We Are Our Own Hell: sunt lacrimae rerum

  • orientalism: the flames falling on the desert like those found by Alexander the Great and his battalions in India (Inf. 14.31-33)
  • classical antiquity (here the Theban cycle) as the lens through which Dante focuses on blasphemy: blasphemy against Zeus/Jove → blasphemy against the Christian deity
  • “Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto” (Inf. 14.51) = the principle that being eternally oneself, unrepentant and unameliorated for all eternity, is the true punishment of hell = the principle that we are our own hell
  • by the same token, the rivers of hell are composed of our tears: again, we are our own hell

Inferno 14 begins with a backward glance at the anonymous Florentine suicide whose tale concludes Inferno 13. Moved by “la carità del natio loco” (love of our native city [Inf. 14.1]), the pilgrim, a fellow Florentine, gathers up the boughs and leaves that were scattered by the fleeing wastrel and the rampaging hounds: “raunai le fronde sparte / e rende’ le a colui” (I gathered up the scattered boughs / and gave them back to him [Inf. 14.2-3]). In a final homage to the body that the suicide cast off before it was a tree, the pilgrim makes restitution of its scattered boughs.

The travelers pass “the boundary that divides / the second from the third ring” (“fine ove si parte / lo secondo giron dal terzo” [Inf. 14.4-5]) and see before them a witness to “the horrible art of justice”: “di giustizia orribil arte” (a dread work that justice had devised [Inf. 14.6]). The third ring of the seventh circle is devoted to violence against God, in His person and in His possessions, and it is therefore particularly apt that this bitter landscape—an arid plain tormented by falling flakes of fire—should be caracterized as the “the horrible art of justice”. We remember that God is the ultimate artist of His universe, and that indeed (as we learned at the end of Inferno 11) nature imitates His handiwork while human artists and artisans imitate nature.

The violent against God who inhabit this burning desert are divided into three distinct groups, each of which is governed by a “diversa legge” (different decree [Inf. 14.21]). One group lies supine on the ground, one sits huddled, and one consists of souls who are in constant motion:

Supin giacea in terra alcuna gente,
  alcuna si sedea tutta raccolta,
  e altra andava continüamente.   (Inf. 14.22-24)

Some lay upon the ground, flat on their backs;
 some huddled in a crouch, and there they sat;
 and others moved about incessantly. 

These three groups of sinners are guilty of the three kinds of violence against God discussed in Inferno 11. Those who lie flat on their backs, directly pelted by the raining fire, are the blasphemers, the violent against God in His person. Violence against God in His possessions, we remember, can take two different forms: violence against nature is sodomy and violence against human art is usury. Those who move about continually are the sodomites (Inferno 15 and 16), and those who are seated in a huddled crouch are the usurers (Inferno 17).

The blasphemer who dominates the first half of Inferno 14 is Capaneus, one of the Seven Against Thebes. This is the title of the play by the Greek tragedian Aeschylus, who recounts the war between the two sons of Oedipus, king of Thebes. Oedipus’ two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, came to strife over which of them should rule Thebes after their father blinds himself and relinquishes the throne (which he does upon learning that he had married his mother and fathered his half-siblings). While Eteocles ruled Thebes, Polynices gathered together a great army led by the Seven Against Thebes to attack the city and oust his brother. The two brothers end up killing each other, fulfilling the curse of Oedipus.

Thebes captures Dante’s imagination—as it had captured the imaginations of classical authors long before—as the quintessentially cursed human society. Thebes is the city whose leaders break all the laws of both gods and men and that comes to represent human society at its worse.

One of the Seven against Thebes is Capaneus, whom Dante found featured as a king in the epic poem Thebaid by Statius. Statius, who lived circa 45 CE – circa 96 CE, wrote his Thebaid on the Theban cycle in open imitation of Vergil’s Aeneid. The Thebaid, like the Aeneid, is a Latin epic in 12 books written in dactylic hexameter, the standard meter of Greco-Roman epic. Although the Thebaid’s frenzied horrors are a far cry from the sophisticated heart-rending pathos of the Aeneid, Statius (like Lucan) was a Latin author held in high esteem for centuries and his poems read and reverenced.

The Thebaid is Dante’s source for his Theban material, for Dante did not know the Greek sources (like the play by Aeschylus that I cite above). In the same way that Dante’s knowledge of Odysseus comes through Vergil and Cicero and Statius and Horace, so his knowledge of Thebes comes from Statius and other Latins.

