THE DESCENT OF MARBODIUS INTO HELL
In the fourteen hundred and fifty-third year of the incarnation of the Son of God, a few days before the enemies of the Cross entered the city of Helena and the great Constantine, it was given to me, Brother Marbodius, an unworthy monk, to see and to hear what none had hitherto seen or heard. I have composed a faithful narrative of those things so that their memory may not perish with me, for man’s time is short.
On the first day of May in the aforesaid year, at the hour of vespers, I was seated in the Abbey of Corrigan on a stone in the cloisters and, as my custom was, I read the verses of the poet whom I love best of all, Virgil, who has sung of the labours: of the field, of shepherds, and of heroes. Evening was hanging its purple folds from the arches of the cloisters and in a voice of emotion I was murmuring the verses which describe how Dido, the Phoenician queen, wanders with her ever-bleeding wound beneath the myrtles of hell. At that moment Brother Hilary happened to pass by, followed by Brother Jacinth, the porter.
Brought up in the barbarous ages before the resurrection of the Muses, Brother Hilary has not been initiated into the wisdom of the ancients; nevertheless, the poetry of the Mantuan has, like a subtle torch, shed some gleams of light into his understanding.
“Brother Marbodius,” he asked me, “do those verses that you utter with swelling breast and sparkling eyes—do they belong to that great ‘Aeneid’ from which morning or evening your glances are never withheld?”
I answered that I was reading in Virgil how the son of Anchises perceived Dido like a moon behind the foliage.*
* The text runs
. . .qualem primo qui
Aut videt aut vidisse putat per nubila lunam.
Brother Marbodius, by a strange misunderstanding, substitutes an entirely different image for the one created by the poet.
“Brother Marbodius,” he replied, “I am certain that on all occasions Virgil gives expression to wise maxims and profound thoughts. But the songs that he modulates on his Syracusan flute hold such a lofty meaning and such exalted doctrine that I am continually puzzled by them.”