Saturday, March 16, 2013


Chapter 13: The Suicides

 Nessus had not regained the former shore
            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.


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