Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 28–30 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 28–30

Even with fluent words and with the tale
Told often, who could tell of all the blood
And wounds that I now saw? All tongues would fail
For certain. Overwhelmed with such a flood
Of fact, our speech and memory can stand
Only so much. If all those stricken folk
In Southern Italy, that fateful land,
Who once bewailed their blood shed by the stroke
Of Trojan sword, could only be one band
10Again—but they knew also the long war
With Carthage, when the golden Roman rings
Were piled in heaps by Hannibal: a store
That Livy notes, true always in these things—
And if to all of these were added more,
The ones who suffered grievous blows when they
Resisted Robert Guiscard, and all those
Whose bones at Ceperano to this day
Still lie in heaps, and everybody knows
The Southerners broke faith; and it was hard
20By Tagliacozzo that Alado won
Purely by strategy, his troops unscarred,
But on his victims fearful work was done;
And if some were to show limbs that were cut,
And others were to show the limbs they lost,
It would be horrible and endless, but
Nothing beside the mess that had been tossed
To fester in the ninth ditch. Not a cask,
Through loss of end-board or of stave, could gape
Like one I saw who, from below the mask
30Of pain that was his face but held its shape,
Was torn wide open right down to the crack
That farts. Between his legs his entrails hung:
Intestines on display, and the foul sack
That turns the food we swallow into dung.
While I was all eyes, he looked back at me
And with his hand he further spread his breast,
Saying: “Behold, I split myself. You see
Mahomet mangled. And there go the rest
Before me. First Ali, my son-in-law,
40His face from chin to forehead sliced in two,
Then everyone who in the life before
Sowed scandal, schism, and therefore must do
Time twice. Thus we who split things are now split.
There is a devil in behind us here
Who cruelly cares for us and sees to it
That all who make the circuit and are near
To healing as they come around again
With closing wounds on this sad thoroughfare,
Will meet the cleaving sword’s edge there and then
50In front of him. But who are you up there
Who lingers on the ridge? Do you delay
In fear of penalties for what you are
Accused of?” “Neither has he reached the day
Of death,” my Master said, “nor yet by far
Does guilt bring him to torment. But to give
Him full experience, he must be brought
Down here by me, I who no longer live,
But know the way through Hell from its forecourt
Through circle after circle to the end.
60And as you hear me speak, this is as true.”
More than a hundred heard this from my friend
And stopped to look at me, their wonder too
Intense for pain to be remembered. “Soon,
Perhaps, you’ll see the sun again. Tell Fra
Dolcino, then, that down here, where the moon
Gives all the light, he surely won’t be far
Behind me if he doesn’t stock supplies
Of food against the fall of mountain snow
That just might give Novara the surprise
70Victory it shouldn’t have.” All set to go,
With one foot raised, Mahomet said all that,
Then set it on the ground and left. Then one
With pierced throat, nose cut off exactly at
The eyebrow’s bottom line, and one ear done
Away with, stopped with all the rest to gaze
In wonder, and before them all he cleared
His windpipe, which outside wore a red glaze,
And said: “In one piece you have here appeared,
For guilt does not condemn you that I met—
80Unless too close a likeness tricks my brain—
Above in Italy. Please, don’t forget—
If ever you return to the sweet plain
That from Vercelli slopes to Macabò—
Piero da Medicina. Make it known
To Fano’s two chief men—make sure they know,
Guido and Angiolello—they’ll be thrown
Out of their ship and drowned. This comes to pass
Near La Cattolica, through treachery
Of a foul tyrant. No crime of this class
90Was ever seen by Neptune in the sea
From Cyprus to Majorca, whether done
By pirates or by Greeks. That traitor who
Sees with one eye, the Young Mastiff that none
Can challenge now in Rimini—and you
Already know that someone here would like
Not to have seen that city—will contrive
To bring them to a meeting, and then strike
In such a way that they will not arrive,
Nor need to pray against Focara’s gale,
100That deadly wind they’ll never have to face.”
