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Inside the Gates of Hell

Dante and his Poem

Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The Divine Comedy.
Vol. 20, pp. 32-39 of The Harvard Classics

The city of Dis, within the gates of Hell, was guarded by monsters and surrounded by a moat filled with the tormented. Dante, protected by Virgil, entered the forbidden city, and viewed sights never before seen by living man.
(Dante urges attack on the city of Florence, April 16, 1311.)

Inferno [Hell]
Canto VIII

ARGUMENT.—A signal having been made from the tower, Phlegyas, the ferryman of the lake, speedily crosses it, and conveys Virgil and Dante to the other side. On their passage, they meet with Filippo Argenti, whose fury and torment are described. They then arrive at the city of Dis, the entrance whereto is denied, and the portals closed against them by many Demons.

MY theme pursuing, I relate, that ere
We reach’d the lofty turret’s base, our eyes
Its height ascended, where we mark’d uphung
Two cressets, and another saw from far
Return the signal, so remote, that scarce
The eye could catch its beam. I, turning round
To the deep source of knowledge, thus inquired:
“Say what this means; and what, that other light
In answer set: what agency doth this?”
  “There on the filthy waters,” he replied,
“E’en now what next awaits us mayst thou see,
If the marsh-gendered fog conceal it not.”
  Never was arrow from the cord dismiss’d,
That ran its way so nimbly through the air,
As a small bark, that through the waves I spied
Toward us coming, under the sole sway
Of one that ferried it, who cried aloud:
“Art thou arrived, fell spirit?”—“Phlegyas, Phlegyas, 1
This time thou criest in vain,” my lord replied;
“No longer shalt thou have us, but while o’er
The slimy pool we pass.” As one who hears
Of some great wrong he hath sustain’d, whereat
Inly he pines: so Phlegyas inly pined
In his fierce ire. My guide, descending, stepp’d
Into the skiff, and bade me enter next,
Close at his side; nor, till my entrance, seem’d
The vessel freighted. Soon as both embark’d,
Cutting the waves, goes on the ancient prow,
More deeply than with others it is wont.
  While we our course o’er the dead channel held,
One drench’d in mire before me came, and said:
“Who art thou, that thus comest ere thine hour?”
  I answer’d: “Though I come, I tarry not:
But who art thou, that art become so foul?”
  “One, as thou seest, who mourn:” he straight replied.
  To which I thus: “In mourning and in woe,
Curst spirit! tarry thou. I know thee well,
E’en thus in filth disguised.” Then stretch’d he forth
Hands to the bark; whereof my teacher sage
Aware, thrusting him back: “Away! down there
To the other dogs!” then, with his arms my neck
Encircling, kiss’d my cheek, and spake: “O soul,
Justly disdainful! blest was she in whom
Thou wast conceived. He in the world was one
For arrogance noted: to his memory
No virtue lends its lustre; even so
Here is his shadow furious. There above,
How many now hold themselves mighty kings,
Who here like swine shall wallow in the mire,
Leaving behind them horrible dispraise.”
  I then: “Master! him fain would I behold
Whelm’d in these dregs, before we quit the lake.”
  He thus: “Or ever to thy view the shore
Be offer’d, satisfied shall be that wish,
Which well deserves completion.” Scarce his words
Were ended, when I saw the miry tribes
Set on him with such violence, that yet
For that render I thanks to God, and praise.
“To Filippo Argenti!” 2 cried they all:
And on himself the moody Florentine
Turn’d his avenging fangs. Him here we left,
Nor speak I of him more. But on mine ear
Sudden a sound of lamentation smote,
Whereat mine eye unbarr’d I sent abroad.
  And thus the good instructor: “Now, my son
Draws near the city, that of Dis is named,
With its grave denizens, a mighty throng.”
  I thus: “The minarets already, Sir!
There, certes, in the valley I descry,
Gleaming vermilion, as if they from fire
Had issued.” He replied: “Eternal fire,
That inward burns, shows them with ruddy flame
Illumed; as in this nether Hell thou seest.”
  We came within the fosses deep, that moat
This region comfortless. The walls appear’d
As they were framed of iron. We had made
Wide circuit, ere a place we reach’d, where loud
The mariner cried vehement: “Go forth:
The entrance is here.” Upon the gates I spied
More than a thousand, who of old from Heaven
Were shower’d. With ireful gestures, “Who is this,”
They cried, “that, without death first felt, goes through
The regions of the dead?” My sapient guide
Made sign that he for secret parley wish’d;
Whereat their angry scorn abating, thus
They spake: “Come thou alone; and let him go,
Who hath so hardily enter’d this realm.
Alone return he by his witless way;
If well he knew it, let him prove. For thee,
Here shalt thou tarry, who through clime so dark
Hast been his escort.” Now bethink thee, reader!
What cheer was mine at sound of those curst words.
I did believe I never should return.
  “O my loved guide! who more than seven times 3
Security hast render’d me, and drawn
From peril deep, whereto I stood exposed,
Desert me not,” I cried, “in this extreme.
And, if our onward going be denied,
Together trace we back our steps with speed.”
  My liege, who thither had conducted me,
Replied: “Fear not: for of our passage none
Hath power to disappoint us, by such high
Authority permitted. But do thou
Expect me here; meanwhile, thy wearied spirit
Comfort, and feed with kindly hope, assured
I will not leave thee in this lower world.”
This said, departs the sire benevolent,
And quits me. Hesitating I remain
At war, ’twixt will and will not, in my thoughts.
  I could not hear what terms he offer’d them,
But they conferr’d not long, for all at once
Pellmell rush’d back within. Closed were the gates,
By those our adversaries, on the breast
Of my liege lord: excluded, he return’d
To me with tardy steps. Upon the ground
His eyes were bent, and from his brow erased
All confidence, while thus in sighs he spake:
“Who hath denied me these abodes of woe?”
Then thus to me: “That I am anger’d, think
No ground of terror: in this trial I
Shall vanquish, use what arts they may within
For hindrance. This their insolence, not new, 4
Erewhile at gate less secret they display’d,
Which still is without bolt; upon its arch
Thou saw’st the deadly scroll: and even now,
On this side of its entrance, down the steep,
Passing the circles, unescorted, comes
One whose strong might can open us this land.”

