Saturday, April 26, 2014


                   Chapter 19:  To the Avaricious

In a cold hour before the vast dark cone
of shadow we call night is split by dawn,
I dreamed I was approached by a foul crone,                                      3

hunch-backed, club-footed, hands like vulture claws,
bald-headed, stammering from drooling lips.
Her wrinkled skin was corpse-like yellow-grey.                                6

I stared and saw her change like frosty field
with bright sun warming it. Her skin grew smooth,
blushing a lovely rose. She stood up slim,                                          9

erect. Her young face kindly smiled on me,
             framed by rich locks of chestnut-coloured hair.
             Her soft throat crooned so blithe an air, my ears                              12

drank each note eagerly. Here’s what she sang.                                     
             “I am Sirena.  Sailors love my voice,
             leaving the sea for joy on land with me.                                            15

To hear me sing, Ulysses stopped wandering,
and none I satisfy try to depart.”
Her lips were still apart when by me stood                                       18

one facing Sirena indignantly,
a stern and saintly lady shouting out,
“O Virgil Virgil Virgil, what is that?”                                      21

He came, first looked upon her at my side,
and then abruptly stripped Sirena bare.
The belly he exposed gave off such stink                                      24

 it wakened me. I sat up. There he stood
            saying, “ I’ve called you thrice. Let’s find the stair.”
I rose and saw the day was well begun,                                              27

light flooding all the circles of the hill.
We marched right on the road where the bright sun
now cast my shade ahead. I stared at it                                              30

with downcast, brooding face, my body bent
like half a bridge’s arch until I heard,
“Here now you may ascend,” in tones more sweet                       33
than spoken by the tongue of any friend.
An angel pointed to an opening
between two walls of flinty stone. He said,                                       36

“Blessed are mourners: they shall be consoled,”
and as we passed, fanned us with swanlike wings.
When we had passed above the angel’s head,                         39

my master asked, “What’s wrong with you?” I said,
“A recent dream has filled me full of fear.”
He answered, “That old hag you saw was she                                   42

who makes all those above us weep. You saw
how to reject her – be content with that.
Strike heels into the earth and climb! Look up!                             45

Beyond that blue, God’s starry wheels revolve.”
The hooded falcon stares down at its feet,
but when released, soars up into the sky.                                     48

Now like that bird was I. Sped by desire
I ran right up that stair to the fifth ledge,
then stopped astonished. Where the road swept round                51

folk laid out flat covered each foot of ground,
face down in dirt. They sobbed words hard to hear      
but I made out, “We sold our souls for dust.”                                  54

My master cried, “O you who God permits
            repentance by such pains, I truly know
            Justice and Hope have saved you from despair.                                57

We pass among you to a greater height.
Will someone please tell us a shortcut there?”
From just ahead of us a voice replied,                                                60

“Since you are free from having to lie prone,
walk with right hand toward the outer rim.”
My master saw my eyes imploring him,                                            63

knew what I asked and nodded his consent.
            Stooping beside that unpurged sufferer
            I said, “Please tell me of the man you were.                                       66

I know the more repentant tears you shed,
            will bring you sooner into Paradise,
            but for a little time tell me instead                                                      69

why you must lie with backside to the sky.
            Say too if I may serve you in some way,
            when I at last return to Italy.”                                                            72

“I’ll tell you why Heaven turns me upside down,”
            said he, “after talking of the man I was
            before elected to the Papacy.                                                             75

Into the Gulf of Genoa there flows
            a limpid river down a pleasant glen
            called Lavagna, which also is a name                                               78

my people used and I inherited
            when Count and Cardinal no better than
            the other priests whose greed disgrace the Church.                        81

But when Saint Peter’s shoes were on my feet
            a purer spirit suddenly was mine,
            too late! Too late I struggled with the weight                                   84

of the Pope’s mantle. For one short month
            and a few days I tried to shake it free
            of parasites who clung as I had done.                                               87

That struggle killed me. It will save my soul
            when I have cleaned the foul thing I’ve become:    
            a creature wholly avaricious,                                                            90

given to selfish greed. That was my sin
            and this my punishment. There is no worse
            pain on this Holy Mountain. We refused                                        93

to see the shining multitude of stars
            because our eyes were fixed on earthly things,
            so Justice now must clamp us here face down                                    96

quite motionless in dirt, as in a vice.
            This distress was our own choice! Tears only
            can wash away the dirt I partly am,                                                    99

freeing what God created me to be.”
            I knelt and he, sensing my reverence,
             demanded, “Why do you lower yourself?”                                       102

“I have to bow. I cannot stand,” said I,
            “before your dignity in suffering.”
            He commanded, “Brother, straighten your legs!                                105 

I am like you and all of us, servant
            of One alone. There is no slavery
            or mastery for equals under God,                                                        108

who calls His Pope servant of my servants,
            which several forget. And now please go.
            You asked if you could serve me down on earth.                               111

My niece Alagia is thriving there.
            Tell her, avoid such conduct as my own
             and inborn goodness will preserve her soul.                                      114

Uncle in Purgatory tells her so.”





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