Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 19–21 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 19–21

Now, Simon Magus and his acolytes;
You wretches who for silver and for gold
Made strumpets of the things of God (by rights
The Brides of Righteousness); all you that sold
The priceless, now the trumpet sounds for you,
For you here, in the third pouch. We were now
At the next tomb, on that high part of the new
Rock ridge that hung above the ditch. But how,
Wisdom Supreme, how great the art you show
10In perfect Heaven and on evil Earth,
How justly portioned out your power! So
I saw along the sides and in the girth
Of that grim ditch’s floor a livid stone
With holes in it, the holes all the one size
And each one round. One size and shape alone
Had all the fonts, it seemed to my fond eyes,
In my lovely church St. John, and one of those
I broke when helping someone out who would
Have drowned, and this I swear to, to foreclose
20All further rumours that I meant no good.
From each hole’s mouth a sinner’s feet stuck out
And legs up to the calf: the rest inside.
All had both soles on fire. Joints thrashed about
With such force that a willow lashing tied
Around them would have snapped: a rope, the same.
As flame on oily things moves over just
The surface, so it was here with this flame,
Playing from heels to toes. “Master, I must
Know this,” I said. “That one who’s writhing there
30More even than his fellows, who is he,
Licked by a redder fire?” “If you should care,”
He answered, “to be lifted up by me
And carried down by that more stony bank,
You’ll hear from him of who he is and what
He did.” And I: “All that to you whom I most thank
Is pleasing, suits me well. For I do not—
You know, my lord—depart from what you will.
Also you know what I don’t say.” Then we
Were on the fourth dyke, turned left, went downhill
40To the pitted, narrow floor, and he set me
Down from his hip when finally we faced
The hole of him who with his shanks wept most.
“Whoever you may be who are so placed,”
I said, “sad soul, heels over head, a post
Well planted, speak now if you can.” Just as
The friar that shrives the sneaking killer, who,
The job done, calls him back and thereby has
Further delay before death, I stood, too,
And listened, as he cried: “Already here,
50Boniface? Is it you that’s standing there
So early? Three years more, or pretty near,
The writing said you’d take to get here. Where
Was truth in that? So soon, you’re satisfied
With all you did not fear to take by guile
From Our Lady Beautiful and then bestride
Her prostrate holiness? So short a while
Your stolen splendour fed your hungry pride?”
Like those who stand as if they might be mocked
By some reply they don’t quite comprehend
60And can’t reply themselves, they are so shocked,
So I became, and Virgil said: “Quick! Mend
His error. Say: ‘Be sure I am not he.
He isn’t here.’ ” As I was asked, I spoke,
At which the shade’s feet in their agony
Twisted together, and he sighed, and broke
Into a sob, and said: “What do you seek
With me, then? If to know my name concerns
You so much that you came down here to speak
With me direct, behold: here writhes and burns
70A pope: the mighty mantle I once wore
As Nicholas III, although in truth
The she-bear sign was what I wore before—
A son of the Orsini. Our clan’s youth
Was my chief cause. The whelps brought out my worst.
For them I stacked my wealth. Here, I am stacked.
Below my head are others who went first
In simony, and, where the rock is cracked,
Are, through those fissures, now dragged down, squashed flat.
And down there I will go too, in my turn,
80When he, for whom I so mistook you that
I asked a hasty question, comes to burn
At long last. Longer still, though, is the time
Already that I’ve been here upside down
With roasted feet than he, for his great crime,
Will spend with red feet, planted. Our same crown
Will fall to Clement, of yet fouler deeds.
