Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 4–6 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 4–6

Into my soundly dreaming head there broke
A sudden thunder so loud that I shook
Like one shaken awake. When I awoke
With sight restored, I rose and took a look
Around me, keen to know where I might be:
I and my Guide, the man who wrote the book
On quests and questions, doubts and destiny.
And true it was that I was on the edge
Of the great pit of the piteous abyss
10Where sad cries have the dubious privilege
Of gathering in perpetual synthesis,
And griefs already infinite are by
Their own great number multiplied, to swell
Uproar to an eruption. It was Hell.
And as it sounded, so it looked: all bad.
Even the clouds were dark. I couldn’t tell
How far it went down. It was deeply sad.
“Now we descend into the sightless well,”
My Poet said, and paused. His cheeks were pale.
20“First me, then you.” And I, at having seen
Him seem to flinch, said: “How shall I not fail,
If this scares you when usually you’ve been
The one to calm my fears?” And he to me:
“It is the anguish of those locked below
That paints my face with pity. What you see
As fear is something else. It’s time to go:
A long road calls.” And thus compelled by him
Who had compelled himself, I took a breath
And entered the first ring around the rim
30Of that great well-head’s endless wall of death.
I was in Circle One. To the extent
That I could hear at all, all cries were sighs.
The air without end shook to the lament
Not just of men and women: with surprise
I saw young children too. Why were they sent?
I thought, and once again my Master saw
Into my mind, and said: “You do not ask
Who these ones are, why here, and by what law?
I’ll tell you, before we resume our task,
40Of pain without a sin. But though they be
Ever so virtuous, no unbaptized
Souls are exempted from this penalty,
And if they lived before His Son, they prized
God insufficiently. And I was one
Of those. For such defects, and for no crime
More grave, we’re lost: for something left undone
We’re doomed to live without hope for all time.”
When I heard this a great grief seized my heart,
Because I knew that people of much worth
50In ancient sciences and every art
Had been sent down by accident of birth
To Limbo. “Tell me, Master, for I must
Know this,” I begged him, needing to be told
My faith was not just powerful but just:
“Has even one, of all this place can hold,
Ever got out—by merit of his own
Or someone else’s grace—to join the blessed?”
And he, aware of the doctrinal bone
I picked at, said: “I had not joined the rest
60Down here for long when someone of true power—
Crowned with a blaze of glory—came to choose
From this tremendous garden, flower by flower,
The lucky few from all He would refuse.
Plucked from the dark and lifted to the light
Were Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses—he
Who gave the law and kept the law in sight—
And Abraham the patriarch was free;
King David, Jacob, Isaac and their seed,
And Rachel, for whom Jacob forty years
70Worked out the price and thereby proved his need;
And there were many others left their tears
Behind and went to be beatified,
But never before them was human soul
Delivered out of here.” So said my Guide,
But saying so, did not pause in his role
Of leader. We continued passing through
The forest thick with spirits. Not so far
From where I’d slept, I noticed something new:
Ahead of us, beginning as a bar
80Of light, it swelled to form a hemisphere
Of fire that through the shadows burned a dome—
And from a good way off I guessed that here
Some honourable people had their home.
“My Sage so honoured in all fields of art
And science, who are these that by such light
Are honoured too, all others set apart?”
And he to me: “Divine grace shines its bright
Approval on them for the fame they earned
And still have in the world by what they made.
90Here glory burns again as there it burned.”
A voice inside the radiant arcade
Responded with a ringing antiphon:
“All hail the greatest poet, for his shade
Returns, that we had thought was gone.”
When silence had come back to fill the space
The voice had left when it went still, I saw
Four great shades come towards us, and each face
Was neither glad nor sad. My Guide said more:
“Behold the one with upright sword in hand:
100  He walks by right before the other three,
For he is Homer, who put his Greek brand
On all the Romans, not excluding me.
If you could read him, you would understand
Why we, who can, verge on idolatry
In praising him. Horace the satirist
Is that one there, then Ovid. Lucan last.
Because that voice put my name on its list
With these, it did me honour unsurpassed.”
So I saw gathered the immortal school
110  Of him who sang below the walls of Troy,
And over all who write shall always rule
Like a watchful eagle in its high employ,
Spreading its wings on winds we know are there
Only because it glides across the sky
So easily, as if born in the air,
And never to descend, even to die.
And after they had talked a little while
They turned, with signs of fellowship, to me:
Whereat I saw my Master broadly smile.
120  And, still more honour from that company,
They said that I was with them from now on,
Sixth of their school, the college of the wise.
And so it was, until the light was gone,
We walked and talked of what I must surmise
Were best left unsaid now, but when said then
Was fit, and, dare I say it, flattering:
Such words I hardly hope to hear again
But just to hear them once meant everything.
