Saturday, January 15, 2011

Inferno, Song XXIII

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 encounter murderers, merciless conquerors, suicides, and 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, including blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers. Dante and Virgil then descend to next level of Hell on the back of Geryon, a flying monster. It is the circle of the fraudulent, and along the way, they encounter the panderers, seducers, flatterers, corrupt clergy, fortune-tellers, diviners, and grafters. The last are overseen a gaggle of demons, who agree to lead Dante and Virgil to a ridge they can cross to continue their journey. The poets leave the demons after the latter are deceived by a sinner in their charge.

Dante and Virgil look back at the demons after escaping them.

Silent, alone, unaccompanied--
We went along, one in front and the other after,
Like Friars Minor going their way.

Turned towards a fable of Aesop’s were
My thoughts by the present scuffle,
The one where he spoke of the frog and the mouse.

The words “now” and “presently” are not more similar
Than one with the other, if one compares
The beginning and the end with careful attention.

And as one thought springs from another,
So then from the other came this one
That doubled my initial fears.

I thought this: “Because of us, those ones
Were played for fools, with pain and ridicule
To boot. I believe they are quite upset.

If anger is piled on top of ill will,
They will come after us more viciously
Than a dog snaps after a hare.”

Already I felt my hair standing up on end
From the fear, and I stood staring behind us
When I said, “Master, if you do not hide

You and me quickly, I am afraid
Of the Evilclaws. We already have them after us.
They so fill my thoughts that I already hear them.”

And he replied, “If I were a mirror,
I could not picture your outward appearance
More quickly than I see your inward state.

At this moment, your thoughts entered into mine,
With like attitude and like action,
So that I have made one counsel from both.

If it is so that the slope on the right lies so
That we can go down to the next pocket,
We shall escape the chase we imagine coming.”

He had not yet finished laying out his plan
When I saw them coming with their wings spread,
Not far away, looking to nab us.

My leader immediately pressed me to him,
Like a mother who is wakened by the noise
And sees flames burning beside her,

Taking her son and fleeing without stopping,
Having more concern for him than for herself--
So much so that she does not pause to put on anything over her nightshirt.

And down that ridge of the stony bank
He went, lying on his back, to the sloping rock
That on one side includes the next ditch.

Water had never coursed so quickly through a sluice
To turn a land-mill’s wheel
When nearest to the approaching paddles

As my master upon that cliff
Took me down with him, holding me to his breast
Like his son, not his companion.

His feet had barely made it to the bed
Of the ground down there when they made it atop the hill
Above us. But there was nothing to fear:

For the high providence that willed them
To serve as ministers of the fifth pit
Denied them any power to leave.

There below we found a painted people
Who were going round with very slow steps,
Weeping and, in their appearance, tired and defeated.

They had cloaks with hoods down
In front of their eyes, made to the size
That is made for the monks in Cluny.

They were gilded on the outside--so dazzling and deceptive.
But on the inside they were all lead, and so heavy
That, by comparison, the ones Frederick made people wear were straw.

What a burdening mantle for eternity!
We turned again, still to the left-hand side,
Together with them, focused on their tears of sadness.

But because of that burden, these weary people
Came along so slowly that we were in new
Company with every stride we made.

For then I asked my leader, “Pray find
One known by name or deed,
Looking around as we go.”

And one who understood the Tuscan tongue
Cried after us, “Hold your feet,
You who race through the gloomy air!

Perhaps you shall have from me that which you ask for.”
At this my leader turned and said, “Wait for him,
And then continue on at his pace.”

I stopped, and I saw two looking quite
Anxious to join me.
However, their burden and the crowded way hampered them.

When they reached us, looking askance for a while,
They stared at me without saying a word.
They then turned to each other and said,

“This one appears to be alive, given the action of his throat.
And if they are dead, by what privilege
Do they go uncovered by the weighty robes?”

They then said to me, “O Tuscan, who to the gathering
Of the woeful hypocrites has come,
Do not disdain to tell us who you are.”

And I to them: “I was born and raised
Upon the good river of Arno in the great town,
And am in the body I have always had.

But who are you to whom I see
So much sadness filtering down your cheeks?
And what punishment is this that glitters on you?

And one of them answered me, “The orange cloaks
Are made of lead so thick that the weight
Makes we, their balances, creak thus.

We were Jovial Friars, and Bolognese.
I am Catalano and this is Loderingo
By name, and your land chose us together.

It had been customary to choose a single man
To keep the peace. What we brought
Is still apparent around the Gardingo.”

I began, “O Friars, your evil doings…”,
But I said no more, for my eye was caught by
One crucified on the ground with three stakes.

When he saw me, he writhed all over,
Exhaling sighs into his beard.
And Friar Catalano, taking this to account,

Said to me, “That one you see nailed there
Advised the Pharisees that it was expedient
To have one man suffer for the people.

He is stretched naked in the path,
As you see, and must bear
The weight of each who passes.

And his father-in-law is racked in the same manner
In this ditch, as are the others of that council
That was a seed of evil for the Jews.”

I then saw Virgil marveling
Over the one who was crucified
So horribly in the eternal exile.

He then directed his voice at the friar:
“If it does not displease you, and you are permitted, tell us
If, on the right-hand side, there lies a passage

Where we two can leave
Without enlisting the black angels
To come and take us from this floor.”

He then replied, “Nearer than you
Expect is a ridge of rock that goes from the great
Perimeter and spans all the savage valleys,

Except that at this point it is broken and does not run across.
You will be able to get over through the debris
Where it slopes against the side and is piled up at the bottom.”

My leader stood looking down for a moment.
He then said, “A bad account was given by
The one who hooks the sinners over there.”

The friar replied, “I once heard talk in Bologna
Of the Devil’s many vices, among which I heard
That he is a liar and the father of lies.”

My leader then went forward taking great strides,
His face a bit upset with anger.
So I left these prisoners,

Following the trail of those beloved feet.

Continue to Song XXIV

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