Our Bodies, Our Selves

  • the nature of selfhood: the doctrine of the resurrection of the body and the therefore indestructible unity of body and soul
  • metamorphosis—shape-changing, especially in classical mythology—as a modality for thinking about selfhood (see Inferno 24, Inferno 25, and Purgatorio 25)
  • intertextual games: diminishment of the Aeneid, analogous to the incremental undermining of the fictional character Virgilio

Following violence against others in their persons and in their possessions (treated in canto 12, where we saw the sinners boiled in the river of blood, guarded by the Centaurs), Inferno 13 treats violence against the self. Violence against the self can be manifested either in one’s person, by the suicides, or in one’s possessions, by the squanderers or wastrels. Many have noted that this last category is only with some difficulty distinguished from the prodigals of the fourth circle.

The travelers enter a murky wood (“bosco” in verse 2), a place that is characterized by negativity, by what it is not (note the repeated “non” at the beginning of each verse):

Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti;
non  pomi v’eran, ma stecchi con tòsco.   (Inf. 13.4-6)

No green leaves in that forest, only black;
no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled;
no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.  

It turns out that the trees and bushes in this wood are the transformed—metamorphosed—souls of suicides. In other words, here are the souls of humans who are characterized by negativity, by what they are not: having willfully sundered the body-soul nexus, they are not what they should be.

Mythological monster-birds featured in Vergil’s Aeneid, the Harpies, feed on the leaves of the trees, and thereby cause pain to the sinners. As Pier della Vigna will reveal later in the canto: “l’Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie, / fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra” (then the Harpies, feeding on its leaves, / cause pain and for that pain provide a vent [Inf. 13.101-2]).

What does it mean to say that the Harpies, by eating the leaves of these “trees”, can cause pain to the souls of the persons whose immaterial forms are now constituted by these trees? What is the nature of this causation?

Dante here uses mythological or magical transubstantiation to try to get at the meaning of the body-soul nexus. This is a method that he will adopt on other occasions as well.

For instance, in Purgatorio 25 the catalyst for a discussion of human embryology and embodiment is the mythological figure Meleager, destined to die when a particular piece of charred wood is thrown onto the flames and consumed (Purg. 25.22-23). Meleager’s mother, learning of her son’s destiny, carefully preserves the firebrand until, years later, enraged at her son, she throws it into the flames and kills him. In Purgatorio 25 Dante poses the question: What is the connection between Mealeager and the piece of wood that in some way “represents” him?

In Inferno 13 Dante systematically raises the questions later posed in Purgatorio 25 by the story of Meleager. The relation between the two canti is signaled by the word “stizzo” (firebrand) which appears in the Commedia only in Inferno 13 and Purgatorio 25 (stizzo appears in Inf. 13.40 and Purg. 25.23).

Telling us that the Harpies cause pain to the self that is embodied in the tree is Dante’s way of signifying that the unity of body and soul is indestructible. These souls thought to avoid pain in life by destroying their bodies, but their “bodies” still feel pain, even though they are no longer in human form. We might sum up the information that we have received about the body-soul nexus over the previous canti in this way:

  1. In Inferno 6, verses 106-11, Virgilio explains to Dante that souls will be more perfect after the Last Judgment, when they are reunited with their bodies. Although Virgilio explicitly refers to an Aristotle on completion (“perfezion” in Inf. 6.110), he effectively introduces the thematic of the theology of the Resurrection.
  2. In Inferno 9, when Virgilio indicates that Erichtho’s conjuring of him occurred soon after he died, he states that the sorceress summoned him when he had only recently been denuded of his flesh: “Di poco era di me la carne nuda” (My flesh had not been long stripped off from me [Inf. 9.25]). Virgilio uses the personal pronoun of identity (“me”) to refer to his self as a self even when denuded of his flesh, thus implying that self and identity can be present even when the body is absent. He seems to be alluding to Dante’s thesis of the virtual bodies that the souls inhabit after death, until the Last Judgment reunites them with their fleshly bodies.
  3. The Epicurean heresy, as synthesized by Dante in Inferno 10.15, “che l’anima col corpo morta fanno”, posits the opposite view: the belief that soul dies with body signifies that without the body there is no self.
  4. In Inferno 13, Dante will confirm the absolute indivisibility of body and soul, showing us that even when the body has been transformed into a tree-body it is still tied to its soul: the original body-soul nexus may have been altered in appearance, but the bond is not severed. The unity of body and soul cannot be severed, neither in malo nor in bono. An in malo reprise of this theme will recur in Inferno 25, where the souls are given the bodies of serpents, and yet remain themselves.

Suicide as Dante treats it must be considered within the context of the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The theology of the resurrection claims the inseparable personhood of soul that is embodied and of body that is ensouled. Neither can be divided from the other: together, for all eternity, they compose self. Dante will celebrate this idea throughout Paradiso.

An in bono reprise of this theme will occur in Paradiso 14, where the presentation of the doctrine of the Resurrection causes the souls to clamor for the day when they will see their beloveds once again embodied. After the Last Judgment, their loved ones will be present in Paradise as fully embodied selves, no longer only as pure flame. So that they can love their beloveds more fully, the saved souls in the circle of the sun demonstrate their profound “disio d’i corpi morti” (Par. 14.63)—their desire for their dead bodies:

  Tanto mi parver sùbiti e accorti
e l’uno e l’altro coro a dicer «Amme!»,
che ben mostrar disio d’i corpi morti:
  forse non pur per lor, ma per le mamme,
per li padri e per li altri che fuor cari
anzi che fosser sempiterne fiamme. (Par. 14.61-66)
  One and the other choir seemed to me
so quick and keen to say “Amen” that they
showed clearly how they longed for their dead bodies—
  not only for themselves, perhaps, but for
their mothers, fathers, and for others dear
to them before they were eternal flames.

