Monday, May 25, 2009

Inferno, Song XVII

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. From there, they walk alongside a desert where fire rains down. It is the prison for those who were violent against God and nature. The blasphemers are the first Dante takes note of, but they are only one of the many kinds of sinners who reside here, such as the sodomites. Among the latter is Brunetto Latini, who was Dante's mentor and role model while growing up, as well as Jacopo Rusticucci, Guido Guerra, and Tegghiaio Aldobrandi, three great Florentine leaders. Dante and Virgil then come to a precipice, where Virgil summons a flying monster from the depths.

Dante and Virgil descend further into Hell on Geryon's back

“Here is the beast with the pointed tail,
That crosses mountains and breaks down walls and weapons!
Here is the one who infects the entire world!”

So my leader began to say to me,
And signaled to it to come and land
Near the end of the stony passage.

And that filthy image of fraud
Came and set down its head and breast,
But it did not bring its tail up to the cliff’s edge.

Its face was the face of a just man,
So benign on the outside,
And all the rest was a serpent’s trunk.

It had two paws, hairy to the armpits.
Its back and chest and sides
Were painted with knots and circlets.

Fields and embroidery with more color
Were never made in Tartar or Turkish tapestries,
Nor was such cloth made by Arachne at her loom.

Like boats that sometimes are at the shore,
Partly in the water and partly on land,
Or like there, in the land of the German drunkards,

The beaver sets itself to struggle,
So the awful beast was there
On the edge where the stone bounds the sand.

Its entire tail was twitching in the void,
Twisting upward the venomous fork
That, like a scorpion’s, armed the tip.

My leader said, “Now we must twist
Our way a little, as far as that
Wicked beast crouching over there.”

So we descended on our right side,
And took ten steps along the edge
In order to keep well away from the sand and flame.

And when we came beside it,
I saw on the sand a bit further on
People sitting where it drops off.

Here my master said to me, “So that full
Experience of this round you may carry away,
Go and see the state of them.

Keep your talk there short.
Until you return, I will talk with this one,
So it will grant us the use of its strong shoulders.”

And so through still further along the outer edge
Of that seventh circle, all alone
I went, where the sad people were sitting.

Their sorrow exploded from their eyes.
From here and from there their hands moved, shielding themselves,
Sometimes from the flames, and sometimes from the burning ground.

What they were doing was no different than dogs in summer:
First with their snouts, then with their paws, when they are bitten
By fleas or flies or horseflies.

Then, when I set my eyes on some of the faces of those
Upon whom the fire of sorrow was falling,
I did not recognize anyone. However, I observed

That from around each one’s neck there hung a pouch
That had a certain color and insignia,
And upon these they feasted their eyes.

And when I came among them, looking around,
I saw, on a yellow purse, azure
In which a lion had its face and manner

Then, proceeding with my looking about,
I saw another, blood-red,
Showing a goose whiter than butter

And one, who had a large azure sow
Embossed on his white bag
Said to me, “What are you doing in this pit?”

Go now, and because you are still alive,
Know that my neighbor Vitaliano
Will sit here on my left side.

I am a Paduan among these Florentines.
In my ears, they often
Cry, ‘Let the sovereign knight come

Who will bring the pouch with three goats!’”
Upon this he twisted his mouth and stuck out
His tongue, like an ox licking its nose.

And fearing that staying longer would irritate
Him who had warned me to stay just a bit,
I turned away from the spent souls.

I found my leader had gotten
Upon the back of that savage beast already.
And he said to me, “Now be strong and brave.

Now one descends by taking these stairs.
Mount in the front, as I wish to be in between
So the tail cannot harm you.”

Like one so close to the shivering
Of quartan fever, whose nails are white,
And who trembles all over at the sight of shade,

Such I became at his words.
But shame threatened me,
Which makes a servant strong before a good master.

I settled myself upon those shoulders,
And I wanted to speak, but my voice did not come
As I thought, “Make sure you hold me tight!”

But he, who at other times had saved me
From other perils, as soon as I mounted
He took me in his arms and supported me.

And he said, “Geryon, let’s move now--
Wide circles, and let your descent be gradual.
Think of the new burden you bear.”

Like a gondola leaving its place, moving
Back and back, so then did Geryon move out.
And then, when it felt itself all clear,

It turned its tail around to where its breast was,
And, extending it, he moved like an eel,
Gathering in the air with his paws.

I do not think that greater fear was had
When Phaethon abandoned the reins,
Which led to the sky being scorched, like it still appears,

Nor when poor Icarus felt his sides
Losing feathers from the melting wax,
His father crying to him, “You are taking the wrong way!,”

Than was my fear, when I saw that I was
In the air on all sides, and I saw lost
Sight of everything except the beast.

Slowly, slowly, it goes swimming onward,
Turning and descending, but I am not aware of it
Beyond the wind blowing in my face and from below.

On my right I already heard the whirlpool
Making a horrible roar below us,
At which I stretched out my head and looked down.

I was then more afraid of dismounting,
For I saw fires and heard lamenting,
And I recoiled, trembling all over.

And then I saw--for I had not seen it before--
Our descending and circling by the great torments
That pressed on us from so many sides.

Like the falcon that has been too long on the wing
Without seeing lure or bird
Makes the falconer say, “Oh my, you’re falling!”

Tired, it descends to where it swiftly set out from,
In a hundred spirals, and perches far
From its master, disdainful and sullen.

This was how Geryon brought us down to the bottom
Nearby the foot of the jagged rock.
And, unburdened of our bodies,

It vanished like an arrow from the string.

Continue to Song XVIII

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