Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 16–18 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 16–18

Already at the point where the long roar
Of water falling into the next loop
Was like the hum of beehives, I now saw
Three shades split at the run from their host group
And come towards us, each one shouting: “Stop!
You there whose clothing had its origin
In our degraded city!” Ah, the crop
Of wounds they bore, both old and new, burned in
By flames! Just to recall them grieves me still.
10My Teacher listened to their cries, then turned
To me and said: “Let’s wait: to them we will
Do well to show respect. Though all is burned—
First on the surface, later through and through—
In this place by its nature, yet I’d say
Haste is less suitable to them than you.”
We stopped, and at their former quick pace they
Came on, and when they reached us, then all three
Made of themselves a wheel, in the same way
That wrestlers do, nude, oiled, and keen to see
20Advantage for their grip, their dance a sign
Of thrusts and blows to come. And, wheeling so,
Each kept his face directed towards mine
Wherever in the circle he might go,
So that his neck moved always with his feet.
“If by the sadness of this sandy waste,”
Said one, “and by our aspect, seared by heat
To hairless blackness, we ourselves are placed,
Along with our petitions, in contempt,
May our fame sway you to incline your mind
30To tell us who you are, that walk exempt
Through Hell. He that you see me tread behind
Was one, though he goes naked now and peeled,
Much grander than you think: grandson of good
Gualdrada, she who first raised high the shield
Of Conti Guidi. Be it understood
That he was Guido Guerra: both with blade
And wise words he did great things while he breathed.
The one who stirs the sand behind me made
Tegghiaio Aldobrandi a name wreathed
40In laurels, and he would have done that more
Had what he said been heeded. As for me,
Put here with them to this cross, I, before,
Was Jacopo Rusticucci. Let it be
Made clear that nothing brought me half as much
Grief as my savage wife.” If there had been,
Down there among them, shelter from the touch
Of fire, I would have thrown myself between
Their bodies, and I think my Teacher might
Have stood for it, but fear soon left for dead
50My goodwill: baked and burned as black as night—
Too ardent an embrace. So I just said:
“No, not contempt, but grief, fixed by your state
So deep into my mind it will be long
Before it leaves. I first felt its full weight
When my lord told me to expect a throng
Of men like you would be here. I am of
Your city, and your deeds and honoured names
Always I’ve heard and spoken of with love.
Leaving the gall, as I will leave these flames,
60I go to the sweet fruits my truthful Guide
Has promised. But I first must go below
To the centre.” “That the soul may steer your stride
And fame shine after you,” said Jacopo,
“Tell us if courtesy and valour yet
Abide in Florence, or are they quite gone?
For Guglielmo Borsiere, whom we met
Quite recently—look there, where he goes on
In fellowship with us to share the pain—
Afflicts us with his words.” And then I cried:
70“Florence! New men and lust for a quick gain
Drive you to mad excess and vaulting pride!
Already you’re in tears!” With straining face
Lifted towards my object of disdain
I yelled all this, and those three, who could trace
The course of my gaze, had their answer. Each
Looked at the others as men often stare
Who hear the truth. “If, any time, to teach
The facts leaves you so little cost to bear,”
They all replied, “then truly you are blessed,
80Speaking as you desire. Therefore if you
Fly free from these dark realms of the possessed
And see the beauty of the stars anew,
Speak well of us.” The wheel was broken, then,
And legs in sand were nimble wings in air
So fast they flew. You couldn’t say “Amen”
And they were gone. My Guide thought we’d been there
For long enough. I followed him. We went
Only a little way before the sound
Of water would have drowned out what we meant
90If we had tried to speak. As at one bound
That river called the Acquacheta, where
It flows high up, as first to hold its course,
Eastward from Monte Veso where you bear
Left on the Apennines, before, full force,
It roars over the cliff into the air
At San Benedetto dell’Alpe, down to burst
And find its lower bed at Forlì, fleeced
With foam again, and, having done its worst,
Changes its name, might well have leapt at least
100  A thousand times, there, down the cliff-like bank,
Dark water boomed, so, as the time increased
That we spent near it, our stunned ears grew blank.