I write about the above passage in The Undivine Comedy:The rhyme of mamme with fiamme, the flesh with the spirit, is one of Dante’s most poignant envisionings of a paradise where earthly ties are not renounced but enhanced” (The Undivine Comedy, p. 138).

Dante’s treatment of embodiment-ensoulment revolves around the question of unsunderability. We can now see that his interest in the Epicureans is related to this same set of concerns. He defines Epicureanism as the belief that soul dies when body dies: “l’anima col corpo morta fanno” (they make soul die with the body [Inf. 10.15]). For Dante Epicurean beliefs are a perversion of the insunderability of body and soul celebrated by the blessed souls of Paradiso 14. 

In the materialist view body and soul die when the material body dies. Christianity, on the other hand, holds that body and soul, unified, will live forever. Indeed, as we learned from Inferno 6.100-111, the reunited body-soul nexus is more perfect after the Last Judgment than the still divided body-soul prior to the Last Judgment, with the result that when reunited and perfected we will suffer greater pain if in Hell and enjoy greater bliss if in Paradise.

The suicides thus offer a variant on the body-soul problematic as presented via the treatment of Epicureans in Inferno 10. As the Epicureans consider the soul or anima expendable, so the suicides consider the body or corpo expendable. Both positions are wrong.

By separating body from soul, the suicides do violence to the unsunderable unity of self. Their “punishment” is, as usual in Dante’s Inferno, a visualization of the sinners’ own essential choices: as they chose to separate body from soul, they now are separated from their bodies forcibly. They will not get their bodies back at the Last Judgment, because, with inexorable logic, “it is not just for any man to have what he himself has cast aside”: “non è giusto aver ciò ch’om si toglie” (Inf. 13.105). Their “desire for their dead bodies”—their “disio d’i corpi morti” in the language of Paradiso 14.63—is destined to remain eternally unassuaged.

We should note that the insistence throughout Paradiso on Christ’s dual nature, both human and divine, is analogous to the insistence on the unsunderability of body and soul in humans. From this point of view, the passing reference in the circle of heresy to Pope Anastasius, the heretic mentioned at the beginning of Inferno 11 (verses 7-9), is important. Pope Anastasius II (Pope from 496-498 CE) ascribed to Monophysitism, the heretical belief that Christ had only one nature. Dante’s singling out of Pope Anastiasius and the heresy of Monophysitism prepares us for his treatment of suicide, his emphatic insistence on the indivisibility of man’s two natures.

* * *

Inferno 13 is dominated by the encounter with the suicide Pier della Vigna, chancellor and secretary (“logothete” in the imperial jargon) to Emperor Frederic II in Palermo. The powerful jurist has been turned into a tree in Hell. Here Dante borrows Vergil’s metamorphosis of Polydorus from Book 3 of the Aeneid, where the son of Priam has become a bleeding and speaking tree.

Metamorphosis—the shape-changing that is a staple of classical mythology—is used as a lens for focusing on issues of selfhood, identity, and embodiment throughout the Commedia, right through the Paradiso.

The great Latin poet of metamorphosis, Ovid, is a major intertextual presence in Paradiso, the canticle where the poet confronts transubstantiation most directly. Ovidian intertextuality throughout the Commedia can be explored through Intertextual Dante. On metamorphosis in Inferno, see the Introductions to Inferno 24 and Inferno 25.

The first section of Inferno 13 is important for the intertextual dynamic between the Aeneid and the Commedia. The fact that a man has become a tree is termed “unbelievable”—a “cosa incredibile” in Inferno 13.50. It is therefore something that cannot be accepted on the basis of a prior account, no matter how authoritative, but which, if it is to be believed, must be verified through one’s own actions and experience. Hence, because the account in Vergil’s Aeneid is deemed literally “in-credible”, Dante must break the branch in order to verify that the tree is truly a man.

But, the question arises: if Dante cannot believe Vergil’s text, why should we believe Dante’s text? Why is Pier della Vigna less in-credible than his prototype, Polydorus? As analyzed in Dante’s Poets, cited in Coordinated Readings, we can learn from this passage how Dante systematically diminishes the authority of his great precursor’s text in order to garner increased authority for his own text.

Dante-poet works to enhance the reality-quotient of the Commedia by diminishing the reality-quotient of the Aeneid.

Piero’s tragic story is the story of a courtier, and of the envies and intrigues of life at court. In Dante’s version, Piero was envied for his closeness to the Emperor. Although we do not know the precise cause of Piero’s dramatic fall from grace, his imprisonment is a matter of historical record: he was tortured, apparently blinded, and died in prison in 1249.

The unfolding narrative of the encounter with Piero in Inferno 13 conveys both the lack of trust that permeates court life (hence the emphasis on what is believable and what is not), and simultaneously keeps the focus on embodiment, violated by the act of suicide.

Let us take the issue of the provenance of the voices that Dante hears in the wood, which are eventually revealed to be the voices of the trees. Rather than give us this information directly, Dante tells us that he now believes that Virgilio then believed that he (Dante) then believed that the voices came from people hiding behind the trees (verses 25-7).

We can parse verse 25, “Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse” (I think that he was thinking that I thought), more closely. Dante-poet believes (in the narrator’s present tense: “Cred’ ïo”) that Virgilio believed (in the past tense of the events that took place in the wood of the suicides: “ch’ei credette”) that Dante-pilgrim believed (again in the past tense of the events that took place in the wood of the suicides: “ch’io credesse”) that the voices he was hearing in the wood came from people who were hiding behind the trees: “che tante voci uscisser, tra quei bronchi, / da gente che per noi si nascondesse” (so many voices moaned among those trunks / from people who were hiding from us [Inf. 13.26-27]).

The famous verse “Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse” (Inf. 13.25) is emblematic of the various strands of this canto. It renders the opacity of subjectivity (discussed at length in the Introduction to Inferno 9), whereby none of us can ever be entirely sure of what another is thinking. In this way verse 25 also beautifully conjures the invidious and perilous environment of the court. Courts, whether Papal or secular, whether the imperial court of Frederic II or the Tudor court of Henry VIII, are notoriously environments that foster intrigue. Dante renders the feeling of the whispering voices of courtiers, as they invidiously relate the rumors of what so-and-so believes of such-and-such. 