He’ll be, that lawless shepherd from the west,
As bad as both of us. Just as one reads
In the Maccabees, of Jason and his best
90Bid for the priesthood, which the king forgave,
Prepare for the new Jason, favoured by
The King of France to buy and sell the bread
Of life.” I can’t be positive that I
Was not too bold, when everything I said
In answer was as strict as this: “How much
Did Our Lord ask, pray tell, in treasure when
He gave the keys to Peter? Was there such
A thing as price? No, all that he asked then
Was ‘Follow me.’ Nor did Matthias pay
100  The others when he took the vacant place
Of Judas, self-condemned. So here you stay,
Well punished, pondering the long disgrace
Of what you charged for boldness in that plot
Against Charles of Anjou. And I should heap
Yet harsher words upon you, were it not
That reverence for the keys you got to keep
In the glad life forbade me. Lust for gain
Like yours saddens the world, tramples the good,
Exalts the wicked. You ruled in the brain,
110  Bad shepherds, of the one who understood
The Apocalypse, I mean the Evangelist
Who wrote of her that sits on water, seen
Committing fornication with a list
Of kings, that harlot who had been
Born with the seven heads, her strength obtained
From ten horns for so long as her bridegroom
Thought pleasure was a virtue. You thieves reigned,
Making a God of gold and silver. Room
Does not exist between the idolaters
120  And you, except they worship one, and you
A hundred. Constantine! You set the spurs
To evil, not by cleaving to your new
Religion, but by how, when you moved east,
You gave Sylvester, just to stay behind,
The Western Empire’s wealth.” He never ceased
While I sang him this song—whether his mind
Was chewed by anger or remorse—to kick
Out hard with both feet. I believe indeed
It pleased my Guide, who clearly could not pick
130  One fault of fact as I spoke. I could read
The pleasure in his eye. Then he took me
In both arms—I was lifted to his breast—
And up we went the way we came, and he
Tired not of holding me. Back to the crest
Of that arch from the fourth to the fifth dyke
He carried me clasped close. And then he set
Me gently down, for what that ridge was like:
Rugged and steep, rough as few goats have met—
And there beyond, another valley yet.
It’s Book One, Canto Twenty. I must make
New matter and new verses from the pain
Of those in these depths, where the floor’s a lake
Of anguished tears I stare at tight with strain,
Seeing them come along the valley’s curve,
These silent people weeping, at the pace
Of worldly litanies. I needed nerve
Even to notice, there below each face,
The twist between the upper chest and chin.
10The head faced the behind, and thus they came
Reversed, so as to see in front. If in
Some case of palsy it has been the same,
A man turned right around, I have not seen
Such things, nor do I think they can be true.
So God grant, reader, you yourself should glean
Fruit from your reading, and think how I knew
To keep dry cheeks when I saw from close by
The human form so twisted that its eyes
Could bathe with tears its rearward cleft. And I,
20I wept indeed, held up in my surprise
By one rock of the ridge. My Escort said:
“You’re witless as the rest? Here pity dwells,
But only when it’s absolutely dead.
Who is more guilty than he who by spells
And mysteries makes it seem as if divine
Judgement were subject to his will? Raise, raise
Your head. The earth, like a collapsing mine,
Once opened up beneath this one, in days
Of old. The Thebans saw it, shouting: ‘Where
30Do you rush off to, Amphiaraus,
Why do you quit the fight and take the air?’
A question he did not stay to discuss,
But plunged straight down till he was in the care
Of Minos, who looks after everyone.
See how his shoulders make a breast, he that
Would see so far ahead, and now is spun—
If he would reach what he is looking at—
Around to see behind while he goes back
Towards his front. And see the soothsayer
40Tiresias, who gave two snakes a crack
With his staff, for their coupling. But they were
Revenged when all his features changed from male
To female. He, transformed in every part,
Must strike again those twined snakes without fail
Before he could resume his manly art.
And backed up to his paunch is Aruns. ‘Hail
Caesar!’ the entrails said: which came to be.
In the hills of Luni, where the ground is tilled
By those who come up from Carrara, he
50Once had a cave, as if it had been drilled
Through the white marble, and from there his view
Of sea and stars was boundless. And look there
At her whose breasts have been concealed from you
By her long hair thrown back, and her short hair
Is also at the back. She is Manto,
Tiresias’s daughter. Many a land
She searched through. Finally she chose to go
Where I was born, and settle. Understand,
On this you should know some of what I know.
60After her father died, Thebes had the brand
Of slave. She roamed the world for many years.
High up in Italy, in the foothills
Of the Alps that fence the Tyrol when it nears
The German lands, there Lake Benaco spills
A thousand springs—there could be more by far—
Of gathered rain that bathe the Apennines
From Garda south to Val Camonica,
And in the centre a sweet spot combines—
Or would combine, if they just went that way—
70The blessings from all pastors out of Trent
And Brescia and Verona. To dismay
The Brescians and any army sent
From Bergamo, a strong and handsome fort,
Peschiera, at the low part of the shore,
Lies waiting, and there all that can’t stay caught
In the bosom of Benaco forth must pour
And then become a river, flowing down
Through green fields. Now its name is Mincio,
And on it runs as far down as the town
80Called Governolo, and so to the Po:
And finally it finds a level, slows,
And spreads to make a marsh—in summer more
A bog that sometimes violates the nose.
