Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 22–24 | 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 22–24

I have seen horsemen ride, before today:
They moved camp, they rode out to the attack,
They mustered up, and sometimes rode away
Flat out in flight and they did not come back.
So, Aretines, I’ve seen scouts on your land,
And raiding parties ride, and seen the clash
Of tournaments and running jousts, a band
Of trumpets here, bells there, and then the smash
Of drums, and signals from the castle walls,
10Flags that I knew, flags that were new to me—
But never horsemen moving to the calls
Of such a strange horn, no, nor infantry,
Nor ship that sailed by landmark or by star.
With these ten demons, savage entourage
Indeed, we went: but you know how things are—
Pray with the saints, drink with the sots. At large
My gaze roamed on the layout of the moat,
Each detail of the pitch, and all who burned.
Like dolphins when they signal men afloat
20To save the ship by how their backs are turned
Above the wave tops, and the men take note,
So, now and then, a sinner would arch high
His spine to ease the pain, then hide again,
As quick as lightning. And as frogs will lie
Still in the ditch of water’s edge or fen,
With just their muzzles out, the bulk of their
Fat bodies out of sight, not just their feet,
Just so the sinners, noses in the air,
Were otherwise unseen, but full retreat
30Came only when foul Tanglebeard trod near,
And down they went beneath the boiling black.
I saw—and still my heart skips from the fear—
As when the frogs all dive yet one holds back,
One lingering soul, and Dogbreath, from close to,
Hooked him by his tarred hair and pulled him out
Just like an otter. I already knew
The names of all the imps, from the first shout
When they were chosen, and from what they’d called
Each other since. “Dogbreath, make sure you get
40Your prongs right in there. Get some skin!” they bawled
In unison, those damned beasts, and worse yet.
“Master,” I said, “please tell me, if you can,
Who this poor wretch is, helpless in the hands
Of enemies.” My Leader asked the man,
Who said this: “In that loveliest of lands
The Kingdom of Navarre, there I was born.
My mother put me out to serve a lord,
For she had borne me to a wastrel, sworn
Foe to himself, who reaped his just reward:
50Insolvency. The household of good King
Thibault was home to me, and there I gave
Myself to barratry. The reckoning
I pay in the thick heat of this black grave.”
And then Pigface, his mouth armed like a boar’s
With twin tusks, stuck one into him and ripped.
One mouse and many cats, their wicked paws—
For Tanglebeard now held him firmly gripped
And said: “Stand back and let me have him.” Then:
“Ask him,” this to my Guide, “if you would learn
60More from him, before he gets shredded when
Another of my soldiers takes his turn.”
Therefore my Leader said: “Tell us of those
Others beneath the pitch. Are any there
Italian?” He: “Just now, from one that knows
Them well, I parted. Now I’d like to share
That black redoubt with him again, no threat
From claw and hook.” And Slimeball said: “That’s it!
We’ve had enough!” and gaffed his arm to get
A muscle free to take like a titbit,
70As Guttersnipe aimed low between the legs,
Whereat their captain with an ugly look
Wheeled on them all, so even they, the dregs,
Looked almost as if they’d been brought to book,
At which my Master quickly asked the man
Who still gazed at his wound: “But who is he,
The one you parted from—as you began
To say—so as to land unluckily
On this shore?” And he answered: “It was Fra
Gomita, from Gallura, of all fraud,
80In each department, the undoubted star:
Within his grasp, the worst foes of his lord
Were so adroitly managed even they
Spoke well of him. He said: ‘I took the cash
And they went quietly.’ In every way,
In all affairs, no fuss, and nothing flash.
No petty crook, he was a sovereign cheat.
Don Michael Zanche keeps him company.
The Don’s from Logodoro, so they meet
On common ground to talk incessantly
90About Sardinia. I could say more
But look at that one grind his teeth! I fear
He wants to scratch my scurf and make it sore.”
Their general turned to Slimeball, standing near
With rolling eyes and poised all set to strike.
“Get out of here,” he ordered, “dirty bird!”
“If,” said the frightened spirit, “you would like
To see or hear of those from Tuscany
Or Lombardy, I’ll bring some here: but get
These Evil-Claws to stand back, lest they be
100  A source of fear to those who come. Now let
Me stand alone and whistle from this spot,
And I, just one, will summon seven. So
Our custom goes when one among our lot
Gets out.” And Dirtbag’s cruel face answered no,
With lifted snout and shaking head. Aloud
He said: “This is a trick of his, to throw
Himself down.” At which he so well endowed
With stratagems said: “Yes, I am indeed
A trickster, making trouble for my friends.”
