Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 1–3 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 1–3

At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear—
So bad that death by only a degree
Could possibly be worse. As you shall hear,
It led to good things too, eventually,
10But there and then I saw no sign of those,
And can’t say even now how I had come
To be there, stunned and following my nose
Away from the straight path. And then, still numb
From pressure on the heart, still in a daze,
I stumbled on the threshold of a hill
Where trees no longer grew. Lifting my gaze,
I saw its shoulders edged with overspill
From our sure guide, the sun, whose soothing rays
At least a little melted what that night
20Of dread had done to harden my heart’s lake—
And like someone who crawls, half dead with fright,
Out of the sea, and breathes, and turns to take
A long look at the water, so my soul,
Still thinking of escape from the dark wood
I had escaped, looked back to see it whole,
The force field no one ever has withstood
And stayed alive. I rested for a while,
And then resumed, along the empty slope,
My journey, in the standard crofter’s style,
30Weight on the lower foot. Harder to cope
When things got steeper, and a mountain cat
With parti-coloured pelt, light on its feet,
In a trice was in my face and stayed like that,
Barring my way, encouraging retreat.
Three beasts—was this the leopard, Lechery?—
Were said to block the penitential climb
For sinners and for all society,
And here was one, sticking to me like lime.
Not only did it hamper me, it made
40Me think of turning back. Now was the time
Morning begins. The sun, fully displayed
At last, began its climb, but not alone.
The stars composing Aries, sign of spring,
Were with it now, nor left it on its own
When the First Love made every lovely thing
The world can boast: a thought to give me heart
That I might counter, in this gentle hour
Of a sweet season, the obstructive art,
Pretty to see but frightful in its power,
50Of that cat with the coloured coat. But wait:
If fear had waned, still there was fear enough
To bring on Pride, the lion, in full spate:
Head high, hot breath to make the air look rough—
As rocks in summer seem to agitate
The atmosphere above them without cease—
So rabid was its hunger. On its heels
The wolf appeared, whose name is Avarice,
Made thin by a cupidity that steals
Insatiably out of its own increase,
60Obtained from many people it made poor.
This one propelled such terror from its face
Into my mind, all thoughts I had before
Of ever rising to a state of grace
Were crushed. And so, as one who, mad for gain,
Must find one day that all he gains is lost
In a flood of tears, a conscience racked with pain,
Just so I felt my hopes came at the cost
Of being forced, by this unresting beast,
Little by little down towards that wood
70Whose gloom the sun can never in the least
Irradiate. But all at once there stood
Before me one who somehow seemed struck dumb
By the weight of a long silence. “Pity me,
And try to tell me in what form you come,”
I cried. “Is it a shade or man I see?”
And he replied: “No, not a man. Not now.
I was once, though. A Lombard. Parents born
In Mantua. Both born there.” That was how
His words emerged: as if with slow care torn,
80Like pages of a book soaked shut by time,
From his clogged throat. “Caesar was getting on
When I was young. That’s Julius. A crime,
His death. Then, after he was gone,
I lived in Rome. The good Augustus reigned.
The gods were cheats and liars. As for me,
I was a poet.” He grew less constrained
In speech, as if trade-talk brought fluency.
“I sang about Anchises’ son, the just
Aeneas, pious, peerless. When proud Troy<
90Was burned to ashes, ashes turned to dust
Which he shook off his feet, that marvellous boy.
He did what any decent hero must:
Set sail. But you, you turn back. Tell me why.
Why not press on to the delightful peak?
The root cause of all joy is in the sky.”
Almost too shocked and overawed to speak—
For now the one who fought for words was I—
I asked him, just as if I didn’t know:
“Are you Virgil? Are you the spring, the well,
100  The fountain and the river in full flow
Of eloquence that sings like a seashell
Remembering the sea and the rainbow?
Of all who fashion verse the leading light?
The man of honour? What am I to say?
Through learning you by heart I learned to write.
My love for your book turned my night to day.
You are my master author. Only you
Could teach me the Sweet Style that they call mine.
