Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 10–12 | clivejames.com
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Hell, Cantos 10–12

My Master, by a hidden path, now made
His way between the city and the plain
Of torment. As I followed him, I stayed
Close to his shoulder. “You by whom I gain
Access,” I said, “to all these rings of sin,
My Height of Virtue, could you stoop to tell
Me this much? These tombs. Those who lie within,
Can they be seen? The lids are off. As well,
No one keeps guard.” And he to me: “They all
10Will be locked down when, from Jehoshaphat,
They come back with the bodies they let fall
On Earth. In this part you are looking at
Lie Epicurus and his followers
From ancient times until the present day—
All who believe that death for souls concurs
With death for flesh. Your question? Let’s just say
That soon it will be answered there inside,
Along with the desire that you conceal.”
“Master,” I said, “the reason that I hide
20My heart is just to answer your appeal,
Made several times, that I say less to you.”
“Tuscan who earned on earth by fitting speech
The right to walk invulnerable through
This city’s fire, one moment, I beseech,
Of your time. By your accent, you were born
In that same noble country which I left—
Perhaps because of my ideals—more torn
Than mended.” I, of bravery bereft
By this abrupt voice from the tomb, now drew
30A little closer to my Guide. And he
To me: “Come on, what’s wrong with you?
Look where he rises so that you can see
His whole form from the waist up. Know him now?
It’s Farinata.” I had turned my eyes
To his. I knew him. Proud in chest and brow,
He rose like one who only can despise
All Hell can do. The sure hand of my Guide
Steered me to him between the sepulchres,
With this advice: “Make your words dignified.”
40I stopped at the tomb’s foot. There was a pause.
The shade surveyed me. Then, in scorn almost,
He asked: “Your ancestors, what was their cause?”
Keen to obey, I told him. If a ghost
Can raise an eyebrow, his did. Then, his voice:
“Your people were fierce enemies to me
And mine, and to my clan. I had no choice:
Twice, they were scattered.” “You mean made to flee,”
I said, “And if they did, they twice returned
From every haven they took refuge in,
50An art you Ghibellines have never learned.”
Another shade, on view from crown to chin
Only, now rose beside him. On its knees,
I think, it looked around me where I stood,
As if I had not come alone to these
Extremes, and then, its last hopes not made good,
It spoke through tears: “If you for your great skills
In poetry are led here through this blind
Bastille, where is my son, he who fulfils
The same description. Is he left behind?”
60And I: “Not just my own worth brings me here,
And He who waits for me where I might go,
Your Guido could have held Him much more dear.”
His words and form of pain had let me know
His name already, hence my full reply,
At which he jerked straight. “What is that you say?
‘Have held,’ not ‘holds’? You use the past tense. Why?
Does he not live? Does not the light of day
Still sweetly wound his eyes?” When he had seen
How slow I was to answer, he fell back
70And disappeared. As if this had not been,
That other great one who had checked my track,
His face unchanged, his neck unbent, still straight
His body, spoke to what I’d said before:
“If it be true they failed to learn, my fate
In this bed hurts me less than that thought. Nor
Will you be spared, for fifty moons from now—
The moon which is her face, the one who reigns
Down here—you White Guelphs will be taught just how
Hard it can be to come back. It remains,
80If ever you return to that sweet air,
For you to tell me why the Florentines
Conspire to drive my kindred to despair
In all their laws.” And I: “Our senate means,
By what it speaks, to recollect the rout
And massacre of Montaperti. Red
With blood the Arbia flowed.” For once in doubt,
He sighed and shook his head, and then he said:
“It wasn’t me alone, nor, with the rest,
Would I have moved unprompted. But alone
90I was, when all agreed it would be best
To wipe out Florence. I was on my own
In a defence with open helm professed.”
“So that your faction might at last know peace,”
I begged, “assist me to untie a knot
From which my tangled judgement craves release.
Is what I’m told a fact, that you have got
The secret of foreseeing what time brings,
But only at a distance, and not now?”
“Like those with faulty sight, we can see things
100  Only far off,” he said. “For that is how
Much light the Lord still grants us. Things more near,
Or here, leave our minds helpless, and unless
The news is brought by others, nothing’s clear
About the human state. Thus you may guess
That all we know will lie dead on the Day
Of Judgement, when the future will be sealed.”
