DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 13
Chapter 13: The Suicides
before my guide and I were in a wood
more grim than that where I encountered him. 3
No bough was smooth, but gnarled and warped askew.
No leaf was green, but withered black and brown.
No fruit was seen, but many a poisoned thorn, 6
and only harpies nested in the trees —
foul things with women’s heads between their wings,
big feathered bellies and gigantic claws 9
wounding the branches that they perched upon.
My master said, “ This ring of Hell is like
a hedge between the boiling moat we left 12
and scorching sands to come. Look well here please.
Before you do I cannot tell of it
and be believed.” I stood and looked around, 15
hearing a kind of moaning wail like wind
except for something human in the sound.
I think he thought I thought it came from folk 18
among the trees. I stared at him. He said,
“Break off a twig.” Puzzled, I snapped a spray
from a large thorn tree that I stood beside 21
and then,” Why are you breaking me?” it cried.
As a green branch with one end in a fire
hisses and trickled sap out of the other, 24
both words and blood bled from the break I’d made.
I dropped the twig, looked to my guide for aid
as the voice said,” You would not be unkind 27
to smaller animals. Why pitiless
to soul turned into tree?” “Poor wounded tree!”
my master said, “ Your hurt was caused by me. 30
I knew no other way to show this man
the fate of sinners in your hellish wood.
But tell him now the name you bore on earth – 33
returning there he may renew your fame.”
“God bless your courtesy,” the tree exclaimed.
“Good reputation was my life-long aim 35
which my bad end undid. If people know
I was not all to blame, one soul in Hell
will feel some consolation. Listen please. 38
For twenty years I served great Frederick,
Emperor of Europe, sometimes called
the stupor mundi, wonder of the world. 41
I was his chancellor, using two keys,
reward and punishment, with quiet art
till none but me knew his most secret heart. 44
My faithfulness robbed me of sleep and strength,
but jealousy, whore of all royal courts,
made me so hated that my Emperor 47
also distrusted. Suddenly disgraced,
blinded, in chains, I who had been so just
to others, to myself became unjust. 50
I, Pier de Vigny, battered out my brains,
but promise by the roots that feed me now
I never once betrayed my Emperor. 53
If you return to earth tell others so,
for envy is still dirtying my name.”
Silence ensued, then Virgil said to me, 56
“ Don’t miss this chance. He’s wise. Ask what you like.”
I said, “ For pity’s sake I can’t. You ask,”
so ask he did. “How did it come to pass 59
that souls like yours are tied in wooden knots?
Will nothing make you free?” The tree
again squeezed air out that turned into words: 62
“Minos flings all such souls down here like seeds,
and where we fall we root and start to sprout.
The harpies, feeding on out leaves, cause pain 65
and open cuts through which we can cry out.
We too will join our bodies when time ends,
but not to put on our old corpse again. 68
Suspended from the tree we have become,
we’ll feel it’s weight forever, and be dumb.”
Intent upon these words we were surprised 71
to hear a sudden noise, a crashing roar
swiftly approaching us, sounding as if
wild hunters were pursuing a wild boar. 74
Upon our left two naked men raced past,
the first one screaming, “O come quickly death!”
The second panted,” You were not so fast, 77
Lano, in battle, where folk killed you last.”
Breath failing him he fell into a bush.
Bounding behind immense black bitches came 80
as ravenous as hounds loosed from a chain,
and biting fallen man and leafy spray,
tore him to bits and carried them away. 83
My guide now led me over to that bush
which wailed through all the fractures I could see,
“Jackie San Andrea, why fall in me? 86
Why should I suffer for your guilty life?”
“And who,“ my master asked,” are you, who through
so many gashes pours complaints and blood?” 89
“One who was born beside the Arno’s flood,”
it said, “where Florence and its civil strife
made me detest my miserable life. 92
I made my house the gibbet where I hung.
Forget my name! please put my broken shoots
nearer this trunk where they will feed my roots.” 95
Our birthplace made me honour his request.