Dante and St. Peter

September 14, 2014

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The Divine Comedy.
Vol. 20, pp. 387-395 of The Harvard Classics

Dante, having journeyed through Hell and Purgatory, comes at last to St. Peter on his throne. St. Peter calls for the aid of St. James and St. John before passing final judgment on Dante's righteousness.
(Dante died Sept. 14, 1321.)

Inferno [Hell]

Canto XXIV

ARGUMENT.—Under the escort of his faithful master, Dante not without difficulty makes his way out of the sixth gulf; and in the seventh, sees the robbers tormented by venomous and pestilent serpents. The soul of Vanni Fucci, who had pillaged the sacristy of St. James in Pistoia, predicts some calamities that impended over that city, and over the Florentines.

IN the year’s early nonage, 1 when the sun
Tempers his tresses in Aquarius’ urn,
And now toward equal day the nights recede;
Whenas the rime upon the earth puts on
Her dazzling sister’s image, but not long
Her milder sway endures; then riseth up
The village hind, whom fails his wintry store,
And looking out beholds the plain around
All whiten’d; whence impatiently he smites
His thighs, and to his hut returning in,
There paces to and fro, wailing his lot,
As a discomfited and helpless man;
Then comes he forth again, and feels new hope
Spring in his bosom, finding e’en thus soon
The world hath changed its countenance, grasps his crook,
And forth to pasture drives his little flock:
So me my guide dishearten’d, when I saw
His troubled forehead; and so speedily
That ill was cured; for at the fallen bridge
Arriving, toward me with a look as sweet,
He turn’d him back, as that I first beheld
At the steep mountain’s foot. Regarding well
The ruin, and some counsel first maintain’d
With his own thought, he opened wide his arm
And took me up. As one, who, while he works,
Computes his labor’s issue, that he seems
Still to foresee the effect; so lifting me
Up to the summit of one peak, he fix’d
His eye upon another. “Grapple that,”
Said he, “but first make proof, if it be such
As will sustain thee.” For one capt with lead
This were no journey. Scarcely he, though light,
And I, though onward push’d from crag to crag,
Could mount. And if the precinct of this coast
Were not less ample than the last, for him
I know not, but my strength had surely fail’d.
But Malebolge all toward the mouth
Inclining of the nethermost abyss,
The site of every valley hence requires,
That one side upward slope, the other fall.
  At length the point from whence the utmost stone
Juts down, we reach’d; soon as to that arrived,
So was the breath exhausted from my lungs
I could no further, but did seat me there.