I could go on. But what am I to do
110  About this animal that shows no sign
Of letting me proceed? It scares me so,
My veins are empty, all the blood sucked back
Into the heart. There’s nothing you don’t know,
My sage, so tell me how this mad attack
Can be called off.” Then he: “You need to choose
Another route.” This while he watched me weep.
“This way there’s no way out. You’re bound to lose:
Bound by the spell of this beast pledged to keep
You crying, you or anyone who tries
120  To get by. In a bad mood it can kill,
And it’s never in a good mood. See those eyes?
So great a hunger nothing can fulfil.
It eats, it wants more, like the many men
Infected by its bite. Its catalogue
Of victories will be finished only when
Another dog arrives, the hunting dog:
The Veltro. As for now, it’s hard to see
Even his outline through the glowing fog
Of the future, but be assured by me—
130  The Veltro will make this thing die of shame
For wanting to eat wealth and real estate.
The Veltro’s diet will be bigger game:
Love, wisdom, virtue. It will operate
In humble country, eat the humble bread
Of that sad Italy where Trojans fought
Our local tribes: the Latium beachhead.
The brave Princess Camilla there was brought
To death in battle, and Prince Turnus, too—
Killed by Aeneas, of whose Trojan friends
140  Euryalus and Nisus died. The new
Great Dog will harry this one to the ends
Of that scorched earth and so back down to Hell,
From which, by envious Lucifer, it was
First sent forth. But by now I’ve pondered well
The path adapted best to serve your cause,
So let me be your guide. I’ll take you through
The timeless breaker’s yard where you will hear
The death cries of the damned who die anew
Each day, though dead already in the year—
150  No dated stones remain to give a clue—
The earliest sinners died, when time began.
And you’ll see, in the next eternal zone,
Those so content with purging fire they fan
The flames around them, thankful to atone,
Hopeful of being raised to join the blessed.
If you would join them too, we’ll reach a stage
When only someone else shows you the rest:
Someone more worthy, though of tender age
Beside me. I can’t tell you her name yet,
160  But what I can say is, the Emperor
Who reigns on high vows he will never let
A non-believer—though I lived before
Belief was possible—see where he sits
In judgement and in joy with the elect.”
Sad and afraid, but gathering my wits,
“Poet,” I said, “I ask you to effect,
In the name of that God you will never see,
An exit for me from this place of grief,
And then an entry to where I would be—
170  Beyond the purging flames of which you tell—
In sight of Peter’s Gate, though that relief
Demands for prelude that I go through Hell.”
And then he moved, and then I moved as well.
The day was dying, and the darkening air
Brought all the working world of living things
To rest. I, only, sweated to prepare
For war, the way ahead, the grind that brings
The battler to hot tears for each yard gained:
To bitter tears, and memories more real
Than what was real and which is thus retained
Unblunted, edged with even sharper steel.
My Muse, my schooled and proven gift, help me:
10It’s now or never. Fortify my mind
With the vivifying skills of poetry,
For what I saw needs art of a great kind.
I saw great things. Give them nobility.
Thus I began: “Poet I call my guide,
Judge first my powers. Will they serve so high
A purpose? Would you rather step aside
Than put me to this road? For you, not I,
Have told the world Aeneas, mortal still,
Went to another world, and not to die.
20But if the Adversary of All Ill
Saw fit to let him live, thinking of who
And what he was—princely progenitor
Of everything that Rome would be and do
In times to come—who could deserve it more?
A man of intellect, the soul of Rome
And all its empire, he was singled out
There where the light eternal has its home,
At the Highest Level. Also, what about
That city? Though the world fell at its feet,
30Rome was created first so that one day
Great Peter’s followers might have their seat,
Enthroned by the divine will. When you say
Aeneas sailed to victory, what he heard
Along the way ensured not only that,
But the papal mantle. So the Holy Word,
Sent backwards into time, aimed only at
Your hero, hit the mark. And then Paul’s ship,
The Chosen Vessel, came to Rome as well—
The vessel, in a sense, that Faith might sip
40Renewal from, and did. But now, pray tell,
Why me? Who says that I get to go there?
