Poetry: Divine Comedy : Hell, Cantos 7–9 | clivejames.com
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Hell, Cantos 7–9

“The Pope pops Satan, Satan pips the Pope,”
Plutus barked raucous nonsense, while my Guide,
Who knew all things, to give me back my hope
Said: “Don’t let fear of him turn you aside.
Whatever power he has will never stretch
To stopping your descent to the next stage.”
And, turning to the fat lips of the wretch,
“Wolf, shut your mouth,” he said. “Swallow your rage
And let it eat your guts. He goes with cause
10Into the depths, for it is willed on high
Where Michael the Archangel planned the wars
Against the rebels.” As when all winds die
And sails, once swollen, flap and fall in folds,
Just so the beast lay flat. We left it so,
And down to Circle Four—and what it holds
For its share of the universe of woe
Contained in the immeasurable pit—
We went. Merciful God! Who gets it in,
This wretched harvest? What accounts for it?
20And why to such pain are we led by sin?
For just as waves above the clashing jaws
Of Scylla and Charybdis rush to fight
Each other, so these shades danced without pause,
More of them than had so far met my sight.
From either side damned souls let out a shout
And roll weights with their chests until they crash
Together, whereupon they turn about
And shriek “Why pile it up?” and “Why waste cash?”
And work in a half-circle to the point
30Opposed, still giving out their spiteful yell,
And turn to joust again. Heart out of joint,
I said: “My Master, who are these, pray tell:
And were these tonsured ones here to the left
Once clerics?” He to me: “Yes, all of them
In their first life were so of sense bereft
They spent like wastrels, and thus they condemn
Their madness, barking every time they find
Themselves returned to either of the two
Opposing points at which their faults of mind
40Divide them. One and all were clerics who,
Head sticking through their hair, were ruled by greed.
There are popes here, and cardinals.” And I:
“My Guide, should I not then in such a breed
See faces that I can identify,
Famous for sins of avarice and waste?”
My Master answered thus: “That thought is vain.
In life for their dim sight they were disgraced:
Here they are dimly seen, and must remain
Forever split into two charging teams:
50Those money-grubbing ones who from the grave
Arise with grasping fists and foolproof schemes,
And these with hair close-cropped to show they gave
As those took—a two-sided robbery
That stole the world from both and set them here
In this unprepossessing scrum that we
Lack words to dignify. You see it clear,
My son: the squalid fraud as brief as life
Of goods consigned to Fortune, whereupon
Cool heads come to the boil, hands to the knife.
60For all the gold there is, and all that’s gone,
Would give no shred of peace to even one
Of these drained souls.” “Master,” I said,
“Finish the lesson you have just begun:
Tell me who Fortune is. How has she spread
Her arms to seize the world’s wealth?” A sharp glance:
“Half-witted mortals, how is it you know
So little even of the ignorance
That starves you? That you not continue so,
Now feed on news of how I estimate
70The Understanding that transcends all things,
And made the heavens, and gave each heavenly state
The luminous intelligence that brings
Light from each part to every other part
In perfect measure. Just so, on the Earth,
Fortune, his minister, with timely art
Endlessly portions out, for what they’re worth,
The riches of the world from man to man
And race to race—and none can even guess,
Because no human sense can know her plan,
80Why one has power, another powerlessness—
According to her judgement where she lies
Unseen, just as the grass conceals the snake.
Your mortal judgement shrivels up and dies
Compared with hers, perpetually awake,
Providing, weighing, balancing. She rules
Her realm the way the lofty ones rule theirs.
Unceasing alterations make her tools
Invisible, so quickly her affairs
Must be arranged and rearranged. She, then,
90Who is so often cursed by those who should
Praise her, thinking themselves forsaken men,
Although, by breaking them, she brought them good—
She, then, although she hears no human word
Of her true value, happy like the rest
Of those first creatures—who have always heard
Their praises sung—nevertheless is blessed,
The world her wheel. And so much for your doubt,
For now we must descend to deeper grief,
As all the stars that rose when I set out
100  To meet you, start to fall. Even a brief
Pause in our course is not permitted. Move.”