In terms of the plot, the poet is informing us that Virgilio thought that the pilgrim failed to understand that the voices came from the trees themselvesOf course, the pilgrim does not expect voices to emanate from trees, because he does not consider the trees as selves. Indeed, when the pilgrim first heard the sound of wailing, he naturally looked around for people as the source: “Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai / e non vedea persona che ’l facesse” (From every side I heard the sound of cries, / but I could not see the person from made the sounds [Inf. 13.22-3]).

Because the pilgrim fails to understand that the trees are speaking selves (and was unable to take the notion on faith as a result of having read Book 3 of the Aeneid), Virgilio decides to have him harm Piero, breaking the sinner’s branch and causing “the trunk” to yell in pain: “e ’l tronco suo gridò: «Perché mi schiante?»” (at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?” [Inf. 13.33]).

The wailing tree trunk is a typically graphic and Dantean way to make the point: the tree is a self.

Piero tried to destroy his self, through suicide, but he failed. In a perverse conservation of being, his self persists—deformed, but nonetheless not non-existent.

We see here how masterfully Dante has woven Inferno 13’s fundamental questions of selfhood and embodiment into the story-line. These are questions that will run through the Commedia, resurfacing in Inferno 24 and Inferno 25, where souls change into serpents. The metamorphoses of men into serpents and back again in the bolgia of the thieves is anticipated in Piero’s comment that the pilgrim would have been kinder if the trees had been “the souls of serpents”:

Uomini fummo, e or siam fatti sterpi:
ben dovrebb’ esser la tua man più pia,
se state fossimo anime di serpi.            (Inf. 13.37-39) 

We once were men and now are arid stumps:
your hand might well have shown us greater mercy
had we been nothing more than souls of serpents.   

At the core of his story is the verse where Dante shows that, worse than what the envious courtiers did to him, is what Pier della Vigna did to himself:

  L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
credendo col morir fuggir disdegno,
ingiusto fece me contra me giusto. (Inf. 13.70-72)
  My mind, because of its disdainful temper,
believing it could flee disdain through death,
made me unjust against my own just self.

Verses 70-72 posit the violent and unnatural turning of the self against the self—“me contra me”—in a dualism that is everything that the theology of the Resurrection rejects. The soul, “l’animo mio” of verse 70, in its desire to flee an ignominious death, “made me unjust toward my own just self”: “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” (Inf. 13.72).

The phrase “ingiusto fece me contra me giusto” pits “me” against “me”: “me contra me”. Here we have the distillation of the infernal logic that is visualized in a contrapasso that keeps the body and soul forever sundered but forever together. We learn that, after the Last Judgement, from each tree will hang the body that the self rejected and tried to destroy, a body that can never be severed but that—in just punishment—will never again be fully integrated into one self. Hence their corpses will hang from their trees:

Qui le strascineremo, e per la mesta
selva saranno i nostri corpi appesi,
ciascuno al prun de l’ombra sua molesta.   (Inf. 13.106-08) 

We’ll drag our bodies here;
they’ll hang in this sad wood,
each on the stump of its vindictive shade.   
 

As we saw that in Inferno 10 the dramatic tension reaches a peak and then subsides, with the result that in verse 79 the pilgrim’s interaction with Farinata becomes more informational and less barbed, so, in Inferno 13, verse 79 initiates a more didactic and informative section of the canto. Here Piero explains the process whereby the suicide-trees grow from a soul-seed: the “anima feroce” (savage soul [Inf. 13.94]) that has torn itself “dal corpo” (from the body [Inf. 13.95]) falls into the “selva” (97) of the seventh circle, where “it sprouts like a grain of spelt” (“quivi germoglia come gran di spelta” [Inf. 13.99]). Dante here offers a perverse insemination and a perverse embryology—the infernal counterpart of the embryology of Purgatorio 25.

In the last section of the canto Dante sees wastrels being pursued by black hounds. As though they were chasing wild boar, the dogs hunt down the sinners and then tear them limb from limb. Unlike the suicides—who have trunks, branches, and leaves—the wastrels have bodies into which the infernal hounds can sink their teeth. Those of you who have read Boccaccio’s Decameron will remember that Boccaccio makes humorous, indeed parodic, use of the caccia infernal in the novella of Nastagio degli Onesti (Dec. 5.8).

The Florentine suicide who reprimands the wastrel Giacomo di Sant’Andrea for having trampled and lacerated him (in his bush form) concludes Inferno 13 with a characterization of Florence that implicates the city in the negativity of Inferno 13 (see verses 143-50). He seals the canto with the information that he killed himself by making a gallows in his Florentine home: “Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case” (I made—of my own house—my gallows place [Inf. 13.151]). This last verse takes us mentally back to the ghoulish image of the suicides’ bodies hanging from their trees after the Last Judgment (verses 106-8).

Coordinated Reading

Dante’s Poets, pp. 211-12; The Undivine Comedy, pp. 138-39.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 13: Our Bodies, Our Selves.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-13/

About the Commento

1Non era ancor di là Nesso arrivato,
2quando noi ci mettemmo per un bosco
3che da neun sentiero era segnato.

4Non fronda verde, ma di color fosco;
5non rami schietti, ma nodosi e ’nvolti;
6non pomi v’eran, ma stecchi con tòsco.

7Non han sì aspri sterpi né sì folti
8quelle fiere selvagge che ’n odio hanno
9tra Cecina e Corneto i luoghi cólti.

10Quivi le brutte Arpie lor nidi fanno,
11che cacciar de le Strofade i Troiani
12con tristo annunzio di futuro danno.

