|Dante climbs the flinty steps
Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The Divine Comedy.
Vol. 20, pp. 102-114 of The Harvard Classics
The best part of the Divine Comedy for a few minutes' reading is the "Inferno." There the reader finds the most vivid descriptions, the most startling and unforgettable pictures.
(Dante born May 15, 1265.)
ARGUMENT.—The sacrilegious Fucci vents his fury in blasphemy, is seized by serpents, and flying is pursued by Cacus in the form of a Centaur, who is described with a swarm of serpents on his haunch, and a dragon on his shoulders breathing forth fire. Our Poet then meets with the spirits of three of his countrymen, two of whom undergo a marvelous transformation in his presence.
Pointed in mockery and cried” “Take them, God!
I level them at thee.” From that day forth
The serpents were my friends; for round his neck
One of them rolling twisted, as it said,
“Be silent, tongue!” Another, to his arms
Upgliding, tied them, riveting itself
So close, it took from them the power to move.
Pistoia! ah, Pistoia! why dost doubt
To turn thee into ashes, cumbering earth
No longer, since in evil act so far
Thou hast outdone thy seed? I did not mark,
Through all the gloomy circles of the abyss,
Spirit, that swell’d so proudly ’gainst his God;
Nor utter’d more; and after him there came
A Centaur full of fury, shouting, “Where,
Swarm not the serpent tribe, as on his haunch
They swarm’d, to where the human face begins.
Behind his head, upon the shoulders, lay
With open wings a dragon, breathing fire
On whomsoe’er he met. To me my guide:
“Cacus is this, who underneath the rock
Of Aventine spread oft a lake of blood.
He, from his brethren parted, here must tread
A different journey, for his fraudful theft
Of the great herd that near him stall’d; whence found
His felon deeds their end, beneath the mace
Of stout Alcides, that perchance laid on
A hundred blows, and not the tenth was felt.”
While yet he spake, the Centaur sped away:
And under us three spirits came, of whom
Nor I nor he was ware, till they exclaim’d,
“Say who are ye!” We then brake off discourse,
Intent on these alone. I knew them not:
But, as it chanceth oft, befell that one
Had need to name another. “Where,” said he,
Should stand attentive, placed against my lips
The finger lifted. If, O reader! now
Thou be not apt to credit what I tell,
No marvel; for myself do scarce allow
The witness of mine eyes. But as I look’d
Toward them, lo! a serpent with six feet
Springs forth on one, and fastens full upon him:
His midmost grasp’d the belly, a forefoot
Seized on each arm (while deep in either cheek
He flesh’d his fangs); the hinder on the thighs
Were spread, ’twixt which the tail inserted curl’d
Upon the reins behind. Ivy ne’er clasp’d
A dodder’d oak, as round the other’s limbs
The hideous monster intertwined his own.
Then, as they both had been of burning wax,
Each melted into other, mingling hues,
That which was either now was seen no more.
Thus up the shrinking paper, ere it burns,
A brown tint glides, not turning yet to black,
And the clean white expires. The other two
Look’d on exclaiming, “Ah! how dost thou change,
Nor only one.” The two heads now became
One, and two figures blended in one form
Appear’d, where both were lost. Of the four lengths
Two arms were made: the belly and the chest,
The thighs and legs, into such members changed
As never eye hath seen. Of former shape
All trace was vanish’d. Two, yet neither, seem’d
That image miscreate, and so pass’d on
With tardy steps. As underneath the scourge
Of the fierce dog-star that lays bare the fields,
Shifting from brake to brake the lizard seems
A flash of lightning, if he thwart the road;
So toward the entrails of the other two
Approaching seem’d an adder all on fire,
As the dark pepper-grain livid and swart.
In that part, whence our life is nourish’d first,
Once he transpierced; then down before him fell
Stretch’d out. The pierced spirit look’d on him,
But spake not; yea, stood motionless and yawn’d,
As if by sleep or feverous fit assail’d.
He eyed the serpent, and the serpent him.
One from the wound, the other from the mouth
Breathed a thick smoke, whose vapory columns join’d.
Lucan in mute attention now may hear,
Nor thy disastrous fate, Sabellus, tell,
Nor thine, Nasidius. Ovid now be mute.