Like Inferno 9 and Inferno 12, Inferno 14 is saturated with classical figures and motifs. Like canti 9 and 12, Inferno 14 is a canto that tests the erudition of its readers. The desert of the third ring is compared to the African deserts trod by Roman Cato (verse 15), and Alexander the Great is evoked as having experienced in India a similar rain of fire (verses 31-33). Virgilio describes Capaneus using a classical reference, calling him “un d’i sette regi / ch’assiser Tebe” (one of seven kings / who besieged Thebes [Inf. 14.68-69]). Capaneus too, when he speaks in verses 51-60, will adopt an erudite rhetoric studded with classical references.

It is an interesting thought-experiment to consider reading the Commedia without a commentary: a canto like Inferno 14 would be particularly difficult. The early commentators faced the far from trivial task of sourcing the references of a canto like Inferno 14, references that are now provided to us.

Dante’s ability to accommodate classical and Christian culture is also on display in Inferno 14, although perhaps what he does here might better be called a wholesale appropriation of classical culture. Capaneus’ blasphemy was originally directed at the king of the gods in classical mythology: Zeus in the original Greek texts, Jove in Statius and the other Latin poets. In Inferno 14 Capaneus specifically refers to “Giove” or Jove (verse 52) as the target of his rebellious rage. And yet, as we can see, this blasphemous pagan is in Christian hell and his rebellion against Jove has been channeled into blasphemy against the Christian deity, according to a logic by which all human history is enfolded into the Providential history of Christianity. In Purgatorio 6, Dante-poet will boldly use the term “Giove” in his own challenging apostrophe to the divinity.

The strong presence of classical culture in Inferno 14 prepares us, too, for the reprise of the Virgilio-narrative. The limitations that we have witnessed with respect to Virgilio’s knowledge and consequent authority are brought up, less than tactfully, by the pilgrim, who addresses his guide as “you who can overcome all things but not the devils at the gate”:

                       Maestro, tu che vinci
tutte le cose, fuor che ’ demon duri
ch’a l’intrar de la porta incontra uscinci  (Inf. 14.43-5) 

                    Master, you who can defeat
all things except for those tenacious demons
who tried to block us at the entryway

This grammatically unnecessary periphrasis for Virgilio takes the reader back to the events at the gate of Dis (Inferno 8 and 9) and testifies to the narrator’s unwillingness to let his character off the hook for very long.

Dante’s Capaneus is reduced from the heroic proportions that were his in the Thebaid. Dante’s Capaneus is not a sympathetic or a charismatic figure, and as a result he is an excellent vehicle for articulating certain baseline truths about Dante’s Hell: truths that in this canto can be related by the poet and absorbed by the reader without the moral hazard and confusion generated by the charismatic sinners like Francesca or Farinata.

Capaneus’ boast—“Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto” (That which I was in life, I am in death [Inf. 14.51])—is a quintessential example of one of these baseline truths. It is nothing less than a declaration of how Hell functions overall: Hell is a condition in which the soul is permanently oneself as one was on earth—unrepentant and unameliorated, with no hope of change or growth.

Capaneus boasts that he is unchanged, as though that lack of change is something to be proud of, but, as Virgilio tells him, his undiminished pride is in fact his greatest punishment:

O Capaneo, in ciò che non s’ammorza
  la tua superbia, se’ tu più punito;
  nullo martiro, fuor che la tua rabbia,
sarebbe al tuo furor dolor compito.  (Inf. 14.63-6)

O Capaneus, for your arrogance 
  that is not quenched, you’re punished all the more:
  no torture other than your own madness
could offer pain enough to match your wrath. 

If Capaneus’ greatest punishment is his own arrogance, then in effect Capaneus creates his own Hell. If the motto of the sinners here is that they are now what they always were, then in effect these sinners create their own Hell.

Farinata states this principle very clearly in Inferno 10 when he says that the information that Dante gives him about his family torments him more than his infernal resting place: “ciò mi tormenta più che questo letto” (that is more torment to me than this bed [Inf. 10.78]). In effect, all the sinners of Dante’s Inferno tell us the same thing: we are our own Hell.

* * *

The second half of Inferno 14 is devoted to the presentation of the Veglio di Creta or Old Man of Crete. Here Dante devises a parable through which to restate the guiding principle of the canto, that we are our own Hell.

In the first half of Inferno 14, Capaneo performs the principle that we are our own Hell, boasting that he is now and for all eternity exactly what he used to be. In the second half of Inferno 14, the parable of the Old Man of Crete illuminates the same principle, by showing us that human history is decadence and by teaching us that the rivers of Hell are made of human tears.