110  But Dirtbag, though the rest paid the man heed,
Could not hold back, and threatened: “This truce ends
If you go down. I will come after you
Not galloping, but beating with my wings
Across the pitch. Now what we ought to do
Is get down off this peak and settle things
Against the dyke. We’ll see if, on your own,
You more than match us.” Reader, listen now
To news of a new sport. He stood alone
With all the demons watching to see how
120  Who’d been the least persuaded. From their dyke
They watched him. But as he had always done,
Man of Navarre, he chose his time to strike.
Planting his feet, he made a sudden leap
And left the marshal standing. They were all
Consumed with self-reproach, but none could keep
His anguish hidden less than he whose call
To let the quarry jump had wrecked the game.
So he went first, and cried “You’re caught!” to no
130  Avail, for wings, though quick, are not the same
As terror. Down the prey went, and just so
The hunter went up with his lifted breast,
As instantly the wild duck goes below
And the falcon, vexed at having done its best
Without result, climbs back where it began,
With broken spirits. Guttersnipe, annoyed
At being tricked but keen to hunt a man—
The disappointment left him overjoyed—
Flew after him, and when he disappeared,
140  Turned on Dogbreath, right there above the ditch,
And clawed him, but hawk’s claws are to be feared,
And this hawk was full grown. Into the pitch
They fell together. Bubbling heat soon seared
Them free from one another, but they stayed
Stuck in the glue that had weighed down their wings,
Till Tanglebeard, sad as the others, made
Four of them fly, across the taint that clings,
To the far bank, and each with practised haste,
Armed with his fork, as if this were a drill,
150  Came in to land and was correctly placed
On this side or on that. Then, to fulfil
The task, they pushed their gaffs out to the pair
Baked in their crust. We left them cooking there.
Wordless, alone, without an escort, we
Went on. One walked behind the one ahead
As minor friars do. Insistently
My thoughts were driven by these scenes of dread
To Aesop’s fable of the frog that tricked
The mouse into the stream and dived to drown
The mouse but when the mouse splashed the kite picked
The frog for its next meal and hurried down,
And both tales, for what happened at the start
10And end, were just the same, the one aligned
With the other, and fear doubled in my heart
Just as the stories echoed in my mind.
It is by us, I thought, that they are fooled:
By injury and insult they are vexed.
Add anger to ill will and they are ruled
By double passion to make us their next
Objective, as if they, more savage still
Than any dog, snapped at the leveret.
Already my hair bristled at the thrill
20Of fear, and so I stood with my stare set
Intently back, and said “Master, unless
You quickly hide us both, I am afraid
The Evil-Claws will catch us. I confess
I hear them make again the noise they made
When they thrived on a fugitive’s distress.”
And he: “Were I a mirror, I could not
Receive your outer image sooner than
Your inward now. Your thoughts make common lot
With mine in guise and action, so one plan
30I make of both. If that slope on the right
Leads down into the next ditch after this,
We’ll slip the hunt that haunts you in your fright.”
His plan acquired an urgent emphasis
While he was still explaining it, for here
They came, with outstretched wings. They were intent
On taking us, and they were very near.
My Master took one look at them and bent
To pick me up, just as a mother would
Who wakes to hear the noise and see the fire
40And picks the child up, thinking of its good
Above hers, as she flees, with no attire,
Even a shift, because time equals hope.
Down from the stone high ridge, flat on his back,
He let himself slide on the rocky slope
This side of the next ditch. At such a crack
Never ran water coursing through a sluice
To turn a mill wheel nearest to the blades
As my Guide did when he went fast and loose
Down that steep bank, and through the dry cascades
50He bore me on his breast more as a child
Than a companion. Hardly had his feet
Touched down on the deep bedrock when that wild
Platoon was on the height above, to meet
Their fate made manifest, for the same high
Authority which gives them wings to guard
The fifth ditch has decreed they shall not fly
Beyond it. They knew that, but took it hard.
We found a painted people, there below,
Who circulated looking tired and sad.
60They seemed defeated and their steps were slow.
In cloaks with cowl drawn forward they were clad
To hide their weeping eyes: cloaks of the kind
That Cluny monks wear, but these shone with gold,
As if to dazzle they had been designed.
Within, though, they were lead in every fold,
So heavy that those Frederick liked to see
Wrapped melting around traitors were mere straw.
A tiresome mantle for eternity!
We turned, still going left just as before,
70Along with them, as they, preoccupied
With weeping, went, but, weary with their load,
They had to go so slowly, every stride
Of ours along that populated road
Brought us new company. Therefore I said
To my wise Leader: “Can’t we, as we go,
Find someone among all these walking dead
Whose deeds we’ve heard of or whose name we know?”
And one caught by my Tuscan accent called
Out after us: “Slow down and get some rest!
80You that so hasten through this air appalled
With dusk, perhaps you’ll get what you request
From me.” At which my Leader said “Let’s wait,
And go on at his pace.” I stopped, and saw
A couple who seemed in the mental state
To join us quickly, but their bodies bore
That load, and it was crowded on the way.