What if in warbling fiction he record
Cadmus and Arethusa, to a snake
Him changed, and her into a fountain clear,
I envy not; for never face to face
Two natures thus transmuted did he sing,
Wherein both shapes were ready to assume
The other’s substance. They in mutual guise
So answer’d that the serpent split his train
Divided to a fork, and the pierced spirit
Drew close his steps together, legs and thighs
Compacted, that no sign of juncture soon
Was visible: the tail, disparted, took
The figure which the spirit lost; its skin
Softening, his indurated to a rind.
The shoulders next I mark’d, that entering join’d
The monster’s arm-pits, whose two shorter feet
So lengthen’d, as the others dwindling shrunk.
The feet behind then twisting up became
That part that man conceals, which in the wretch
Was cleft in twain. While both the shadowy smoke
With a new color veils, and generates
The excrescent pile on one, peeling it off
From the other body, lo! upon his feet
One upright rose, and prone the other fell.
Nor yet their glaring and malignant lamps
Were shifted, though each feature changed beneath.
Of him who stood erect, the mounting face
Retreated toward the temples, and what there
Superfluous matter came, shot out in ears
From the smooth cheeks; the rest, not backward dragg’d,
Of its excess did shape the nose; and swell’d
Into due size protuberant the lips.
He, on the earth who lay, meanwhile extends
His sharpen’d visage, and draws down the ears
Into the head, as doth the slug his horns.
His tongue, continuous before and apt
For utterance, severs; and the other’s fork
Closing unites. That done, the smoke was laid.
The soul, transform’d into the brute, glides off,
Hissing along the vale, and after him
The other talking sputters; but soon turn’d
His new-grown shoulders on him, and in few
Thus to another spake: “Along this path
Crawling, as I have done, speed Buoso now!”
So saw I fluctuate in successive change
The unsteady ballast of the seventh hold:
And here if aught my pen have swerved, events
So strange may be its warrant. O’er mine eyes
Confusion hung, and on my thoughts amaze.
Yet ’scaped they not so covertly, but well
I mark’d Sciancato: he alone it was
Of the three first that came, who changed not: tho’
The other’s fate, Gaville! still dost rue.
Note 1. “The practice of thrusting out the thumb between the first and second fingers, to express the feelings of insult and contempt, has prevailed very generally among the nations of Europe, and for many ages had been denominated ‘making the fig,’ or described at least by some equivalent expression.”—Douce’s “Illustrations of Shakespeare,” vol. i. p. 492, ed. 1807
Note 5. “Agnello.” Agnello Brunelleschi.
ARGUMENT.—Remounting by the steps, down which they have descended to the seventh gulf, they go forward to the arch that stretches over the eighth, and from thence behold numberless flames wherein are punished the evil counsellors, each flame containing a sinner, save one, in which were Diomede and Ulysses, the latter of whom relates the manner of his death.
FLORENCE, exult! for thou so mightily
Hast thriven, that o’er land and sea thy wings
Thou beatest, and thy name spreads over hell.
Among the plunderers, such the three I found
Thy citizens; whence shame to me thy son,
And no proud honour to thyself redounds.
But if our minds, when dreaming near the dawn,
Are of the truth presageful, thou ere long
Would fain might come upon thee; and that chance
Were in good time, if it befell thee now.
Would so it were, since it must needs befall!
For as time wears me, I shall grieve the more.
We from the depth departed; and my guide
Remounting scaled the flinty steps, which late
We downward traced, and drew me up the steep.
Pursuing thus our solitary way
Among the crags and splinters of the rock,
Sped not our feet without the help of hands.
Then sorrow seized me, which e’en now revives,
As my thought turns again to what I saw,
And, more than I am wont, I rein and curb
The powers of nature in me, lest they run
Where Virtue guides not; that, if aught of good
My gentle star or something better gave me,
I envy not myself the precious boon.
As in that season, when the sun least veils
His face that lightens all, what time the fly
Gives way to the shrill gnat, the peasant then,
Upon some cliff reclined, beneath him sees
Fire-flies innumerous spangling o’er the vale,
Vineyard or tilth, where his day-labor lies;
With flames so numberless throughout its space
Shone the eighth chasm, apparent, when the depth
Was to my view exposed. As he, whose wrongs
The bears avenged, as its departure saw
Elijah’s chariot, when the steeds erect
Raised their steep flight for heaven; his eyes meanwhile,
Straining pursued them, till the flame alone,
Upsoaring like a misty speck, he kenn’d:
E’en thus along the gulf moves every flame,
A sinner so enfolded close in each,
That none exhibits token of the theft.