Note 1. Phlegyas, so incensed against Apollo for having violated his daughter Coronis, that he set fire to the temple of that deity, by whose vengeance he was cast into Tartarus. See Virgil, Æneas, 1. vi. 618.
Note 2. Boccaccio tells us, “he was a man remarkable for the large proportions and extraordinary vigor of his bodily frame, and the extreme waywardness and irascibility of his temper.”—“Decameron,” G. ix. N. 8.
Note 3. Seven times.” The commentators, says Venturi, perplex themselves with the inquiry what seven perils these were from which Dante had been delivered by Virgil. Reckoning the beasts in the first Canto as one of them, and adding Charon, Minos, Cerberus, Plutus, Phlegyas, and Filippo Argenti, as so many others, we shall have the number; and if this be not satisfactory, we may suppose a determinate to have been put for an indeterminate number.
Note 4. Virgil assures our poet that these evil spirits had formerly shown the same insolence when our Saviour descended into hell. They attempted to prevent him from entering at the gate, over which Dante had read the fatal inscription. “That gate which,” says the Roman poet, “an angel had just passed, by whose aid we shall overcome this opposition, and gain admittance into the city.”

Canto IX

ARGUMENT.—After some hindrances, and having seen the hellish furies and other monsters, the Poet, by the help of an angel, enters the city of Dis, wherein he discovers that the heretics are punished in tombs burning with intense fire; and he, together with Virgil, passes onward between the sepulchres and the walls of the city.

THE HUE, 1 which coward dread on my pale cheeks
Imprinted when I saw my guide turn back,
Chased 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-gathering cloud. “It yet behoves
We win this fight;” thus he began: “if not,
Such aid to us is offer’d—Oh! how long
Me seems it, ere the promised help arrive.”
  I noted, how the sequel of his words
Cloked 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, conjured by fell
Erichtho, 2 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 removed
Farthest from Heaven’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 owe, thus spake:
“Mark thou each dire Erynnis. To the left,
This is Megæra; 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 thrill clamour raised,
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 countenance hid; for if the Gorgon dire
Be shown, and thou shouldst view it, thy return
Upwards would be forever 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 3 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 vapors sprung,
That ’gainst some forest driving all his might,
Plucks off the branches, beats them down, and hurls
Afar; then, onward passing, proudly sweeps
His whirlwind rage, while beasts and shepherds fly.
  Mine eyes he loosed, 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 perceived
That he was sent from Heaven; 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 heaven! O abject race, 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 Fates to butt the horn?
Your Cerberus, 4 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 prest, than thought of him
Who in his presence stands. Then we our steps
Toward that territory moved, secure
After the hallow’d words. We, unopposed,
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, 5
Or as at Pola, 6 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 issued lamentable moans,
Such as the sad and tortured 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, the 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.

Note 1. “The hue,” Virgil, perceiving that Dante was pale with fear, restrained those outward tokens of displeasure which his own countenance had betrayed.
Note 2. Erichtho, a Thessalian sorceress (Lucan, “Pharsal.” 1. vi.), was employed by Sextus, son of Pompey the Great, to conjure up a spirit, who should inform him of the issue of the civil wars between his father and Cæsar.
Note 3. The Poet probably intends to call the reader’s attention to the allegorical and mystic sense of the present Canto, and not, as Venturi supposes, to that of the whole work. Landino supposes this hidden meaning to be that in the case of those vices which proceed from intemperance, reason, figured under the person of Virgil, with the ordinary grace of God, may be a sufficient safeguard; but that in the instance of more heinous crimes, such as those we shall hereafter see punished, a special grace, represented by the angel, is requisite for our defence
Note 4. “Your Cerberus.” Cerberus is feigned to have been dragged by Hercules, bound with a threefold chain, of which, says the angel, he still bears the marks. Lombardi blames the other interpreters for having supposed that the angel attributes this exploit to Hercules, a fabulous hero, rather than to our Saviour, It would seem as if the good father had forgotten that Cerberus is himself no less a creature of the imagination than the hero who encountered him.
Note 5. “The plains of Arles.” In Provence. These sepulchres are mentioned in the Life of Charlemagne, which has been attributed to Archbishop Turpin, cap. 28, and 30, and by Fazio degli Uberti, Dittamondo, L. iv. cap. xxi.
Note 6. “At Pola.” A city of Istria, situated near the gulf of Quarnaro, in the Adriatic Sea


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