The Old Man of Crete is a statue that stands in a cave within Mount Ida on the island of Crete. Crete is not just the home of the Minotaur, “l’infamia di Creti” (infamy of Crete) of Inferno 12.12. Crete was ruled by Saturn in the Golden Age, when the world was chaste and good: “sotto ’l cui rege fu già ’l mondo casto” (Under its king the world once lived chastely [Inf. 14.96]). In classical mythology, Mount Ida was chosen by Rea, Saturn’s wife, as the birthplace of their son Jove, as Virgilio reminds the pilgrim in verses 97-102.

But all this has changed in time. The statue that stands within Mount Ida is a material representation of the decadence of human history (Inf. 14.94-120). From its golden head to its iron base, the Old Man of Crete literally de-grades: following the downward trend of human history as sung by the classical poets, from gold to silver to bronze to iron, the statue becomes ever more debased. In the same way, our human history is a story of “decadence” (the root of the word “decadence” is cadere, to fall): a story of our falling from brilliant origins in our “Golden Age” into ever more debased and morally debauched conditions.

The Old Man of Crete is composed on a template that is a typically Dantean hybrid of classical and Christian: it is imagined as a composite of biblical motifs (Nebuchadnezzar’s dream) that are mixed with classical themes (the fall from the Golden Age to the Silver Age to the Bronze Age and so forth is recounted in Ovid’s Metamorphoses).

The most remarkable and original feature of Dante’s Veglio di Creta is the statue’s tears, which run down from its eyes and enter the earth through a fissure and form the rivers of Hell. Again, the point is that we are our own Hell. Dante here comes up with a way to make the idea that we are our own Hell literally true: his genial way of communicating that we humans make Hell—that Hell is not imposed upon us from outside, but is our own creation—is to come up with the idea that the rivers of Hell are made of human tears.

The rivers of Hell are made of our tears: our human history—the tears that are the distillation of human suffering through time—become the rivers of Hell. The rivers of Hell are thus the distillate of human suffering.

When I think of Dante’s invention of the Old Man of Crete and his tears, I think of Vergil’s beautiful phrase from the Aeneid, where he sums up the tragedy of human life and history with these words: “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt” [Aeneid 1.462]). Perhaps Dante had Vergil’s words in mind as he composed the parable of the Veglio di Creta.

In the Aeneid, these words belong to a scene in Book 1 that describes Aeneas: the hero weeps while perusing a mural in a Carthaginian temple that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. Gazing at his own past, Aeneas says “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”: literally, “These are the tears of things and mortal things touch the mind”. As he looks at representations of sufferings he witnessed, Aeneas is overcome by the futility and waste of human life. A less literal translation by the classicist Robert Fagles renders the verse as: “The world is a world of tears, and the burdens of mortality touch the heart”.

In Dante’s use, the tears of things are not as poignant as in the Aeneid; they are not generically melancholy. Rather, Dante uses the statue’s tears to pen another indictment of our human corruption and our fall. The “lagrime” that make a fissure that runs down the Old Man of Crete (verse 113) do not simply and poignantly testify to our suffering, as do Vergil’s lacrimae rerum. Rather they become part of the reified landscape of moral failure.

The Vergilian melancholy of sunt lacrimae rerum becomes in Dante’s hands much more pointed and ethical.

Toward the end of this canto Virgilio explains that because they travel in spirals, without ever traversing a circle’s entire perimeter, Dante should not be amazed if a “new thing”—a cosa nova (Inf. 14.128)—should suddenly appear. In other words, the travelers’ spiraling trajectory offers a continual opportunity for amazement, for they do not take in all of the reality of Hell around them. Consequently something amazing and wonderful that they had not seen before, a cosa nova, can always plausibly appear: “per che, se cosa n’apparisce nova, / non de’ addur maraviglia al tuo volto” (so that, if something new appears to us, / it need not bring such wonder to your face [Inf. 14.128-9]).

Here Dante gives dramatic life to the reality of his Hell, a reality that embraces more than his poem narrates (this is a principle that he explicitly declares at the beginning of Inferno 21). Moreover, this passage on the cosa nova that can always appear along the path and produce wonderment correlates to the Convivio’s definition of human life as a “nuovo e mai non fatto cammino” (new and never before traveled path [Conv. 4.12.15]). Because the path of life is never experienced until the moment in which it is experienced—because it is mai non fatto—it is by definition always nuovo.

Picking up from the revelation that the tears of the Old Man of Crete form the rivers of Hell, Inferno 14 ends with a discussion of the various rivers of Dante’s afterlife (Inf. 14.121-142). Following his standard narrative practice, the poet has the pilgrim ask a question that requires further clarification:

E io ancor: «Maestro, ove si trova 
 Flegetonta e Letè? ché de l’un taci, 
 e l’altro di’ che si fa d’esta piova».  (Inf. 14.130-32)

And I again: “Master, where’s Phlegethon 
 and where is Lethe? You omit the second 
 and say this rain of tears has formed the first.” 