Surrounded seven times by one high wall
130  Inside another, plus a pretty stream
As moat, a castle noble, strong and tall
Now stood before us. As if in a dream
We walked across the water. Seven gates
I passed through with my five wise ones, until
We reached a fresh green lawn. The ancient greats
Awaited us: their eyes were grave and still,
Their features full of calm authority.
Sparely they spoke, in voices sweet and soft.
They were so many that, to count them, we
140  Withdrew to a well-lighted place aloft.
From there, above the green enamel, I
Looked down on each and every face of fame,
The sight of which I’d been exalted by
Already, only now I heard the name:
Electra, whose beloved son built Troy,
And whose companions saw it end in flame
Or died defending it. I heard with joy
That this was Hector, this Aeneas. There,
Just as essential for a later age,
150  Was Caesar with his griffin’s fiery stare.
Princess Camilla stood at centre stage
With Penthesilea, the war-like Queen
Of the Amazons, she whom Achilles slew,
And the King of Latium was on the green
As was Lavinia, his daughter. Who
Would not be moved to know this was the first
Brutus, the one who laid proud Tarquin low?
Lucrezia, wife of Collatine, well versed
In grace; and Caesar’s daughter whom we know
160  As wife to Pompey, the chaste Julia,
And Marcia, Cato’s wife. Cornelia too,
Daughter to Scipio of Africa
And mother of the Gracchi. Names I knew
Only from books, without reserve revealed
How they had looked—except the Saladin,
Sadly by robes of shadow part concealed:
He helped our age of learning to begin,
But had another faith. Lifting my gaze
A little, one I saw who sat in state
170  Among the family of philosophers—
Their father, of all thinkers the most great:
Aristotle. Looking up to him in praise
Like all the others, even Socrates
And Plato, who preceded him, were each
Lost in their awe of his abilities
At amplifying what they’d had to teach:
The moral law. There was Democritus,
Who said the world is made of tiny parts
That interact by chance, unseen by us.
180  Diogenes and Anaxagoras,
Thales, Empedocles were side by side,
And Heraclitus who said any mass,
Even if still, still moves. There in his pride
Was Zeno, stoicism’s founding voice,
And next to him was Dioscorides
The herb collector. I was spoiled for choice:
Where next to look, among these prodigies?
And I saw Orpheus and Cicero,
Linus, and Seneca the moralist,
190  Euclid and Ptolemy. There in a row
Were famous adepts first to get the gist
Of modern medicine and help it grow:
Hippocrates and Galen, with the two
Arabs who led the world in this respect:
Avicenna, then Averroës, who
Wrote down what both could conjure and confect
In his Commentary that none doubts to be true.
And these and all those others on the lawn—
So many giants of the intellect—
200  Were like the first sunrays that build the dawn.
I can’t speak fully of them all. My theme
Is vast, and drives me on so that the facts
Often exhaust my words. Again a team
Of two, we entered into cataracts
Of trembling air, all quietness left behind—
Where no light shines and all who see are blind.
So we descended out of Circle One
To Circle Two: the less in measurement,
The greater in its sad cries fit to stun
The senses. Here, deciding who’ll be sent
To which reception, the Selector looms
Whose name is Minos. Horrible to see,
He’s worse to see in action. Separate dooms
For separate deeds, betokened by how he
Runs rings around himself with his long tail,
10So many turns for such and such a fault.
The tortured souls, confessing without fail,
Are thus assigned to that drawer in the vault
This connoisseur of turpitude may deem
Appropriate, while to his platform comes
Another load to share the same wild dream.
They watch his living bull-whip do its sums
Always for others, not for them. Not yet.
And then it’s their turn, as they count the loops
That weigh the crimes they hoped he might forget—
20And down they go, sad army, naked troops,
To find their level. “You that come to stay
At this unlucky lodge, watch where you tread
And whom you trust,” Minos was moved to bray.
“The width of Hell’s mouth doesn’t mean the dead
Who get in ever get to go away.”
My Leader spoke for me: “Shout till you drop:
His travel papers bear a sacred seal.
This thing is wanted where the moot points stop
And certainties begin. There’s no appeal.”
30Here, after Limbo, as I had before,
I heard the countless outcries of lament
Combine to strike me as a constant roar.
This was a place where every light was spent.
It ranted as the sea does in a storm
That splits its own winds to go left or right,
Shrieking in all directions. Thus the form
Of the infernal tempest: day and night
The same, forever shapeless, without rest
It rends and roils the spirits with its force.
40They are the smeared signs of how it is blessed:
Their cries can testify to its remorse.
And when they come to where the rocks are cracked
By background pressure, and a fissure gapes
Before them, then we hear the law attacked
That brought them to this pass so none escapes,
As all yell their complaints at that brute fact.
