Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 13–15 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 13–15

Nessus was not yet back to the far bank
When we set out into a forest void
Of any pathway. No green leaves, but dank,
Discoloured. No smooth boughs, but cloyed
With knots, warped. No sweet fruits, but just the blank
Stems and envenomed thorns. Beasts who despise
The cultivated land that lies between
Cecina and Corneto would not prize
A home this thick and harsh. Here can be seen
10The nests of loathsome Harpies that once chased
The Trojans from the Strophades with dire
Warnings of woe. Wide-winged and human-faced,
Clawed feet, big feathered bellies, a strange choir
Sobbing from stranger trees their sad ill will.
And my good Master: “You should understand
Before you go on, that from here until
You reach the Third Zone’s horrifying sand,
You travel in the Second Zone. So fill
Your eyes with things of which I could not speak
20And be believed.” I heard from every side
Crying, but saw none cry. My spirits weak,
I stopped. I think he thought I thought, my Guide,
That all these voices from the trees belonged
To people hiding from us. He to me:
“To prove that in your thoughts the truth is wronged,
Break off a little branch from any tree.”
I reached to pluck a twig from a great thorn
Whose trunk cried: “Who are you to tear me so?”
The trunk turned dark with blood as if more torn
30Than barely touched, and went on: “May I know
Why you assault me? Pity can’t mean much
To one like you. We who were men are now
Dead wood. You might have shown a gentler touch
Had we been serpent’s souls.” And then somehow
The twig, too, cried. Just as a green brand weeps
Both sound and sap when it burns from one end
And, from the other, hissing liquid seeps,
So my torn trophy bubbled forth a blend
Of blood and words, at which I let it fall
40And stood afraid. My Sage said: “Wounded soul,
Had he believed what he, before, in all
His life, saw only in my lines, then whole
You would have stayed. Thought would have stayed his hand.
But such things were so far beyond belief
Even to me, I failed to understand
The consequences you would pay in grief
Were I to urge him on, and I grieve, too.
But tell him who you were, so he can make
Some restitution by restoring you
50To worldly fame, for he has leave to take
The road home, by a heavenly remit.”
The trunk said: “You so charm me with your speech
I too must speak, so please put up with it
If I should prattle trying not to preach.
Know me for Piero della Vigne, who
Kept both the keys to Emperor Frederick’s heart.
So smoothly did I lock and unlock, few
Men saw into his secrets. To the part,
So glorious, of chancellor, I brought
60Such faithfulness I lost both strength and sleep.
Envy, that common bane of any court,
The harlot who haunts Caesar’s house to keep
Her shameless eyes on all that happens, set
Men’s minds against me. My Augustus, fired
By rumour’s flames, was driven to forget
All honours due to me. Soon I was mired
In misery, accused of treason, lost
My eyes. Then, in my cell, my scornful mind,
Despising scorn from others, paid the cost
70By making me, the just man, yet more blind,
Even to justice, when myself I slew.
But by the new roots of this tree, I swear
That to my dear Lord I was always true,
True to his well-earned honour. When you’re there,
Should either of you get back, please rebuild
My memory, that still, from envy’s blow,
Lies wrecked, a worse death than the one I willed.”
My Poet waited, then addressed me so:
“Now that he’s silent, seize your chance to ask
80What further questions you might have.” Then I
Gave answer: “Once more I give you the task
Of seeking what you think might satisfy
My doubts. I can’t, so much does pity fill
My heart.” And so my Guide began again:
“That this man freely answer to your will,
Imprisoned shade, say more of how and when
A soul is tied in knots, and, if you can,
Tell us if ever any is set free.”
The trunk blew hard, and quickly what began
90As wind became a voice: “These points can be
Quite briefly answered. When the violent soul
Uproots itself and leaves a corpse, Minos
Sends it to Level Seven. Protocol
Decrees that it not mitigate its loss
By choosing where it falls into the wood.