Passing that way, the deadly virgin saw
Land in the fen, untilled, unpeopled. Keen
To shun all human concourse, there she stayed
With her assistants, which could only mean
She’d found the place to ply her arts. She laid
Her bones there. Afterwards, from all around,
90The people gathered, for that spot was strong,
The bog on every side, and on that ground
And those dead bones that searched the world so long
They built the city, and from her who first
Picked out its place, they gave the place a name:
They called it Mantua, to slake all thirst
For augury. It rests upon her fame.
There used to be more people there, before
That prize dupe Casalodi let his clan
Be tricked away by Pinamonte. More,
100  Much more of how my city’s life began
There is to tell you, but for now, that much
Will serve to arm you against false reports.”
And I said: “Master, this account holds such
Assurance for me and so meets my thoughts,
All others would be embers. But now teach
Of these that pass. Of which ones have I read?
Such is the satisfaction I beseech.”
Then he: “The one whose beard contrives to spread
Across his swarthy shoulders from his cheeks,
110  Was augur for a Greece devoid of males
Even in cradles. Therefore his name speaks,
Along with that of Calchas, for the sails
Launched by the cable cut in Aulis. Yes,
Eurypylus, the very one. I sing
Of him in my high tragedy. But less
Of that now, for you know it, the whole thing.
That other one, so skimpy in the loins,
Was Michael Scot, named for his land of birth:
He knew the game of disappearing coins.
120  Guido Bonatti, whose star charts were worth
Their weight in gold, which his Duke gladly paid.
Asdente, toothless soothsayer. Said sooth
He’d sooner now have foregone, like his teeth,
And made more shoes, his trade, and only truth.
And see those wretched women stream beneath
Who gave up needle, shuttle, distaff, thread,
And turned to telling fortunes, brewing spells
With herbs and dolls. But come, for Cain’s white head
Of thorns now proves what no black art foretells—
130  With both the hemispheres confined, the waves
Below Seville shine silver, and last night
The moon was round. It’s certain your mind saves
The memory, which sometimes eased your plight
Deep in the wood.” And so, with much to say
Of lawful forecasts, we went on our way.
From bridge to bridge, talking of other things
Of which my Comedy declines to sing,
We came to a high point: of all the rings
Of Malebolge, this was the next ring,
The next incision and the next vain tears,
And it looked strangely dark. The arsenal
Of Venice boils a pitch when winter nears,
Viscous, to caulk cracked ships and seal the hull.
In winter they can’t sail. Instead, by one
10A new ship’s built, another plugs the ribs
Of his that often sails, and something’s done
To this prow with a hammer, and that jib’s
Patched up, and ropes are twisted, and a stern
Has some new post set upright while they stitch
A mainsail’s edge: just so, not from a churn
Of fire but by divine art, a thick pitch
Was boiling down there which stuck to the bank
On every side. I saw it, but in it
Saw only how the bubbles rose and sank,
20Swollen by boiling, settling in the pit.
While fixedly I gazed down there, my Guide
Said “Watch out! Watch out!” drawing me to him
From where I stood. Then I turned to one side
Like someone keen to see what is so grim
He must escape it, and is unmanned quite
By sudden fear, and, even while he still
Keeps looking, does not think to stay his flight
Because that urge does not wait for his will,
And I saw, running up the ridge behind,
30A black devil. How savage was that face!
How fierce his actions seemed to my stunned mind:
The open wings, the light tread, and in place
Around his shoulders, that were sharp and high,
A sinner sat, held firmly by the feet.
From our bridge the black goblin gave the cry:
“You, Evil-Claws, here is your chance to meet
A grand old man of Lucca’s ruling thieves.
You stick him under. I’ll go back for more.
That city teems with them, and each believes
40In barratry as if graft were the law,
Except, of course, Bonturo, still deemed clean
Up there where cash may conjure Yes from No:
They call him straight, that bunch. What can they mean?”
The imp flung down his load and turned to go.
Having addressed an audience unseen,
He left the ridge of flint in greater haste
Than any mastiff sent after a thief.
