Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Inferno, Song XXXIV

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 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, including blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers. Dante and Virgil then descend to the circle of the fraudulent, where they encounter the panderers, seducers, flatterers, corrupt clergy, fortune-tellers, diviners, and grafters. The last are overseen by a gaggle of demons, from whom Dante and Virgil must escape. They then encounter the religious hypocrites and the thieves. Next are the false counselors, including Odysseus, who tells Virgil of his final voyage, and Guido da Montefeltro, who was damned by his sinister military advice to Pope Boniface VIII. Those who sowed division are next. After them are the falsifiers, whose numbers include the alchemists, impersonators, counterfeiters, and false witnesses. With the help of the giant Nimrod, who built the Tower of Babel, Virgil and Dante reach the lowest level of Hell. There they find, embedded in a frozen lake, those guilty of treachery. They stop at the sight of Count Ugolino of Donoratico gnawing on the head of the Archbishop Ruggiero. Ugolino relates the story of how he and his four sons were betrayed by Ruggiero. They were sealed in a tower and starved to death. Virgil and Dante proceed to Ptolomea, which holds the souls of those treacherous in the face of hospitality. There they discover Branca d'Oria, whose damned soul is captive in Hell although his body still lives on Earth.


“The banners of the King of Hell
March towards us, so look ahead,”
My Master said, “and see if you can make him out.”

As when a thick fog develops,
Or when night falls on our hemisphere,
There in the distance appeared a mill turning the wind.

I thought I saw a structure of that sort,
Then, because of the wind, I drew behind
My Master, as there was no other shelter.

I was already--and with fear I set this down in verse--
Down in the place where the shades were entirely encased in ice,
Showing through like straws in glass.

Some lay prostrate, and some stood erect.
There were those on their head, and those on their feet.
Another was bent face to feet like a bow.

When we had gone far enough ahead
That my Master thought it good to show me
The creature that had once been so beautiful,

He stopped walking in front of me, and made me stop as well.
“This is Dis,” he said. “And here is the place
Where you must arm yourself with fortitude.”

The chill and faintness I then felt,
Reader, do not ask. I do not write of it
Because words will not suffice.

I did not die, and I did not remain alive.
Think for yourself now, if you have any wit,
What I became, deprived of one and the other.

The emperor of the kingdom of sorrow
Jutted out from the ice at mid-breast,
And I compare better to a giant

Than giants would with his arms.
Now envision the size the whole must be
Relative to such comparisons.

If he was once as beautiful as he is ugly now,
And raised his head in defiance of his Creator,
All sorrow may very well come from him.

Oh, what an astonishing sight it seemed to me
When I saw on his head three faces!
The one in front—that was a vermilion red.

The other two were joined to it
Above the middle of each shoulder,
And they were all joined at the crown.

The coloring of the one on the right appeared between white and yellow.
The one on the left had the look of those who
Come from where the Nile descends.

Under these emerged two great wings,
Their size befitting such a bird;
I never saw sails at sea like these.

They did not have feathers. Rather, like a bat’s
They were in their form. And he was beating them
So that three winds came forth from him.

They were what kept all of Cocytus frozen.
He was weeping from each of his six eyes, and over his three chins
Ran tears and bloody drool.

With each mouth he shredded a sinner
With his teeth the way a rake does with flax.
And so the three were kept in agony.

To the one in front the biting was nothing
Compared to the clawing, for sometimes that one’s back
Was left completely flayed of skin.

“That soul up there who suffers the most,”
My Master said, “is Judas Iscariot,
Who inside has his head and outside kicks his legs.

Of the other two, who have their heads facing down,
The one that hangs from the black mouth is Brutus.
See how he writhes, but makes not a word!

The other is Cassius, who looks so brawny.
But night is again upon us, and it is now time
For us to leave, for we have seen everything.”

At his request, I put my arms around his neck.
He waited for an opportunity,
And when the wings had opened wide,

He grabbed hold of the shag on the ribs,
And then descended from tuft to tuft
Through the matted fur and crusts of ice.

When we were where the thigh
Meets the pelvis, at the point where the haunch is thickest,
My Master, with labor and strain,

Brought his head around to where he’d had his legs,
And grabbed hold of the hair like one climbing.
And so I thought we were returning to Hell.

“Hold on tight, for it is by such stairs,”
My Master said, panting like one exhausted,
“That we must go to depart from so much evil.”

He then came up through an opening in the rock,
And put me on the edge to sit.
His ingenious footwork brought him up to me.

I looked up thinking I would see
Lucifer as I had left him,
But I saw his legs suspended above me.

And if I then became perplexed,
As the dullards may think, keep in mind they did not see
What point it was that I had passed.

“Get up,” my Master said. “On your feet.
The way is long, and the road is hard.
The sun has already returned to the time just after dawn.”

It was not a palace hall
Where we were, but a natural dungeon--
One with a broken floor and poor light.

“Before I lift myself from the abyss,
My Master,” I said when I had risen,
“Pull me from the error that is vexing me a bit:

Where is the ice? And this one here, how is he suspended
Like this--upside-down? And how, in such a short time,
Has the sun journeyed from evening to morning?”

He replied, “You imagine you still
Are still on the other side of the center, where I took hold
Of the pelt of the evil worm who pierces the world.

You were on the other side while I descended.
When I turned myself, you passed the point
Where weights from everywhere are drawn.

You are now beneath the other hemisphere,
The one opposite the one that the great dry land
Covers, and beneath whose zenith

The Man who was born and lived without sin was done.
You have your feet upon a small sphere
That forms the other face of Judecca.

It is morning here when it is evening there.
And this one, who made a ladder for us with his pelt,
He is still ensnared as he was before.

He fell from Heaven on this side.
And the land, which before had stood out here,
Made a veil from the sea out of fear,

And came to our side of the planet. Perhaps
To escape from him, it left empty
That which appears on this side, and fled upwards.”

Down there, as far from Beelzebub
As one can be within his tomb,
There is a place not known by sight, but by the sound

Of a little stream that descends there
Through the hollow of a rock, one tunneled
By its winding course and soft incline.

Onto that hidden road my Master and I
Entered to return to the shining world.
And without care to having any rest,

We climbed up, he first and I second,
So far along that I saw some of the beautiful things
Heaven holds, all through a round hole.

And through there we exited to once again see the stars.

Next: Purgatorio, Song I

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