It falls where thrown by chance, and then, a grain
Of grief, it sprouts. Then, where a sapling stood,
There’s suddenly a savage tree, whose pain,
When Harpies come to eat its leaves, must find
100  A vocal outlet. Like the rest, one day
We’ll go to fetch the flesh we left behind,
But it will never clothe us in the way
It did, for Justice would be undermined
If one who robs himself should own once more
The thing he stole. So we will drag them here,
Those bodies, and the thing he was before
On each tree in this wood will hang, so near
Yet so far from its murderous soul.” We were
Still listening, in case the trunk was not
110  Through talking, when we heard a sudden stir.
As one who, waiting in his chosen spot,
Is still surprised to hear the boar-hunt charge
Towards his post—the beasts, the crashing through
Of branches—we were stunned to see at large,
There on our left, two naked runners, two
Scarred runners, and they fled so fast they snapped
The tangle-wood. “Come now!” the first one cried,
“Come quickly, death!” The other, looking sapped
Of winning speed, yelled: “Lano, why the pride?
120  You ran at Toppo but you still got killed.”
He crouched, perhaps because his breath was short,
Close to a bush. The woods behind them filled
With black bitches, ravenous for the sport
And swift as unleashed hounds. They chose the one
Who squatted there to get their teeth into,
And bit by bit tore him apart. That done,
They took the suffering pieces beyond view.
My Escort took me by the hand and led
Me to the bush, which sobbed: “O Jacopo
130  Da Sant Andrea”—anywhere it bled
From wounds, they vainly whined—“why stoop so low?
How did it profit you to make a screen
Of me? Your guilty life was not my blame.”
My Master stooped above it. “You that keen
Both blood and bitter tears, what was your name?”
It said to us: “O souls who come to see
The shameful damage that has stripped my leaves,
Gather them up and bring them back to me,
Heaped at these roots to comfort one who grieves.
140  My city once chose to set Mars aside
For John the Baptist as its patron. Thus
The scorned, discarded one will always guide
Its path to civil war, us against us:
And were it not that near our bridge still stands
A shard of his old statue, those who raised
The city once again from the black brands
And ash left when Attila’s wrath once blazed
Would have worked uselessly. I know. I made
My house my gibbet. Here, I am repaid.”
Compelled by love of home, I gathered in
His scattered leaves for him, who spoke no word,
His voice gone. We moved out. Now I begin
To speak of where the Second and the Third
Zones meet, and where the fearful art is seen
Of Justice. To show clearly these new things,
I have to say we reached a plain swept clean
Of every plant, so that the dark wood rings
A desert, as the sad moat rings the wood.
10Here, at the edge’s edge, we paused. The ground
Was dry, deep sand, as where once strode and stood
Cato in Africa, not to be bound
By Empire. Holy Vengeance, how you must
Be feared by all who read what now I saw!
Herd after herd of naked souls were just
Weeping the one lament, although the law
By which they suffered differed. Some lay flat
Face up, some sat knees high, and there were some
Who kept on moving. Those who moved like that
20Were most in number but were largely dumb
Compared with those who lay in pain. Pain turned
Their tongues loose. Over that great stretch of sand
Slowly broad flakes of fire fell while they burned,
As snow falls in the mountains when not fanned
By any wind. Just as, in India,
When Alexander marched to that hot land
And saw his army, having come so far,
Assailed by falling flames that reached the ground
Unbroken, he told all his troops to tread
30The soil free of those fires which had been found
To have, if not quenched, deadly fumes to spread,
Just so the eternal fire fell through the air,
Kindling the tinder sand like the flint’s spark
To multiply the pain. Hands, in despair,
Unsleeping in their dance, hit first that mark,
Now this, as if they hoped to beat away
The burning flakes. And I: “My Master, you
Who overcome all things that say us nay
Save stubborn imps who would not let us through
40The gate, name me that great one there who seems
To think the fire means nothing, and in scorn
Lies scowling, as if these hot drops were dreams
That could not melt him.” He himself was torn
From his aloofness by what he’d heard said
By me about him. He cried: “What I was
When living, I am now when I am dead.
My fire within outdoes these flames, because,
Though Jove wear out the forge from which in rage
He seized the deadly bolt that skewered me
50On that last day—though he should stage by stage
Wear down his crew to immobility—
At that black forge on Etna, shouting ‘Help,
Good Vulcan, help!’ as once on Phlegra’s field,
And try to shaft me with the victor’s yelp,
He’ll not have vengeance, for I will not yield.”
