Friday, August 09, 2013


Chapter 34: The First Traitor

“The banners of Hell’s potentate appear!
            Do you see them, Dante?” asked my guide.
       I stared into the mist ahead and saw                                       3

a vast dim distant something, windmill-like,
            with moving sails perhaps, or were they wings?
            A wind came from it like the worst of gales.                          6

Only the shelter of my strong guide’s back
            enabled me to walk. Now we were where
            (with fear I write this) every soul appeared                           9

wholly below the ice like straws in glass,
            some lying flat, some standing up erect
            or upside down, or bent with face to toes.                             12

My leader halted, stood aside and said,
            “See Dis himself, the origin of wrong –
            once brightest of archangels in the height,                              15

and here the lowest beast in Hell’s foul pit.”
            Wind from in front had grown to such a blast
            I had to crouch not to be overthrown,                                    18

but saw the vast thing clear, ice to its chest,
            yet mountain-high above the icy plain.
            My height is closer to a giant than                                         21

a giant is to what I saw of Dis.
            Since this was part, how huge must be his whole?
            If, before frowning on the highest good,                                 24

his beauty equaled present ugliness
            no wonder out of him all woe ensued!
            I bent head back to view the awful face                                  27

and saw that he had three joined at the brow,
            the middle red, pale yellow looking left,
            the right black as an Abyssinian.                                            30 

Below each face there sprang up pairs of wings
            fitting a bird like that – I never saw
            a ship with sails so big, and like a bat                                     33  

featherless. Their flapping could not raise him
            as he obviously wished. They drove three
            arctically chilling winds away, made                                      36

Cocytus a lake of ice. Tears flowed down
            from his six eyes mingling with bloody foam
            from mouths in each of which a soul was chewed,                 39

shredded by shark-like jaws of teeth within,
            while outside claws were tearing at the skin.
            My guide said, “He who suffers most up there                     42

is Judas, head-first in the scarlet face,
            legs prancing out, and from the black muzzle
      see the head of Brutus, from the yellow,                                45

Cassius. You know both murdered Caesar, 
            tried to kill Imperial Rome that spread
            worldwide the gospel I have never read.                                 48

Their murder elevates them here, but you
         have now seen everything that Hell can show.
                         To reach a higher place we’ll go below.”                                51
He made me clasp his shoulders from behind,
          and raised me piggy-back; waited until
          the wings were high and wide then ran beneath,                     54

grasped the beast’s shaggy hide and, tuft by tuft,
            climbed down a gap between ice and the side
           of Dis. At the hip, straining very hard,                                  57

he turned us till heads were where feet had been,
          and then (I thought) climbed right back into Hell
          although I heard him gasp, “Hold tight. This stair                 60

takes us from wickedness.” Panting as if
          his strength had almost gone, he put me down.                     
          Squatting, I raised my eyes to see the head                            63

of Dis, but saw instead his vast legs pointing up.
            I was not sitting on an icy lake
            but on the rough floor of an ill-lit cave.                                  66

“Arise!” my leader said, “We’ve far to go
            and it is almost day.” Rising I said,
            “Dear master, first clear my perplexity                                  69 

before we leave. Why is he upside down?
         Where is the ice? Why, in so short a time,
          has the sun shifted from night to day?”                     72       

He said, “While on the pelt of this foul worm
           we passed the central point of gravity –
           the whole world’s core to which all weight inclines.   75       
Here Satan stuck when he could fall no more.
            Our solid earth recoiled before his face
           leaving that void, that cone-shaped terraced space   78

called Hell inside the northern hemisphere
            under the lands where living men draw breath –
          Europe and Africa and Asia,                                                   81

where the one sinless man was done to death.
         We are now standing on a little ground                      
         whose other side is underneath the ice.                                  84

Far under our feet in the northern sky
         the sun sets as it dawns above our heads.
         Now you know why, so time for us to go.”                           87

He first and me behind climbed back to light
            without the use of sight, in blackest shade
            but led ahead by sound. A trickling stream                            90

had made a tunnel through the rock that wound
           in easy slopes down to the tomb of Dis.                   
                   By a long day’s march, we ascended this                        93

nor stopped to rest till, having travelled far,  
            under an arch appeared moon in night sky
            with other  heavenly things, so at last                                  96

we stood outside, viewing the evening star.