Upon the bridge I forward bent to look
And grasp’d a flinty mass, or else had fallen,
Though push’d not from the height. The guide, who mark’d
How I did gaze attentive, thus began:
“Within these ardours are the spirits; each
Swatched in confining fire.” “Master! thy word,”
I answer’d, “hath assured me; yet I deem’d
Already of the truth, already wish’d
To ask thee who is in yon fire, that comes
So parted at the summit, as it seem’d
The Theban brothers.” He replied: “Within,
Ulysses there and Diomede endure
Their penal tortures, thus to vengeance now
Together hasting, as erewhile to wrath
These in the flame with ceaseless groans deplore
A portal for the goodly seed to pass,
Which sow’d imperial Rome; nor less the guile
Lament they, whence, of her Achilles ’reft,
Deidamia yet in death complains.
And there is rued the stratagem that Troy
Of her Palladium spoil’d.”—“If they have power
Of utterance from within these sparks,” said I,
“O master! think my prayer a thousand-fold
In repetition urged, that thou vouchsafe
To pause till here the horned flame arrive.
See, how toward it with desires I bend.”
He thus: “Thy prayer is worthy of much praise,
And I accept it therefore; but do thou
Thy tongue refrain: to question them be mine;
For I divine thy wish: and they perchance,
When there the flame had come, where time and place
Seem’d fitting to my guide, he thus began:
“O ye, who dwell two spirits in one fire!
If, living, I of you did merit aught,
Whate’er the measure were of that desert,
When in the world my lofty strain I pour’d,
Move ye not on, till one of you unfold
In what clime death o’ertook him self-destroy’d.”
Of the old flame forthwith the greater horn
Began to roll, murmuring, as a fire
That labors with the wind, then to and fro
Wagging the top, as a tongue uttering sounds,
Threw out its voice, and spake: “When I escaped
From Circe, who beyond a circling year
Had held me near Caieta by her charms,
Ere thus Æneas yet had named the shore;
Nor fondness for my son, nor reverence
Of my old father, nor return of love,
That should have crown’d Penelope with joy,
Could overcome in me the zeal I had
To explore the world, and search the ways of life,
Man’s evil and his virtue. Forth I sail’d
Into the deep illimitable main,
With but one bark, and the small faithful band
That yet cleaved to me. As Iberia far,
Far as Marocco, either shore I saw,
And the Sardinian and each isle beside
Which round that ocean bathes. Tardy with age
Were I and my companions, when we came
The boundaries not to be o’erstepp’d by man.
The walls of Seville to my right I left,
On the other hand already Ceuta past.
‘O brothers!’ I began, ‘who to the west
Through perils without number now have reach’d;
To this the short remaining watch, that yet
Our senses have to wake, refuse not proof
Of the unpeopled world, following the track
Of Phœbus. Call to mind from whence ye sprang:
Ye were not form’d to live the life of brutes,
But virtue to pursue and knowledge high.’
With these few words I sharpen’d for the voyage
The mind of my associates, that I then
Could scarcely have withheld them. To the dawn
Our poop we turn’d, and for the witless flight
Made our oars wings, still gaining on the left.
Each star of the other pole night now beheld,
And ours so low, that from the ocean floor
It rose not. Five times reillumed, as oft
Vanish’d the light from underneath the moon,
Since the deep way we enter’d, when from far
Of all I e’er beheld. Joy seized us straight;
But soon to mourning changed. From the new land
A whirlwind sprung, and at her foremost side
Did strike the vessel. Thrice it whirl’d her round
With all the waves; the fourth time lifted up
The poop, and sank the prow: so fate decreed:
And over us the booming billow closed.” 7
Note 1. “Shalt feel what Prato.” The Poet prognosticates the calamities which were soon to befall his native city, and which, he says, even her nearest neighbor, Prato, would wish her. The calamities more particularly pointed at are said to be the fall of a wooden bridge over the Arno, in May, 1304, where a large multitude were assembled to witness a representation of hell and the infernal torments, in consequence of which accident many lives were lost; and a conflagration, that in the following month destroyed more than 1,700 houses. See G. Villani, Hist. lib. viii. c. lxx. and lxxi.