We cut across the circle to a ledge
Above a fountain spurting in its groove
And spilling back, swamping the precinct’s edge
With water more a turgid grey than black;
And we, in company with that grim flood,
Picked our way down an ankle-turning track
Into the place beneath, where sliding mud,
Spread thickly from the foot of those dark slopes,
110  Became the sad, slow river called the Styx.
While I stood doing nothing except look,
I thought at first my eyes were playing tricks
As these slime-covered naked people shook
With anger. Not with sticky hands alone
They hit each other, but with heads, chests, feet
And teeth. They bit each other to the bone.
And my great Guide to me: “Son, here you meet
The souls of those who gave way to their rage.
But know, too, there are those who lurk below
120  The surface—from the bubbles you can gauge
Their number—who could let no anger flow,
Or any feeling else. Stuck in the mud,
They croak: ‘In that sweet world the sun made glad,
Our hearts were stopped with a slow, smoking flood.
In these dank depths we work at being sad.’
This is the chorus their clogged throats emit:
The best that they can do.” Thus we traversed
A great arc of that filthy, festering pit,
Walking between the dry bank and the cursed
130  Wet edge that sighs to suck you into it,
Always our eyes on those lost to its power—
Until we faced the foot of a tall tower.
Just to go back a bit, I should have said
That long before we reached the tower’s base
We saw two lights set on its lofty head,
To which a third light, from a far-off place,
Sent back a pinpoint signal. Turning to my
Attendant sea of wisdom, I asked: “What
Does this mean? And that other fire’s reply,
What is it? And who tends that flame?” “Let not,”
He said, “the foul fumes of the marsh deceive
10Your eye, for what’s to come, no longer there,
Is almost here.” When did an arrow leave
A bowstring and run whistling through the air
More quickly than this little boat skimmed in
Across the sludge? “Caught you!” the oarsman cried.
“Guilty as charged!” “Flegias, cut the din:
This time it counts for nothing,” said my Guide.
“You get to keep us only while we cross
This swamp.” As one who knows that some great fraud
Is practised on him, and resents the loss,
20So Flegias in his bottled rage. My lord
Stepped down into the boat, and then made me
Step after him, and only after I
Was on board did the craft appear to be
Laden. Thus, then, the ancient prow, less high
Than usual since its cargo weighed much more
Than shadows, moved off, cutting all too deep
Into the muck, from which there rose, before
Our gaze, a man-shaped darkly streaming heap
Of that same stagnant stuff we rowed through. “Who
30Are you that come before your time?” And I
To him: “If so, it’s not to stay. But you,
Who are you, to be such a mess?” “I cry,”
He said, “as all the damned do.” Me again:
“Cry all you like, mud crab. Thicken your mask.
I still know who you really are.” Just then
He reached with both hands for the boat, his task
To turn us over, but my wary chief
Warded him off, and said “Get back down there
With the other dogs.” And then, to my relief,
40My Master’s anger turned to loving care,
His arm around me as he kissed my cheek.
“Disdainful one,” he said, “blessed was the womb
That held you. In the world, he was the peak
Of arrogance, and now, beyond the tomb,
With not one good word to adorn his name,
He rages at his own inanity.
And there are others up there of the same
Persuasion they are kings. They, too, will be
Pigs in this filthy sty, and leave behind
50Nothing but curses rained upon the hole
Their swelled heads filled.” And I: “I have a mind,
Before we leave this festering soup bowl,
To see it swallow him.” My Master said:
“Before we reach the other shore, your wish
Will be fulfilled.” And soon, as if they fed
A hunger, we saw men like muddy fish
Surround him, and I thanked God as they cried
“So, Filippo Argenti! Not so great!”
While even he sank teeth in his own hide,
60That tortured Florentine. Such was the state
We left him in. I have no more to tell,
Save of the sound of grief that struck my ears
As I gazed forward. “Son, you should note well,”
My Master said, “that now the city nears
Called Dis, home of a thoughtful populace
And mighty garrison.” I in my turn:
“Master, already I can see its face.