13Ali hanno late, e colli e visi umani,
14piè con artigli, e pennuto ’l gran ventre;
15fanno lamenti in su li alberi strani.

16E ’l buon maestro «Prima che più entre,
17sappi che se’ nel secondo girone»,
18mi cominciò a dire, «e sarai mentre

19che tu verrai ne l’orribil sabbione.
20Però riguarda ben; sì vederai
21cose che torrien fede al mio sermone».

22Io sentia d’ogne parte trarre guai
23e non vedea persona che ’l facesse;
24per ch’io tutto smarrito m’arrestai.

25Cred’ ïo ch’ei credette ch’io credesse
26che tante voci uscisser, tra quei bronchi,
27da gente che per noi si nascondesse.

28Però disse ’l maestro: «Se tu tronchi
29qualche fraschetta d’una d’este piante,
30li pensier c’hai si faran tutti monchi».

31Allor porsi la mano un poco avante
32e colsi un ramicel da un gran pruno;
33e ’l tronco suo gridò: «Perché mi schiante?».

34Da che fatto fu poi di sangue bruno,
35ricominciò a dir: «Perché mi scerpi?
36non hai tu spirto di pietade alcuno?

37Uomini fummo, e or siam fatti sterpi:
38ben dovrebb’ esser la tua man più pia,
39se state fossimo anime di serpi».

40Come d’un stizzo verde ch’arso sia
41da l’un de’ capi, che da l’altro geme
42e cigola per vento che va via,

43sì de la scheggia rotta usciva insieme
44parole e sangue; ond’ io lasciai la cima
45cadere, e stetti come l’uom che teme.

46«S’elli avesse potuto creder prima»,
47rispuose ’l savio mio, «anima lesa,
48ciò c’ha veduto pur con la mia rima,

49non averebbe in te la man distesa;
50ma la cosa incredibile mi fece
51indurlo ad ovra ch’a me stesso pesa.

52Ma dilli chi tu fosti, sì che ’n vece
53d’alcun’ ammenda tua fama rinfreschi
54nel mondo sù, dove tornar li lece».

55E ’l tronco: «Sì col dolce dir m’adeschi,
56ch’i’ non posso tacere; e voi non gravi
57perch’ ïo un poco a ragionar m’inveschi.

58Io son colui che tenni ambo le chiavi
59del cor di Federigo, e che le volsi,
60serrando e diserrando, sì soavi,

61che dal secreto suo quasi ogn’ uom tolsi;
62fede portai al glorïoso offizio,
63tanto ch’i’ ne perde’ li sonni e ’ polsi.

64La meretrice che mai da l’ospizio
65di Cesare non torse li occhi putti,
66morte comune e de le corti vizio,

67infiammò contra me li animi tutti;
68e li ’nfiammati infiammar sì Augusto,
69che ’ lieti onor tornaro in tristi lutti.

70L’animo mio, per disdegnoso gusto,
71credendo col morir fuggir disdegno,
72ingiusto fece me contra me giusto.

73Per le nove radici d’esto legno
74vi giuro che già mai non ruppi fede
75al mio segnor, che fu d’onor sì degno.

76E se di voi alcun nel mondo riede,
77conforti la memoria mia, che giace
78ancor del colpo che ’nvidia le diede».

79Un poco attese, e poi «Da ch’el si tace»,
80disse ’l poeta a me, «non perder l’ora;
81ma parla, e chiedi a lui, se più ti piace».

82Ond’ ïo a lui: «Domandal tu ancora
83di quel che credi ch’a me satisfaccia;
84ch’i’ non potrei, tanta pietà m’accora».

85Perciò ricominciò: «Se l’om ti faccia
86liberamente ciò che ’l tuo dir priega,
87spirito incarcerato, ancor ti piaccia

88di dirne come l’anima si lega
89in questi nocchi; e dinne, se tu puoi,
90s’alcuna mai di tai membra si spiega».

91Allor soffiò il tronco forte, e poi
92si convertì quel vento in cotal voce:
93«Brievemente sarà risposto a voi.

94Quando si parte l’anima feroce
95dal corpo ond’ ella stessa s’è disvelta,
96Minòs la manda a la settima foce.

97Cade in la selva, e non l’è parte scelta;
98ma là dove fortuna la balestra,
99quivi germoglia come gran di spelta.

100Surge in vermena e in pianta silvestra:
101l’Arpie, pascendo poi de le sue foglie,
102fanno dolore, e al dolor fenestra.

103Come l’altre verrem per nostre spoglie,
104ma non però ch’alcuna sen rivesta,
105ché non è giusto aver ciò ch’om si toglie.

106Qui le strascineremo, e per la mesta
107selva saranno i nostri corpi appesi,
108ciascuno al prun de l’ombra sua molesta».

109Noi eravamo ancora al tronco attesi,
110credendo ch’altro ne volesse dire,
111quando noi fummo d’un romor sorpresi,

112similemente a colui che venire
113sente ’l porco e la caccia a la sua posta,
114ch’ode le bestie, e le frasche stormire.

115Ed ecco due da la sinistra costa,
116nudi e graffiati, fuggendo sì forte,
117che de la selva rompieno ogne rosta.

118Quel dinanzi: «Or accorri, accorri, morte!».
119E l’altro, cui pareva tardar troppo,
120gridava: «Lano, sì non furo accorte

121le gambe tue a le giostre dal Toppo!».
122E poi che forse li fallia la lena,
123di sé e d’un cespuglio fece un groppo.

124Di rietro a loro era la selva piena
125di nere cagne, bramose e correnti
126come veltri ch’uscisser di catena.

127In quel che s’appiattò miser li denti,
128e quel dilaceraro a brano a brano;
129poi sen portar quelle membra dolenti.

130Presemi allor la mia scorta per mano,
131e menommi al cespuglio che piangea
132per le rotture sanguinenti in vano.

133«O Iacopo», dicea, «da Santo Andrea,
134che t’è giovato di me fare schermo?
135che colpa ho io de la tua vita rea?».

