Monday, March 9, 2009

Inferno, Song XIII

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, and then proceed to 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 through the first circles of damnation and the city of Dis, which punish those who embrace earthly appetites and goods at God's expense. Upon leaving the city, Virgil explains the plan of Hell to Dante. The circles that follow hold, in descending order of heinousness, those who commit violence, fraud, and betrayal.In the circle of the Violent, the two poets encounters the Centaurs. Guided by Nessus, one of the man-beasts, they travel along a river of boiling blood, in which the spirits of murderers and savage conquerors are imprisoned.

Virgil and Dante enter the Forest of Suicides, the home of the Harpies

Nessus had not yet arrived at the other side
When we started on through a wood
Of which no path was marked.

No green leaves, just ones of gloomy color.
No smooth branches, just ones knotted and twisted.
No fruit was there, just poisonous thorns.

Among these branches so rough and dense there are
None of the savage beasts that shun
The fields tended between Cecina and Corneto.

Here the terrible Harpies make their nests,
They who drove the Trojans from the Strophades
With prophecies they told of woe.

They have wide wings, human necks and faces,
Feet with talons, and large, feathered bellies.
They wail atop the strange trees.

And the good master--“Before you enter further,
Know that you are in the second round,”
He began to say to me. “And you shall be until

You come to the horrible sand.
Therefore, look well, and you will see
Things that shall shake faith in my epic.”

I think he thought that I was thinking
That many of the voices came from among the branches
From people who were hiding from us.

And so the master said, “If you break off
Any small branch from one of these bushes,
The thoughts you are thinking shall be brought short.”

So I put my hand out a little before me
And plucked a twig from a large thorny bush.
And its trunk cried out, “Why do you break me?”

And once it had turned dark with blood,
It began again, saying, “Why do you tear me?
Does your spirit have no pity?

We were men, and have now become twigs.
Your hand might have shown more pity
If we had been the souls of serpents.”

As a green branch made into a torch burns
At one end, and at the other drips sap
And hisses from the escaping air,

So together from the broken splinter came
Words and blood, at which I let the end of the branch
Fall, and stood like one who is afraid.

“If he could have believed before,
Wounded soul,” my sage replied,
“That which he had only seen in my verse,

He would not have extended his hand against you.
But this is so incredible that I was compelled to
Prompt him to do this thing that weighs upon me.

But tell him who you were, so that in order
To make some amends, he may refresh your fame
In the world above, where he is allowed to return.”

And the trunk: “The sweetness of what you say so coaxes me
That I cannot be silent. May it not burden you
Because I feel compelled to talk with you a little.

I am he who held both keys
To the heart of Frederick, and who turned them,
Locking and unlocking, so softly

That I kept almost all men from his secrets.
I brought faithfulness to the glorious office,
So much so that I lost both sleep and vigor.

The harlot that never from the home
Of Caesar turns her whore’s eyes,
The common death and vice of courts,

Inflamed all minds against me.
And those inflamed so inflamed Augustus
That happy honors turned to woeful mourning.

My mind, in its disdainful temper,
Thought to escape disdain by dying, and,
Contrary to my just self, did myself injustice.

By the new roots of this tree
I swear to you that I never broke faith
With my lord, who was so worthy of honor.

And if either of you returns to the world,
Offer sympathy to my memory, which lies felled
To this day by the blow envy dealt it.”

He waited a little, and then: “Since he is silent,”
The poet said to me, “do not lose time,
But speak. Ask him more if you wish.”

I answered him: “Continue to question him
About that which you believe will satisfy me,
As I cannot; so much pity fills my heart.”

So my master began again, “So the man may do for you
What you ask of him freely,
Imprisoned spirit, may it please you

To say more of how the soul is bound
In these knots, and say more, if you can,
If any of your kind is ever set free.”

Then the trunk blew strongly, and
That blowing turned into a voice:
“Briefly shall I respond to you.

When the fierce soul leaves
The body from which it has torn itself,
Minos sends it to the seventh ring.

It falls into the woods, and not in a place chosen,
But a place where fortune casts it.
There it sprouts like a grain of spelt wheat.

It grows to a sapling and to a wild plant.
The Harpies then graze upon the leaves,
Creating pain and pain’s outlet.

Like the others we shall come for our discarded forms,
But not so that any of us shall again wear them,
As it is not just to have that which one takes from oneself.

We shall drag them here, and through the gloomy
Woods shall our bodies be hung,
Each on the thorns of the shade that abused it.”

We were still at the trunk, waiting,
Thinking that it had other things it wanted to say,
When we were surprised by a noise,

Like one who first
Senses the boars and the chase where he stands,
Hearing the beasts and the rustling branches.

And there were two on the left,
Naked and scarred, running so quickly
They broke through every tangle in the wood.

The one in front said, “Now come on, come on, death!”
And the other, who appeared to be falling behind,
Cried, “Lano, not so nimble were

Your legs at the jousts of the Toppo!”
And then, perhaps because his breath failed him,
He crouched down beside a bush.

Behind them the wood was full
Of black bitches, eager and running
Like hounds cut loose from the leash.

They set their teeth on the cowering one,
And tore him apart piece by piece.
They then carried off his wretched limbs.

My escort then took me by the hand
And led me to the bush, which was crying
In vain through bleeding wounds.

Jacopo of Santa Andrea,” it said,
“How has it served you to use me for cover?
What blame do I have for your sinful life?”

When my master stopped and stood over it,
He said, “Who were you, who through so many wounds
Blows blood with words of sorrow?”

And it said to us, “O souls who have come
Here to see the shameful torture
That has taken my leaves from me,

Collect them at the foot of the bush.
I was of the city that, in favor of the Baptist,
Changed its first patron--where he, for this,

Will always make it full of sorrow with his art.
And if there was not, at the passage of the Arno,
Some vestige of him still remaining,

Those citizens who then rebuilt it
On the ashes left by Attila,
Would have labored in vain.

As for me, I made a gallows for myself from my house.

Continue to Song XIV

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