Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Inferno, Song XXVI

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 encountering the religious hypocrites. The poets then move on to encounter the thieves, who are beset upon by snakes whose bite transforms them.

Dante and Virgil look down at Odysseus and the other evil counselors

Rejoice, Florence, as you are so great
That you beat your wings over sea and land,
And through Hell itself your name spreads far and wide!

Among the thieves, I found five such
Citizens of yours, making me ashamed.
And you do not ascend to great honor.

But if we dream the truth near morning,
You shall soon feel
What Prato, not to mention others, wishes for you.

And if it had already happened, it would not be too soon.
So let it happen, since it must!
For it will weigh upon me as I grow older.

We left the place, and by the stairway
Made by the jutting rocks by which we descended before,
My Leader again climbed up and pulled me after him.

And, proceeding along the lonely way
Between the ridge’s crags and rocks,
The foot did not move forward without the hand.

I grieved then, and now I grieve again
When I turn my mind to what I saw,
And I bridle my talent more than I am accustomed.

This is so I do not let it run where virtue does not guide it.
So if a gracious star or something better
Has given me this gift, I do not begrudge it to myself.

As many fireflies as the peasant, resting himself upon
the hillside sees below throughout
The valley—perhaps there where he harvests grapes and tills

The land—at the time when the one who lights
The world keeps his face least hidden
To us, at that time when the fly gives way to the mosquito,

In this way all was resplendent with the many flames in
The eighth pit, which I perceived as
Soon as I made it to the place where the bottom was visible.

And like the one avenged by bears
Saw the chariot of Elijah departing
When the horses reared and climbed to heaven,

And who could not follow it with his eyes
Beyond seeing anything but the flame alone—
It was like a small cloud climbing upward—

So each moves through the mouth
Of the ditch. For none shows its theft,
And every flame steals a sinner.

I was standing on the bridge to see from above.
As it was, if I had not held fast to a jutting rock,
I would have fallen below without being pushed.

And my Leader, who saw me so intent,
Said, “The spirits are inside the flames;
Each is bound in that which burns him.”

“My Master,” I replied, “Hearing your words
Makes me more certain, but I already thought
That was so, and I still want to ask you:

Who is in the flame that becomes so split
At the top that it seems to rise from the pyre
Where Eteocles was laid with his brother?”

He responded, “Tormented inside there are
Odysseus and Diomedes, and so together
They submit to vengeance as they once did to wrath.

And inside their flame they lament
The ruse of the horse that created the door
Through which the noble seed of the Romans came.

Inside it they mourn the guile that causes, even in death,
Deidamia to still grieve for Achilles.
And it is the way they are punished for the Palladium.”

“If, from within those flames, they are able
To speak,” I said, “Master, I so pray to you,
And pray again that my prayer becomes a thousand,

That you forbid my waiting
Until the horned flame comes here.
You see how my yearning draws me towards it!”

And he replied, “Your prayer is deserving
Of much praise, and therefore I accede to it.
But hold your tongue.

Leave speaking to me, for I understand
What you want. Since they were Greeks,
They might be put off by your saying it.”

When the flame had come to
Where it appeared to my leader the proper time and place,
I heard him speak with these words:

“O you who are two within one flame,
If I was worthy of you while I lived,
If I was worthy of you a great deal or a little

When in the world I wrote my high verses,
Do not move along. Rather, let one of you say
Where he, being lost, went to die.”

The greater horn of the ancient flame
Began to shake and murmur—
Just like it was being set upon by the wind.

Then, moving the tip back and forth
Like a tongue speaking,
It sent forth a voice and said, “When

I parted from Circe, who detained
Me more than a year there near Gaeta
Before Aeneas named the place that,

Not fondness for my son, not duty
To my elderly father, not the love I owed
Penelope to make her content,

Could conquer within me the passion
I had to gain knowledge of the world
And the vices and value of humanity.

But I set out on the high, open sea
With only one ship and that small
Crew who had not deserted me.

I saw one shore after another all the way to Spain,
As far as Morocco, including the island of Sardinia
And the others the sea bathed all around.

My crew and I were old and slow
When we came to that narrow strait
Where Hercules set up his landmarks

Indicating where men should not venture beyond.
On my right hand I left Seville behind,
And on the other I had already left Ceuta.

‘O brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand
Perils have reached the West,
To this so brief vigil

Of our remaining senses.
Do not wish to deny experience
Behind the sun, in the world without people.

Consider your heritage.
You were not born to live like brutes,
But to pursue virtue and knowledge.’

I made my crew so eager
For the journey with this little speech
That I hardly could have restrained them.

We then turned our stern toward the dawn,
Making wings of our oars in this mad flight,
Always gaining on the left-hand side.

All the stars of the other pole were now
Seen by the night, and our own was so low
That it did not rise from the ocean floor.

Five times rekindled and as often put out
Had the light been beneath the moon
Since we had entered the great passage,

When a mountain appeared before us, dark
In the distance, and it seemed so tall—
Higher than I had ever seen before.

We cheered, and soon turned to tears.
For a storm rose from the newfound land
And struck the front of the ship.

Three times it whirled us around with all the waters.
The fourth time it raised the stern upward,
And moved the prow below, as it pleased the Other,

Until the sea again closed over us.

Continue to Song XXVII

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