136Quando ’l maestro fu sovr’ esso fermo,
137disse: «Chi fosti, che per tante punte
138soffi con sangue doloroso sermo?».

139Ed elli a noi: «O anime che giunte
140siete a veder lo strazio disonesto
141c’ha le mie fronde sì da me disgiunte,

142raccoglietele al piè del tristo cesto.
143I’ fui de la città che nel Batista
144mutò ’l primo padrone; ond’ ei per questo

145sempre con l’arte sua la farà trista;
146e se non fosse che ’n sul passo d’Arno
147rimane ancor di lui alcuna vista,

148que’ cittadin che poi la rifondarno
149sovra ’l cener che d’Attila rimase,
150avrebber fatto lavorare indarno.

151Io fei gibetto a me de le mie case».

Nessus had not yet reached the other bank
when we began to make our way across
a wood on which no path had left its mark.

No green leaves in that forest, only black;
no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled;
no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.

Even those savage beasts that roam between
Cecina and Corneto, beasts that hate
tilled lands, do not have holts so harsh and dense.

This is the nesting place of the foul Harpies,
who chased the Trojans from the Strophades
with sad foretelling of their future trials.

Their wings are wide, their necks and faces human;
their feet are taloned, their great bellies feathered;
they utter their laments on the strange trees.

And my kind master then instructed me:
“Before you enter farther know that now
you are within the second ring and shall

be here until you reach the horrid sand;
therefore look carefully; you’ll see such things
as would deprive my speech of all belief.”

From every side I heard the sound of cries,
but I could not see any source for them,
so that, in my bewilderment, I stopped.

I think that he was thinking that I thought
so many voices moaned among those trunks
from people who had been concealed from us.

Therefore my master said: “If you would tear
a little twig from any of these plants,
the thoughts you have will also be cut off.”

Then I stretched out my hand a little way
and from a great thornbush snapped off a branch,
at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?”

And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,
it asked again: “Why do you break me off?
Are you without all sentiment of pity?

We once were men and now are arid stumps:
your hand might well have shown us greater mercy
had we been nothing more than souls of serpents.”

As from a sapling log that catches fire
along one of its ends, while at the other
it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,

so from that broken stump issued together
both words and blood; at which I let the branch
fall, and I stood like one who is afraid.

My sage said: “Wounded soul, if, earlier,
he had been able to believe what he
had only glimpsed within my poetry,

then he would not have set his hand against you;
but its incredibility made me
urge him to do a deed that grieves me deeply.

But tell him who you were, so that he may,
to make amends, refresh your fame within
the world above, where he can still return.”

To which the trunk: “Your sweet speech draws me so
that I cannot be still; and may it not
oppress you, if I linger now in talk.

I am the one who guarded both the keys
of Frederick’s heart and turned them, locking and
unlocking them with such dexterity

that none but I could share his confidence;
and I was faithful to my splendid office,
so faithful that I lost both sleep and strength.

The whore who never turned her harlot’s eyes
away from Caesar’s dwelling, she who is
the death of all and vice of every court,

inflamed the minds of everyone against me;
and those inflamed, then so inflamed Augustus
that my delighted honors turned to sadness.

My mind, because of its disdainful temper,
believing it could flee disdain through death,
made me unjust against my own just self.

I swear to you by the peculiar roots
of this thornbush, I never broke my faith
with him who was so worthy—with my lord.

If one of you returns into the world,
then let him help my memory, which still
lies prone beneath the battering of envy.”

The poet waited briefly, then he said
to me: “Since he is silent, do not lose
this chance, but speak and ask what you would know.”

And I: “Do you continue; ask of him
whatever you believe I should request;
I cannot, so much pity takes my heart.”

Then he began again: “Imprisoned spirit,
so may this man do freely what you ask,
may it please you to tell us something more

of how the soul is bound into these knots;
and tell us, if you can, if any one
can ever find his freedom from these limbs.”

At this the trunk breathed violently, then
that wind became this voice: “You shall be answered
promptly. When the savage spirit quits

the body from which it has torn itself,
then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
It falls into the wood, and there’s no place

to which it is allotted, but wherever
fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.

It rises as a sapling, a wild plant;
and then the Harpies, feeding on its leaves,
cause pain and for that pain provide a vent.

Like other souls, we shall seek out the flesh
that we have left, but none of us shall wear it;
it is not right for any man to have

what he himself has cast aside. We’ll drag
our bodies here; they’ll hang in this sad wood,
each on the stump of its vindictive shade.”

And we were still intent upon the trunk—
believing it had wanted to say more—
when we were overtaken by a roar,

just as the hunter is aware of chase
and boar as they draw near his post—he hears
the beasts and then the branches as they crack.

And there upon the left were two who, scratched
and naked, fled so violently that
they tore away each forest bough they passed.

The one in front: “Now come, death, quickly come!”
The other shade, who thought himself too slow,
was shouting after him: “Lano, your legs

were not so nimble at the jousts of Toppo!”
And then, perhaps because he’d lost his breath,
he fell into one tangle with a bush.

Behind these two, black bitches filled the wood,
and they were just as eager and as swift
as greyhounds that have been let off their leash.

They set their teeth in him where he had crouched;
and, piece by piece, those dogs dismembered him
and carried off his miserable limbs.

Then he who was my escort took my hand;
he led me to the lacerated thorn
that wept in vain where it was bleeding, broken.

“O Jacopo,” it said, “da Santo Andrea,
what have you gained by using me as screen?
Am I to blame for your indecent life?”

When my good master stood beside that bush,
he said: “Who were you, who through many wounds
must breathe with blood your melancholy words?”

And he to us: “O spirits who have come
to witness the outrageous laceration
that leaves so many of my branches torn,

collect them at the foot of this sad thorn.
My home was in the city whose first patron
gave way to John the Baptist; for this reason,

he’ll always use his art to make it sorrow;
and if-along the crossing of the Arno—
some effigy of Mars had not remained,

those citizens who afterward rebuilt
their city on the ashes that Attila
had left to them, would have travailed in vain.