Note 2. The flame is said to have divided the bodies of Eteocles and Polynices, as if conscious of the enmity that actuated them while living.
Note 3. The wooden horse that caused Æneas to quit Troy and seek his fortune in Italy, where his descendants founded Rome.
Note 6. The mountain of Purgatory.—Among various opinions respecting the situation of the terrestrial paradise, Peitro Lombardo relates, that “it was separated by a long space, either of sea or land, from the regions inhabited by men, and placed in the ocean, reaching as far as to the luner circle, so that the waters of the deluge did not reach it.”—Sent. lib. ii. dist. 17.
Note 7. “Closed.” Venturi refers to Pliny and Solinus for the opinion that Ulysses was the founder of Lisbon, from whence he thinks it was easy for the fancy of a poet to send him on yet further enterprises. The story (which it is not unlikely that our author borrowed from some legend of the Middle Ages) may have taken its rise partly from the obscure oracle returned by the ghost of Tiresias to Ulysses (eleventh book of the Odyssey), and partly from the fate which there was reason to suppose had befallen some adventurous explorers of the Atlantic Ocean.
ARGUMENT.—The Poet, treating of the same punishment as in the last Canto, relates that he turned toward a flame in which was the Count Guido da Montefeltro, whose inquiries respecting the state of Romagna he answers; and Guido is thereby induced to declare who he is, and why condemned to that torment.
NOW upward rose the flame, and still’d its light
To speak no more, and now pass’d on with leave
From the mild poet gain’d; when following came
Another, from whose top a sound confused,
Forth issuing, drew our eyes that way to look.
His cries first echoed who had shaped its mould,
Did so rebellow, with the voice of him
Tormented, that the brazen monster seem’d
Pierced through with pain; thus, while no way they found,
Nor avenue immediate through the flame,
Into its language turn’d the dismal words:
But soon as they had won their passage forth,
Up from the point, which vibrating obey’d
Their motion at the tongue, these sounds were heard:
“O thou! to whom I now direct my voice,
That lately didst exclaim in Lombard phrase,
‘Depart thou; I solicit thee no more;’
Though somewhat tardy I perchance arrive,
Let it not irk thee here to pause awhile,
And with me parley: lo! it irks not me,
And yet I burn. If but e’en now thou fall
Into this blind world, from that pleasant land
Of Latium, whence I draw my sum of guilt,
Tell me if those who in Romagna dwell
Was I, betwixt Urbino and the height
Whence Tiber first unlocks his mighty flood.”
Leaning I listen’d yet with heedful ear,
When, as he touch’d my side, the leader thus:
“Speak thou: he is a Latian.” My reply
Was ready, and I spake without delay:
“O spirit! who art hidden here below,
Never was thy Romagna without war
In her proud tyrants’ bosoms, nor is now:
But open war there left I none. The state,
Ravenna hath maintain’d this many a year,
And in his broad circumference of plume
O’ershadows Cervia. The green talons grasp
And piled in bloody heap the host of France.
Where they are wont, an augre of their fangs.
Inconstant partisan, that changeth sides,
Or ever summer yields to winter’s frost.
As ’twixt the level and the steep she lies,
Lives so ’twixt tyrant power and liberty.
“Now tell us, I entreat thee, who art thou:
Be not more hard than others. In the world,
So may thy name still rear its forehead high.”
Then roar’d awhile the fire, its sharpen’d point
On either side waved, and thus breathed at last:
“If I did think my answer were to one
Who ever could return unto the world,
This flame should rest unshaken. But since ne’er,
If true be told me, any from this depth
Has found his upward way, I answer thee,
Nor fear lest infamy record the words.
In good Saint Francis’ girdle, hoping so
To have made amends. And certainly my hope
Had fail’d not, but that he, whom curses light on,
And how, and wherefore, listen while I tell.
Long as this spirit moved the bones and pulp
My mother gave me, less my deeds bespake
The nature of the lion than the fox.
All ways of winding subtlety I knew,
And with such art conducted, that the sound
Reach’d the world’s limit. Soon as to that part
Of life I found me come, and when each behoves
To lower sails and gather in the lines;
That, which before had pleased me, then I rued,
And to repentance and confession turn’d,
Wretch that I was; and well it had bestead me.