When they came up, each of them gazed awhile
Sideways at me and silent, and then they
Spoke to each other: “This one has the style
90Of the alive. The workings of his throat—
A sure sign. And if both of them are dead,
By what rare privilege are they free to walk
Thus unencumbered by the cloak of lead?”
And then to me: “Tuscan, we know your talk.
You that have come to where the hypocrites
Assemble their sad faces, tired and worn
From faking a sincerity that fits
Their story, tell us yours. Where were you born?”
And I to them: “Where the fair Arno flows,
100  In that great city I was born and raised.
My soul is still contained in what it knows:
This body, mine from birth. Be not amazed,
But tell me who you are, for whom such pain
Distils itself and dribbles down each cheek.
What penalties drench you in golden rain?”
“So heavy you can hear each balance creak,
These yellow cloaks are lead,” one answered me,
“One Guelph, one Ghibelline, we are the two
Jovial Friars of Bergamo. You see
110  The saviours of your city facing you—
I, Catalano: Loderingo he—
Both chosen by your council to bring peace
Where once one man alone fulfilled that role,
And the Gardingo district won’t soon cease
To say how well we did it, on the whole.”
Thinking of what they stole and where once stood
The Uberti palace, “Friars, your mad pride . . .”
I said, but said no more of what I would,
For then I saw one lying crucified
120  By three stakes in the ground. He saw me there,
And writhed all over, blowing on his beard
With sighs, and Catalano saw me stare,
And said: “That one who lies there, three times speared,
Is Caiaphas, who told the Pharisees
One man should do a people’s suffering.
Stretched naked on the crowded pathway, he’s
Well placed to feel the weight of everything
That comes along, as you can see. The same
For Annas—in this ditch put to the rack—
130  His mother’s father, and for every name
On that black list to which the Jews trace back
Their troubles. Yes, I mean the Sanhedrin.”
Then I saw Virgil standing there nonplussed
Above the one stretched vilely crosswise in
Eternal exile. “What you have discussed,”
He told the Friar, “for me is far from clear.
But if you are allowed, and if you please,
You’ll tell us whether some way out of here
Lies near us on the right, so we may seize
140  Our chance to leave without a plea for aid
From black angels, that they may come to lift
Us up and fly us out.” The Friar made
The following reply: “You were adrift
In all your estimates. Help is nearby,
Much closer than you hope. From the great wall
A ridge runs inward cutting through the sky
Of every valley so it links them all,
Except that, at this one, it lies a wreck.
You climb the ruins piled against the side,
150  A staircase starting level with this deck.”
My Leader stood with bent head, mortified.
“The one that hooks the sinners over there
Sold us a bill of goods,” he said, whereat
The Friar grinned. “Yes, wasn’t that unfair?
I think I once heard, in Bologna, that
The Devil sometimes has resort to vice.
He has been known to say what isn’t true.
I’ve heard he isn’t really very nice.”
My Leader strode on. As his anger grew,
160  His stride grew greater. Led by his sweet heels,
I left the souls who weigh the way guilt feels.
In that part of the young year when the sun
Enters Aquarius to comb the hair
It shakes loose, and the long nights have begun
To turn south; when the frost is lying there,
A copy of its sister, the pure snow—
Except the pen’s point soon grows blunt, the white
Is warmed away, and he, the shepherd, so
Annoyed when he woke up to the chill sight
Of snowy fields and thought he could not go
10For fodder, slapped his thigh, and back inside
His house went to and fro to curse his fate
Like some poor wretch with doubt in every stride
Of what to do next, but the altered state
Strikes him when he goes out again, the rime
Has melted, the whole world has changed its face
And hope returned in such a little time,
He grasps his staff and out into the place
That shines no longer white he drives his sheep
To pasture. Thus my Master hurt my heart
20Because his brow was clenched and furrowed deep,
But then the poultice came to soothe the smart,
For when we reached the ruined bridge, right then
He turned to me with that sweet smile I’d seen
When first I saw the mountain’s foot, and when
He’d made a plan and picked the ruins clean
With his glance, he spread wide his arms for me
And held me, and as one who works and weighs
And reckons and provides beforehand, he,
While lifting me to one rock, bent his gaze
30Upon another’s suitability
To make its top a step. “Take that one there.
But first,” he said, “see if it takes your weight.”
A mantle here was not the thing to wear.
Though he was light and I was pushed, a great
Effort was needed going crag to crag,
And if the slope had been long on that dyke
As on the other, he’d have seen me flag.
For him, I don’t know what that climb was like.
Since all of Malebolge dips towards
40The inmost pit, the lie of every trench
Makes one side low. Where the last stone affords
A broken-off arrival point, this bench
I sat on with lungs bursting through my chest
From pain, and thought: No further. “Now you must,”
My Guide said, “quell the slothful urge to rest.