The cord I wore with which I once had planned
To snare the leopard with the painted pelt,
I loosed completely at my Guide’s command,
And passed him what had been my hidden belt
Now coiled and knotted. He swung to the right
And flung it. Far out from the edge it went
And down into the deep pit of the night.
110  For the strange signal, something must be meant
To answer strangely, or the master’s eye
Would not so closely follow it. Men ought
To treat with caution those that clarify
The deed by seeing deep into the thought
That lies behind it. He to me: “Soon, now,
What I seek and you dream of will be brought
To light. It will come up. You’ll soon see how.”
About a truth that sounds just like a lie
A man should keep his mouth shut, if he can,
120  Since it will surely shame him by and by,
Though he be not at fault. But not this man,
Not here. I must speak. By the melodies
Of this my Comedy—may they not fail
Of lasting favour—reader, on my knees
I swear I saw swim upward through the stale
And murky air a figure, fit to stun
A stout heart, as that rising one returns
Who went down diving to get something done
About the anchor caught in the reef ‘s ferns
130  Or something else the sea hides. Coming near,
He stretches, draws his feet in. He is here.
“Behold the beast with pointed tail, the one
That breasts the mountains as he breaks through walls
And weapons! He’s the beast whose poison none
Escapes. He breathes, and soon the whole world falls
Into a fever.” Thus my Leader spoke
To me, while signalling the beast to come
Ashore beside where the stone causeway broke
Off short, and that foul image of the sum
Of all things fraudulent slid in to land
10His head and chest, but left his tail out there
Free of the bank. His face bore not one brand
Beyond the stamp of justice: a fine air
Of grace he radiated. All the rest
Was serpentine: two paws, wrapped thick with hair
From wrist to armpit, and the back and breast
And both flanks decorated with rich knots
And peacock targets. Not Tartar or Turk
Ever made stuffs with colours in such lots
Within the weave or added on as work,
20Nor did Arachne, spider woman, lay
Webs on her loom like these. As sometimes boats
Lie at the shore, part dry, part in the play
Of water, or the patient beaver floats
Its tail out from the bank to lure its prey
In Germany, where gluttons rule the roost,
So this vile brute lay on the rim that rings
The waste of sand with stone. Its tail was loosed
To roam the void, thus raising its twin stings,
The lethal scorpion-fork that armed its tip.
30My Leader said: “Now we must seek the ledge
That leads to where that monster keeps its grip
On something solid.” Thus along the edge
Down to the right, we went ten paces, well
Away from sand and flames. We reached his head
And I saw people, where the sandbank fell
Away, who sat beyond. My Master said:
“That you may keep full knowledge of this zone,
See how they are, but let your talk be quick.
Meanwhile with this one I will speak alone:
40We need his shoulders.” So I had to pick
My way all by myself along the rim
Of Level Seven to the place where those
Sad people sat. Pain filled them to the brim
And burst forth from their eyes, which could not close.
On either side their hands beat in defence
Now from the flames, now from the burning sand,
As dogs in summer fight the insolence
Of fleas and gnats and gadflies with a grand
And useless dart of snout or sweep of paw.
50I looked at faces. Not a face I knew
As fire fell on them all: but then I saw
That each neck wore a pouch of certain hue
And coat of arms. They fixed their eyes on these
Once noble signs, and when I looked about
Among them, I saw various liveries:
Blue lion on purse yellow, I picked out,
And then, on purse blood-red, a goose bright white,
Whiter than butter. And a light blue sow
Expectant on white wallet hove in sight,
60Whose owner said: “Why are you here and how,
In this death pit? Get out, and, since you live,
Know well that Vitaliano, from my town,
Will sit here on my left. They won’t forgive,
Those Florentines, that I dared to come down
From Padua. Often they pound my ears:
‘Let Buiamonte come, the sovereign knight
Whose pouch bears three goats!’ ” Thus our years
Of noble deeds end with a fool’s delight
In lending money. As he made a face
70With twisted mouth and tongue stuck out to lick
His nose like a lost ox, I, lest disgrace
Should fall on me (I was already sick—
I should have kept it short), left this sad troop
To view my back, and went to find my Guide
Already mounted on the huge beast’s croup.