I understood this was the punishment
For carnal sinners, who let appetite
Rule reason, and who, once drawn, are now sent—
50Like winter starlings by their wings in flight—
Across the bleak sky in a broad, thick flock:
Here, there, now up, now down, the winds dictate
Their track. Small hope of pausing to take stock
Of whether anguish might not soon abate
At least a little, and no hope at all
Of peace. And as the cranes sing when they fly,
In a long line attracting with their call
Our eyes to them as they move through the sky,
Just so I now saw souls borne on the wind
60Trailing their cries of grief towards the spot
Where we stood. “Who are these? How have they sinned?”
I asked my Master. “Dare to tell me what
Dooms them to be so harshly disciplined.”
“The first of those of whom you would have news
Was empress of many peoples.” So explained
My Master. “Willing neither to refuse
Demands from her own lust, nor to be stained
By rules against it, she rewrote the law
To make praiseworthy what had been her vice
70And vicious what was virtuous before.
Her name is Semiramis. More than twice
As bad as her hot blood was her incest:
She married her own son so they could rule
The Sultan’s lands, Egypt and all the rest.
The next is Dido, Queen of Carthage, cruel
To the ashes of her husband when she slew
Herself because of love: not love for him,
But for Aeneas. Cleopatra, too—
That dark one there—desire led to a grim
80Reckoning. Behold Helen, in whose name
A sea of trouble came to Troy in ships,
And Paris knew it was a sea of flame,
The fire that started when he kissed her lips.
And there’s Tristan . . .” A thousand more at least
He named, the shades who left our life for love:
The gentle women of a time long ceased
To be, and all their cavaliers. Above
My head, the waves of fear closed and increased
Their turbulence, and I was almost lost.
90Then I to him: “My Poet, I would speak
With those two—by the ill wind swept and tossed
As light as dead leaves on a mountain creek—
Who do not fly alone, but as a pair.”
And he to me: “Call out, when they can hear,
In the name of love that leads them through the air,
And they will come to you.” When they drew near
I spoke: “Tormented spirits, come to us,
If Someone Else does not forbid you to.
You fly for love, and love we should discuss,
100  Though it stir shades into a witch’s brew.”
And as when doves that long for their sweet nest
See it, and with their stiffened wings spread wide,
Moved only by desire come home to rest,
So these from Dido’s squadron turned aside
And down through the malignant atmosphere
They came to us in an unerring glide,
So deeply had my summons to appear
Touched them. “O Being gracious and benign—
Visiting us in air whose darkness is
110  Tinged by the blood of all in our long line—
If the Emperor of the Universe in His
Great mercy were our friend, then we would pray
For your repose, because of your distress
At our sad fate. What you would have us say
Let’s hear about, now that the wind blows less,
So we may speak before it howls once more.”
So she began, he silent in assent.
“Born where the Po descends to the seashore
To meet its followers and rest content,
120  I was a beauty. Love, in gentle hearts,
Strikes quickly, and the fair form I once had
Before I cruelly lost it—by dark arts
That still offend me—quickly drove him mad.
Love pardons no one loved from Love, and I
Was drawn to him with what force you can see:
It still holds me beside him as we fly.
Love gave two lives one death for destiny.
As for who killed us, Cain will help him die.”
Those stricken souls, through her we heard them speak:
130  And when I understood the full import
Of what was said, as if my neck grew weak
I hung my head. My Guide said: “Lost in thought?”
I was indeed. When I could breathe, I said:
“Alas, so many sweet shared thoughts and things
Brought them this fate they think unwarranted.”
Thus I to him. To them: “Your sufferings,
Francesca, make me weep for grief and more.
But tell me, in that time of your sweet sighs,
In that first flush, how love made you both sure
140  Of what you half saw in each other’s eyes.”
And she to me: “Life brings no greater grief
Than happiness remembered in a time
Of sorrow; and he knows that well, your chief,
Who now walks in a world of dust and grime
When once he took bright laurels as his due.
But if to know the one true origin
Of our Love means so very much to you,
Then even as I weep I will begin.
Reading together one day for delight
150  Of Lancelot, caught up in Love’s sweet snare,
We were alone, with no thought of what might
Occur to us, although we stopped to stare
Sometimes at what we read, and even paled.
But then the moment came we turned a page
And all our powers of resistance failed:
When we read of that great knight in a rage
To kiss the smile he so desired, Paolo,
This one so quiet now, made my mouth still—
Which, loosened by those words, had trembled so—
160  With his mouth. And right then we lost the will—
For Love can will will’s loss, as well you know—
To read on. But let that man take a bow
Who wrote the book we called our Galahad,
The reason nothing can divide us now.”
One spoke as if she almost might be glad,
The other wept as if forgetting how
To stop. And I? I fainted dead away,
And went down as if going down to stay.
When I came round, and was no longer blind—
My pity for that self-deluding pair
Gave me much grief, and grief had closed my mind—
I saw new types of torment everywhere
Around me, so no matter where I turned
Were the tormented. This was Circle Three,
And here there was no fire, and nothing burned.
