Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 25–27 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 25–27

The thief raised both his hands when he said this,
Two fingers up from each, the figs: and cried
“You get it, God? You know what you can kiss?”
From then on, all the snakes were on my side,
For one looped round his neck, as if to say
“You’ve said enough.” Another, as before,
Bound up his arms and in its usual way
Attached itself in front so he no more
Could make a move that brought them into play.
10Pistoia, ah, Pistoia! Why not vow
To burn yourself to ashes and live on
No wicked moment more than you do now,
You that are worse than your bad seed long gone,
Colleagues of Cataline? Through all of Hell,
Its darkest circles, I saw not one shade
So arrogant, not even he that fell
At Thebes, Capaneus. So this one made
His exit, speaking not another word.
A raging centaur came past on parade.
20His shout was of the pitch that peaks and breaks:
“Where is he, then, the crook?” I have not heard
Even Maremma has so many snakes
As he had on his croup as high as where
The horse form sleeps and human form awakes.
Behind his shoulders, high up near the hair,
A dragon spread its wings and set on fire—
Sending its breath down while it stayed up there—
Whomever it might meet. My Master said
“That’s Cacus, who beneath the Aventine
30Made many times a bloodbath for the dead,
And from his brothers takes a different line,
Another road, because he stole by fraud
A nearby herd and lured it to his cave.
The herd belonged to Hercules, his lord,
Who heard the cattle lowing, and so gave
Cacus, to end his mean streak at a stroke,
A lesson with his club. A hundred blows.
Not ten were felt.” But while my Leader spoke,
The centaur had gone by and there arose
40Three shades beneath us that we didn’t see
Till they said “Who are you?” At which we ceased
To speak, our thoughts on them entirely.
I didn’t know them, but by chance—increased
By time—one had to name another. “Where,”
One of them asked, “has Cianfa stopped?” That said,
To keep my Guide’s attention focused there,
I held my finger upright so it led,
Touching, from chin to nose. If you are slow
To credit, reader, what I tell you now,
50No wonder. I, who saw it to be so,
Scarcely believe it still. But this is how
It happened. While I kept the three in view,
A serpent with six legs ran up in front
Of one of them and stuck to him like glue
All over, so he bore this sudden brunt.
His paunch was seized on by the middle feet,
His arms by the front ones, while through his face
Fangs piercing either cheek were keen to meet.
His thighs were where the hind feet found their place,
60And in between his thighs the tail was poked
And stretched up over his behind. No tree
Was ever yet with ivy tighter cloaked
Than this shade with the beast’s disgustingly
Adapting limbs that hid the limbs they choked.
And then, as if they both were hot wax, they
Stuck to each other in a dreadful blend:
Their colours mingled and went either way
So both were one, with neither start nor end,
And how they looked before, you couldn’t say
70From seeing what they had become. Just so,
Across the paper, close before the flame,
We see a kind of coloured darkness go,
Not black yet, but the white dies just the same.
The other two looked on, and each cried “My,
Agnello, how you’ve changed! You are not two,
You are not one!” For once they didn’t lie:
Two heads were one, one face shared, in plain view,
Only what two had not lost, and one pair
Of arms was made from four arms, and two thighs,
80One belly and one chest were strangely there—
Shapes never seen before. When what had been
Was blotted out, all former features gone,
The gross deformity that seemed to mean
Two things but nothing clear, slowly moved on—
Still neither here nor there, but in between.
As does the lizard in the worst dog days
Seem lightning when it streaks from hedge to hedge
To someone trudging under the sun’s blaze,
So suddenly appeared from our view’s edge
90A small and fiery vivid serpent, black
As peppercorn. Its path seemed set to strike
The bellies of the other two. Its track
Soon fixed on one, and by its navel—like
Our own part for receiving nourishment
When in the womb—it stuck to him, and then
Fell down before him and stretched out. Intent
On what had struck him, he, the stricken, when
He stared, said nothing. Silent, he stood still
And yawned, as if by sleep or fever sapped
100  Of understanding, energy and will.
He and the serpent eyed each other, wrapped
In one another’s gaze and also in
The smoke that from the beast’s mouth in a jet
Came pouring out to mingle with its twin
That poured from the man’s mouth, so their smoke met.