My Guide then spoke with force I had not heard
From him before. “Capaneus, your pride,
Undimmed, brings you worse punishment: absurd
Ravings like yours alone could match your tide
60Of anger.” Then, with gentler look and word,
He turned to me again. “That was the king,
One of the seven kings, who once laid siege
To Thebes, and held God for a paltry thing
And still does, but to match his sacrilege
He has, as I just told him, his sad bleat.
Follow me now, and keep on walking near
The wood, or else the sand will scorch your feet.”
In silence we approached a point where—fear
Still makes me shudder—gushes forth a small
70Red stream. The Bulicame rivulet
Shared by Viterbo’s harlots one and all
Is similar. So this creek’s course was set
Across the sand. Its bed and banks were stone
With footways alongside, from which I saw
The passage. “Of all things you have been shown,”
My Guide said, “since we entered by that door
Whose threshold is denied to none, you’ve seen
Nothing like this. This stream can cancel out
All of the flames above it.” These had been
80My Leader’s words: but what were they about?
I begged him satisfy the appetite
He’d given me. “Out in the sea lies Crete,
A waste land which once bathed in perfect light
Under its king. Mount Ida was replete—
When Saturn ruled, although he ruled by fright—
With leaves and water, but is now bereft
Of both, worn out. Queen Rhea hid her child
For safety in the cradle of a cleft
And when he cried, she made the crowd go wild,
90To block off Saturn and his murderous theft.
Inside the mountain sits a grand old man.
Back to Damietta, face to Rome, gaze fixed
As to his mirror: head of fine gold, span
Of chest and arms pure silver, brass betwixt
His breast and fork, choice iron from there down
Except for his right foot made of baked clay
On which most weight rests. And save for his crown
Of gold, there is no part not split asplay
By tracks of tears, which gather and descend
100  By force into that cavern there, and take
Their course from rock to rock unto this end.
They make the Acheron, the Styx, they make
The Phlegethon, and here, where they’re confined
To this tight channel and no further fall
Is possible, Cocytus forms. What kind
Of pond that is, you’ll see, so all in all
I’d rather skip that subject.” But then I:
“You say this stream flows from our world. But here,
And only here, is where we see it. Why?”
110  And he: “It’s not the trick it might appear.
You know this place is circular, and you,
Although you have come far, veer left always
As you go down, and have not yet turned through
A full rotation. Let it not amaze
You then, if we encounter something new:
No need to look stunned.” I again: “Where flow
The Phlegethon and Lethe? On the one
You’re silent, and the other—now I know—
Comes from this trough of tears.” He: “You have done
120  Me proud with all your questions, but the red
And boiling river should have solved the first.
Lethe you’ll see, when the repented dead,
Cleansed of the guilt with which they once were cursed,
May bathe themselves, but far beyond this pit.”
And then he said: “It’s time to leave the wood
Behind. You must keep close now. Look to it.
Untouched by falling fires, the only good
Paths are the margins. Any flame that nears
Dies in the rising mist of all these tears.”
A hard edge bears us on, and vapour makes
A shield above out of the stream below
Which, with its banks, is free from fire. It takes
A dam to stem the sea. This, Flemings know,
Between Wissant and Bruges, where they fear
The flood’s rush; and the Paduans, beside
The Brenta, when the Chiarentana’s near
To full from melting snow. Both high and wide
Those bastions are built. These, not so much:
10But still in the same fashion. We had got
So far out of the wood that we’d lost touch
With what it looked like—had I turned, I’d not
Have seen it—when we met a troop of shades
Walking beside the bank. As when the sun
Has set, but light is still there, though it fades,
And under the new moon men look at one
Another, so these looked at us, with tight
Eyebrows, as might a tailor in old age
Search for his needle’s eye. Held to the sight
20Of this squad as I trod my narrow stage,
I had my hem gripped. “Marvellous!” a man cried,
And when he reached for me, I fixed my eyes
On his baked face, nor did those scarified
Features prevent that I should recognise
The man I named. “Master Brunetto. You?
