Thursday, November 6, 2008

Inferno, Song IX

The story thus far: Dante, a poet and town prior in Florence, finds himself on a dark road of the soul. Before his spirit can fall to its ruin, he encounters Virgil, the greatest poet of classical Rome. Virgil, at the behest of Beatrice, a woman who was Dante's inspiration in life, offers Dante a journey through the realms of the afterworld, through which Dante may find his soul's salvation. He shall travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, with Virgil as his guide through the first two. Dante accepts Virgil's offer, and they embark. After passing through the gates of Hell, they encounter the souls of the cowards who took no stand in conflicts between good and evil. After crossing the river Acheron, they enter Limbo, the realm of the noble or innocent souls who were not baptized or otherwise not believers in the Christian faith. Dante and Virgil then travel to the first circles of damnation. The first is reserved for the lustful, the second holds the gluttonous, and the third holds those who hoarded or squandered their money. After crossing the swamp known as the Styx, which holds the wrathful and the sullen, Dante and Virgil come to the gates of the city of Dis, whose denizens refuse them entry.

Dante and Virgil encounter the three Furies

That color cowardice painted me,
Seeing my liege come back, in turn prompted
Him to restrain the change within himself.

He stopped, alert like one listening,
For the eye could not take him far
Through the black air and thick fog.

"Still, it is proper for us to win the fight,"
He began. "If not...offering so much of itself.
Oh, how much longer until the others arrive here!"

I saw very well how he covered up
How he started with the other words that followed,
For they were words that contradicted the ones with which he began.

But his words nonetheless made me afraid,
For I drew the broken words
To perhaps a worse conclusion than he intended.

"Into these dregs of the valley of sadness
Does anyone ever descend from the first level
Where the only punishment is to be separated from hope?"

This question I made, and to that--“Rarely
Is it encountered,” he responded, “that of us
One makes the journey upon which I go.

It is true that I descended another time,
Bewitched by that ruthless Erichtho,
Who recalls shades to their bodies.

Shortly after I was abandoned by the robes of flesh,
She made me enter within that wall
To bring back a spirit from the circle of Judas.

That is the lowest place and the darkest,
And the furthest from the Heaven around which all revolves.
I know the way well, so reassure yourself.

This marsh, which blows the great stench,
Encircles the woeful city,
Where we can never enter without rancor.”

And he said other things, but I do not remember them,
For my eyes were completely drawn
Towards the high tower and its glowing top.

Where, at that moment, there immediately arose
Three of Hell’s Furies, stained with blood,
Whose limbs and appearance were feminine.

They wore the greenest hydras as belts.
Their hair was of snakes and vipers,
Which framed their fierce temples.

And he, who well knew the handmaidens
Of the queen of eternal sorrow,
Said to me, “Behold the fierce Erinyes.

This is Magaera on the left corner.
The one crying on the right is Alecto.
Tisiphone is in the middle.” He was silent after that.

Each one tore at her breast with her nails,
Beating herself with her palms and screeching so loud
That I pressed myself to the Poet out of dread.

“Come, Medusa, so we may turn him to stone,”
They all shouted, looking downward.
“It is wrong for us to not avenge the assault of Theseus.”

“Turn your back and keep your eyes shut,
For if the Gorgon shows itself, and you should see it,
Nothing will ever return you to the above.”

And so said my master. And he himself
Turned me around and did not trust things to my hands;
My eyes were shut with his hands as well.

O all you of sound mind,
See the teaching ensconced
Beneath the veil of my strange verses.

And already, across the murky waves, there came
Crashing sounds, carrying fear.
Both sides trembled in response.

It was not different from a wind,
Made furious by clashing temperatures,
That torments the forest without restraint.

Branches snap, are knocked down, and carried away.
Proudly it goes, preceded by dust,
And makes the beasts and shepherds flee.

He freed my eyes and said, “Now direct the channel
Of your vision across that ancient foam
Where that smoke is harshest.”

Like frogs when confronted by their enemy,
The snake--they all vanish into the water
Until each one is huddling in the soil--

I saw more than a thousand ruined souls
So flee before one who, on foot,
Crossed the Styx with his soles dry.

He cleared the oily air from his face,
Repeatedly waving his left hand.
That annoyance was all he appeared tired of.

I well realized that he was sent from Heaven
And turned to my master, who then made a sign
That I should stay quiet and bow down to him.

Oh, how full of disdain he appeared to me!
He came to the gate and, with a little rod,
He opened it, for there was no resistance.

“O banished from Heaven, spiteful ones,”
He began at the horrible entrance,
“Where does this arrogance dwell within you?

Why do you stand fast against that Will
From whose ends one can never be cut loose
And which has many times increased your pain?

What good is there in clashing with fate?
Your Cerberus, as you well remember--
His chin and throat are still flayed

And then he returned to the filthy road
And made no remark to us, having the appearance
Of one whom another care holds and grips

Than that of those who are there before him.
And we motioned our feet towards the city,
Reassured and following his holy words.

We entered therein without further conflict.
And I, who wished to see
The state of things within such a fortress,

Cast my eye around as soon as I was inside,
And saw on every hand a great plain
Full of sorrow and hateful torment.

So as at Arles, where the Rhone becomes stagnant.
So as at Pola, nearby the Quarnaro,
Which encloses Italy and bathes its borders.

The graves make the entire place look odd,
As they will do everywhere,
Except that the mood here was more bitter.

For between the tombs, flames were scattered,
By which they all burned so
That iron is not asked more of any art.

All their lids were suspended,
And such lasting laments came from inside them
That they well appeared to be of the miserable and sinful.

And I said, “Master, who are those people
Who, buried within those tombs,
Make themselves heard with woeful sighs?”

He replied, “Here are the arch-heretics
With their followers, from all sects, and many
More than you would think are imprisoned within the tombs.

Here like is buried with like,
And the vaults are heated--some more, some less.”
And then he made a turn to the right.

We passed between those tortured and the high wall.

Continue to Song X

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