Then sorrow for my fault moved me to say:
“Could you now tell that other one who reeled
And fell back, that his son yet lives? And let
110  Him know that if my answer was so slow
Before, it was because I was beset
With that doubt you have settled.” Keen to go,
My Master was recalling me. In haste
I begged the shade to read the roll of those
There with him. He to me: “Here lie encased
More than a thousand. Fiery tombs enclose
The second Frederick, sensual emperor,
And Cardinal Ottaviano who
Boasted of his lost soul, and many more
120  Of whom I will say nothing.” Back into
His crucible he vanished, and I turned
Towards my ancient Poet, thinking still
Of what I had just heard, and how it burned
With such hostility. “And what thoughts fill
Your head?” he asked as we walked. I replied.
“What he has said against you, you should hold
In memory,” he said. “But that aside,
You must attend to what you see unfold
As we proceed.” He pointed, and spoke on:
130  “When you are bathed in the sweet radiance
Of her whose fair eyes leave the sun outshone
And see all, then the full significance
Of your life’s journey you will learn from her.”
He turned left, and the wall was at our back,
And downward, even further than we were,
We worked towards the centre on a track
Into a valley which, even as high
As where we strode, still stank to make you cry.
On the edge of a high rim of broken rock—
Boulders that formed a mighty circle’s arc—
We came upon a crowd I saw with shock
Were even more tormented. Here the stark
Force of the stench that welled like a wound’s pus
Drove us to shelter in behind a vault
Inscribed: “I hold Pope Anastasius,
Led by Photinus to the grievous fault
Of scorning all belief in the straight way.”
10“Here if we pause in our descent awhile
So that our senses can adjust, we may
Proceed with less revulsion at this vile
Breath from Hell’s throat.” So said my Guide. And I:
“How can we make up for the time we lose?”
And he: “My thoughts exactly. Bounded by
These cliffs, my son, are three more circles whose
Diameters, like those we’ve left behind,
Decrease as they go down. All three are packed
With blighted spirits. You should bear in mind—
20So the mere sight will be enough, in fact,
For you to understand—how they’re confined
And why. Crimes Heaven hates have for their end
Injustice, and that end afflicts someone
Either by force or fraud, and must offend
The Lord, for fraud is human, and ills done
By humans please Him least, and therefore they,
The tricksters, lie low down and suffer more.
In the first circle here, which is to say
The seventh if you count all those before,
30The violent lie in three zones. And why three?
Violence is done to three: to God, the man
Who does it, and the neighbour. It can be
For what they are—a crime whose only plan
Is hatred—or else for their property.
You’re looking puzzled. Let me make it plain.
By force, death and cruel damage can be dealt
To someone in himself, and the same pain,
If what he has is hurt, is sorely felt:
Ruin, extortion, burning. Thus it is
40That murderers and all who would inflict
Damage from malice, all the plunderers
And pillagers, for this first zone are picked
To suffer, each to his due squad assigned.
And since a man may violate by force
Himself and what he has, so we must find
It fit that in the second zone remorse
Without relief assails him who deprives
Himself of your sweet world, gambles away
His gifts, and here is joined to the lost lives
50Who must shed tears forever and a day
For joy they might have had. Then, the third zone:
Violence to God, done in the secret heart
By doubt, or done not just through thought alone
But outright blasphemy, negates the part
God plays in nature. Thus the smaller ring
Stamps with its seal both Sodom and Cahors
(That is, the usurers) and all who bring
Contempt against God from behind closed doors.
Fraud eats the conscience, whether used against
60Those who trust us or those who trust us not.
In the latter case, the bonds of love dispensed
By nature are undone. Thus you have got,
In Circle Eight, toadies and hypocrites,
Magicians, forgers, thieves, thugs, dealers in
Holy preferment, everything that fits
The definition of sheer filth. The sin
Arising from the former case? Still worse.
With natural love forgotten, added trust
Is ruined too. When this sad universe
70Draws to the tightest ring, when it is just
A central point where Lucifer resides
In Circle Nine, the traitors are consumed
Forever.” I said: “Master, your report
Thus far is clear. How this pit of the doomed
Is portioned out to hold them you’ve made plain.