A swansdown seat and a soft blanket just
Keep you from fame, without which no one who
Consumes his life leaves more trace in the world
Than smoke in air and foam on water do.
50Therefore arise, with your soul’s flag unfurled
Above your fear, for so your soul prevails
In every battle if the body’s weight
Can’t sink it, and your enterprise entails
A longer stair yet, to a higher state.
Just to have left these spirits here is not
Sufficient. If you understand me now,
Do what you must, get more than you have got.”
I rose then, trying hard as I knew how
To prove my breath was easy, and said “Go,
60For I am strong and brave.” We took our way
Up through the jagged narrows, twisted, slow,
Of this ridge steeper than the last. To stay
Alert, or seem to, I talked as we went,
At which a voice from the next ditch was heard,
Unable to say clearly what it meant.
But I, up on the transverse arch’s crown
Already, knew that anger moved his speech.
Over the dark I bent my keen gaze down.
The dark went down too far for eyes to reach
70The bottom. So I questioned: “What if we
Go on to the next bank and down its wall?
Because from here my hearing’s doomed to be
One long misunderstanding, and for all
I see when I look down, there’s nothing there.”
“My one reply,” my Guide said, “is to do
What you suggest. The answer to a fair
Request should be the silent deed.” We two
Descended at the bridge’s end, which meets
The eighth bank, and from there the ditch was clear
80To my view, and the memory defeats
My words, and chills my blood with coiling fear.
I saw a writhing mass of every kind
Of serpent, and each kind was very strange.
Lucan in Libya could never find
Their equal in those hot sands to arrange
His catalogue of snakes to seize the mind,
Including those with one head at each end.
No, desert lands have no plagues on this scale
For poisoned multiplicity. Nor send
90To Ethiopia to see the like, nor sail
The Red Sea, searching all its regions. These,
For cruelty and squalor, were as bad
As snakes can get. And through this heaving sleaze,
Ran people naked, terrified, who had
No hope of hiding place or to be made
Invisible by heliotrope. Their hands
Were tied behind with snakes, which slickly laid
Their heads and tails between the thighs, leg bands
Knotted in front. And look, a serpent sprang
100On one who shared our bank, and hit the point
Where neck meets shoulder, and the serpent’s fang
Started a fire, precisely at the joint,
Which spread as fast as you write I or O
With just one stroke, until he sank to ash,
And on the ground the dust reversed its flow,
Gathered itself together in a flash:
He was himself again. So they concur,
All the great sages, that the Phoenix dies,
And straight away is born again, in her
110  Five hundredth year, and in that time denies
Herself all herbs and grain. All she will eat
Is tears of frankincense and balsam, and
Spikenards and myrrh supply her winding sheet.
And just as one who can no longer stand—
But falls not knowing if the devil’s force
Has dragged him down, or else some vital block
That binds a man, has been the secret source
Of weakness—when he rises, stares in shock
Around him, rattled by his pain, and sighs,
120  Such was this sinner when he rose again.
How stern the power of God, that can devise
Such and so many blows for vengeance! Then
My Leader asked him who he was. I quote:
“From Tuscany I came down like the rain
Not long ago into this feral throat.
A mule I was, a brute I would remain:
A man’s life didn’t please me in the least.
I started as a bastard, led the Blacks
In my town. Vanni Fucci, called the Beast,
130  Is my name. If you go back on my tracks,
You’ll reach my den, Pistoia.” Then I said
To my Guide, “Tell him not to slip away,
And ask him what crime weighed so on his head
To thrust him down this far, for the display
I saw was of a man of rage and blood.”
The sinner heard, and did not feign, but set
His mind and look on me, his face a flood
Of shame. He said “I feel more anguish yet
That you have caught me in the misery
140  You see me in, than I felt then, when I
Was taken from the other life. For me
To leave your question without due reply
Is not allowed. Down this far I am brought
Because once, in the Sacristy of Fine
Adornments, when I stole, I had the thought
Of pinning that crime blasphemously mine
On someone innocent. Such was my sport.
So now you know. But lest my pain has been
Too sweet a sight, if ever you get out
150  Of these dark regions, add to what you’ve seen
The sound of what I say. Be in no doubt—
I speak to you, the White Guelph Florentine—
These things will happen. First, Pistoia will
Thin out the Blacks. Then Florence will revive
Her people and her ways. Mars will fulfil
His role for her, and find a Black to strive—
From Val di Magra he will ride to kill—
Against Pistoia’s Whites. Nicknamed the Mist,
He’ll bring sad clouds with him, a bitter storm
160  Of battle in Piceno’s field. The list
Of horrors will grow long, and the fierce form
Of flame in a black sky touch every White.
I tell you this to haunt you in the night.”