Saturday, April 27, 2013


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.








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