Do I look like Aeneas? Am I Paul?
Not I nor anyone I know would dare
To put me in that company at all.
Therefore, if I persuade myself to go,
I trust I’ll not be punished as a fool.
Wise man, what I have not said, you must know.”
Just so, obeying the unwritten rule
That one who would unwish that which he wished,
50Having thought twice about what first he sought,
Must put fish back into the pool he fished,
So they, set free, may once again be caught,
Just so did I in that now shadowy fold—
Because, by thinking, I’d consumed the thought
I started with, that I had thought so bold.
“If I have understood your words aright,”
Magnanimously the great shade replied,
“Your soul is crumbling from the needless blight
Of misplaced modesty, which is false pride
60Reversed, and many men by this are swayed
From honourable enterprise. One thinks
Of a dreaming beast that wakes with temper frayed
And finds the prowler into whom it sinks
Its teeth does not exist. Upon that head,
That you be free of fear, I’ll tell you why
I came and what I felt when I was led
First to your quaking side by your far cry.
Along with all those caught between desire
To see the One Above and sheer despair
70That they will never even see hellfire,
I was in Limbo. Out of the open air
She stepped, and stood, and then she called my name:
A woman beatific, beautiful.
Her scintillating eyes outshone the flame
Of stars. To disobey? Impossible.
I begged her to command me. She gave voice.
It was an angel’s voice, restrained and sweet.
‘Courteous soul of Mantua, rejoice:
Your fame lives on, exalted and complete,
80And will throughout the world, from end to end,
Until the world ends. But I need you now.
In a deserted hillside field, my friend
Is fortune’s enemy, and can’t see how
To make his way. Terror could turn him back.
I’m not sure if he’s not already dead
Or if I’ve come in time to clear the track
That leads him, as in Heaven I’ve heard said,
To salvation. So if you would obey,
Go to him, and with all your verbal art,
90With anything it takes, show him the way.
Do this for me, for I am sick at heart.
My name is Beatrice. Now you know your task.
Where I come from, and long to be restored,
Love rules me. It determines what I ask.
When I am once again before my Lord,
Then I to Him, whom all praise, will praise you.’
Her melody was done. Then I to her:
‘Woman of quality, know this is true:
One look at you and I knew who you were.
100  For only through that quality, the race
Of men raised by that quality, Virtue,
Can hope to set their eyes on the high place
Beyond any contentment they enjoy
Under the lower sky ruled by the moon.
So glad am I to be in your employ
I’d not have carried out my task too soon
If I’d already done it. Enough said:
I was persuaded even as you spoke.
But tell me this. Why do you feel no dread
110  Coming down here into this pall of smoke,
This ball of fire that pulses at the core
Of the higher world to which you would return?’
She spoke again: ‘A little, but no more,
To satisfy a mind still keen to learn,
I’ll tell you why to come here holds no threat
For me. Your Aristotle gets it right:
All fearful things we safely can forget
Except those which, allowed their freedom, might
Cause harm to others. God in mercy made
120  Me such that all your miseries touch me not,
Nor do the flames of this condemned arcade
Scorch one hair of my head. But now to what
Most matters. Take due note of this, great shade:
There is a woman in the sky laments
For the unfortunate I send you to.
Her pain at his entrapment is intense.
She is the Virgin, and, like me to you,
She told Lucy—the spirit of all Grace,
Grace that illuminates like the spring sun
130  The soul within: you see it in her face—
She told Lucy: “Right now your faithful one
Has need of you. You are my choice to go.”
Lucy, beside whom cruelty has none
To match her as an enemy, did so,
And came to where I sat with dear Rachel,
The soul of contemplation, as you know:
You loved your books and candlelight so well.