“Be strong and bold. From here on down, we ride
On flying stairs. Get up in front of me,”
He said, “so I can guard you from the tail.”
As one so near malaria’s ecstasy
80Of shivering that his every fingernail
Turns blue, and at the merest sight of shade
He trembles head to foot, such I became
At these words, but a servant can be made
More staunch by a good master, for the shame.
And so, on those great shoulders, I got set,
Wishing to say, except no voice was there
To match the thought: “Now hold me! Don’t forget!”
But he that in another time took care
Of me, and in another danger, on
90The spot embraced me. Ready for the air,
I heard his voice behind me: “Geryon!
Let’s move. And make your circles slow and wide
As we go down. Remember your new load.”
And as a small boat inch by inch will glide
Backwards from where it was, so was the mode
Of Geryon’s departure. Feeling free
At last, he gently turned, until his tail
Was where his breast had been. Then, finally,
He stretched the tail out. On a giant scale
100  It was an eel, and so it moved. His paws
Pulled in the air. I think no greater fear
Had Phaethon when his hands betrayed his cause
And dropped the reins, and so let the sun sear
The sky where we now see the Milky Way,
Nor Icarus, when he first felt his wings
Work loose because, too near the light of day,
The wax turned soft—the man who built the things,
His father, shouting “Wrong turn!”—than I knew,
When everywhere I looked was only air,
110  And all except the beast was lost to view.
Slowly he swims, as if with time to spare,
Slowly he wheels, and gradually descends,
But I think only of the wind I face—
And that wind from down there where the flight ends.
Now, on our right, the torrent shook the base
Of reason with its sobbing throb, whereat
I craned my neck and looked down. Then my fear
Increased of getting down from where I sat.
For I saw flames, and heard sad cries come near,
120  So that I shrank back trembling. Then I saw—
As not before—our circular descent
Against the background of a single law
Expressed in all the forms of discontent.
And as the falcon too long on the wing
Without a sight of lure or victim makes
The falconer cry: “Come on home, poor thing,”
And wearily starts down, and finds it takes
A hundred turns to get back to the spot
It left so swiftly, and lands in a sulk
130  And angry near its master, and yet not
All that near, Geryon, in his great bulk,
At last had set us down on the deep floor
Close to the jagged rock’s base. Then, set free
Of my weight, with no orders any more
From my Guide, like an arrow finally
Let loose to fly, he vanished instantly.
Now, Malebolge is a place in Hell
All iron-coloured stone, just like the wall
That goes around it, and a wide, deep well
Gapes in the middle of its foul field. All
The workings of that pit I shall expound
In due course. But for now, let’s say the belt
Between it and the high rock bank is round,
With ten concentric valleys, each a welt
Sunk in the earth. As where moat after moat,
10Guarding the castle, makes ring after ring
And scored ground shows a plan that we can note,
The general layout here was the same thing,
And as such forts have bridges from their gates
To the outer bank, so from the rock’s base run
Ridges from dyke to dyke to where awaits
The pit that cuts them short, providing one
Point of collection. Dropped by Geryon
From his back, there we were. My Leader held
Tight to the left, and I, behind, came on.
20On our right hand, new kinds of anguish welled,
New torments, new tormentors: with this tide
The first ditch brimmed. The sinners on its floor
Were naked. They came facing us, this side
Of centre. On the other side, they bore
In our direction, but with longer stride,
Just as in Rome, the year of Jubilee,
The crowds of pilgrims on the bridge were split
So those on one side, as they crossed, could see
The Castle and were always facing it
30As they approached St. Peter’s, while those on
The other walked towards the hill. But here
Along the sad rock they were set upon
On both sides by horned demons. From the rear
Each victim felt a huge whip at the task
Of cruel encouragement, and flicked his heels
At the first stroke. Nobody had to ask
For a second or a third, though such appeals
Would have been granted. As I went, my gaze
Was met by one of them. Quickly I said:
40“I saw enough of him, once.” To appraise
Him further, I slowed down, and he who led
Allowed me to turn back a bit. And that
Afflicted soul believed he could conceal
Himself by lowering his face: but at
The vain attempt I said: “You just reveal
Yourself by doing that, for I still know,
Unless my eyes deceive me, the true face
Of Venedico Caccianemico.