I made—of my own house-my gallows place.”

NOT yet had Nessus reached the other side,
When we had put ourselves within a wood,
That was not marked by any path whatever.

Not foliage green, but of a dusky colour,
Not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled,
Not apple—trees were there, but thorns with poison.

Such tangled thickets have not, nor so dense,
Those savage wild beasts, that in hatred hold
‘Twixt Cecina and Corneto the tilled places.

There do the hideous Harpies make their nests,
Who chased the Trojans from the Strophades,
With sad announcement of impending doom;

Broad wings have they, and necks and faces human,
And feet with claws, and their great bellies fledged;
They make laments upon the wondrous trees.

And the good Master: “Ere thou enter farther,
Know that thou art within the second round,”
Thus he began to say,”and shalt be, till

Thou comest out upon the horrible sand;
Therefore look well around, and thou shalt see
Things that will credence give unto my speech.”

I heard on all sides lamentations uttered,
And person none beheld I who might make them,
Whence, utterly bewildered, I stood still.

I think he thought that I perhaps might think
So many voices issued through those trunks
From people who concealed themselves from us;

Therefore the Master said: “If thou break off
Some little spray from any of these trees,
The thoughts thou hast will wholly be made vain.”

Then stretched I forth my hand a little forward,
And plucked a branchlet off from a great thorn,
And the trunk cried, “Why dost thou mangle me ?”

After it had become embrowned with blood,
It recommenced its cry: “Why dost thou rend me
Hast thou no spirit of pity whatsoever ?

Men once we were, and now are changed to trees;
Indeed, thy hand should be more pitiful,
Even if the souls of serpents we had been.”

As out of a green brand, that is on fire
At one of the ends, and from the other drips
And hisses with the wind that is escaping;

So from that splinter issued forth together
Both words and blood; whereat I let the tip
Fall, and stood like a man who is afraid.

“Had he been able sooner to believe,”
My Sage made answer, “O thou wounded soul,
What only in my verses he has seen,

Not upon thee had he stretched forth his hand;
Whereas the thing incredible has caused me
To put him to an act which grieveth me.

But tell him who thou wast, so that by way
Of some amends thy fame he may refresh
Up in the world, to which he can return.”

And the trunk said: “So thy sweet words allure me,
I cannot silent be; and you be vexed not,
That I a little to discourse am tempted.

I am the one who both keys had in keeping
Of Frederick’s heart, and turned them to and fro
So softly in unlocking and in locking,

That from his secrets most men I withheld;
Fidelity I bore the glorious office
So great, I lost thereby my sleep and pulses.

The courtesan who never from the dwelling
Of Caesar turned aside her strumpet eyes,
Death universal and the vice of courts,

Inflamed against me all the other minds,
And they, inflamed, did so inflame Augustus,
That my glad honours turned to dismal mournings.

My spirit, in disdainful exultation,
Thinking by dying to escape disdain,
Made me unjust against myself, the just.

I, by the roots unwonted of this wood,
Do swear to you that never broke I faith
Unto my lord, who was so worthy of honour;

And to the world if one of you return,
Let him my memory comfort, which is lying
Still prostrate from the blow that envy dealt it.”

Waited awhile, and then: “Since he is silent,”
The Poet said to me, “lose not the time,
But speak, and question him, if more may please thee.”

Whence I to him: “Do thou again inquire
Concerning what thou thinks’t will satisfy me;
For I cannot, such pity is in my heart.”

Therefore he recommenced: “So may the man
Do for thee freely what thy speech implores,
Spirit incarcerate, again be pleased

To tell us in what way the soul is bound
Within these knots; and tell us, if thou canst
If any from such members e’er is freed.”

Then blew the trunk amain, and afterward
The wind was into such a voice converted:
“With brevity shall be replied to you.

When the exasperated soul abandons
The body whence it rent itself away,
Minos consigns it to the seventh abyss.

It falls into the forest, and no part
Is chosen for it; but where Fortune hurls it,
There like a grain of spelt it germinates.

It springs a sapling, and a forest tree;
The Harpies, feeding then upon its leaves,
Do pain create, and for the pain an outlet.

Like others for our spoils shall we return;
But not that any one may them revest,
For ’tis not just to have what one casts off.

Here we shall drag them, and along the dismal
Forest our bodies shall suspended be,
Each to the thorn of his molested shade.”

We were attentive still unto the trunk,
Thinking that more it yet might wish to tell us,
When by a tumult we were overtaken,

In the same way as he is who perceives
The boar and chase approaching to his stand,
Who hears the crashing of the beasts and branches;

And two behold ! upon our left—hand side,
Naked and scratched, fleeing so furiously,
That of the forest, every fan they broke.

He who was in advance: “Now help, Death, help !”
And the other one, who seemed to lag too much,
Was shouting: “Lano, were not so alert

Those legs of thine at joustings of the Toppo !”
And then, perchance because his breath was failing,
He grouped himself together with a bush.

Behind them was the forest full of black
She—mastiffs, ravenous, and swift of foot
As greyhounds, who are issuing from the chain.

On him who had crouched down they set their teeth,
And him they lacerated piece by piece,
Thereafter bore away those aching members.

Thereat my Escort took me by the hand,
And led me to the bush, that all in vain
Was weeping from its bloody lacerations.

“O Jacopo,”it said,”of Sant’ Andrea,
What helped it thee of me to make a screen ?
What blame have I in thy nefarious life ?”

When near him had the Master stayed his steps,
He said: “Who wast thou, that through wounds so many
Art blowing out with blood thy dolorous speech ?”