And I: “Point out to me and tell his tale,
The one for whom the mere sight of that place,
Rimini, was so bitter. Give me this,
If you would have me carry back your news
Into the world.” Not minded to dismiss
A threat to all that he had left to lose,
He reached out sideways to another’s jaw
And forced it open, crying “Here he stands
And does not speak. Expelled from Rome by law
110He fled to Caesar in the Gallic lands,
And told him that delay, for one prepared,
Meant loss, and he should cross the Rubicon:
And by that bad advice, war was declared
And glory won, but unity was gone.”
The tribune Curio! And how aghast
He seemed, his tongue slit in his throat, the man
Who spoke so boldly, back there in the past.
But now, with both hands missing, one began
To lift his torn stumps through the murky air
120So blood besmirched his face that said “You will
Remember Mosca also, who was there
In Florence to say something fit to kill
The members of two families, one his own:
‘A deed that’s done is over.’ So I said,
And should be here for saying that alone,
For still today the Tuscans count the dead.”
I added “Death to all your stock,” at which
With sorrow heaped on sorrow, off he went
Crazy with grief. But I stayed in the ditch
130To watch the ruined people, how they spent
Their time, and then I witnessed such a sight
As I would fear to tell of, had I not
More facts held in reserve than now I write
In my account of it; but I have got
My conscience here to bolster me, the good
Companion that can render a man bold
Under the breastplate of his pure manhood.
I saw, and seem to see still—all I’ve told
Is true, and this is too—a headless thing
140That walked with all the rest of the sad band.
It held its severed head by the bunched string
Of its own hair, and swung it with its hand
As if it were a lantern. The head stared
At us, and “Woe is me” was what it said.
A light unto itself, the two were paired—
The shining lantern and the bright-eyed head—
Finding a path as only He would know
Who governs. When it reached us at the bridge
Where we stood high so it was just below,
150It exercised its awful privilege
And raised its head high with its arm, and so
Its words were nearer to us. These were they:
“See now my grievous punishment, you there
Who breathe, and look, as you go on your way,
Upon the dead: see if just one despair
Can match mine. And, so you may tell one day
My news, know now the man that I once was:
Bertran de Born, noble and troubadour.
Henry, young king of England, just because
160Of my bad counsel, made unlawful war
Against his father. When Ahithophel
Wickedly goaded Absalom to fight
Against King David, he did no more well.
Because I parted two that had the right
To crowns, I carry now my brain through Hell,
But sundered from the corpse that was its root—
For such a crime, the punishment to suit.”
Strange wounds for many people had so made
My eyes drunk, that they would have stayed and wept,
But Virgil said: “How is your gaze repaid
By lingering down there where they are kept,
So many kinds of miserable, maimed shade?
You haven’t done this in the other rings.
You want to count them? Then consider this;
That valley, its floor crawling with those things,
Runs twenty-two miles round. And did you miss
10The moon? Already it’s beneath our feet.
The time permitted to us now is short,
And there is more to look at than will meet
Your eyes here.” I said: “Had you given thought
To why I looked, you might have granted me
A longer stay.” While I made that reply
My Leader had moved on unheedingly.
“I think,” I added, “in that cave, where I
Stared so intently just now, there might be
A shade, my kin, who now weeps for the pain
20Which is guilt’s price down there.” My Master said
“From now on you should let your thoughts remain
Untroubled by his fate. Let them be led
By other things. Let that one stay down there.
Below the bridge, he pointed up at you
And fiercely shook his finger with an air
Of threat. I heard a name I thought you knew:
Geri del Bello, yes? But you were so
Wrapped up in him whose head was his to hold
As once he held Hautefort, that there was no
30Chance you would see, even if you were told,
The other one until he went.” “My Guide,”
I said, “My father’s cousin is not yet
Avenged for the foul blow by which he died.