Instead, a dark cold rain falls heavily
Forever. At a rigidly fixed rate
10And steady density, the muck descends
Through shadowed air already dark as slate.
The fall of dirty water never ends,
With hail and snow mixed in. The soaked earth reeks.
The people stuck in it have Cerberus
To guard them. Overhead, that creature shrieks
In anger with three mouths, each hideous
As a mad dog’s. Beards greasy black, eyes red,
Big belly, fingers well supplied with nails,
He scores and scrapes and tears them to a shred—
20Those that the rain already hardly fails
To make howl—and they turn from side to side
As if they could keep something unbesmirched
By his paws, though they have no goods to hide,
No house but this remaining to be searched.
When Cerberus the hulking worm got wind
That he was not alone—he never is,
In view of how he’s made—he turned and grinned.
His hungry mouths displayed those teeth of his
In six rows. Every limb was quivering.
30My Leader spread his hands and, to his wrists,
He dug down through the slop so he might fling
The loads of firmer sludge caught in his fists
Into those gulping throats, and like three hounds
That yelp for greed but shut up when they eat,
The monster made the small contented sounds
It doesn’t make for souls spread at its feet.
Those we passed over, where they lay prostrate,
Gripped by the mud and held down by the rain.
We trod on ghosts as if their actual state
40Were human and they did not flinch in vain.
Supine or prone, they all lay stretched out flat,
Except for one who sat up when he saw
Us pass, and said: “You that I’m looking at
Instead of through, because no fatal flaw
Yet sends you here to stay: do you know me?
You should, for you were born before I died.”
And I to him: “Perhaps my memory
Aims at the mark you set but wanders wide
Through air unsettled by your agony.
50But tell me who you are, and why sent here
To such a punishment that none more great
Could well be worse, so much it fills with fear
A visitor not marked for the same fate.”
And he to me: “Our city, then as now
A sack of envy stuffed to spill its load,
I spoke for in the world, where I knew how
To put myself about, my sharpest goad
The supper I sang for. ‘Ciacco,’ they said,
‘Sit down and eat.’ And now it’s here I sit,
60Wrecked by the rain because of broken bread,
Like anyone too fond of eating it—
Like all those here now. See how we are fed.”
And I replied: “Ciacco, your moans of pain
Meet mine, and I am—almost—moved to tears.
But if there is foreknowledge you retain,
Then tell me if just one Just One appears,
To save the city. What becomes of them,
The disunited Florentines? And how
Did all this start? What snapped the diadem
70That once encircled the untroubled brow
Of Santa Reparata? Diplomat
You were. You know things. Give me what you know.”
Then he to me: “At first, the usual spat
Or two, then drawn-out tension, then the blow
By blow expansion, then the all-out fight
Between the Blacks and Whites. With due offence
The Whites drive out the Blacks. Day follows night,
And in three years the Blacks come back. Immense
Success, with help from Boniface. In tears,
80The Whites find out the hard way that their shame
Is just the start of payment in arrears
For the crime of losing. Two men have the name
Of being just, but no one listens. Three
Real motives: Envy, Avarice and Pride—
Fires of the Florentines, as you will see.”
And I to him, although I knew my Guide
Grew restive: “Still there’s something I would know
Ahead of time. Those men who wished no ill—
Tegghiaio, Farinata, Jacopo
90Rusticucci and Arrigo, Mosca—will
I find they rose to grace? Or do they weep?”
And he to me: “The whole bunch rot in Hell,
Black souls that different faults have driven deep.
Go down that far, you’ll see how far they fell.
But if it’s true you’re going all the way
Back to the sweet world, tell them who you met.
They might remember. That’s all I can say.”
Whereat, his gaze still fixed on mine, he bent
His head and lay back down to join the blind.
100  My Leader said: “Until the air is rent
By the angel’s trumpet—and the dead shall find
Their graves, take fleshly form, and hear resound
The eternal echoes, as shall be decreed
By the Last Judge—this one, held by his ground,
Will never wake again. Shall we proceed?”
And so, with slow steps, fording the foul blend
Of shades and rain, we moved, our speech concerned
With life beyond the tomb. “After the end,
What starts?” I asked. “Will all those who have earned
110  Their place down here feel less pain from the Day
Of Judgement on, or just the same, or more?”
And he to me: “What does your science say?
The more a thing’s more perfect than before
The more it takes delight, or feels despair?
Although these damned will never know a true
Perfection, they’ll be closer to it there,
Beyond that Day. So: much more than they do
Must be the answer to your question.” We
Had walked the inner edge of that great ring
120  With much more talk about theology
That I have room or time for rendering.
We reached the entrance to a lower zone,
But first the fearsome Plutus stood alone.