Inferno, Canto III


            THROUGH ME COME INTO THE CITY FULL OF PAIN
            THROUGH ME COME INTO ENDLESS SUFFERING
            THROUGH ME COME BE AMONG THE LOST
            I WAS FASHIONED BY MY HIGH MAKER IMPELLED
            BY JUSTICE; I WAS FASHIONED BY DIVINE POWER,
            BY UTTER WISDOM, BY ORIGINAL LOVE.
            BEFORE ME ONLY ETERNALS WERE CREATED
            –ANGELS HEAVEN PRIMAL MATTER–
                         I GO ON FOREVER.
            YOU WHO COME IN ABANDON ALL HOPE.

Darkling these words I saw inscribed
atop a doorframe, so I said:

                         "Master, the meanings are hard to me."

And like a man familiar with the site, he said:

                         "Here all self-doubt must be cast off, and all cowardice
                         snuffed out; we've come to the place I told you about
                         where you'll see the sad beings bereft of the good
                         of the intellect–the knowledge of God."

Then, face aglow, he put his hand on mine
–and I was comforted–and after that he led me in
to things concealed from the quick but not from the dead.
Here through the starless air sighs, cries and loud wails
reverberated; so first I wept. A motley clutch
of tongues, monstrous dialects, agony-words, spikes
of wrath, faint and shrill voices and along with these
the thwack of hands–all created a tumult swirling
in a dun air outside of time, as sand eddies in a whirlwind.
And I, horror girding my head, said:

                         "Master, what's this I hear, and who are these beings
                         so in thrall to their grief?"

And he to me:

                         "This despondency weighs down the miserable souls
                         who in life earned neither praise nor blame, who here
                         keep company with that craven choir of angels
                         not rebels, not faithful to God, out for themselves only.
                         Justly the heavens chased away such angels
                         whom Hell's deeps rejected too, to make sure
                         the infernal shades don't lord it over these cowards."

And I:

                         "Master, what acute pain afflicts all the spirits here,
                         who are breaking into lamentation?"

He answered:

                         "I'll tell you briefly. These, brought so low
                         through the blindness of their lives, have no hope
                         of death, and envy anyone else's fate.
                         The world casts them out of its concerns.
                         Pity scorns them; justice loathes them.
                         Let's stop talking about them. Look and pass by."

I looked–and saw a banner whirling so fast
that I thought it could suffer no
pause; and behind it such a press of beings
that I would not have thought death
could undo so many.
                                As I was recognizing some,
I saw and knew the shade of him whose pettiness
of soul had spawned the Great Refusal. Immediately
certain, I understood that these were the malicious cabal
odious to God and to all His enemies. Green
flies and wasps stung these naked contemptible beings
–who'd never been alive–
and by their feet disgusting worms were harvesting
the mix of tears and blood that had streaked
their faces. And then peering further, I saw beings
on the bank of a wide river
so that I was moved to say:

                         "Master, those beings I can just make out
                         through the hazy light–can you tell me who they are,
                         and what practice makes them seem so ready
                         to cross over?"

And he to me:

                         "You will understand these things when we pause
                         on the sad banks of the Acheron."

Then, ashamed, eyes cast down because I was afraid
what I said had vexed him, I stopped talking
until we got to the river. Ah an old man in a boat,
his hair tuned white by time, was coming towards us,
shouting:

                         "This is it, you depraved souls! Give up
                         the hopes you'll see the sky again. I've come
                         to bring you to the other shore forever dark–
                         fire and ice. And you there, you living soul,
                         quit the dead."

But when he saw I wasn't leaving, he said:

                         "You may not go from here. You'll pass
                         through another port of entry, in a different way;
                         a lighter boat must carry you."

And my leader said to him:

                         "Charon, don't torment yourself. This is how it must be,
                         so ordered where will and power are one. Stand down."

And at once the scraggly jowls of the denatured
fen's boatman grew quiet; around his eyes fire
wheels were dancing. But as soon as the shades, naked
and worn, heard his menacing words, they grew
pallid and gnashed their teeth, blaspheming against God,
against their parent, against humankind, against the site,
the time, the seed that begot them, their birth.
Then they huddled together by that damned shore
which waits for every man who's not afraid
of God. Demon Charon of the ember eyes
beckons them, gathers them and drubs the laggards
with an oar.
                   As in the fall the leaves one after another
are subtracted from the branch, which sees those
spoils grounded, so at the infernal gesture Adam's bad
seed hurtle down from that shore, like falcons recalled.
That's how they go across the dark billows
and before they touch down on the other side, a new
band clusters on this shore.

The courteous master said:

                         "My son, all beings who die in the wrath of God
                         swarm here from every land, and they can't wait
                         to cross the Acheron: divine justice so prods them
                         that dread transforms into desire. No good soul
                         ever comes by here, so if Charon calls you down
                         you can now understand the drift of his words."

When he was done, the dusky surround shook
so strongly that I'm bathed in sweat as I remember
my fear. Through the tear-laden ground earth's
imprisoned winds touched off a scarlet flash
which downed my senses; and I fell like a man
snared by sleep.


                                                 --from The Divine Comedy
                                                    Italian; trans. Armand Schwerner


Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Italian, trans. Armand Schwerner, Cantos from Dante's Inferno, Talisman House, 2000.