DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 23
Chapter 23: Hypocrites
Silent and unaccompanied we went
along the dyke-top path, me after my guide
pondering on the turmoil left behind. 3
It called to mind Aesop’s tale of the frog
and mouse, both killed by their own deceit.
What would our fiendish guards do, joined by two 6
recovered from the tar-bath's scalding heat?
Demons are only bound to keep one law –
sinners must suffer in their ring of Hell. 9
They knew we saw they had not kept it well,
been swindled into clownish capering.
Who would they blame for their incompetence? 12
Stupid malice will never blame itself
for lack of sense. And now I seemed to hear
a distant yell draw near. “Master!” I cried. 15
He turned and said, “You’re right in what you fear.
See, soaring they draw near, batwings spread wide,
baying like bloodhounds after blameless hares.” 18
As mother wakened by a fire alarm
lifts baby from her side and runs, he grabbed,
raised, held me to his chest, jumped into the 21
other ditch, slid down the dyke on his back
like water down a sluice. My lucky ride
baffled our foes who, snarling, stood above, 24
powerless to leave the ring they must patrol.
In the sixth malebolge we also stood
watching a novel kind of suffering. 27
At first sight what I saw was glorious –
a line of richly patterned golden gowns
enameled with such peacock colourings 30
kings might have proudly worn them, though grand hoods
hid every face, and from these tears streamed down.
The fancy dress was causing this distress. 33
Its agonizing weight made them all move
so slow I’d thought at first that they did not.
A weary dress to wear eternally! 36
My poet led me left, the way they went,
not fast, but each step passed a sobbing wretch
until I begged, “Have none here names I know?” 39
“You with the Tuscan tongue, don’t rush away!”
A voice behind us cried, “Stay in that place.
When closer to you I will give you names.” 42
My master said, “Yes, let us wait for them,
then if you wish, go forward at their pace.”
I saw behind two trying to come near. 45
“Their coats are light,” one said. His friend replied,
“He whose throat moves when talking is not dead.”
When opposite the last looked sideways, spoke: 48
“Tuscan, though you may fear hypocrisy,
know that to you I will talk honestly.
Before I do, tell me first, who are you?” 51
I said, “My body, born by Arno’s flood,
grew up within that city set on it.
I keep that body yet, but tell me why 54
your eyes distill such tears. How did you get
the punishment you wear?” He groaned and said,
“These gilded robes are lined with thickest lead, 57
so those who bear such weight are bound to creak.
Once we were priests sworn to protect the weak
and work to end the bitterness of feuds 60
which dominate every Italian state.
When Florence found no able magistrates
to keep God’s peace inside the city gates 63
it gave two Jovial Friars the job –
me, Catalan and Loderingo here,
both Bolognese.” Horrified, I yelled, 66
“Peacekeepers? Bah! You raised the mob who smashed
the Guardingo, home of the Uberti!”
He sobbed and muttered, “We did wrong, that’s true. 69
Eager to please, we pleased the great too well.
Pope Clement wanted to hurt the Uberti.
He is now in Hell.” I began to say, 72
“Friars, your iniquities…” but was struck
silent by a new piece of divine wrath –
an old man crucified across our path 75
was trodden underfoot by all who passed.
He writhed most under me for my foot pressed
heaviest, since I lived. Catalan said, 78
“That was Caiaphas, priest who thought it best
one blameless Jew should benefit the rest
by crucifixion. Staked around this ring 81
are other priests, those who supported him,
forever now condemned to feel the weight
of dreadful falsehood in each sinner’s heel.” 84
Virgil had died before our Saviour’s birth.
He marveled at the sight, then told the friar
“We need a way to climb out of this ring 87
upon the right. Please, is there such a thing?
If not I must command a black angel
to fly us up astride his ugly wing.” 90
Catalan said, “There is a way at hand.
Bridges across this malebolge all fell
in the great earthquake when Christ harrowed Hell. 93
It left big slopes of rubble down each dyke,
mainly the lower side upon the right.
We’re nearing one – climb up it if you like.” 96
My master halted for a while then cried,
“That demon, Captain Stinktail, lied to me!”
The friar replied, “In Bologna we heard 99
Satan is a beast with vices even
demons adopt, and lying not the least.”
With angry face my leader strode ahead. 102
Of course I hurried after where he led.