“Beatrice,” said Lucy. “Hear me. You that are
The picture of God’s praise, why do you not
140  Bring help to him whose love for you so far
Exceeded that of all the common lot
Who loved you too? Do you not hear his screams
Of agony? Do you not see the death
He battles on the river of bad dreams
Deeper than any ocean?” In a breath—
For never was one quicker in the world,
Whether to gain a point or flee his fate,
Than I was when I heard those words—I hurled
Myself from that serene, unhurried state
150  Like a thrown stone down here, putting my trust
In you, your honest tongue that draws to you
Honour from all who listen, as truth must.’
Thus Beatrice. Then she turned away, a new
Lustre appearing in her shining glance:
Her tears, which spurred me quickly to your side,
As she asked, lest this beast should seize its chance
To cut the straightest road, and you abide
Far from the lovely mountain. So then, why?
Why falter, weakling? Why so faint a heart?
160  Why doubt there is a highway in the sky
That leads to where all doubts are set apart?
Where is your courage, where your inner steel?
Three women loved in Heaven do their best
To make you loved there too, and still you feel
No shame at shrinking down inside your nest,
Afraid of your first flight. This isn’t real.
And what of me, who promised you much good?
Much good it did. Claiming to like my book!
Does the hero’s story shame you? So it should.”
170  Catching the firmness in his still fond look—
As the little flowers, bent by the night’s cold
And closed and smooth on the outside like gems,
When sunlight lights them straighten and unfold
And open opulently on stiff stems—
So did I find in my depleted strength
The strength of mind to lift my heart again.
I thanked them both at last, if not at length:
“Would she were here who came to my aid when
I was most lost. My thanks can have no end:
180  This is the start. And you, my guiding light—
Who listened to her like a loving friend,
Of mine as well as hers—with second sight
You saw into my soul, and said the things
That needed to be said for a return
To my first purpose. Thank you for what brings
My will and yours together: what I learn
From my teacher, master, leader.” So I said.
On the high, hard road, I followed, and he led.

Dark both in colour and in what they meant,
These words incised above a city gate
I read, and whispered: “Master, the intent
Of this inscription makes me hesitate.”
And he to me, reading my secret mind,
Said: “Here you must renounce your slightest doubt
And kill your every weakness. Leave behind
20All thoughts of safety first, or be shut out.
We have arrived where all those who have lost
The sum of intellect, which is the Lord,
Bewail their fate and always count the cost,
Forever far more than they can afford.
I told you of this place.” He held my hand,
And even smiled, which gave some comfort when
He led me through the gate to a strange land
Where sighs and moans and screams of ruined men,
Filling the air beneath a starless sky,
30Resounded everywhere, and everywhere
Was there inside me. I began to cry,
Stunned by the sound of an unseen nightmare.
Inhuman outcries in all human tongues,
Bad language, bursts of anger, yelps of pain,
Shrill scrambled messages from aching lungs,
And clapped hands, self-applause of the insane:
All this was whipped by its own energy
Into a timeless tumult without form—
Dark as a whirlpool in a dead black sea
40Or a whirlwind sucking sand into a storm.
Ears ringing to the centre of my brain
From horror, “Master, what furore is this?”
I asked, “Who are they, so distraught with pain?”
Then he: “Their pride to have no prejudice,
Seeking no praise for fear of taking blame,
They were for nothing, nor were they against:
They made no waves and so they made no name.
Now their neutrality is recompensed,
For here there is no cautious holding back:
50Voices once circumspect are now incensed
And raised to make each other’s eardrums crack.
Thus they are joined to that self-seeking squad
Of angels fitted neither to rebel
Against, nor put their heartfelt faith in, God—
Hunted from Heaven and locked out of Hell
Because the perfect sky would brook no blur,
And in the lower depths the rebels prized
The glory won from being what they were,
Not the nonentities that they despised.”
60And I: “But Master, what could grieve them so,
To make them not just so sad, but so loud?”
And he: “To put it briefly, they have no
Death to look forward to. Their only shroud
Will be this darkness. They’re condemned to live
In envy always, even of the damned.
The world that gives fame to a fugitive
Gave none of that to them. Instead, it slammed
The door on them, and as for Him on high,
His mercy and His justice He withdraws.