Let Lucan now be silent when he prates
About Sabellus and Nasidius,
Snake-bitten soldiers. Better that he waits
To hear of this. The same for Ovid, who
110  Tells us how Cadmus turned into a snake
And Arethusa, fleeing nymph, changed too,
Into a fountain. True it is I take
No umbrage: Ovid doesn’t once transmute
Two natures face to face as they exchange
Their substance. By an impulse more acute
These two were moved, the one to rearrange
Its tail into a fork, the wounded one
To blend its feet, the thighs together pressed
So close that soon the joinery was done
120  With no mark left by which you could have guessed
At separateness. And then the serpent’s tail,
Divided as it was now, took the shape
Of human legs. Its skin turned soft and frail
While the other’s hardened. Armpits were agape
To take in shrinking arms. The beast’s front paws
That had been short, grew long to match the pace
Of shrinkage, and the hind paws, with their claws,
Twisted together, made the part men place
Away from view. His part, unbound by laws,
130  Them both with novel colours and supplied
More hair here, and yet there the hair dissolved,
One rose, one fell, but neither turned aside
The baleful gaze beneath which each had gained
The other’s looks. He that was now upright
Lifted his face towards his temples, strained
The skin till it expelled, from being tight,
The excess matter that would form the ears
From both cheeks, and then, from the stuff still left,
140  There grew, as if the seconds now were years,
A nose, and from the mouth, that lipless cleft,
Lips of due size appeared. He that lay flat
Advanced his snout, and then the ears slid back
Into his head like snail’s horns, and then that
Which spoke for him, his tongue, began to crack
And split in two. The other thing’s tongue, split
Already, unified. Smoke ceased to flow.
The shade turned brute fled hissing in a fit
Along the ditch, the talking one not slow
150  To follow, nor to aim the human spit
That snakes don’t like. But then he turned his new
Shoulders on that one and said to the third,
The one unchanged: “I would have Buoso do
What I have done, and do it word for word:
Run on all fours along this very road.”
The dross of Level Eight I had now seen,
The dregs, the ship’s least valuable load,
Had seen it change and interchange, and mean
One thing and then another. Should my pen
160  Fail in its task, let newness be my plea:
And if my eyes were getting tired by then,
My wits confused, still it was clear to me
That though they fled in secret, these two were
Puccio the Cripple, sole one of the three
Companions privileged never to incur
The agony of being thus reborn,
And he who brought to you the sword and spur,
Gaville, trading his wrath for your scorn—
Francesco Cavalcanti, name to mourn.
Florence, rejoice! For you are grown so great
Your wings beat proudly over land and sea,
And even Hell proclaims your rich estate,
Speaking your name abroad, your destiny.
Among your citizens, I’d just found five
To shame me that I shared their place of birth.
Their skill at theft when they were still alive
Brought you no honour. What their schemes were worth
You’ll find, if near the dawn our dreams come true,
10When Prato rises up against your greed,
A craving felt by other places too:
The sooner done the better, and indeed
Done years ago it had been overdue—
It must be done, or it will weigh the more
On me as I grow older. We moved, then,
And on the stairs the rocks had made before
For our descent, my Leader climbed again
And drew me up. We went the winding way
Among the rocks and splinters, and the foot
20Made no advance without the hand in play.
I grieved then and I grieve now when I put
My mind to what I saw, and I rein in
My powers more than usual, lest they run
Where virtue guides them not, and I begin
To curse the gift my lucky star, or one
Yet higher, gave me. Count the fireflies
The peasant sees when he rests on the hill—
In the season when the one who lights our eyes,
And all the world, least hides its face, and will
30Soon sink to give the fly’s place to the gnat—
The lights he sees along the valley floor
Might well be glowing in the vineyards that
He gathered grapes in, or the fields that wore
Him out from tilling them that day. The same
Number of lights were strewn in the eighth ditch
Gleaming, so I could see them when I came
Within sight of its base. The night looked rich:
A lake of lights, and each light was a flame.
Elias, whom the bears avenged when he
40Was baited by small boys, once watched it flare—
Elijah’s chariot, majestically
Drawn skyward when its horses pawed the air.
No matter how he fixed it with his eyes
He made out nothing but the flame alone:
He saw a little shining cloud arise,
The glow surrounding where the fire had flown.
Just so each flame here moves along the throat
Of this ditch and none shows it is a theft
Of some vile sinner’s form we may not note.
50I stood there on the bridge above the cleft
Grasping a rock as I stretched out to see.
For sure I would have fallen had I not
Held on—and then my Leader, seeing me
Look so intent, said “All these flames are what
False counsellors must wear and be burned by.”
“Master,” I said, “I’m sure now, having heard
You speak, of what I guessed. Already I
Wanted to ask, before you said a word,
About that fire, divided at its peak
60As if it were the pyre of those two sons
Of Oedipus who killed each other. Speak
Of who is in there. Are there two? Which ones?”
He answered. “Two are punished there inside.
Ulysses is in there, and Diomed.
In vengeance now together they are tied
As once in wrath. They groan for pain and dread
Within the flame, and for the clever plan
Of the gift horse that opened up the gate
For the noble seed from which great Rome began
70To first burst forth, and in that fiery state
They rue their craft by which Deidamia
Gave them Achilles, and they feel the heat
For what they stole from Troy and took so far
The stricken city sought its own defeat:
Pallas Athena’s image. There they are.