The partners in his shame seem to forget
They owe him this, and so he was outraged
And therefore, as I judge, without a word
To me, he moved on, and the war he waged
Within himself so silently has stirred
In me much more compassion than before.”
40Did grace desired mean honour’s claims deferred?
We talked of this until the nearest bluff
Which shows the next ditch from the ridge. With more
Light on the subject we’d have seen enough
To know what it was like down to its floor.
But as things were, when we arrived above
That final cloister so that we could see
Its sad lay brothers, then I had to glove
My stunned ears with my hands for sympathy,
Because the shafts of sorrow they let loose
50Were barbed with pity and the grief was strange
That thus assailed us. It was not diffuse:
It was as if some cruel force might arrange
That all the ills of all the hospitals
Of all of Val di Chiana from July
Until September, and Maremma’s halls
Of fever, and all those marked soon to die
In sick Sardinia, should pack the walls
Of one crypt. So it was here, and the stink
Came out of it as if from limbs that rot.
60Down from the last ridge, down to the last brink
Still keeping left we climbed, until I got
A clear view downward all the way to where
Justice Infallible, the Sovereign Lord’s
Handmaiden, marks the names and keeps in care
The counterfeiters, and where she awards
Their punishment. No, no more sorry sight
Was offered by Aegina’s populace
When all of it was stricken by the blight,
The air so pestilential in that place
70All animals down to the merest worm
Fell dead, and Jupiter transformed the ants
To men, so that the plague should have its term
And the ancient tribes might have a second chance,
Or so the poets say. But this was worse,
This sight, along the valley, of the shades
Who lay in heaps, and every heap diverse.
One lay face down, one made his shoulder blades
The bed-frame for another, and one moved
On hands and knees along that dreadful road.
80Speechless and step by step we went. They proved,
The sick, they had no strength to bear the load
If they should try to raise themselves. We saw,
We heard. I saw two sitting propped
Against each other like pans set next door
To one another so the cold is stopped
From getting in between, and these two wore
Thick scabs from head to foot. No curry comb
Was ever plied by stable boy urged on
By master eager to ride out from home,
90Or boy awake too long with patience gone,
As were the raking nails of these two souls
Against their own skins and the endless rage
Of that itch no emollient controls,
And bit by bit, but always at the stage
Of just beginning, their nails scraped them free
Of scabs, just as the knife strips off the scales
Of bream, or fish with larger finery.
But cleaning fish succeeds. This always fails.
My Leader said to one of these two “You
100Whose fingers take your armour off one link
Of chain mail at a time, and sometimes do
The work of pincers, tell us what you think:
Are there Italians here? Your nails may toil
Forever at the task that they have now.”
“Italians both, we who make you recoil
At our disfigurement. But tell us how
You’re here to ask this,” said one as he wept,
And then my Leader: “I am one who goes
From level down to level and have kept
110This living man with me, and he well knows
My mission is to show him Hell.” Then they
No longer could support themselves, and each
Turned trembling toward me. Further away
Others turned also, who had heard this speech.
My Master drew close, saying “Tell them what
You want.” And since he wanted that, I said:
“So that the minds of living men may not
Forget your name, so it may not be dead
To that sweet world, and live for many years,
120Say who you are and from what people. May
Your loathsome sentence not arouse false fears
That you will suffer further if you say
These things to me.” And one replied: “Know me
For Griffolino of Arezzo. I
Was burned by Albert of Siena. He
Called me magician. But that wasn’t why
I came here. It is true I said to him
That I could rise up through the air and fly,
And he, inquisitive if somewhat dim,
130Told me to show him how, and just because
I didn’t make him Daedalus, he had
Me burned by the Inquisitor, who was
His natural father. But to this last sad
Ditch of the ten, I was condemned and sent
For something worse. Minos, who doesn’t err,
Got me for alchemy. That’s how it went.
I’m here now because that’s the way things were.”
I to my Poet: “When was there so light
A people as the Sienese? By far
140The French are less so.” Then the leprous fright
Who had been silent, spoke. “Perhaps some are,
But Stricca wasn’t. He knew how to spend
In moderation so well he took weeks
To bring his patrimony to an end.