The mosques within its ramparts seem to burn
As red as iron new-drawn from the fire.”
70Then he: “The fire eternal makes them glow
So red. Here Hell becomes the funeral pyre
That burns in Circle Six and burns below.”
Between the outworks and the walls that showed
Their fever of that city sad and vast,
The moat was deep, and through it ran the road
We followed far around, until at last
We came to where the boatman bellowed “Out!
Now we get out of here and go in there!”
His cry was nothing to the angry shout
80Of a thousand angels, fallen from elsewhere
Like rain to make the door a thing of dread.
“Who’s this,” they yelled, “who dares to go while still
Alive into the kingdom of the dead?”
By signs my silent guide expressed his will:
A wish to speak in secret. They cut back
A little on their uproar of bad grace.
“Just you, then,” said the leader of the pack,
“And let your friend, the unfitting one, retrace
The false steps that have boldly brought him here
90On a mad road. Leave him alone to face
His journey home. He might have known more fear
Had you, his sponsor, not shown him the way.
Now let him tremble. Lose him. You, draw near.”
Think, reader, of the depth of my dismay
At these forbidding words. They were a curse:
Never, I thought, would I be here again.
I to my Master: “Nothing could be worse
For me now than to be as I was then,
Without you. You have seven times and more
100  Saved me from danger and rebuilt my heart.
If I’m denied the path that lies before,
Then let’s go back together to the start.”
“Fear not,” said he who had brought me this far,
“For nobody can interrupt a course
Mapped for us from on high. Stay where you are,
And with the food of hope restore the force
Of your weak spirits. Never would I leave
You on your own down here.” And so he goes,
And leaves me half convinced that I deceive
110  Myself that this is not what I suppose.
Am I betrayed? What he said to unman
Those sentinels I couldn’t hear, but he
Was not long there with them before they ran
A race to go back in, and instantly
They shut the door against him. He began
With pensive steps the slow walk back to me,
Eyes on the ground and brow bereft of all
Serenity. And as he went, he sighed:
“Who are they who presume to guard the wall
120  That keeps me from where sufferings reside,
Its weeping houses?” Then to me: “Be not
Dismayed that I should grieve. In this contest
Of wills I shall prevail, no matter what
That gang in there come up with. For the rest,
There’s nothing new in their intransigence.
They used it once before to bar a gate
Less secret, which still stands without defence,
Its locks and bolts undone by Someone Great.
You saw, above its head, the mortal text,
130  Yet came through to the slope, and since have come
Down through the circles, first one, then the next,
As far as this, and I am the whole sum
Of your protection. Therefore, why be vexed?
To lay this city open, we need no
Sanction beyond what sent us. Shall we go?”
Seeing how his reverse had paled my face,
My Leader summoned up the means to drive
The same pallor from his. He checked his pace
And stopped to listen, as a man would strive
To make up with his ears for his dimmed eyes
In dark air and thick fog. “Nevertheless,”
He said, “We’re bound to win, or otherwise . . .”
He paused, and then: “But no. That’s idleness.
We have such help. But why is it so late
10In coming?” I saw clearly how the first
Thing that he said the next would mitigate
To calm my fear. From that, I feared the worst:
Perhaps these fragments had a common source
In some deep theme too terrible to tell.
I said: “Does anyone in the long course
Of time descend into the hellish well
This far whose proper place is Circle One,
Where none are damned but all hope is cut short?”
I questioned, he gave answer. “Almost none
20Of us have made a journey of the sort
That I make now, though I did once before,
Through the magic of Erichtho, who recalled
Souls to their bodies. Seeing how I wore
My flesh no longer, that fell Sybil hauled
Me through the wall of Dis and down to fetch
A spirit from the lowest circle, where
Judas resides. You’ve seen only a sketch
So far of what this pit is like down there
At the bottom of the dark: far out of sight,
30The crystal sky that makes the world turn. I
Know well that journey to the end of night,
Although condemned too soon to live and die.
But rest assured that it is just for now
We are debarred from the sad city which
Adds such unholy rage—we’ve just seen how—
To its protection by this stinking ditch.”