The thieves of the Palladium. In there.”
“If they can speak,” I told my Guide, “I pray,
If they can speak inside these lights they share,
This light, I pray that you might let me stay—
80May it avail a thousand times, this prayer—
Until that flame with double horn comes near.
You see I bend towards it with desire.”
And he: “Your prayer deserves praise, never fear:
And therefore I will grant what you require.
But guard your tongue. I’ll be the one to speak.
I understood what you would like to know,
And they might scorn your language: they were Greek.”
After the flame had reached the time and place
My Guide thought fitting, thus he spoke to it:
90“You that are two within one fiery space,
If while I lived you ever thought me fit
To be respected when I wrote of you—
If I was worthy of you, whether much
Or little, when I did my best to do
You justice with my heightened lines—let such
Devotion from me sway you to stand still
While one of you tells where, when he was lost,
He went to die.” Hearing my Master’s will,
The larger of the flaming horns was tossed
100  And murmured as if by the wind misled.
Its point waved to and fro as if it were
A tongue that spoke, a voice thrown out, that said:
“When I left Circe, having lived with her
More than a year in Italy, before
Aeneas got there, no love for my son,
No duty to my father, and what’s more
No love I owed Penelope—the one
Who would have been most glad—could overcome
In me the passion that I had, to gain
110  Experience of the world, and know the sum
Of virtue, pleasure, wisdom, vice and pain.
Once more I set out on the open sea,
With just one ship, crewed by my loyal men,
The stalwart who had not deserted me.
As far as Spain I saw both shores, and then
Morocco, and Sardinia, and those
Numberless islands that the sea surrounds.
But men grow old and slow as the time goes,
And so did we, and so we reached the bounds
120  Of voyaging, that narrow outlet marked
By Hercules so nobody should sail
Beyond, and anybody thus embarked
Knows, by those pillars, he is sure to fail.
Seville on my right hand, I left behind
Ceuta on my left. ‘Brothers,’ I said,
‘Dangers uncounted and of every kind
Fit to make other sailors die of dread
You have come through, and you have reached the west,
And now our senses fade, their vigil ends:
130  They ask to do the easy thing, and rest.
But in the brief time that remains, my friends,
Would you deny yourselves experience
Of that unpeopled world we’ll find if we
Follow the sun out into the immense
Unknown? Remember now your pedigree.
You were not born to live as brutes. Virtue
And knowledge are your guiding lights.’ I gave
With these words such an impulse to my crew
For enterprise that I could not, to save
140  My life, have held them back. We flew
On oars like wings, our stern, in that mad flight,
Towards the morning. Always left we bore.
Stars of the other pole we saw at night,
And ours so low that from the ocean floor
It never once arose. Five times the light
Had kindled and then quenched beneath the moon
Since first we ventured on our lofty task,
When we could see a mountain, though not soon
Could see it clearly: distance was a mask
150  That made it dim. But it was high, for sure:
Higher than anything I’d ever seen,
It climbed into the sky. Who could be more
Elated than we were, had not we been
Plunged straight away into deep sorrow, for
The new land gave rise to a storm that struck
Our ship’s forepart. Three times the waters led
Us in a circle. Fourth time, out of luck.
Stern high, bow low, we went in. Overhead
Somebody closed the sea, and we were dead.”
The flame already was erect and still,
Saying no more as it prepared to go—
According to my gentle Poet’s will—
When, with a sound that it was hard to know
The meaning of, arrived another flame
Behind it, and that strange noise drew our gaze
Towards the new fire’s point from which it came,
A blurred voice at the apex of the blaze.
Just as that bull designed in Sicily,
10To roast the tyrant’s victims, bellowed first
With the voice of him by whom it came to be—
He shaped it with his file, wishing the worst
For all that it would kill: his fate was just—
Just as that bull, although it was of brass,
Cried with its victims’ voices so it must
Have seemed thrust through with pain, no words could pass
Straight from this fire, no matter how unstrung.
But after they had come up through the flame,
All the vibrations that had moved the tongue
20Were given to the point, to sound the same.
“You there to whom I speak,” we heard him say,
“Who just spoke Lombard, saying ‘Let it wait,
The rest of it: time to be on your way,’
Though I have come, perhaps, a little late,
Please don’t be irked to stay and talk awhile:
You see it doesn’t bother me, and I
Am burning. If just now into this vile
Blind world you fell from Italy on high,
The sweet land where I got the guilt I bring
30Down here, then tell me of the Romagnoles:
Do they have peace, or war? For I still cling
To memories of land that climbs and rolls,
The mountains looming over everything
Between Urbino and the final height
That sets the Tiber free.” I was still bent
To listen when my Leader, with a light
Touch to my side, said “You know what he meant,
So speak to him. He comes from Italy.”
