I ventured, then recoiled. It was not fear
Of Geryon’s monstrousness
Nor the abyss,
But the awe that makes all things that I desire
Forbidden as if ringed by fire
Flung me back at each attempt so that I ran
Distracted to and fro –
Saw Virgil mount and saw them go;
Then crouching hand and knees on the ledge of
Followed them with eyes alone
Into the murkiness below.
It swallowed them but I stared on
Till in the place where they had gone
A dim light grew.
They had come again.
The light grew nearer, brighter and I saw
My window and the early dawn and rain.
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