This question, which includes the pilgrim’s mistaken assumption that Lethe, the classical river of forgetfulness, may be found in Hell, offers Dante-poet another opportunity to have Virgilio correct his own Aeneid. The pilgrim here shows that he believes his classical sources: Vergil and the other classical poets place Lethe in the underworld (as in Book 6 of the Aeneid). However, it turns out that the pilgrim’s reliance on classical knowledge leads him astray, for Lethe is not in Dante’s Hell.

The river of forgetfulness is on Mount Purgatory, in the Earthly Paradise. In an extraordinary dramatic conceit, the Roman poet instructs the Christian poet about Purgatory, a part of the Christian cosmos that was of course unknown to him, and he helps to build and anticipate the contours of Dante’s second realm:

Letè vedrai, ma fuor di questa fossa, 
 là dove vanno l’anime a lavarsi 
 quando la colpa pentuta è rimossa.  (Inf. 14.136-38)

You shall see Lethe, but past this abyss, 
 there where the spirits go to cleanse themselves 
 when their repented guilt is set aside.

This canto of classical erudition thus concludes by correcting the great tradition from which it imbibes. Appropriating that tradition as his own, Dante literally repurposes and resituates that classical erudition (in this case represented by the river Lethe) within a Christian cosmos.

Coordinated Reading

Dante’s Poets, p. 211; The Undivine Comedy, p. 25.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 14: We Are Our Own Hell: sunt lacrimae rerum.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-14/

About the Commento

1Poi che la carità del natio loco
2mi strinse, raunai le fronde sparte
3e rende’le a colui, ch’era già fioco.

4Indi venimmo al fine ove si parte
5lo secondo giron dal terzo, e dove
6si vede di giustizia orribil arte.

7A ben manifestar le cose nove,
8dico che arrivammo ad una landa
9che dal suo letto ogne pianta rimove.

10La dolorosa selva l’è ghirlanda
11intorno, come ’l fosso tristo ad essa;
12quivi fermammo i passi a randa a randa.

13Lo spazzo era una rena arida e spessa,
14non d’altra foggia fatta che colei
15che fu da’ piè di Caton già soppressa.

16O vendetta di Dio, quanto tu dei
17esser temuta da ciascun che legge
18ciò che fu manifesto a li occhi mei!

19D’anime nude vidi molte gregge
20che piangean tutte assai miseramente,
21e parea posta lor diversa legge.

22Supin giacea in terra alcuna gente,
23alcuna si sedea tutta raccolta,
24e altra andava continüamente.

25Quella che giva ’ntorno era più molta,
26e quella men che giacëa al tormento,
27ma più al duolo avea la lingua sciolta.

28Sovra tutto ’l sabbion, d’un cader lento,
29piovean di foco dilatate falde,
30come di neve in alpe sanza vento.

31Quali Alessandro in quelle parti calde
32d’Indïa vide sopra ’l süo stuolo
33fiamme cadere infino a terra salde,

34per ch’ei provide a scalpitar lo suolo
35con le sue schiere, acciò che lo vapore
36mei si stingueva mentre ch’era solo:

37tale scendeva l’etternale ardore;
38onde la rena s’accendea, com’ esca
39sotto focile, a doppiar lo dolore.

40Sanza riposo mai era la tresca
41de le misere mani, or quindi or quinci
42escotendo da sé l’arsura fresca.

43I’ cominciai: «Maestro, tu che vinci
44tutte le cose, fuor che ’ demon duri
45ch’a l’intrar de la porta incontra uscinci,

46chi è quel grande che non par che curi
47lo ’ncendio e giace dispettoso e torto,
48sì che la pioggia non par che ’l marturi?».

49E quel medesmo, che si fu accorto
50ch’io domandava il mio duca di lui,
51gridò: «Qual io fui vivo, tal son morto.

52Se Giove stanchi ’l suo fabbro da cui
53crucciato prese la folgore aguta
54onde l’ultimo dì percosso fui;

55o s’elli stanchi li altri a muta a muta
56in Mongibello a la focina negra,
57chiamando “Buon Vulcano, aiuta, aiuta!”,

58sì com’ el fece a la pugna di Flegra,
59e me saetti con tutta sua forza:
60non ne potrebbe aver vendetta allegra».

61Allora il duca mio parlò di forza
62tanto, ch’i’ non l’avea sì forte udito:
63«O Capaneo, in ciò che non s’ammorza

64la tua superbia, se’ tu più punito;
65nullo martiro, fuor che la tua rabbia,
66sarebbe al tuo furor dolor compito».