I knew my answer, which without delay
40I gave. “O soul kept here in secrecy,
You know there’s not, nor ever was, a day
When your Romagna’s tyrants, in their hearts,
Were not at war. But I saw none who were
Overtly so when I left. In those parts
Ravenna stands as usual. Over her
The Eagle of Polenta broods: its wings
Keep Cervia covered. Forlì, that once bore
A long siege and reduced the French to strings
Of blood and guts, now finds itself once more
50Beneath the Green Claws. Both the young and old
Mastiffs that ruled in Rimini and made
A shambles of Montagna, take and hold
And tear up with their fangs all those they flayed:
Two Malatestas of Verrucchio,
Dogs on the loose. Faenza, Imola,
Bow down to one who, as the seasons go,
Changes his party, and his markings are
White lair, young lion. By the Savio
Bathed on its flank, Cesena, in between
60Mountains and plain, to tyranny one day
And liberty the next will always lean.
But who you are I now beg you to say,
So your name in the world may keep its place.
Be not more slow to send your words my way
Than I to you, for courtesy and grace.”
True to its usual manner the flame roared
Awhile, then moved its sharp point here and there
And gave breath: “If I thought now to afford
An answer to one bound to breathe the air
70Again in the fair world, this flame would stand
With no more movement, but since none return
Alive from these depths, if I understand
Correctly what I hear, how could I earn
More infamy that I have now? A man
Of war I was at first, and then, to make
Amends, or so I thought, I had a plan
To be a friar of Francis, and to take
The cord. Indeed it would have all come true
But Boniface, the Great Priest—give him Hell!—
80Pulled me back in. The things I used to do
I did again, the old sins. It were well
That you should know the how and why. When I
Still wore my mother’s gift of flesh and bone,
My deeds were not the lion’s. I was sly,
A fox. All wiles and ways to slink alone
Unseen, I knew, and practised hidden arts
So everywhere on Earth they were renowned.
Then, when I came to where our youth departs
And men should strike their sails and make a round
90Heap of the ropes, that which before had been
So pleasing grieved me. With repentance, then
Confession, I turned friar. I was clean.
Ah, misery! For then the worst of men,
The Prince of the new Pharisees—at war
Right there in holy Rome, and not with Jews
Or Saracens, but Christians who before
Had neither conquered Acre nor would choose
To fight the Saladin against the law
Forbidding mercenaries—in despite
100  Of his own holy order’s sacred chair,
And my cord of devotion, best worn tight
To make the wearers thin from what they wear,
As Constantine brought back Sylvester from
Soracte with a cure for leprosy,
So this man came to me for a nostrum
To cure the fever of his pride. To me,
Guido da Montefeltro! While he sought
My counsel, I was silent, for his speech
Seemed profligate with drink, or so I thought.
110  He spoke again: ‘Trust me, and let me reach
Your heart. Henceforth your sins are all absolved
Forever. All you have to do is teach
My troops what stratagems might be involved
In flattening Palestrina, the stronghold
Of the Colonna. That the power is mine
To lock and unlock Heaven, you’ve been told
And know well. Know, too, that my sign
Of office, the two keys that Celestine
Did not hold dear, I do.’ And thus his weight
120  Of argument, despite what it might mean,
Drove me to where my silence seemed the state
Of most offence. And so ‘Father,’ I said,
‘You cleanse me of the sin which I must now
Embrace, and in the scant observance bred
From lavish promise you will soon endow
Your lofty seat with triumph.’ Thus, as soon
As I was dead, and Francis came, a black
Cherub told him: ‘You can’t grant him the boon
Of taking him with you. He must come back
130  With me among my minions, for he gave
Fraudulent counsel, and from that day on
I had him by the hair until the grave.
For no crime not repented of is gone,
Nor can repentance and the will to do
An evil coexist. They contradict
Each other.’ I, poor broken wretch, was too
Shocked not to tremble when he laid his strict
Arrest on me and said: ‘Well, now you know:
I’m a logician.’ Down to Minos borne,
140  Eight times I saw him flex his tail to throw
A coil around his rough back: a tail torn
By his own teeth, such was his rage. And he:
‘This wicked one is for the fire of thieves.’
And therefore I am lost here, as you see,
And clothed like this I go as one who grieves
In burning bitterness.” And speechlessly
The mourning fire departed, pointed tip
Twisting and tossing. We, I and my Guide,
Moved on with constantly adjusted grip
150  Over the ridge to where, on its far side,
The arch begins that spans the ditch where they
Who gain by sowing discord come to pay.