But what brings you to this sour, pickled place,
50So like the ditch where dead outlaws are thrown
Near your Bologna?” And he answered: “I
Say this with bad grace, but your speech so plain
Recalls the old world, so I must comply.
The Marquis d’Este got his chance to gain
Ghisolabella only with my aid.
Yes, I played pander with the helpless bait
Of my own sister. Thus the deal was made,
However now my countrymen relate
The vile tale. And I’m not the only soul
60Once of Bologna now lamenting here:
This place is full of them. Not in the whole
City between two rivers are such sheer
Numbers of tongues that speak our dialect.
And if you want the proof, recall to mind
Our avaricious spirits, and reflect.”
And even as he spoke, hard from behind
A demon hit him with a whip, and cried:
“Go, pimp! There are no women here to trade!”
I joined my Escort, and, with him to guide,
70Soon came to where a ridge formed an arcade
Out from the bank. We climbed up there with ease,
Turned right along the crags, and left that gang
To their perpetual circularities.
When we were at the dizzy overhang
Above the trench for those beneath the lash,
My Leader said: “Stop here. Take in the sight
Of yet another form of ill-born trash:
Faces you’ve not yet seen in the right light
Because they walked with us, and not towards.”
80From the ancient bridge we watched them as they came
Towards us on the other side, the hordes
Lashed onward like the first lot, just the same.
My Poet said, unprompted: “It’s him! Look!
That great one, who weeps not, for all his pain,
Is Jason. Who by craft and courage took
The Golden Fleece from Colchis, the rich gain
Its men all lost. Lemnos he left behind,
Whose women, bold and callous, gave their men
To death, and where he played upon the mind
90Of Hypsipyle with soft words and then
Again with trinkets, she who had beguiled
The other women when they wished to slay
Her father—and she, now, was left, stark wild
With grief and pregnant, as he sailed away.
This torment fits his guilt. Medea, too,
Is here avenged, for he gulled her as well.
And with him go all those deceivers who
Do likewise, and let this be all we tell
Of this first valley and those in its jaws.”
100  Now we were where the narrow pathway cuts
Across the second dyke and thus ensures
Support for the stone arch the dyke abuts.
Here we heard people moaning in the next
Crevasse. With snouts they snorted, while they slapped
Themselves with open hands. Their cruelly vexed
Exhaling grew a mouldy crust that wrapped
The banks, repellent to the eyes and nose,
The depth so hollow that it can’t be seen
Save when the arch’s crown is climbed, which lies
110  The furthest out above that sad ravine.
We went up there, and in the ditch below
Were people plunged in the cloacal slime
Of human privies, far too thick to flow,
And as I scanned the filth, taking due time,
I saw one with his head so fouled by shit
I couldn’t tell if it was shaved or not.
Layman or cleric? He cried: “Why is it
I catch your greedy eye more than this lot
Stuck in their slop?” My turn: “Because I know
120  That head. If I’m right, I’ve seen you before,
With clean hair. If you are Alessio
Interminei, that’s why I eyed you more
Than all the rest.” Then he beat on his crown
And cried: “See how my flatteries have cloyed,
That while I lived could never drag me down.”
And then my Guide: “Lean out into the void
A touch more, and you’ll get a better view
Of that foul rag-bag female horror’s face.
Squatting or standing, either of the two,
130  She always scratches some disgusting place
With filthy nails. Behold Thaïs, the whore,
Whose client asked if he was dear to her.
She flattered him (’I couldn’t love you more’)
And made a clown out of a customer.”
We’ve seen that flattery is filthy stuff.
Let’s say for now that we have seen enough.