The Divine Comedy: Hell, by Dante Alighieri

Canto XIII

ERE Nessus yet had reach’d the other bank,

We enter’d on a forest, where no track

Of steps had worn a way.  Not verdant there

The foliage, but of dusky hue; not light

The boughs and tapering, but with knares deform’d

And matted thick:  fruits there were none, but thorns

Instead, with venom fill’d. Less sharp than these,

Less intricate the brakes, wherein abide

Those animals, that hate the cultur’d fields,

Betwixt Corneto and Cecina’s stream.

Here the brute Harpies make their nest, the same

Who from the Strophades the Trojan band

Drove with dire boding of their future woe.

Broad are their pennons, of the human form

Their neck and count’nance, arm’d with talons keen

The feet, and the huge belly fledge with wings

These sit and wail on the drear mystic wood.

The kind instructor in these words began:

“Ere farther thou proceed, know thou art now

I’ th’ second round, and shalt be, till thou come

Upon the horrid sand:  look therefore well

Around thee, and such things thou shalt behold,

As would my speech discredit.”  On all sides

I heard sad plainings breathe, and none could see

From whom they might have issu’d.  In amaze

Fast bound I stood.  He, as it seem’d, believ’d,

That I had thought so many voices came

From some amid those thickets close conceal’d,

And thus his speech resum’d:  “If thou lop off

A single twig from one of those ill plants,

The thought thou hast conceiv’d shall vanish quite.”

Thereat a little stretching forth my hand,

From a great wilding gather’d I a branch,

And straight the trunk exclaim’d:  “Why pluck’st thou me?”

Then as the dark blood trickled down its side,

These words it added:  “Wherefore tear’st me thus?

Is there no touch of mercy in thy breast?

Men once were we, that now are rooted here.

Thy hand might well have spar’d us, had we been

The souls of serpents.”  As a brand yet green,

That burning at one end from the’ other sends

A groaning sound, and hisses with the wind

That forces out its way, so burst at once,

Forth from the broken splinter words and blood.

I, letting fall the bough, remain’d as one

Assail’d by terror, and the sage replied:

“If he, O injur’d spirit! could have believ’d

What he hath seen but in my verse describ’d,

He never against thee had stretch’d his hand.

But I, because the thing surpass’d belief,

Prompted him to this deed, which even now

Myself I rue.  But tell me, who thou wast;

That, for this wrong to do thee some amends,

In the upper world (for thither to return

Is granted him) thy fame he may revive.”

“That pleasant word of thine,” the trunk replied

“Hath so inveigled me, that I from speech

Cannot refrain, wherein if I indulge

A little longer, in the snare detain’d,

Count it not grievous.  I it was, who held

Both keys to Frederick’s heart, and turn’d the wards,

Opening and shutting, with a skill so sweet,

That besides me, into his inmost breast

Scarce any other could admittance find.

The faith I bore to my high charge was such,

It cost me the life-blood that warm’d my veins.

The harlot, who ne’er turn’d her gloating eyes

From Caesar’s household, common vice and pest

Of courts, ’gainst me inflam’d the minds of all;

And to Augustus they so spread the flame,

That my glad honours chang’d to bitter woes.

My soul, disdainful and disgusted, sought

Refuge in death from scorn, and I became,

Just as I was, unjust toward myself.

By the new roots, which fix this stem, I swear,

That never faith I broke to my liege lord,

Who merited such honour; and of you,

If any to the world indeed return,

Clear he from wrong my memory, that lies

Yet prostrate under envy’s cruel blow.”

First somewhat pausing, till the mournful words

Were ended, then to me the bard began:

“Lose not the time; but speak and of him ask,

If more thou wish to learn.”  Whence I replied:

“Question thou him again of whatsoe’er

Will, as thou think’st, content me; for no power

Have I to ask, such pity’ is at my heart.”

He thus resum’d;  “So may he do for thee

Freely what thou entreatest, as thou yet

Be pleas’d, imprison’d Spirit! to declare,

How in these gnarled joints the soul is tied;

And whether any ever from such frame

Be loosen’d, if thou canst, that also tell.”

Thereat the trunk breath’d hard, and the wind soon

Chang’d into sounds articulate like these;

Briefly ye shall be answer’d.  When departs

The fierce soul from the body, by itself

Thence torn asunder, to the seventh gulf

By Minos doom’d, into the wood it falls,

No place assign’d, but wheresoever chance

Hurls it, there sprouting, as a grain of spelt,

It rises to a sapling, growing thence

A savage plant.  The Harpies, on its leaves

Then feeding, cause both pain and for the pain

A vent to grief.  We, as the rest, shall come

For our own spoils, yet not so that with them

We may again be clad; for what a man

Takes from himself it is not just he have.

Here we perforce shall drag them; and throughout

The dismal glade our bodies shall be hung,

Each on the wild thorn of his wretched shade.”

Attentive yet to listen to the trunk

We stood, expecting farther speech, when us

A noise surpris’d, as when a man perceives

The wild boar and the hunt approach his place

Of station’d watch, who of the beasts and boughs

Loud rustling round him hears.  And lo! there came

Two naked, torn with briers, in headlong flight,

That they before them broke each fan o’ th’ wood.

“Haste now,” the foremost cried, “now haste thee death!”

The’ other, as seem’d, impatient of delay

Exclaiming, “Lano! not so bent for speed

Thy sinews, in the lists of Toppo’s field.”

And then, for that perchance no longer breath

Suffic’d him, of himself and of a bush

One group he made.  Behind them was the wood

Full of black female mastiffs, gaunt and fleet,

As greyhounds that have newly slipp’d the leash.

On him, who squatted down, they stuck their fangs,

And having rent him piecemeal bore away

The tortur’d limbs.  My guide then seiz’d my hand,

And led me to the thicket, which in vain

Mourn’d through its bleeding wounds:  “O Giacomo

Of Sant’ Andrea! what avails it thee,”

It cried, “that of me thou hast made thy screen?

For thy ill life what blame on me recoils?”

When o’er it he had paus’d, my master spake:

“Say who wast thou, that at so many points

Breath’st out with blood thy lamentable speech?”

He answer’d: “Oh, ye spirits:  arriv’d in time

To spy the shameful havoc, that from me

My leaves hath sever’d thus, gather them up,

And at the foot of their sad parent-tree

Carefully lay them.  In that city’ I dwelt,

Who for the Baptist her first patron chang’d,

Whence he for this shall cease not with his art

To work her woe:  and if there still remain’d not

On Arno’s passage some faint glimpse of him,

Those citizens, who rear’d once more her walls

Upon the ashes left by Attila,

Had labour’d without profit of their toil.

I slung the fatal noose from my own roof.”

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 15:53