And he to us: “O souls, that hither come
To look upon the shameful massacre
That has so rent away from me my leaves,

Gather them up beneath the dismal bush;
I of that city was which to the Baptist
Changed its first patron, wherefore he for this

Forever with his art will make it sad.
And were it not that on the pass of Arno
Some glimpses of him are remaining still,

Those citizens, who afterwards rebuilt it
Upon the ashes left by Attila,
In vain had caused their labour to be done.

Of my own house I made myself a gibbet.”

Nessus had not yet reached the other bank
when we began to make our way across
a wood on which no path had left its mark.

No green leaves in that forest, only black;
no branches straight and smooth, but knotted, gnarled;
no fruits were there, but briers bearing poison.

Even those savage beasts that roam between
Cecina and Corneto, beasts that hate
tilled lands, do not have holts so harsh and dense.

This is the nesting place of the foul Harpies,
who chased the Trojans from the Strophades
with sad foretelling of their future trials.

Their wings are wide, their necks and faces human;
their feet are taloned, their great bellies feathered;
they utter their laments on the strange trees.

And my kind master then instructed me:
“Before you enter farther know that now
you are within the second ring and shall

be here until you reach the horrid sand;
therefore look carefully; you’ll see such things
as would deprive my speech of all belief.”

From every side I heard the sound of cries,
but I could not see any source for them,
so that, in my bewilderment, I stopped.

I think that he was thinking that I thought
so many voices moaned among those trunks
from people who had been concealed from us.

Therefore my master said: “If you would tear
a little twig from any of these plants,
the thoughts you have will also be cut off.”

Then I stretched out my hand a little way
and from a great thornbush snapped off a branch,
at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?”

And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,
it asked again: “Why do you break me off?
Are you without all sentiment of pity?

We once were men and now are arid stumps:
your hand might well have shown us greater mercy
had we been nothing more than souls of serpents.”

As from a sapling log that catches fire
along one of its ends, while at the other
it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,

so from that broken stump issued together
both words and blood; at which I let the branch
fall, and I stood like one who is afraid.

My sage said: “Wounded soul, if, earlier,
he had been able to believe what he
had only glimpsed within my poetry,

then he would not have set his hand against you;
but its incredibility made me
urge him to do a deed that grieves me deeply.

But tell him who you were, so that he may,
to make amends, refresh your fame within
the world above, where he can still return.”

To which the trunk: “Your sweet speech draws me so
that I cannot be still; and may it not
oppress you, if I linger now in talk.

I am the one who guarded both the keys
of Frederick’s heart and turned them, locking and
unlocking them with such dexterity

that none but I could share his confidence;
and I was faithful to my splendid office,
so faithful that I lost both sleep and strength.

The whore who never turned her harlot’s eyes
away from Caesar’s dwelling, she who is
the death of all and vice of every court,

inflamed the minds of everyone against me;
and those inflamed, then so inflamed Augustus
that my delighted honors turned to sadness.

My mind, because of its disdainful temper,
believing it could flee disdain through death,
made me unjust against my own just self.

I swear to you by the peculiar roots
of this thornbush, I never broke my faith
with him who was so worthy—with my lord.

If one of you returns into the world,
then let him help my memory, which still
lies prone beneath the battering of envy.”

The poet waited briefly, then he said
to me: “Since he is silent, do not lose
this chance, but speak and ask what you would know.”

And I: “Do you continue; ask of him
whatever you believe I should request;
I cannot, so much pity takes my heart.”

Then he began again: “Imprisoned spirit,
so may this man do freely what you ask,
may it please you to tell us something more

of how the soul is bound into these knots;
and tell us, if you can, if any one
can ever find his freedom from these limbs.”

At this the trunk breathed violently, then
that wind became this voice: “You shall be answered
promptly. When the savage spirit quits

the body from which it has torn itself,
then Minos sends it to the seventh maw.
It falls into the wood, and there’s no place

to which it is allotted, but wherever
fortune has flung that soul, that is the space
where, even as a grain of spelt, it sprouts.

It rises as a sapling, a wild plant;
and then the Harpies, feeding on its leaves,
cause pain and for that pain provide a vent.

Like other souls, we shall seek out the flesh
that we have left, but none of us shall wear it;
it is not right for any man to have

what he himself has cast aside. We’ll drag
our bodies here; they’ll hang in this sad wood,
each on the stump of its vindictive shade.”

And we were still intent upon the trunk—
believing it had wanted to say more—
when we were overtaken by a roar,

just as the hunter is aware of chase
and boar as they draw near his post—he hears
the beasts and then the branches as they crack.

And there upon the left were two who, scratched
and naked, fled so violently that
they tore away each forest bough they passed.

The one in front: “Now come, death, quickly come!”
The other shade, who thought himself too slow,
was shouting after him: “Lano, your legs

were not so nimble at the jousts of Toppo!”
And then, perhaps because he’d lost his breath,
he fell into one tangle with a bush.

Behind these two, black bitches filled the wood,
and they were just as eager and as swift
as greyhounds that have been let off their leash.

They set their teeth in him where he had crouched;
and, piece by piece, those dogs dismembered him
and carried off his miserable limbs.

Then he who was my escort took my hand;
he led me to the lacerated thorn
that wept in vain where it was bleeding, broken.

“O Jacopo,” it said, “da Santo Andrea,
what have you gained by using me as screen?
Am I to blame for your indecent life?”

When my good master stood beside that bush,
he said: “Who were you, who through many wounds
must breathe with blood your melancholy words?”

And he to us: “O spirits who have come
to witness the outrageous laceration
that leaves so many of my branches torn,

collect them at the foot of this sad thorn.
My home was in the city whose first patron
gave way to John the Baptist; for this reason,

he’ll always use his art to make it sorrow;
and if-along the crossing of the Arno—
some effigy of Mars had not remained,

those citizens who afterward rebuilt
their city on the ashes that Attila
had left to them, would have travailed in vain.

I made—of my own house-my gallows place.”

NOT yet had Nessus reached the other side,
When we had put ourselves within a wood,
That was not marked by any path whatever.