You’re here?” And he to me: “My son, don’t be
Displeased if for a while I leave this crew
To their march while I turn and you keep me,
Your Brunetto Latini, close to hand.”
30And I: “I wish for that with all my heart,
And I will sit with you, should you demand,
If he allows who’s led me from the start.”
“My son,” he said, “if any of this lot
Stops for an instant, for a hundred years
He lies unshielded from the fire. So not
A thought of pausing, lest it end in tears.
Go on, and I’ll be clinging to your skirt.
I’ll catch up later with my squad, who go
Forever mourning their eternal hurt.”
40I dared not, from the bank, step down as low
As where he walked, but kept my head inclined
Like one who walks with reverence. Then he said:
“What chance decrees or destiny designs
That you should be down here when not yet dead,
And who is he that guides your steps?” “Up there
Where life is bright,” I said, “and my midway
In years not yet reached, yet I knew despair,
Lost in a valley. Only yesterday
At dawn I turned my back on it. But I
50Would have returned, had he failed to appear
To lead me home by this road.” He said: “By
Your star, if always by your star you steer,
You can’t fail to make glorious harbour. Had
I sensed this rightly in your life so fair,
And not too soon died, seeing Heaven glad
To help you would have made me take more care
To aid your work. But that mean and malign
People who from Fiesole of old
Came down and still retain a certain sign
60Of rocks and mountains—walls of Florence hold
The stones of that first hill—will make of you,
For your good works, their enemy. No chance
They won’t do that, for never will it do
If sweet figs, in the bitter circumstance
Of sorbs, should come to fruit. The world’s fame long
Has called them blind, half mad with envious greed,
And proud. So from this customary wrong
Get yourself clean. Your Fortune holds such seed
Of honour that both tribes will crave your flesh,
70But as the saying goes, the goat and grass
Will be apart. Let those hill beasts make fresh
Food from themselves: if when they bare their arse
Above the dunghill any plant spring, let
Them leave it lie, for it might hold again
The holy seed of Romans, those who yet
Continued to grace Florence even when
It turned into a writhing vipers’ nest.”
“If all my prayers,” I answered, “were fulfilled,
You’d not yet have been banished from the rest
80Of humankind. For in my mind, instilled
Immovably—and now it floods my heart—
Is the image, kind and fatherly, of you,
When many times you taught me by what art
A man becomes immortal: and what’s due
To you from me in gratitude, my tongue
Must, while I live, declare. What you tell me
I’ll note down, as I did when I was young,
And you spoke. And inside this scroll will be
What Farinata said, so both texts can
90Be brought to one who, should I reach her, will
Know what they mean. But this much of my plan
I would make plain, to keep my conscience still.
What Fortune wishes, I am ready for.
Your forecast is not one I haven’t heard.
Let Fortune turn its wheel at will, and more:
Let the hick hack with his mattock.” This last word
Brought my Guide’s head back, turning to the right,
To look at me and say: “He listens well
Who takes notes.” None the less I took delight
100  In gossip with Brunetto, bade him tell
Which of his squadron had most fame and rank.
And he to me: “Of some it’s well to know,
Of others we do best to leave a blank,
For lack of time to say now, as we go,
So much. But, in a word; clerics they were,
And great, famed scholars; all of them defiled,
When living, by the one same sin. The slur
On that crowd touched the one you, as a child,
Learned Latin grammar from, famed Priscian,
110  And Francesco d’Accorso, who taught law.
And if you like scum you might see the man
Sent to Vicenza by the Pope, before
Florence should see his sin-worn nerves collapse:
Andrea de’ Mozzi. Bishop, in your youth.
There’s so much more to say. Not now, perhaps.
I can’t go further speaking the sad truth,
For see, a new cloud rises from the sand:
People I mustn’t meet will soon arrive.
My book, called Treasure, is at your command:
120  Read it. I ask no more. There, I’m alive.”
He turned then, and he ran like one of those
Who in Verona’s field race for the prize
Of green cloth. Like the first, the last man knows
He, too, will be marked out before all eyes.
But this one ran as if the race were his
To win, not lose. As his life was, and is.