67Poi si rivolse a me con miglior labbia,
68dicendo: «Quei fu l’un d’i sette regi
69ch’assiser Tebe; ed ebbe e par ch’elli abbia

70Dio in disdegno, e poco par che ’l pregi;
71ma, com’ io dissi lui, li suoi dispetti
72sono al suo petto assai debiti fregi.

73Or mi vien dietro, e guarda che non metti,
74ancor, li piedi ne la rena arsiccia;
75ma sempre al bosco tien li piedi stretti».

76Tacendo divenimmo là ’ve spiccia
77fuor de la selva un picciol fiumicello,
78lo cui rossore ancor mi raccapriccia.

79Quale del Bulicame esce ruscello
80che parton poi tra lor le peccatrici,
81tal per la rena giù sen giva quello.

82Lo fondo suo e ambo le pendici
83fatt’ era ’n pietra, e ’ margini dallato;
84per ch’io m’accorsi che ’l passo era lici.

85«Tra tutto l’altro ch’i’ t’ho dimostrato,
86poscia che noi intrammo per la porta
87lo cui sogliare a nessuno è negato,

88cosa non fu da li tuoi occhi scorta
89notabile com’ è ’l presente rio,
90che sovra sé tutte fiammelle ammorta».

91Queste parole fuor del duca mio;
92per ch’io ’l pregai che mi largisse ’l pasto
93di cui largito m’avëa il disio.

94«In mezzo mar siede un paese guasto»,
95diss’ elli allora, «che s’appella Creta,
96sotto ’l cui rege fu già ’l mondo casto.

97Una montagna v’è che già fu lieta
98d’acqua e di fronde, che si chiamò Ida;
99or è diserta come cosa vieta.

100Rëa la scelse già per cuna fida
101del suo figliuolo, e per celarlo meglio,
102quando piangea, vi facea far le grida.

103Dentro dal monte sta dritto un gran veglio,
104che tien volte le spalle inver’ Dammiata
105e Roma guarda come süo speglio.

106La sua testa è di fin oro formata,
107e puro argento son le braccia e ’l petto,
108poi è di rame infino a la forcata;

109da indi in giuso è tutto ferro eletto,
110salvo che ’l destro piede è terra cotta;
111e sta ’n su quel, più che ’n su l’altro, eretto.

112Ciascuna parte, fuor che l’oro, è rotta
113d’una fessura che lagrime goccia,
114le quali, accolte, fóran quella grotta.

115Lor corso in questa valle si diroccia;
116fanno Acheronte, Stige e Flegetonta;
117poi sen van giù per questa stretta doccia,

118infin, là ove più non si dismonta,
119fanno Cocito; e qual sia quello stagno
120tu lo vedrai, però qui non si conta».

121E io a lui: «Se ’l presente rigagno
122si diriva così dal nostro mondo,
123perché ci appar pur a questo vivagno?».

124Ed elli a me: «Tu sai che ’l loco è tondo;
125e tutto che tu sie venuto molto,
126pur a sinistra, giù calando al fondo,

127non se’ ancor per tutto ’l cerchio vòlto;
128per che, se cosa n’apparisce nova,
129non de’ addur maraviglia al tuo volto».

130E io ancor: «Maestro, ove si trova
131Flegetonta e Letè? ché de l’un taci,
132e l’altro di’ che si fa d’esta piova».

133«In tutte tue question certo mi piaci»,
134rispuose, «ma ’l bollor de l’acqua rossa
135dovea ben solver l’una che tu faci.

136Letè vedrai, ma fuor di questa fossa,
137là dove vanno l’anime a lavarsi
138quando la colpa pentuta è rimossa».

139Poi disse: «Omai è tempo da scostarsi
140dal bosco; fa che di retro a me vegne:
141li margini fan via, che non son arsi,

142e sopra loro ogne vapor si spegne».

Love of our native city overcame me;
I gathered up the scattered boughs and gave
them back to him whose voice was spent already.

From there we reached the boundary that divides
the second from the third ring—and the sight
of a dread work that justice had devised.

To make these strange things clear, I must explain
that we had come upon an open plain
that banishes all green things from its bed.

The wood of sorrow is a garland round it,
just as that wood is ringed by a sad channel;
here, at the very edge, we stayed our steps.

The ground was made of sand, dry and compact,
a sand not different in kind from that
on which the feet of Cato had once tramped.

O vengeance of the Lord, how you should be
dreaded by everyone who now can read
whatever was made manifest to me!

I saw so many flocks of naked souls,
all weeping miserably, and it seemed that
they were ruled by different decrees.

