The good master said: Now, my son, we approach the city known as Dis


The good master said: 'Now, my son,
we approach the city known as Dis,
with its vast army and its burdened citizens.'

And I: Master, I can clearly see its mosques
within the ramparts, glowing red
as if they'd just been taken from the fire.'

And he to me: 'The eternal fire
that burns inside them here in nether Hell
makes them show red, as you can see.'

At last we reached the moats
dug deep around the dismal city.
Its wall seemed made of iron.

Not until we'd made a wide approach
did we come to a place where the boatman bellowed:
'Out with you here, this is the entrance.'

At the threshold I saw more than a thousand angels
fallen from Heaven. Angrily they shouted:
'Who is this, who is not dead,

'yet passes through the kingdom of the dead?'
At this my prudent master made a sign
that he would speak with them apart.

Then they reined in their great disdain
enough to say: 'You come--alone. Let him be gone,
who has so boldly made his way into this kingdom.

'Let him retrace his reckless path alone--
let him see if he can, for you shall stay,
you who have led him through this gloomy realm.'

Reader, how could I not lose heart
at the sound of these accursed words?
I thought I would never make it back.

'O my dear leader, who seven times and more
have braced my confidence and rescued me
from the grave dangers that assailed me,

'do not leave me,' I cried, 'helpless now!
If going farther is denied us,
let us at once retrace our steps.'

But the mentor who had brought me there replied:
'Have no fear. None can prevent our passage,
so great a power granted it to us.

'Wait for me here. Comfort your weary spirit
and feed it with good hope.
I will not forsake you in the nether world.'

He goes away and leaves me there,
my gentle father, and I remain in doubt,
'yes' and 'no' at war within my mind.

I could not hear what he proposed,
but it was not long he stayed with them
before they pushed and scrambled back inside.

Then our adversaries slammed shut the gates
against my master, who, left outside,
came back to me with halting steps.

He had his eyes upon the ground, his brows
shorn of all confidence. Sighing, he muttered:
'Who dares deny me access to the realm of pain?'

To me he said: 'Be not dismayed
at my vexation. In this contest, I'll prevail,
whatever they contrive to keep us out.

'This insolence of theirs is nothing new:
they showed it once before, at another gate.
It still stands open without lock or bolt.

'Over it you saw the deadly writing.
Even now, making his unescorted way
down through the circles, one descends
by whom the city shall be opened.'

            *            *            *

The pallor cowardice painted on my face
when I saw my leader turning back
made him hasten to compose his features.

He stopped, like a man intent on listening,
for the eye could not probe far
through that dim air and murky fog.

'Yet we must win this fight,' he began,
'or else. . . .Such help was promised us.
How long it seems to me till someone comes!'

I clearly saw that he had covered up
his first words with the others that came after,
words so different in meaning.

Still, I was filled with fear by what he said.
Perhaps I understood his broken phrase
to hold worse meaning than it did.

'Does ever anyone from the first circle,
where the only penalty is hope cut off,
descend so deep into this dismal pit?'

I put this question and he answered:
'It seldom happens that a soul from Limbo
undertakes the journey I am on.

'It is true I came here once before,
conjured by the pitiless Erichtho,
who could call shades back into their bodies.

'I had not long been naked of my flesh
when she compelled me to go inside this wall
to fetch a spirit from the circle of Judas.

'That is the lowest place, the darkest,
and farthest from the heaven that encircles all.
Well do I know the way--so have no fear.

'This swamp, which belches forth such noxious stench,
hems in the woeful city, circling it.
Now we cannot enter without wrath.'

And he said more, but I do not remember,
for my eyes and thoughts were drawn
to the highest tower's blazing peak

where all at once, erect, had risen
three hellish, blood-stained Furies:
they had the limbs and shape of women,

their waists encircled by green hydras.
Thin serpents and horned snakes entwined,
in place of hair, their savage brows.

And he, who knew full well the handmaids
of the queen of endless lamentation,
said to me: 'See the fierce Furies!

'That is Megaera on the left. On the right
Alecto wails. In the middle
is Tisiphone.' And with that he fell silent.

Each rent her breast with her own nails.
And with their palms they struck themselves, shrieking.
In fear I pressed close to the poet.

'Let Medusa come and we'll turn him to stone,'
they cried, looking down. 'To our cost,
we failed to avenge the assault of Theseus.'

'Turn your back and keep your eyes shut,
for if the Gorgon head appears and should you see it,
all chance for your return above is lost.'

While my master spoke he turned me round
and, placing no trust in my own hands,
covered my face with his hands also.

O you who have sound intellects,
consider the teaching that is hidden
behind the veil of these strange verses.

And now there came, over the turbid waves,
a dreadful, crashing sound
that set both shores to trembling.

It sounded like a mighty wind,
made violent by waves of heat,
that strikes the forest and with unchecked force

shatters the branches, hurls them away, and,
magnificent in its roiling cloud of dust, drives on,
putting beast and shepherd to flight.

He freed my eyes and said: 'Now look
across the scum of that primeval swamp
to where the vapor is most dense and harsh.'

As frogs, before their enemy the snake,
all scatter through the water
till each sits huddled on the bank,

I saw more than a thousand lost souls flee
before one who so lightly passed across the Styx
he did not touch the water with his feet.

He cleared the thick air from his face,
his left hand moving it away,
as if that murky air alone had wearied him.

It was clear that he was sent from Heaven,
and I turned to the master, who signaled me
to keep silent and bow down before him.

Ah, how full of high disdain he seemed to me!
He came up to the gate and with a wand
he opened it, and there was no resistance.

'O outcasts of Heaven, race despised,'
he began in the terrible threshold, 'whence
comes this insolence you harbor in your souls?

'Why do you kick against that will
which never can be severed from its purpose,
and has so many times increased your pain?

What profits it to fight against the fates?
Remember your own Cerberus still bears
the wounds of that around his chin and neck.'

Then he turned back along the wretched way
without a word for us, and he seemed pressed,
spurred on by greater cares

than those of the man who stands before him.
We turned our steps toward the city,
emboldened by his holy words.


                   --from The Inferno, Cantos VIII-IX
                      Italian; trans. Robert Hollander
                        & Jean Hollander


Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, The Inferno, Italian, trans. Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander, Anchor Books, 2000.