70They never even get to see the sky
That will not have them. But we should not pause
So long for wastrels weeping for what’s gone.
Enough of this. All that there is to see
You’ve seen. It’s nothing. Time that we moved on.”
But I, wide-eyed in that cacophony,
Saw something that my gaze could fix upon
At last: an ensign, twisting without rest
Because it knew no victory or defeat,
And fast behind it ran a crowd I guessed
80No frightened city taking to its feet
To flee an earthquake could outnumber. So
Many there were, I would not have believed
Death had undone so many. There was no
Obstruction now to vision. Those who grieved
Were in plain sight, and some I recognised:
Among them Celestine, of heart so faint
He made the Great Refusal. If he prized
The papal throne—and some call him a saint—
So much, he should have sat on it, and not
90Left it to be usurped by Boniface,
Who ruined Florence. Rooted to the spot,
I saw and knew for certain that this race
Of never-living sprinters were the ones
Who once believed fence sitting no disgrace,
But now they sit no more. The whole bunch runs
Naked, with flies and wasps to stimulate
Their actions at long last, and their scratched cheeks
Spill blood that joins with tears to satiate—
A soup lapped from their footsteps as it leaks—
100  The mass of squirming worms that forms their track.
And when I looked beyond, I saw the bank
Of a mighty river, and another pack
Of people. I said, “Master, whom I thank
For secret knowledge, let me be allowed
To know who these ones are and why they seem
So ready, with a single mind endowed,
To cross in this grim light so great a stream.”
And he: “This matter I will speak upon
When you and I, like them, come to a halt
110  At that sad river called the Acheron.”
My gaze cast down in shame, fearing my fault
Of curiosity stuck in his throat,
I kept my silence until we were there—
Where suddenly an old man in a boat
Headed towards us, tossing his white hair
As he cried “Woe to you and to your souls!
Give up your hopes of Heaven! I have come
To take you to the other side. Hot coals
And ice await, to brand you and benumb
120  In everlasting shadow. As for you,
You living one, this route is for the dead:
Leave it to them.” But when I did not do
His bidding: “By another way,” he said,
“Through other ports and to a different shore
Your passage will be worked, but not through here.
For you a lighter boat than mine’s in store.”
And then my Leader: “Charon, never fear:
All this is wanted there where what is willed
Is said and done, so more than that don’t ask.”
130  At these hard words the bristling jaws were stilled,
And the eyes blinked in the wrinkled, flame-red mask,
Of the ferry pilot of the pitch-black marsh:
But all those naked souls unhinged by fate
Changed colour when they heard that speech so harsh.
Clicking their bared, chipped teeth in hymns of hate,
They cursed their parents, God, the human race,
The time, the temperature, their place of birth,
Their mother’s father’s brother’s stupid face,
And everything of worth or nothing worth
140  That they could think of. Then they squeezed up tight
Together, sobbing, on the ragged edge
That waits for all who hold God in despite.
Charon the demon, with hot coals for eyes,
Herds them yet closer with time-tested signs.
To anyone who lingers he applies
His oar, and as the autumn redefines
A branch by taking off its dead leaves one
By one until the branch looks down and knows
Its own dress, falling as it comes undone—
150  So Adam’s bad seed, grain by bad grain, throws
Itself from that cliff not just at a run
But flying, as the falcon to the glove
Swoops home when signalled. Out across the black
Water they flock, whereat the heights above
That they have left, without a pause go back
To being thick with people, a dark spring
Filling the branch for its next emptiness.
“My son, from many countries they take wing,”
My Master said, “but just the one distress
160  Collects them here. God’s wrath, in which they died,
Came from His justice, which now turns their fear
Into desire to see the other side.
No soul worth saving ever comes through here,
So Charon’s anger you can understand,
And understand why he spoke in that tone.”
At which point the dark ground we stood on heaved
So violently the shock wave still can soak
My memory with sweat. As if it grieved,
The earth wept while it moved, and plumes of smoke
170  Went sideways with the wind. A red light shone.
My reeling senses gave out. I was gone.