The Divine Comedy: Hell, by Dante Alighieri

Canto IX

THE hue, which coward dread on my pale cheeks

Imprinted, when I saw my guide turn back,

Chas’d that from his which newly they had worn,

And inwardly restrain’d it.  He, as one

Who listens, stood attentive:  for his eye

Not far could lead him through the sable air,

And the thick-gath’ring cloud.  “It yet behooves

We win this fight” — thus he began — “ if not —

Such aid to us is offer’d. — Oh, how long

Me seems it, ere the promis’d help arrive!”

I noted, how the sequel of his words

Clok’d their beginning; for the last he spake

Agreed not with the first.  But not the less

My fear was at his saying; sith I drew

To import worse perchance, than that he held,

His mutilated speech.  “Doth ever any

Into this rueful concave’s extreme depth

Descend, out of the first degree, whose pain

Is deprivation merely of sweet hope?”

Thus I inquiring. “Rarely,” he replied,

“It chances, that among us any makes

This journey, which I wend.  Erewhile ’tis true

Once came I here beneath, conjur’d by fell

Erictho, sorceress, who compell’d the shades

Back to their bodies.  No long space my flesh

Was naked of me, when within these walls

She made me enter, to draw forth a spirit

From out of Judas’ circle.  Lowest place

Is that of all, obscurest, and remov’d

Farthest from heav’n’s all-circling orb.  The road

Full well I know:  thou therefore rest secure.

That lake, the noisome stench exhaling, round

The city’ of grief encompasses, which now

We may not enter without rage.”  Yet more

He added:  but I hold it not in mind,

For that mine eye toward the lofty tower

Had drawn me wholly, to its burning top.

Where in an instant I beheld uprisen

At once three hellish furies stain’d with blood:

In limb and motion feminine they seem’d;

Around them greenest hydras twisting roll’d

Their volumes; adders and cerastes crept

Instead of hair, and their fierce temples bound.

He knowing well the miserable hags

Who tend the queen of endless woe, thus spake:

“Mark thou each dire Erinnys. To the left

This is Megaera; on the right hand she,

Who wails, Alecto; and Tisiphone

I’ th’ midst.”  This said, in silence he remain’d

Their breast they each one clawing tore; themselves

Smote with their palms, and such shrill clamour rais’d,

That to the bard I clung, suspicion-bound.

“Hasten Medusa: so to adamant

Him shall we change;” all looking down exclaim’d.

“E’en when by Theseus’ might assail’d, we took

No ill revenge.”  “Turn thyself round, and keep

Thy count’nance hid; for if the Gorgon dire

Be shown, and thou shouldst view it, thy return

Upwards would be for ever lost.”  This said,

Himself my gentle master turn’d me round,

Nor trusted he my hands, but with his own

He also hid me.  Ye of intellect

Sound and entire, mark well the lore conceal’d

Under close texture of the mystic strain!

And now there came o’er the perturbed waves

Loud-crashing, terrible, a sound that made

Either shore tremble, as if of a wind

Impetuous, from conflicting vapours sprung,

That ’gainst some forest driving all its might,

Plucks off the branches, beats them down and hurls

Afar; then onward passing proudly sweeps

Its whirlwind rage, while beasts and shepherds fly.

Mine eyes he loos’d, and spake: “And now direct

Thy visual nerve along that ancient foam,

There, thickest where the smoke ascends.” As frogs

Before their foe the serpent, through the wave

Ply swiftly all, till at the ground each one

Lies on a heap; more than a thousand spirits

Destroy’d, so saw I fleeing before one

Who pass’d with unwet feet the Stygian sound.

He, from his face removing the gross air,

Oft his left hand forth stretch’d, and seem’d alone

By that annoyance wearied.  I perceiv’d

That he was sent from heav’n, and to my guide

Turn’d me, who signal made that I should stand

Quiet, and bend to him. Ah me!  how full

Of noble anger seem’d he!  To the gate

He came, and with his wand touch’d it, whereat

Open without impediment it flew.

“Outcasts of heav’n!  O abject race and scorn’d!”

Began he on the horrid grunsel standing,

“Whence doth this wild excess of insolence

Lodge in you? wherefore kick you ’gainst that will

Ne’er frustrate of its end, and which so oft

Hath laid on you enforcement of your pangs?

What profits at the fays to but the horn?

Your Cerberus, if ye remember, hence

Bears still, peel’d of their hair, his throat and maw.”

This said, he turn’d back o’er the filthy way,

And syllable to us spake none, but wore

The semblance of a man by other care

Beset, and keenly press’d, than thought of him

Who in his presence stands.  Then we our steps

Toward that territory mov’d, secure

After the hallow’d words.  We unoppos’d

There enter’d; and my mind eager to learn

What state a fortress like to that might hold,

I soon as enter’d throw mine eye around,

And see on every part wide-stretching space

Replete with bitter pain and torment ill.

As where Rhone stagnates on the plains of Arles,

Or as at Pola, near Quarnaro’s gulf,

That closes Italy and laves her bounds,

The place is all thick spread with sepulchres;

So was it here, save what in horror here

Excell’d:  for ’midst the graves were scattered flames,

Wherewith intensely all throughout they burn’d,

That iron for no craft there hotter needs.

Their lids all hung suspended, and beneath

From them forth issu’d lamentable moans,

Such as the sad and tortur’d well might raise.

I thus:  “Master! say who are these, interr’d

Within these vaults, of whom distinct we hear

The dolorous sighs?”  He answer thus return’d:

“The arch-heretics are here, accompanied

By every sect their followers; and much more,

Than thou believest, tombs are freighted:  like

With like is buried; and the monuments

Are different in degrees of heat. “This said,

He to the right hand turning, on we pass’d

Betwixt the afflicted and the ramparts high.

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