Sunday, March 6, 2011

Inferno, Song XXIV

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, from whom Dante and Virgil must escape before they move on to encounter the religious hypocrites.

The pit of thieves, where they are tortured by serpents.

In that part of the budding year
When the sun brightens its tresses under Aquarius
And the long nights are already heading south,

When the frost on the ground copies
The image of her white sister,
Although her pen’s point only lasts a little while.

The peasant who is lacking fodder
Rises and looks out and sees the countryside
Has turned all white, at which he smacks his thigh,

Goes back into the house, and complains here and there
Like a wretch who doesn’t know what to do.
He then goes back and regains hope,

Seeing the world has changed its face
In a short time, and takes his staff
To lead his lambs out to pasture.

My master left me dismayed in this way
When I saw his lowered face,
And the plaster also came quickly to the sore.

For when we came to the bridge’s ruins,
My leader turned to me with that look
Of sweetness that I first saw at the foot of the mountain.

He opened his arms, after some plan
He had decided on after first looking at
The ruin for a good bit. He then took hold of me,

Like one who works and evaluates,
And always seems prepared in advance.
So, lifting me up towards the top

Of a great boulder, he was sizing up another rock
Saying, “Up there, grab hold of that one next,
But first check if it will support you.”

It was not the way for one wearing a mantle,
For we--he weightless and I being pushed--hardly
Could climb upwards from jag to jag.

And if on that bank it had not been that
The slope was lower than the other--
I do not know about him--but I would have been well defeated.

But since all of Malebolge leans towards
The mouth of the lowest pit,
The site of each valley opens

So that one side descends and the other ascends.
We only came to the end above the point
Where the last stone breaks off.

The breath from my lungs was so spent
That when I reached the top I could go no further.
I sat down at the first opportunity.

“So you must now cast off all sloth,”
My master said. “For one does not come to fame
While sitting on cushions, nor while under blankets.

Without it, one uses up one’s life
Leaving on earth such traces of himself
As smoke in the air and foam on the water.

Therefore rise. Conquer your panting
With the soul that wins every battle
If the heavy body does not weigh one down.

There is a longer ladder that must be climbed.
It is not enough to leave these ones.
If you understand me, act now so it benefits you.

I then rose, pretending I was furnished
Better with breath than I felt,
And I said, “Go, for I am strong and daring.”

We made our way up through the ridge,
Which was craggy, narrow, and rough,
As well as steeper than the one before.

I spoke as I went, so as not to appear weak,
When a voice came forth from the next ditch,
One not able to properly form words.

I do not know what he said, though I was already at
The summit of the arch that crosses there.
However, he who spoke seemed moved to anger.

I turned to lean downward, but my sharp eyes
Could not reach the bottom through the darkness.
So I said, “Master, let us go on

To the next encirclement and descend the wall.
For at this point I not only hear but do not understand,
But I look down and make out nothing.”

He said, “I do not reply other
Than to do it, for an honest request
Should be followed with action, not words.”

We descended the bridge at the head
Where it connects with the eighth bank,
And the pit became clear to me.

For inside I saw a terrible mass
Of serpents, and of such diverse intrigue
That the memory still chills my blood.

Let Libya boast no more of her sands,
For if chelidrids, jaculi, and phareads
Are bred, as well as two-headed cenchres,

Plagues were neither so many nor so malignant
Did she ever show with all of Ethiopia,
Nor with the lands that lie upon the Red Sea.

Among this cruel and terribly grim throng,
People ran, naked and fearful,
Without hope of a hole to hide in, or a bloodstone to make one invisible.

Their hands were tied behind them with serpents.
These were run through the loins by the tail
And the head, which were knotted together in front.

And here, upon one who was by our bank,
Sprang a serpent that paralyzed him, striking
At the point where the neck and shoulders come together.

Neither "O" nor "I" was ever written as quickly
As he caught fire and burned, and ash was all that
Was left when he of course collapsed upon the ground.

And then, on the ground, thus disintegrated,
His dust gathered itself into the same form,
And in that shape returned from destruction.

It is in this way, according to the great sages, it is acknowledged
That the phœnix dies and then is reborn
When she approaches her five-hundredth year.

She does not feed on herbs or grain in her lifetime,
Only on balsam and tears of incense,
And nard and myrrh are her final shroud.

And as one who falls, not knowing how,
Pulled by force to the ground by a demon
Or by another oppression that binds him,

When he rises he looks around,
All disoriented by the great trauma
He has suffered, and sighs while he looks;

Such was the sinner when he got up.
Oh, the power of God, how severe it is,
Striking such blows for vengeance!

My leader then asked him who he was,
To which he answered, “I rained down from Tuscany
Into this wild gullet a short while ago.

I was suited to a beast’s life, not a man’s,
Bastard that I was. I am Vanni Fucci,
Beast, and Pistoia was my fitting den.”

I said to my leader, “Tell him not to slink off,
And ask what the crime was that sent him here.
For I just recall him as a man of blood and anger.”

And the sinner, who heard, did not dissemble.
Rather, he set his mind and gaze on me,
And a look of woeful shame appeared upon his face.

He then said, “I suffer more from your having found me
In the misery you see me in here
Than when I was taken from the other life.

I cannot refuse to answer what you ask.
I have been consigned to so low a place because I was
A thief in the sacristy of the beautiful ornaments,

and it was falsely blamed on another.
But so you do not enjoy this sight--
If you ever get out of this dark place--

Open your ears to what I say, and listen.
First, Pistoia all but empties herself of Blacks,
Then Florence begins again with new leaders and laws.

Mars draws a vapor from Val di Magra
That is enveloped in thick clouds.
And with a violent and bitter storm,

Battle will rage on Campo Piceno,
Where it will suddenly explode through the mist,
So that every White shall be struck by it.

And I have told you this to bring you grief!

Continue to Song XXV

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