  “Now needs thy best of man;” so spake my guide:
“For not on downy plumes, nor under shade
Of canopy reposing, fame is won;
Without which whosoe’r consumes his days,
Leaveth such vestige of himself on earth,
As smoke in air or foam upon the wave.
Thou therefore rise: vanquish thy weariness
By the mind’s effort, in each struggle form’d
To vanquish, if she suffer not the weight
Of her corporeal frame to crush her down.
A longer ladder yet remains to scale.
From these to have escaped sufficeth not,
If well thou note me, profit by my words.”
  I straightway rose, and show’d myself less spent
That I in truth did feel me. “On,” I cried,
“For I am stout and fearless.” Up the rock
Our way we held, more rugged than before,
Narrower, and steeper far to climb. From talk
I ceased not, as we journey’d, so to seem
Least faint; whereat a voice from the other foss
Did issue forth, for utterance suited ill.
Though on the arch that crosses there I stood,
What were the words I knew not, but who spake
Seem’d moved in anger. Down I stoop’d to look;
But my quick eye might reach not to the depth
For shrouding darkness; wherefore thus I spake:
“To the next circle, teacher, bend thy steps,
And from the wall dismount we; for as hence
I hear and understand not, so I see
Beneath, and naught discern.” “I answer not,”
Said he, “but by the deed. To fair request
Silent performance maketh best return.”
  We from the bridge’s head descended, where
To the eighth mound it joins; and then, the chasm
Opening to view, I saw a crowd within
Of serpents terrible, so strange of shape
And hideous, that remembrance in my veins
Yet shrinks the vital current. Of her sands
Let Libya vaunt no more: if Jaculus,
Pareas and Chelyder be her brood,
Cenchris and Amphisbæna, plagues so dire
Or in such numbers swarming ne’er she show’d,
Not with all Ethiopia, and whate’er
Above the Erythræan sea is spawn’d.
  Amid this dread exuberance of woe
Ran naked spirits wing’d with horrid fear,
Nor hope had they of crevice where to hide,
Or heliotrope to charm them out of view.
With serpents were their hands behind them bound,
Which through their reins infix’d the tail and head,
Twisted in folds before. And lo! on one
Near to our side, darted an adder up,
And, where the neck is on the shoulders tied,
Transpierced him. Far more quickly than e’er pen
Wrote O or I, he kindled, burn’d, and changed
To ashes all, pour’d out upon the earth.
When there dissolved he lay, the dust again
Uproll’d spontaneous, and the self-same form
Instant resumed. So mighty sages tell,
The Arabian Phoenix, when five hundred years
Have well-nigh circled, dies, and springs forthwith
Renascent: blade nor herb throughout his life
He tastes, but tears of frankincense alone
And odorous amomum: swaths of nard
And myrrh his funeral shroud. As one that falls,
He knows not how, by force demoniac dragg’d
To earth, or through obstruction fettering up
In chains invisible the powers of man,
Who, risen from his trance, gazeth around,
Bewilder’d with the monstrous agony
He hath endured, and wildly staring sighs;
So stood aghast the sinner when he rose.
  Oh! how severe God’s judgment, that deals out
Such blows in stormy vengeance. Who he was,
My teacher next inquired; and thus in few
He answer’d: “Vanni Fucci 2 am I call’d,
Not long since rained down from Tuscany
To this dire gullet. Me the bestial life
And not the human pleased, mule that I was,
Who in Pistoia found my worthy den.”
  I then to Virgil: “Bid him stir not hence;
And ask what crime did thrust him thither: once
A man I knew him, choleric and bloody.”
  The sinner heard and feign’d not, but toward me
His mind directing and his face, wherein
Was dismal shame depictured, thus he spake:
“It grieves me more to have been caught by thee
In this sad plight, which thou beholdest, than
When I was taken from the other life.
I have no power permitted to deny
What thou inquirest. I am doom’d thus low
To dwell, for that the sacristy by me
Was rifled of its goodly ornaments,
And with the guilt another falsely charged.
But that thou mayst not joy to see me thus,
So as thou e’er shalt ’scape this darksome realm,
Open thine ears and hear what I forebode.
Reft of the Neri first Pistoia 3 pines;
Then Florence  4 changeth citizens and laws;
From Valdimagra, 5 drawn by wrathful Mars,
A vapor rises, wrapt in turbid mists,
And sharp and eager driveth on the storm
With Arrowy hurtling o’er Piceno’s field,
Whence suddenly the cloud shall burst, and strike
Each helpless Bianco prostrate to the ground.
This have I told, that grief may rend thy heart.”

Note 1. At the latter part of January, when the sun enters Aquarius, and the equinox draws near, when the hoar-frosts in the morning often wear the appearance of snow, but are melted by the rising sun.” 
Note 2. Said to have been an illegitimate offspring of the family of Lazari in Pistoia, to have robbed the sacristy of the church of St. James in that city, and to have charged Vanni della Nona with the sacrilege; in consequence of which the latter suffered death. 
Note 3. “In May, 1301, the Bianchi party of Pistoia, with the help of the Bianchi who ruled Florence, drove out the party of the Neri from the former place, destroying their houses, palaces, and farms.” 
Note 4. “Then Florence.” “Soon after the Bianchi will be expelled from Florence, the Neri will prevail, and the laws and people will be changed.” 
Note 5. Alluding to the victory obtained by the Marquis Morello Malaspina of Valdimagra, who put himself at the head of the Neri, and defeated their opponents the Bianchi, in the Campo Piceno near Pistoia, soon after the occurrence related in the preceding note on v. 142. Currado Malaspina is introduced in the eighth Canto of the Purgatory; where it appears, that although on the present occasion they espoused contrary sides, most important favors were nevertheless conferred by that family on our Poet, at a subsequent period of his exile, in 1307. 

Canto XXV

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.

WHEN he had spoke, the sinner raised his hands 1
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;
Not him, 2 who headlong fell from Thebes. He fled,
Nor utter’d more; and after him there came
A Centaur full of fury, shouting, “Where,
Where is the caitiff?” On Maremma’s marsh 3
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,
“Doth Cianfa 4 lurk?” I, for a sign my guide
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,
Agnello! 5 See! Thou art nor double now,
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 2. Capaneus. Canto xiv. 
Note 3. Near the Tuscan shore. 
Note 4. Said to have been of the family of Donati at Florence. 
Note 5. “Agnello.” Agnello Brunelleschi.

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