Some lay upon the ground, flat on their backs;
some huddled in a crouch, and there they sat;
and others moved about incessantly.

The largest group was those who walked about,
the smallest, those supine in punishment;
but these had looser tongues to tell their torment.

Above that plain of sand, distended flakes
of fire showered down; their fall was slow—
as snow descends on alps when no wind blows.

Just like the flames that Alexander saw
in India’s hot zones, when fires fell,
intact and to the ground, on his battalions,

for which—wisely—he had his soldiers tramp
the soil to see that every fire was spent
before new flames were added to the old;

so did the never-ending heat descend;
with this, the sand was kindled just as tinder
on meeting flint will flame—doubling the pain.

The dance of wretched hands was never done;
now here, now there, they tried to beat aside
the fresh flames as they fell. And I began

to speak: “My master, you who can defeat
all things except for those tenacious demons
who tried to block us at the entryway,

who is that giant there, who does not seem
to heed the singeing—he who lies and scorns
and scowls, he whom the rains can’t seem to soften?”

And he himself, on noticing that I
was querying my guide about him, cried:
“That which I was in life, I am in death.

Though Jove wear out the smith from whom he took,
in wrath, the keen—edged thunderbolt with which
on my last day I was to be transfixed;

or if he tire the others, one by one,
in Mongibello, at the sooty forge,
while bellowing: ‘O help, good Vulcan, help!’—

just as he did when there was war at Phlegra—
and casts his shafts at me with all his force,
not even then would he have happy vengeance.”

Then did my guide speak with such vehemence
as I had never heard him use before:
“O Capaneus, for your arrogance

that is not quenched, you’re punished all the more:
no torture other than your own madness
could offer pain enough to match your wrath.”

But then, with gentler face he turned to me
and said: “That man was one of seven kings
besieging Thebes; he held—and still, it seems,

holds—God in great disdain, disprizing Him;
but as I told him now, his maledictions
sit well as ornaments upon his chest.

Now follow me and—take care—do not set
your feet upon the sand that’s burning hot,
but always keep them back, close to the forest.”

In silence we had reached a place where flowed
a slender watercourse out of the wood—
a stream whose redness makes me shudder still.

As from the Bulicame pours a brook
whose waters then are shared by prostitutes,
so did this stream run down across the sand.

Its bed and both its banks were made of stone,
together with the slopes along its shores,
so that I saw our passageway lay there.

“Among all other things that I have shown you
since we first made our way across the gate
whose threshold is forbidden to no one,

no thing has yet been witnessed by your eyes
as notable as this red rivulet,
which quenches every flame that burns above it.”

These words were spoken by my guide; at this,
I begged him to bestow the food for which
he had already given me the craving.

“A devastated land lies in midsea,
a land that is called Crete,” he answered me.
“Under its king the world once lived chastely.

Within that land there was a mountain blessed
with leaves and waters, and they called it Ida;
but it is withered now like some old thing.

It once was chosen as a trusted cradle
by Rhea for her son; to hide him better,
when he cried out, she had her servants clamor.

Within the mountain is a huge Old Man,
who stands erect—his back turned toward Damietta—
and looks at Rome as if it were his mirror.

The Old Man’s head is fashioned of fine gold,
the purest silver forms his arms and chest,
but he is made of brass down to the cleft;

below that point he is of choicest iron
except for his right foot, made of baked clay;
and he rests more on this than on the left.

Each part of him, except the gold, is cracked;
and down that fissure there are tears that drip;
when gathered, they pierce through that cavern’s floor

and, crossing rocks into this valley, form
the Acheron and Styx and Phlegethon;
and then they make their way down this tight channel,

and at the point past which there’s no descent,
they form Cocytus; since you are to see
what that pool is, I’ll not describe it here.”

And I asked him: “But if the rivulet
must follow such a course down from our world,
why can we see it only at this boundary?”

And he to me: “You know this place is round;
and though the way that you have come is long,
and always toward the left and toward the bottom,

you still have not completed all the circle:
so that, if something new appears to us,
it need not bring such wonder to your face.”

And I again: “Master, where’s Phlegethon
and where is Lethe? You omit the second
and say this rain of tears has formed the first.”

“I’m pleased indeed,” he said, “with all your questions;
yet one of them might well have found its answer
already—when you saw the red stream boiling.

You shall see Lethe, but past this abyss,
there where the spirits go to cleanse themselves
when their repented guilt is set aside.”

Then he declared: “The time has come to quit
this wood; see that you follow close behind me;
these margins form a path that does not scorch,

and over them, all flaming vapor is quenched.”