And more in the same vein, but I forget;
My gaze was focused on a bastion
The ruins of whose high rim were beset
40In an instant by the triple power, close-drawn,
Of three infernal furies, stained with blood.
In form and manner female, they were clad
With snakes, and smaller snakes, as if from mud,
Rose from their hair, and their fierce temples had
Snake-spawn with little horns for diadems.
My Guide, who knew full well the coiled intent,
And the foul taste for such hissing, writhing gems,
Of Proserpine, Queen of the Long Lament,
Said: “Look! Eumenides! There on the left,
50Megaera. On the right, Alecto weeps.
Tisiphone is she who fills the cleft
Between them. A Greek nightmare never sleeps.”
I shook for fear against my Poet’s side.
“Bring on Medusa! With her aid we’ll make
This man a stone!” So, looking down, they cried.
“With Theseus we made a big mistake.
Now for revenge!” My Master: “Turn your back.
Hands over eyes. Tight fingers. Stay that way.
Just one glimpse of the Gorgon through a crack—
60Goodbye forever to the light of day.”
And he himself turned me around, nor did
He trust my own hands, adding his as well
To guard my eyes. You of sound mind, I bid
You look beneath the strange, veiled way I tell
This story to the struggle in the soul
Of one who seeks redemption. Now, across
The turbid waves, there came a thundering roll
Of fearful sound, with both banks at a loss
To stay still, trembling at the violent roar
70Of such a summer wind as heat propels
Into the woods when, fallen to the floor,
Split branches fly away, and dizzy spells
Of dust are driven by its boastful pride,
And even the wild beasts and shepherds flee.
“Now train your gaze across that scum-skinned tide,”
He said to me as he set my eyes free,
“To where the fog is thickest.” As the snake,
Their enemy, sends frogs down fading through
The water to the bottom of the lake
80To squat and wait, so I now had in view
More than a thousand dead souls fleeing. One
Who passed dry-shod across the Styx had come,
Clearing its thick air from his face. This, done
With his left hand, and often, was the sum
Of all the sufferings that sapped him: no
Compassion and no fear. I could well see
That he was Heaven-sent. I made a show
Of turning to my Guide, but he told me,
With just a sign, to shut my mouth and bow.
90Disdainful angel! Who now faced the gate
And with a little sceptre touched somehow
Its secret spring. Not even with its weight
Did it resist. The way was open now.
“You outcasts from the sky,” the angel cried
On the ghastly threshold. “You rejected race,
Where did you get your overweening pride?
Why fight against the will none can outface
And which so often has increased your pain?
By flouting the decrees of providence
100  Some call the fates, what can you hope to gain?
Remember Cerberus and get some sense.
Those wounds he carries at his throats and jaws,
Chains made, when he was dragged out of the way
Of Hercules in Hades. There are laws.”
Thus having said what he had come to say,
Without a word to us, and with the air
Of one with other business on his mind
More pressing, he turned back and left us there
To watch him take that filthy road. Confined
110  No longer, by his holy words set free
From doubt, we could take certain steps towards
The city, and without a struggle we
Went in, and I, agog to see the hordes
Held there, and how, took one quick look around
And there they were, broad fields on either hand
Of pain and cruelty: the sight, the sound.
Just as the Rhone at Arles dissolves the land
Into a swamp, just as at Pola near
Quarnero where the bounds of Italy
120  Are set and bathed, just so I saw it here,
But far worse: the uneven territory
Of graveyards, and among the tombs were fires
That made them glow with more intensity
Of heat than any forge or stove requires.
The lids were lifted. Such cries of lament
Came out of them as only the despised
And desperate could make. “Who has been sent,”
I asked my Guide, “to lie here paralysed
In open boxes? Whose groans do we hear?”
130  “Arch-heretics,” he said, “and every sect
That followed them. And more than might appear
Roast in these glowing ovens, which collect
Their occupants according to what sort
Of error they espoused, and so assign
The fitting heat to which they should be brought
And kept at, as forever they repine.”
Then we turned right, and passed between all this
Destruction and the lofty wall of Dis.