Then there was Niccolò. The whole world speaks
Of how he made the clove into the taste
No one could eat without. He knew the seed,
The root, the garden. He knew how to waste
A fortune. And we also should pay heed
150To those twelve of the Spendthrift Club, the gang
Who dressed in gold and silver, man and horse.
Their money talked and those who loaned it sang
In vain. To help that bunch in their wise course
Was Caccia of Asciano, who burned through
A vineyard and a forest, and that great
Official whose sound judgement we bowed to—
The dolt we called the Blunderer. But wait:
You should know now who seconds you in your
Appraisal of the Sienese. Look hard
160At me, for you have seen this face before.
Look past the blisters, give me your regard,
And see Capocchio, in Siena cooked,
Without the cloves, for alchemy. I made
Fake metals, but you know how good they looked,
If you are who I think you are. My trade
Was falsifying nature. I did well
In life. But everything is real in Hell.”
When Semele was loved by Jupiter
And Juno raged because of it, and shook
The house of Thebes to make it kneel to her
Time after time, Athamas could not brook
Her anger, and went mad, and when he saw
His wife go by weighed down on either side
With their two children he cried “Tooth and claw!
Let’s spread the nets and capture all the pride:
The lioness and both the cubs, as they
10Go by.” And he himself had claws that grasped
One child, Learchus, whirling him away
To dash him on a rock. She, while she clasped
The other child, escaped, but just to drown:
And then, when Fortune laid the Trojans low
From their great loftiness, and brought them down
From where they once dared all, and spurned them so
That king and kingdom both lay in the dust,
Sad Hecuba, forlorn, enslaved, when she
Saw Polyxena dead, and knew that must
20Be Polydorus on the beach, though he
Was hard to recognise, quite lost her mind
For grief, and, like a dog, she barked. But no
Fury that fell on Thebes or Troy could find
A place—no matter whom it struck and though
It tore up beasts and limbs of men—next to
The cruelty that now I saw. Two pale
And naked shades ran as a hog might do
Loosed biting from the sty, one to assail
Capocchio. Sharp fangs sunk in his neck’s nape,
30It dragged him and his scabs along the ditch
Whose hard floor made his itchy belly scrape.
Then Griffolino, left to look and twitch
Beside me, said: “That goblin in a rage
Is Gianni Schicchi, and he deals with all
That way, himself the great fraud of his age.”
And I to him: “So it may not befall
The other one should fix its teeth in you
Before it makes off, tell me who it is.”
And he to me: “The shade of Myrrha, who
40Was by her father, as if she was his
By law, made concubine. She joined the sin,
Pretending she was someone else; as that
One there, who goes off, took the whole world in—
To get the horse that everyone aimed at,
The Lady of the Stud, he took the name
And style of Buoso di Donati, made
The will, and then, to prove his wily fame,
Faked Buoso’s death in bed. Such was the trade
Of Gianni Schicchi, and his lasting shame.
50A mimic. May his lustre never fade.”