BECAUSE the charity of my native place
Constrained me, gathered I the scattered leaves,
And gave them back to him, who now was hoarse.

Then came we to the confine, where disparted
The second round is from the third, and where
A horrible form of Justice is beheld.

Clearly to manifest these novel things,
I say that we arrived upon a plain,
Which from its bed rejecteth every plant;

The dolorous forest is a garland to it
All round about, as the sad moat to that;
There close upon the edge we stayed our feet.

The soil was of an arid and thick sand,
Not of another fashion made than that
Which by the feet of Cato once was pressed.

Vengeance of God, O how much oughtest thou
By each one to be dreaded, who doth read
That which was manifest unto mine eyes !

Of naked souls beheld I many herds,
Who all were weeping very miserably,
And over them seemed set a law diverse.

Supine upon the ground some folk were lying;
And some were sitting all drawn up together,
And others went about continually.

Those who were going round were far the more,
And those were less who lay down to their torment,
But had their tongues more loosed to lamentation.

O’er all the sand—waste, with a gradual fall,
Were raining down dilated flakes of fire,
As of the snow on Alp without a wind.

As Alexander, in those torrid parts
Of India, beheld upon his host
Flames fall unbroken till they reached the ground,

Whence he provided with his phalanxes
To trample down the soil, because the vapour
Better extinguished was while it was single;

Thus was descending the eternal heat,
Whereby the sand was set on fire, like tinder
Beneath the steel, for doubling of the dole.

Without repose forever was the dance
Of miserable hands, now there, now here,
Shaking away from off them the fresh gleeds.

“Master,” began I, “thou who overcomest
All things except the demons dire, that issued
Against us at the entrance of the gate,

Who is that mighty one who seems to heed not
The fire, and lieth lowering and disdainful,
So that the rain seems not to ripen him ?”

And he himself, who had become aware
That I was questioning my Guide about him,
Cried: “Such as I was living, am I, dead

If Jove should weary out his smith, from whom
He seized in anger the sharp thunderbolt,
Wherewith upon the last day I was smitten,

And if he wearied out by turns the others
In Mongibello at the swarthy forge,
Vociferating, ‘ Help, good Vulcan, help ! ‘

Even as he did there at the fight of Phlegra,
And shot his bolts at me with all his might,
He would not have thereby a joyous vengeance.”

Then did my Leader speak with such great force,
That I had never heard him speak so loud:
“O Capaneus, in that is not extinguished

Thine arrogance, thou punished art the more;
Not any torment, saving thine own rage,
Would be unto thy fury pain complete.”

Then he turned round to me with better lip,
Saying: “One of the Seven Kings was he
Who Thebes besieged, and held, and seems to hold

God in disdain, and little seems to prize him;
But, as I said to him, his own despites
Are for his breast the fittest ornaments.

Now follow me, and mind thou do not place
As yet thy feet upon the burning sand,
But always keep them close unto the wood.”

Speaking no word, we came to where there gushes
Forth from the wood a little rivulet,
Whose redness makes my hair still stand on end.

As from the Bulicame springs the brooklet,
The sinful women later share among them,
So downward through the sand it went its way.

The bottom of it, and both sloping banks,
Were made of stone, and the margins at the side;
Whence I perceived that there the passage was.

“In all the rest which I have shown to thee
Since we have entered in within the gate
Whose threshold unto no one is denied,

Nothing has been discovered by thine eyes
So notable as is the present river,
Which all the little ‘dames above it quenches.”

These words were of my Leader; whence I prayed him
That he would give me largess of the food,
For which he had given me largess of desire.

“In the mid—sea there sits a wasted land,”
Said he thereafterward,”whose name is Crete,
Under whose king the world of old was chaste.

There is a mountain there, that once was glad
With waters and with leaves, which was called Ida;
Now ’tis deserted, as a thing worn out.

Rhea once chose it for the faithful cradle
Of her own son; and to conceal him better,
Whene’er he cried, she there had clamours made.

A grand old man stands in the mount erect,
Who holds his shoulders turned tow’rds Damietta,
And looks at Rome as if it were his mirror.

His head is fashioned of refined gold,
And of pure silver are the arms and breast;
Then he is brass as far down as the fork.

From that point downward all is chosen iron,
Save that the right foot is of kiln—baked clay,
And more he stands on that than on the other.

Each part, except the gold, is by a fissure
Asunder cleft, that dripping is with tears,
Which gathered together perforate that cavern

From rock to rock they fall into this valley;
Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon they form;
Then downward go along this narrow sluice

Unto that point where is no more descending.
They form Cocytus; what that pool may be
Thou shalt behold, so here ’tis not narrated.”

