Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Inferno, Song XIV

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, they travel along a river of boiling blood, in which the spirits of murderers and savage conquerors are imprisoned. They then enter the wood of the suicides, which also imprisons those who squandered or destroyed their belongings. The suicides are transformed into trees upon their imprisonment, and one has had its leaves painfully torn away in an encounter with one who wasted his property while alive.

Dante and Virgil watch the fire raining down on the Violent against God and Nature

Then, as the love of my native land
Compelled me, I gathered the scattered leaves
And returned them to he who was already hoarse.

Then we came to the point that divides
The second round from the third, and where
One sees a terrifying method of justice.

To make these new things clear,
I must say that we arrived at a plain
That rejects all plants from its bed.

The woods of sorrow are garlanded around it
Like the sad moat around themselves.
There we halted our steps at the edge.

The ground was a dry and deep sand,
Not different from the kind
That the feet of Cato had once walked upon.

O vengeance of God, how much you should
Be feared by those who read
That which appeared before my eyes!

I saw many herds of naked souls,
All weeping most miserably,
And they seemed subject to different laws.

Some of them were lying supine upon the ground,
Some were sitting all crouched,
And others were continually walking.

The ones moving around were the most numerous,
And the fewest those lying in torment,
Although their tongues were the most loosened by pain.

All over the sand, falling slowly,
Large flakes of fire rained down,
Like snow in mountains without wind.

Like Alexander in those hot regions
Of India saw--upon his army--
Flames fall unbroken to the ground,

For which he oversaw the trampling of the soil
By his troops, so that the fires
Were extinguished before they joined into one,

This was how the eternal fire fell.
It ignited the sands there like tinder
Under flint, doubling the pain.

There was the incessant action
Of their wretched hands--now here, now there,
Brushing the fresh flames off themselves.

I began, “Master, you who conquer
All things, except the obstinate demons
Who came out against us at the entrance of the gate,

Who is that great one who doesn’t seem to care about
The burning, and lies scornful and scowling,
As if the rain doesn’t seem to affect him?”

And that one himself, who realized
That I was asking my lord about him,
Cried out, “That which I was alive, such am I dead,

Though Jove exhausts his smith from whom,
In anger, he took the sharp-edged bolt
With which I was struck on my last day.

Although he wears out the others by turns
In Mongibello at the black forge,
Calling out, ‘Good Vulcan, help, help!,’

As he did at the battle of Phlegra,
And hurl thunderbolts at me with all his might,
He shall not have the joy of vengeance.”

And then my lord spoke forcefully--
So much so that I had not heard such intensity from him before:
“O Capaneus, insofar as you have not quelled

Your pride, you are punished the more:
No torment except your raving
Would be sorrow compared to your fury.”

Then he turned to me with a gentler look,
Saying, “That was one of the seven kings
Who laid siege to Thebes, and held--and still seems to hold--

God in disdain, appearing to hold Him in little regard.
But, like I said to him, his own spitefulness
He bears most fittingly upon his chest.

Now come behind me, and watch that you do not put
Your feet in the burning sand even now.
Always keep your feet close to the woods.”

We came silently to the place where gushing
Forth from the forest is a little stream
Whose redness still makes me shudder.

Like the stream that comes from the Bulicame
That the sinful women divide between them,
So this made its way across the sand.

Its bed and both its banks
Were made of stone, as were the margins alongside.
I realized from this that our passage was there.

“Among all the things I have shown you
Since we entered through the gate
Whose doorway is denied to no one,

Nothing has been shown to your eyes
As noteworthy as the river before you,
Which extinguishes all the flames above it.”

These words were my lord’s,
And I begged him to give me the food
For which he had given me the appetite.

“In the middle of the sea lies a wasteland,”
He then said to me, “that is called Crete,
Under whose king the world was once pure.

A mountain is there that once was bright
With water and greenery, that was called Ida.
Now it is deserted as a depleted, cast-off thing.

Rhea once chose it to be the faithful cradle
For her son, and, in order to best conceal him
When he cried, she made those there create a wailing.

A large old man stands inside the mountain.
He has his back turned to Damietta,
And he looks on Rome like he would his mirror.

His head is made of fine gold,
And his arms and breast are pure silver,
And then he is of solid brass to where the torso meets the legs.

From there on down, he is entirely of the choicest iron,
Except for the right foot being terra cotta,
And he stands upright on this foot more than on his other.

Each part, except for the gold, is split
By a fissure that drips tears,
Which gather and force their way down that cavern.

Their course in this valley is from rock to rock.
They form Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon.
Then, going down through this narrow channel,

Ultimately to where there is no further to descend,
They form Cocytus, and what kind of pond that is
You shall see, but here I will not discuss it.”

And I replied, “If the stream before us
Flows down from our world as you say,
Why does it only appear at this border?”

He said to me, “You know that the place is round,
And although you have come far,
Only going by the left in descending to the bottom,

You still have not gone around the entire circle.
So if anything new appears to us,
It should not bring amazement to your face.”

So I then replied, “Master, where shall one find
Phlegethon and Lethe? For you are silent about one,
And of the other you say it is made from this rain of tears.”

I am certainly pleased with all you have asked me,”
He responded, “but the boiling of the red water
Might well have answered the one of which you ask.

You shall see Lethe, but outside this abyss--
There where souls go to bathe themselves
When their guilt is removed by penance.”

He then said, “Now is the time to leave
The woods. See that you follow behind me.
The margins are the way, as they are not on fire,

And above them all, the flames are quenched.”

Continue to Song XV

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