But tell me why those of that stygian slime,
Those driven by the wind, lashed by the rain,
And their own tongues, must serve their endless time
Like that and not like this, here in this red
80Metropolis. Is not the wrath of God
Upon them too? If not, why are they led
To suffer?” He to me: “How your wits nod
And wander aimless! Can’t you concentrate?
Don’t you recall how Aristotle shows,
In the Ethics, that three different kinds of state
In humans breed all crimes that can oppose
Themselves to heaven’s will? Incontinence,
Malice and brutishness? And of those three,
Incontinence is held the least offence
90By God, and so is punished less? You see,
Or ought to, how this basic teaching yields
The reason that all those we left outside
And higher up in their respective fields
Are separate from the wicked who reside
Down here. These were more guilty. Hence, divine
Justice assails those less than it does these.”
“Bright sun,” I said, “you calm these doubts of mine
As you heal any troubled sight. Such ease
You bring me that to question pleases me
Like being answered. But could you just touch
100  Again on one point? You said usury
Offends the holy goodness. Why so much?
Turn back a little and untie that knot.”
“Philosophy,” he said, “to him who reads
It well, speaks more than once of what
Dictates the course of nature. It proceeds
According to the holy mind and art.
And from the Physics, a few pages on,
You’ll find your own art a dependent part
Of nature’s, as a pupil draws upon
110  His teacher’s principles to the extent
That he can grasp them. Thus your industry
Is God’s grandchild. By this twin element
Of nature’s force and human effort—see
The book of Genesis, near the beginning, where
Men are enjoined to earn their bread by sweat—
Humanity needs must accept its share
Of effort to advance. The trade in debt
Ignores that pact. His course set otherwise,
The usurer holds nature in contempt
120  Both in herself and in her human guise,
Simply by how he holds himself exempt
And sets his hopes elsewhere. But time for you
To follow me, for here we can’t remain.
On the horizon’s rim they shine like dew,
The quivering fish of Pisces. The great Wain
Lies over Caurus. Soon the dawn will break,
And the cliff give us a downward path to take.”
The place we came to for our next descent
Was alpine, and because of what it held
No eye would seek it. As, downstream from Trent,
By either earthquake or weak ground impelled,
The landslide struck the Adige’s left bank
So that the shaken peak now joins the plain
Through one steep slope the traveller might thank
For steps of broken rock, the same again
Was this path downward into the ravine,
And on the chasm’s edge outstretched there lay
10The infamy of Crete, by whom I mean
The Minotaur, conceived on the sad day
When Pasiphae wore the cow of wood,
And when he saw us he began to eat
Himself, as one whose rage would, if it could,
Consume him, hungry for the nearest meat.
My wise one cried: “Perhaps you think that I
Bring you the Duke of Athens, Theseus,
Who in the living world taught you to die?
Beast, get away. This man will not discuss
20Plans with your sister. He is on the road
To see the suffering in the realm you guard.”
As a bull that breaks loose when the final goad
Delivers the death stroke, but is debarred
From running, lunges here, there, anywhere,
So did the Minotaur, and when my Guide
Saw this, he cried: “That passage over there!
Run for it while he’s still preoccupied
With his own fury, and start down!” And so
We picked our way down those piled rocks, which moved,
30Because they felt a weight they did not know,
Often beneath my feet, and thereby proved
That I was mortal. As I went, I thought.
And he: “You think about this ruined cliff,
Guarded by that wild beast whose rage I brought
To heel just now? You’d not have seen it if
You’d been with me the first time I came here
Into the depths of Hell. None of this rock
Had fallen then. Love caused it to appear
When He who took his pick from Limbo’s stock
40Came down to the top circle. Then Love shook
This putrid valley to its depths. I felt
The universe feel Love. (Some others look
On Love as causing chaos that can melt
The world entire, and has, repeatedly.)
That was the moment when this rock was thrown
Down thus, both here and elsewhere. But now see,
Below, that river. Made of blood alone,
It holds and boils all those whose violence
Has injured others.” Blind greed! Brainless rage!
