Saturday, March 16, 2013

DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 9


Chapter 9: Entering Dis

On seeing him return from that shut gate
      so absolutely did my courage fail
      I felt my face was turning deadly pale.                                    3

My guide restrained his pallour at the sight,
      and as no eye could see through the gray mists,
      he stood a while intently listening                                           6

and thus I overheard him murmuring,
      "We'll win through somehow, there's no doubt, unless...
      But help is being sent... I wonder when..."                              9

These words were meant to save me from distress
      but only made me worry even more.
      To change the subject, this is what I said.                              12

"Master and guide, has anyone before
      left Limbo to explore as deep as this?"
      "I did," said he "when civil war split Rome                           15

well over thirteen centuries ago.
      The witch, Erichtho, keen to know who'd win,
      forced me by spells too sinful to repeat,                                18

straight down to Satan's lowest seat in Hell –
      we used to call him Demogorgon then –
      he said Caesar would gain the victory.                                   21

This downward path is therefore known to me
      though barred to you by Hell's hostility.
      We need that gate. On every other side                                  24

the wall stands sheer above the muddy tide of
      wrathful souls, so we must wait for aid.
      Some new thing frightens you?" I pointed where                  27

upon the battlements of Dis
      three blood-stained female figures had appeared,
      bat-winged and belted with green snakes, their hair              30

writhing with smaller snakes. All glared at me
      so fiercely that I cling hard to my guide
      who said, "These are the furies – torturers                             33

of the most guilty souls. She on the left
      is Magaera; wailing on the far right
      Alecti, with Tesiphone between."                                           36

Tearing their breasts with talons eagle-like,
      they yelled, "Medusa come, change him to stone!"
      "Turn round!" my guide cried. "Don't look, shut eyes tight,  39   

cover your face! Gorgon Medusa's glare
      can petrify you here so use both hands."
      Ensuring these commands he swung me round,                     42

pressed my hands to my eyes with both his hands.
      Some intellects may find a lesson there.
      But then a mighty thunderclap rang out,                                45

a crash advancing through the muggy fen
      like a tornado smashing down great trees,
      and driving on dust, beasts and fleeing men.                          48

My guide said, freeing my eyes, "Look hard
      at who is coming where the fog's most thick."
      As snake spreads panic through a pond of frogs                    51

who dive deep in mud, the wrathful souls
      sunk from the path of one who, dry shod, strode
      across the foggy marsh of their abode,                                   54

fanning the fumes away before his face –
      an almost absent-minded exercise
      because his thoughts seemed in another place.                      57

This was my helper. Unsure what to do
      I watched my guide who bowed, so I did too.
      The helper from on high seemed not to see.                           60

He passed us, touched the gate which opened wide.
      To demon janitors cowering inside
      he, standing on the threshold, cried aloud                              63

in a great ecstasy of indignation.
      "You stupid, wretched, miserable crew
      still treacherous to He who created you,                                66

known again in insubordination
      can alter nothing that is willed on high
      and only multiplies your woe. Goodbye!"                             69

Then he went back across the filthy bog
      without a word to me who, fearless now,
      followed my leader through the gates of Dis.                        72

None stopped us as we passed the stronghold's towers
      and walked into a land of different pain.
      By Rhone at Arles, Pola in Italy                                            75

are graveyards where the ancient, plundering tombs
      gape at the sky, with slabs once shutting them
      lying close by. So was the plain of Dis                                  78

except for this: each tomb was spouting flame
      being a furnace hotter than a forge,
      from which, also, terrible outcries came.                               81

My guide said, "see the doom of heretics
      and of their followers, for every tomb
      has room for many more than you can see,                           84

each heated to a different degree
      according to the error's magnitude."
      So there we stood between high battlements                         87

and all the flaming graveyard's punishments.                      

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