The load went under, by the pitch embraced,
Then popped up doubled up, but no relief
50Was offered by the imps we couldn’t see
Below the bridge. “The Holy Face,” they cried,
“Of your cathedral isn’t here to be
Your comfort, and the swimming in this tide
Is not your river Serchio. Unless
You want our hooks, stay down there in the pitch.”
A hundred probing gaffs helped to express
Their theme. “Dance under cover in the ditch,
And if you have to steal, steal out of sight.”
Just so, cooks make their scullions shove the meat
60Down in the pot so it can’t come to light.
My Master then to me: “To keep discreet
Your presence here, crouch down behind a rock
For shelter, and from outrage offered me
By anyone, you should not suffer shock.
I’ve seen these things. It’s not a novelty.”
He went on past the bridgehead, and when he
Came on to the sixth bank he soon had need
To show a firm front. With the spitting hate
And uproar of a pack of dogs that speed
70From out of nowhere so the beggar’s state
Of trance is not enough and he must plead,
These rushed out from beneath the bridge and drew
Their hooks on him. But he cried: “Let there be
No foolery from any one of you!
Before you catch me with a fork, let’s see
Just one of you come forward that will hear
From me: and then decide what’s to be done
About me and those hooks.” Though they were near
They stopped, and cried: “Let Bobtail be the one.”
80So while the rest stood still, one moved. “What good,”
We heard him say, “will this do him?” My Guide:
“You think, Bobtail, somehow I safely could
Have come this far through everything your side
Could throw against me and not have the aid
Of God’s Will and propitious fate? Now let
Us pass, for the decision has been made
Above, that I show one you haven’t met
The savage path.” Less insolent, the imp
Let fall his fork to clatter at his hooves
90And told the rest of them, his voice gone limp:
“He can’t be touched.” My Guide: “I think that proves—
You that sit crouching in the rocks somewhere—
If you come back to me, you will be safe.”
At which I rose, and, with no time to spare
I joined him, as I watched the devils chafe
At being still, a state they cannot bear.
They came on, at a clip that made me fear
They might not keep their promise. Thus, one time,
I saw troops less than eager to appear
100  Among their enemies. They feared a crime
As they, out of Caprona, moved unarmed,
Protected only by a guarantee.
Similarly afraid of being harmed
I pressed close to my Guide. All I could see
Was how they looked, which wasn’t good, while they
Levelled their prongs, one saying “Shall I touch
Him on the rump?” I heard another say
“Sure, let him have it.” But this seemed too much
For my Guide’s interlocutor, who swept
110  Sharply around and said “Hold, Ragtag, hold!”
Then he to us: “To keep the path you’ve kept
By this ridge is impossible. The old
Sixth archway fell, and lies in bits below.
But if it is your pleasure to go on,
Go on along the rocky dyke: not so
Far off from here there is another ridge
Which grants a passage. Trust me. The time nears:
Five hours from now, minus one day, the bridge
Has lain there broken for twelve hundred years
120  And sixty-six more, when the world entire
Was shaken by one passion on one hill.
Some of this company goes to enquire
At my behest, if there be those who will
Be out to take the air. Go with them. None
Among them will molest you. Forward now,
Scumbag and Scallywag. Go, get it done.
And you, Dirtbag. And you can show them how
To do it, Tanglebeard. Let you go too,
Dogbreath and Blatherskite, and you, Pigface
130  With useful tusks, and Hairball, let’s have you,
And Guttersnipe, and Snotnose. Search the place:
Check on the boiling tar, and let these through
Safely as far as the next ridge that goes
Intact across the ditches all the way.”
I said: “My Master, what I see, who knows?
If you know how to get there, let us, pray,
Go there alone. An escort we don’t need
And if we did, as cautious as you are,
Would you pick troops of this peculiar breed?
140  See how they grind their teeth and threaten far
More mischief for us yet with how they knit
Their brows.” And he to me: “It is the lot
Of those down there, how they can worsen it,
That makes them fierce: so you need fear them not.
Just let them grind, and dodge the chips they spit.”
Before they marched away on their new route,
Around the dyke there on the left they wheeled,
Poking their tongues out in a long salute—
A tribute to their captain in the field.
150  He turned, bent down, and as he watched them pass
He hailed them with the trumpet of his arse.