Not foliage green, but of a dusky colour,
Not branches smooth, but gnarled and intertangled,
Not apple—trees were there, but thorns with poison.

Such tangled thickets have not, nor so dense,
Those savage wild beasts, that in hatred hold
‘Twixt Cecina and Corneto the tilled places.

There do the hideous Harpies make their nests,
Who chased the Trojans from the Strophades,
With sad announcement of impending doom;

Broad wings have they, and necks and faces human,
And feet with claws, and their great bellies fledged;
They make laments upon the wondrous trees.

And the good Master: “Ere thou enter farther,
Know that thou art within the second round,”
Thus he began to say,”and shalt be, till

Thou comest out upon the horrible sand;
Therefore look well around, and thou shalt see
Things that will credence give unto my speech.”

I heard on all sides lamentations uttered,
And person none beheld I who might make them,
Whence, utterly bewildered, I stood still.

I think he thought that I perhaps might think
So many voices issued through those trunks
From people who concealed themselves from us;

Therefore the Master said: “If thou break off
Some little spray from any of these trees,
The thoughts thou hast will wholly be made vain.”

Then stretched I forth my hand a little forward,
And plucked a branchlet off from a great thorn,
And the trunk cried, “Why dost thou mangle me ?”

After it had become embrowned with blood,
It recommenced its cry: “Why dost thou rend me
Hast thou no spirit of pity whatsoever ?

Men once we were, and now are changed to trees;
Indeed, thy hand should be more pitiful,
Even if the souls of serpents we had been.”

As out of a green brand, that is on fire
At one of the ends, and from the other drips
And hisses with the wind that is escaping;

So from that splinter issued forth together
Both words and blood; whereat I let the tip
Fall, and stood like a man who is afraid.

“Had he been able sooner to believe,”
My Sage made answer, “O thou wounded soul,
What only in my verses he has seen,

Not upon thee had he stretched forth his hand;
Whereas the thing incredible has caused me
To put him to an act which grieveth me.

But tell him who thou wast, so that by way
Of some amends thy fame he may refresh
Up in the world, to which he can return.”

And the trunk said: “So thy sweet words allure me,
I cannot silent be; and you be vexed not,
That I a little to discourse am tempted.

I am the one who both keys had in keeping
Of Frederick’s heart, and turned them to and fro
So softly in unlocking and in locking,

That from his secrets most men I withheld;
Fidelity I bore the glorious office
So great, I lost thereby my sleep and pulses.

The courtesan who never from the dwelling
Of Caesar turned aside her strumpet eyes,
Death universal and the vice of courts,

Inflamed against me all the other minds,
And they, inflamed, did so inflame Augustus,
That my glad honours turned to dismal mournings.

My spirit, in disdainful exultation,
Thinking by dying to escape disdain,
Made me unjust against myself, the just.

I, by the roots unwonted of this wood,
Do swear to you that never broke I faith
Unto my lord, who was so worthy of honour;

And to the world if one of you return,
Let him my memory comfort, which is lying
Still prostrate from the blow that envy dealt it.”

Waited awhile, and then: “Since he is silent,”
The Poet said to me, “lose not the time,
But speak, and question him, if more may please thee.”

Whence I to him: “Do thou again inquire
Concerning what thou thinks’t will satisfy me;
For I cannot, such pity is in my heart.”

Therefore he recommenced: “So may the man
Do for thee freely what thy speech implores,
Spirit incarcerate, again be pleased

To tell us in what way the soul is bound
Within these knots; and tell us, if thou canst
If any from such members e’er is freed.”

Then blew the trunk amain, and afterward
The wind was into such a voice converted:
“With brevity shall be replied to you.

When the exasperated soul abandons
The body whence it rent itself away,
Minos consigns it to the seventh abyss.

It falls into the forest, and no part
Is chosen for it; but where Fortune hurls it,
There like a grain of spelt it germinates.

It springs a sapling, and a forest tree;
The Harpies, feeding then upon its leaves,
Do pain create, and for the pain an outlet.

Like others for our spoils shall we return;
But not that any one may them revest,
For ’tis not just to have what one casts off.

Here we shall drag them, and along the dismal
Forest our bodies shall suspended be,
Each to the thorn of his molested shade.”

We were attentive still unto the trunk,
Thinking that more it yet might wish to tell us,
When by a tumult we were overtaken,

In the same way as he is who perceives
The boar and chase approaching to his stand,
Who hears the crashing of the beasts and branches;

And two behold ! upon our left—hand side,
Naked and scratched, fleeing so furiously,
That of the forest, every fan they broke.

He who was in advance: “Now help, Death, help !”
And the other one, who seemed to lag too much,
Was shouting: “Lano, were not so alert

Those legs of thine at joustings of the Toppo !”
And then, perchance because his breath was failing,
He grouped himself together with a bush.

Behind them was the forest full of black
She—mastiffs, ravenous, and swift of foot
As greyhounds, who are issuing from the chain.

On him who had crouched down they set their teeth,
And him they lacerated piece by piece,
Thereafter bore away those aching members.

Thereat my Escort took me by the hand,
And led me to the bush, that all in vain
Was weeping from its bloody lacerations.

“O Jacopo,”it said,”of Sant’ Andrea,
What helped it thee of me to make a screen ?
What blame have I in thy nefarious life ?”

When near him had the Master stayed his steps,
He said: “Who wast thou, that through wounds so many
Art blowing out with blood thy dolorous speech ?”

And he to us: “O souls, that hither come
To look upon the shameful massacre
That has so rent away from me my leaves,

Gather them up beneath the dismal bush;
I of that city was which to the Baptist
Changed its first patron, wherefore he for this

Forever with his art will make it sad.
And were it not that on the pass of Arno
Some glimpses of him are remaining still,

Those citizens, who afterwards rebuilt it
Upon the ashes left by Attila,
In vain had caused their labour to be done.

Of my own house I made myself a gibbet.”