50In our brief lives they drive us beyond sense
And leave us misery for a heritage
Throughout eternity! I saw a wide
Moat, curved, just as my Escort had outlined,
To frame the level. Here on the near side,
Between the moat’s edge and the cliff behind,
A line of archer centaurs ran, as they
Had done on Earth when chasing game. They saw
Us coming down, and stopped. Three broke away,
Bringing their best-made arrows. “Lest I draw
60My bow,” one cried from far off, “tell us what
Torment you come to. Why descend the slope?
Tell us from there.” My Master: “You we’ll not
Taunt with an answer. Chiron, there, can cope:
Your hasty will was always your disease.”
Then he touched me, and said: “The one who shouts
Is Nessus. For the wife of Hercules,
Fair Deianira, he died, and the gouts
Of blood that soaked his shirt avenged him. He’s
Nothing beside great Chiron. That’s him there
70In the middle, looking down at his own chest.
He had the young Achilles in his care.
The other one is Pholus, so possessed
With rage. And this is just the one patrol
Of the centaur army. Round the moat they go
In thousands, loosing shafts at every soul
That lifts itself out of the blood by so
Much as an inch more than its guilt permits.”
Now we were near to those quick beasts, Chiron
Pulled back his beard with where the notched bolt fits
80Into the string. Mouth bared, “Keep your eyes on
That second one,” he told his friends. “His feet
Shift what they step on. Dead feet never do.”
At Chiron’s breast, where his two natures meet,
My Master said of me: “He lives, it’s true.
And he’s alone. It is for me to show
This clouded valley to him. He is brought
Here by necessity, not pleasure. So
Someone instructed me who had cut short
Her hallelujahs. He is not a thief
90And nor am I, but by the Power that steers
My steps on this road wild without relief,
Choose from your ranks, to be our eyes and ears,
One who can find the ford, or take a man
Across the bloodstream on his back, for men
Cannot fly through the air as spirits can.”
Chiron turned to his right, and “All right, then,”
He said to Nessus. “You can double back,
Show them the ford, and scare off any band
Like ours that you might meet.” Off down the track
100  We moved with our new guide, on the last land
Before the bubbling red, in which the boiled,
Up to their eyebrows, screamed. “Tyrants who dipped
Their hands in blood, they never then recoiled,”
Said the great centaur. “Lust for plunder gripped
Them once, and how it got them where they are
They now regret, as you can hear. But see,
That’s Alexander, called, by Seneca,
The Cruel and not the Great. And Sicily
Suffered from that man, Dionysius,
110  For long years. And that brow with the black hair
Belongs to Ezzelino, tortured thus
For tortures given. That one is the fair
Obizzo d’Este, smothered by his son
Up there. Down here, what takes his breath away
Flows from the things he did, and not those done
To him.” I turned to hear my Poet say
“That last news will make certain what you guess.”
We moved on. When the centaur stopped once more,
There was a crowd below us who were less
120  Deeply immersed than those we’d seen before.
Mere murderers, they had caused less distress
And so their heads, as far down as the throat,
Stood out above the blood like flesh and bone
While Nessus, pointing, bade us both take note
Of one shade who appeared to stand alone
Even among the alone. “That one is Guy
De Montfort, who in God’s house took a life,
And now the heart he stabbed sits in the sky
Above the Thames, and still it feels the knife
130  And still drips blood.” And after that I saw
People who stood with head, neck and whole chest
On view, and I knew many. More and more
The blood grew shallow. Leaving raw the rest,
It cooked only the feet. Here we could cross.
“On this side you may see the blood run thin,”
The centaur said, “But there is no real loss,
For on the other side more blood flows in
To fill a bed which goes on deepening
Until it reaches where the tyrants groan
140  As Holy Justice puts the sacred sting
To Attila, Scourge of Earth. In the same zone
Are Pyrrhus, Rome’s inveterate enemy,
And Sextus, likewise. Justice milks the tears,
Let loose by steam the boiling gore sets free,
From Rinier da Corneto. Recent years
Have seen the high roads made a battlefield
By him and Rinier Pazzo. Same first name,
Same ruthlessness. But time forced them to yield—
And when their world died, this was where they came.”
150  The centaur turned. We watched his head-high stride
Back through the ford across the crimson tide.