DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 26
Chapter 26: Liars
Florence rejoice, famous on land and sea
where florins are the common currency.
That crowds of thieves swarm from you into Hell 3
cannot delight, does not astonish me.
Cardinal Prato tried and failed to quell
the bitter feuding that corrupts your state 6
and prayed for a total overthrow
to end your boastful posturing. I too
pray that this happens soon. The more I wait 12
the horrider must be my city’s fate.
We left that dyke, set foot on the next bridge,
surmounting rocks so jagged and abrupt 15
we could not move without the help of hands
and as we struggled up I grimly thought
of how so often mighty powers betray, 18
mislead so many. Being a Florentine
I swell with hope and pride when I survey
the scope of what I plan to say in rhyme. 21
What if my talent leads me far astray?
I too must pray for more humility.
At last we rested on the bridge’s height. 24
As peasants, with the coming of the night,
pause on a hillside before going down
into a valley where the fireflies glow, 27
we stared into the malebolge below
and saw a flow of sparks. “Each is a flame,”
my master said, “Clothing a counsellor 30
whose lying words fooled people into war.”
I shuddered, wondered could such words be mine?
Could things I write become excuse for sin? 33
I clutched the crag to stop me falling in
before we climbed down to a nearer view
some spires of moving fire within that ditch 36
were taller than the rest and cleft in two.
My master said, “Each of these double flames
contains a pair united by their crime. 39
Here comes inventor of the wooden horse,
Ulysees, with beside him Diomed
who made the Trojans think it was a gift 42
proving the war was past, the Greeks had left.
Both mourn within that fire their stratagem
which burned down Troy, home of Aeneas 45
who fled and founded Rome, as I have sung.
They bemoan also other crafty tricks
whose outcomes they did not see.” I cried out, 48
“Master, if they can speak within their flame,
please I pray you, please let them speak to me!”
He said, “I like that prayer, so I agree. 51
Leave talk to me. Greeks will despise your speech.”
When the flame came to where my guide thought best
I heard him cry, “Please pause, hear our request. 54
We are poets wishing to be your friends.
You alone can tell us what we never read
in Homer’s poems – how you met your ends.” 57
One flaming horn, the biggest of the pair
first roared and wavered, as if struck by wind,
then the point flickered, speaking like a tongue. 60
“Bound home from Troy I lost my way, my men,
my ships through storms, monsters and women’s wiles,
so winning home at last I found myself 63
unfit for quiet life with wife and son.
Choosing a crew of some I knew from Troy
we put to sea, sailed west and reached that strait 66
between Africa and Spain with before
only the boundless ocean. Then Hercules
has put a pillar on each shore inscribed 69
DO NOT GO THROUGH, and so not many do.
‘Shipmates!’ said I, ‘Did we dare, share, survive
a thousand dangers in search of rest? No! 72
Greeks believe, strive for virtue and knowledge
the best thing in life. Let us sail ahead,
discover a new world, and if we fail 75
what grander way to end can old men find?’
They cheered and plied their oars, would not have ceased
to drive us onward had I changed my mind. 78
We sailed for five moons south. Equator crossed,
strange constellations shone above at night.
Then to the east one day as dawn light spread 81
we saw, dimmed by distance, a splendid sight –
a land wider than Italy, rising
high like a mountain far into the sky. 84
Our joy soon changed to grief. From that land came
a storm that struck and whirled us three times round,
heaved our stern high, plunged the prow under waves 87
that closed above us. As fate willed, we drowned.”