And when those two on whom I’d kept my eyes
In all their fury had at last moved on,
I turned to all those ill-born others. Prize
Exhibit among those was one upon
Whom fingers might have played. He was a lute,
Or would have been, if cut short at the groin
From that part where a man is forked. Acute
Dropsy—by which the members cease to join
In just proportion, humours are disposed
60The wrong way, and the belly answers not
The face—decreed his lips were never closed,
Much like the rabid one whose thirst runs hot
So one lip curls down always to the chin,
The other upward. “You that walk here free
From any kind of punishment for sin
Through this grim world, how such a thing could be
Who knows? But look, give heed now to the grief
Of Master Adam. While alive, I had
All that I wished, but now know no relief
70From thirst for just one drop of water. Mad,
The mere thought makes me of the little streams
That from green hills of Casentino flow
Down to the Arno, channels like sweet dreams
Run cool and wet before me, and are no
Frivolity, for just their image seems
To parch me worse than all the ills that waste
My features. The unbending justice which
Examines me and makes me breathe in haste
Starts up there where I sinned, not in this ditch:
80There in Romena, where I falsified
The coins stamped with the Baptist, and for that
I left my body up there when I died,
All burned. But even if I could be at
My dearest Fonte Branda, I would give
That chance for only one glimpse of the three
Brothers who got me into it. Two live:
There’s Alessandro and that other one. For me
The one who counts is Guido, and he’s here
Already, if those angry shades who run
90Around this ring speak truth. Why would he fear
Me, though? My limbs imprison me. Just one
Inch in a hundred years: if I were just
That light, I would have set out on the road
To find him among all these misshapes. Trust
My promise, though I’d have to haul my load
Eleven miles around and more than half
A mile across. But through them, here I am.
I made the golden coin a golden calf.
Our florin, pride of Florence, was a sham,
100Minted by me. Three carats of hardware
To drain its worth.” And I to him: “Those two
Poor wretches lying near your border there
Who give off smoke the same way wet hands do
In winter, who are they?” And he: “You care?
I found them when I rained into this trough.
They didn’t move then, and they haven’t since,
Nor will they stir, unless my guess is off,
For all eternity. You think she’d wince
At least, that lying wife of Potiphar
110Who did for Joseph. Sinòn is the Greek
Who fooled the Trojans. And now here they are,
A pair of fatal fabulists. That reek
Comes from their burning fever.” Then Sinòn,
Who took it ill, perhaps, that he had come
To be so scorned, punched his accuser on
His paunch of leather, which boomed like a drum,
And Master Adam struck him in the face
With his huge arm—his punch seemed no less hard—
Saying: “Although my limbs keep me in place
120By their great weight, still I am not debarred
In such a case, from having one arm loose.”
Sinòn replied: “When you went to the fire,
You hadn’t, but you had it free for use
When striking false coin. All you could require
Of strength you had then, so that’s no excuse.”
The dropsied one said: “In this you speak true,
But nothing that you said was true in Troy,
Where simple truth was all they asked of you,
A guest they had made welcome, and with joy.”
130“If I spoke falsely,” said Sinòn, “the fault
Was mine just once. You with your lying coins
Struck many times. You kept up an assault
That earns you, more than anyone who joins
Us here, a place of honour.” Thus addressed,
He of the paunch replied: “The horse, the horse!
Remember, perjurer, the way you pressed
Your wooden gift on them, and let remorse
Plague you that all the world has come to know.”
“And you be plagued,” the Greek said, “with the thirst
140That cracks your tongue, and with that liquid so
Corrupt it swells your guts into the first
Thing that you see, a hedge before your eyes.”
The counterfeiter then: “Thus your mouth gapes
To set you wrong, and never otherwise.
I thirst, yes, and foul humour cruelly shapes
My belly so that it attains this size,
But you have burning fever, your head aches,
And you would need small urging to lick dry
The mirror of Narcissus. All it takes
150Is just to say it’s made of water.” I
Was all absorbed in listening, but then
My Master said: “You keep this up much more
And I will lose my patience with you.” When
I heard him speak it shook me to the core,
He was so angry, and with so much shame
I turned towards him that it haunts me still
In memory. My thoughts were just the same
As in one of those dreams when something ill
Is being done to you, and in the dream
160You wish it were a dream, so that you long
For that which is as if it weren’t, and seem
To see yourself afraid, and are not wrong.
Just so, I felt I’d lost the power to speak
From wanting to excuse myself, and yet
Excused myself until my voice grew weak
Repeating all I hoped he would forget.
“Much greater faults than yours are washed away
By much less shame,” my Master said. “Unload
Your heart of all grief. I am here today
170And always, at your side on the long road,
To tell you, if by chance you’re led astray
By people in a quarrel, that the wish
To listen while they fight is devilish.”