Waging his warfare near the Lateran,
Not with the Saracens or Jews (his foes
All Christians were, nor against Acre one
He, his great charge nor sacred ministry,
In himself reverenced, nor in me that cord
Which used to mark with leanness whom it girded.
As in Soracte, Constantine besought,
To cure his leprosy, Sylvester’s aid;
So me, to cure the fever of his pride,
This man besought: my counsel to that end
He ask’d; and I was silent; for his words
Seem’d drunken: but forthwith he thus resumed:
‘From thy heart banish fear: of all offence
I hitherto absolve thee. In return,
Teach me my purpose so to execute,
That Penestrino cumber earth no more.
Heaven, as thou knowest, I have power to shut
And open: and the keys are therefore twain,
“Then, yielding to the forceful arguments,
Of silence, as more perilous I deem’d,
And answer’d: ‘Father! since thou washest me
Clear of that guilt wherein I now must fall,
Large promise with performance scant, be sure,
Shall make thee triumph in thy lofty seat.’
“When I was number’d with the dead, then came
Saint Francis for me; but a cherub dark
He met, who cried, ‘Wrong me not; he is mine,
And must below to join the wretched crew,
For the deceitful counsel which he gave.
E’er since I watch’d him, hovering at his hair.
No power can the impenitent absolve;
Nor to repent, and will, at once consist,
By contradiction absolute forbid.’
Oh misery! how I shook myself, when he
Seized me, and cried, “Thou haply thought’st me not
A disputant in logic so exact!’
To Minos down he bore me; and the judge
Twined eight times round his callous back the tail,
Which biting with excess of rage, he spake:
‘This is a guilty soul, that in the fire
Must vanish.’ Hence, perdition-doom’d, I rove
A prey to rankling sorrow, in this garb.”
When he had thus fulfill’d his words, the flame
In dolour parted, beating to and fro,
And writhing its sharp horn. We onward went,
I and my leader, up along the rock,
Far as another arch, that overhangs
The foss, wherein the penalty is paid
Of those who load them with committed sin.
Note 1. The engine of torture invented by Perillus, for the tyrant Phalaris.
Note 3. Polenta’s eagle.” Guido Novello da Polenta, who bore an eagle for his coat-of-arms. The name of Polenta was derived from a castle so called in the neighborhood of Brittonoro. Cervia is a small maritime city, about fifteen miles to the south of Ravenna. Guido was the son of Ostasio da Polenta, and made himself master of Ravenna in 1265. In 1322 he was deprived of his sovereignty, and died at Bologna in 1323. This last and most munificent patron of Dante is enumerated among the poets of his time.
Note 4. The territory of Forli, the inhabitants of which, in 1282, were enabled, by the stratagem of Guido da Montefeltro, the governor, to defeat the French army by which it had been besieged. See G. Villani, lib. vii. c. lxxxi. The Poet informs Guido, its former ruler, that it is now in the possession of Sinibaldo Ordolaffi, whom he designates by his coat-of-arms, a lion vert.
Note 5. Malatesta and Malatestino his son, lords of Rimini, called from their ferocity, the mastiffs of Verrucchio, which was the name of their castle. Malatestino was, perhaps, the husband of Francesca, daughter of Guido da Polenta. See notes to Canto v. 113.
Note 6. Montagna de’ Parcitati, a noble and leader of the Ghibelline party at Rimini, murdered by Malatestino.
Note 8. Machinardo Pagano, whose arms were a lion azure on a field argent. See also Purgatory, Canto xiv. 122.
Note 9. Cesena, situated at the foot of a mountain, and washed by the river Savio, that often descends with a swollen and rapid stream from the Apennines.
Note 12. Boniface, VIII, whose enmity to the family of Colonna prompted him to destroy their houses near the Lateran. Wishing to obtain possession of their other seat, Penestrino, he consulted with Guido da Montefeltro, offering him absolution for his past sins, as well as for that which he was then tempting him to commit. Guido’s advice was that kind words and fair promises would put his enemies into his power; and they accordingly soon afterward fell into the snare laid for them, 1298.
Note 13. Alluding to the renegade Christians, by whom the Saracens, in April, 1291, were assisted to recover St. John d’Acre, the last possession of the Christians in the Holy Land.
Note 14. Celestine V. See notes to Canto iii.