And I to him: “If so the present runnel
Doth take its rise in this way from our world,
Why only on this verge appears it to us ?”

And he to me: “Thou knowest the place is round
And notwithstanding thou hast journeyed far,
Still to the left descending to the bottom,

Thou hast not yet through all the circle turned.
Therefore if something new appear to us,
It should not bring amazement to thy face.”

And I again: “Master, where shall be found
Lethe and Phlegethon, for of one thou’rt silent,
And sayest the other of this rain is made ?”

“In all thy questions truly thou dost please me,”
Replied he;”but the boiling of the red
Water might well solve one of them thou makest.

Thou shalt see Lethe, but outside this moat,
There where the souls repair to lave themselves,
When sin repented of has been removed.”

Then said he: “It is time now to abandon
The wood; take heed that thou come after me;
A way the margins make that are not burning,

And over them all vapours are extinguished.”

Love of our native city overcame me;
I gathered up the scattered boughs and gave
them back to him whose voice was spent already.

From there we reached the boundary that divides
the second from the third ring—and the sight
of a dread work that justice had devised.

To make these strange things clear, I must explain
that we had come upon an open plain
that banishes all green things from its bed.

The wood of sorrow is a garland round it,
just as that wood is ringed by a sad channel;
here, at the very edge, we stayed our steps.

The ground was made of sand, dry and compact,
a sand not different in kind from that
on which the feet of Cato had once tramped.

O vengeance of the Lord, how you should be
dreaded by everyone who now can read
whatever was made manifest to me!

I saw so many flocks of naked souls,
all weeping miserably, and it seemed that
they were ruled by different decrees.

Some lay upon the ground, flat on their backs;
some huddled in a crouch, and there they sat;
and others moved about incessantly.

The largest group was those who walked about,
the smallest, those supine in punishment;
but these had looser tongues to tell their torment.

Above that plain of sand, distended flakes
of fire showered down; their fall was slow—
as snow descends on alps when no wind blows.

Just like the flames that Alexander saw
in India’s hot zones, when fires fell,
intact and to the ground, on his battalions,

for which—wisely—he had his soldiers tramp
the soil to see that every fire was spent
before new flames were added to the old;

so did the never-ending heat descend;
with this, the sand was kindled just as tinder
on meeting flint will flame—doubling the pain.

The dance of wretched hands was never done;
now here, now there, they tried to beat aside
the fresh flames as they fell. And I began

to speak: “My master, you who can defeat
all things except for those tenacious demons
who tried to block us at the entryway,

who is that giant there, who does not seem
to heed the singeing—he who lies and scorns
and scowls, he whom the rains can’t seem to soften?”

And he himself, on noticing that I
was querying my guide about him, cried:
“That which I was in life, I am in death.

Though Jove wear out the smith from whom he took,
in wrath, the keen—edged thunderbolt with which
on my last day I was to be transfixed;

or if he tire the others, one by one,
in Mongibello, at the sooty forge,
while bellowing: ‘O help, good Vulcan, help!’—

just as he did when there was war at Phlegra—
and casts his shafts at me with all his force,
not even then would he have happy vengeance.”

Then did my guide speak with such vehemence
as I had never heard him use before:
“O Capaneus, for your arrogance

that is not quenched, you’re punished all the more:
no torture other than your own madness
could offer pain enough to match your wrath.”

But then, with gentler face he turned to me
and said: “That man was one of seven kings
besieging Thebes; he held—and still, it seems,

holds—God in great disdain, disprizing Him;
but as I told him now, his maledictions
sit well as ornaments upon his chest.

Now follow me and—take care—do not set
your feet upon the sand that’s burning hot,
but always keep them back, close to the forest.”

In silence we had reached a place where flowed
a slender watercourse out of the wood—
a stream whose redness makes me shudder still.

As from the Bulicame pours a brook
whose waters then are shared by prostitutes,
so did this stream run down across the sand.

Its bed and both its banks were made of stone,
together with the slopes along its shores,
so that I saw our passageway lay there.

“Among all other things that I have shown you
since we first made our way across the gate
whose threshold is forbidden to no one,

no thing has yet been witnessed by your eyes
as notable as this red rivulet,
which quenches every flame that burns above it.”

These words were spoken by my guide; at this,
I begged him to bestow the food for which
he had already given me the craving.

“A devastated land lies in midsea,
a land that is called Crete,” he answered me.
“Under its king the world once lived chastely.

Within that land there was a mountain blessed
with leaves and waters, and they called it Ida;
but it is withered now like some old thing.

It once was chosen as a trusted cradle
by Rhea for her son; to hide him better,
when he cried out, she had her servants clamor.

Within the mountain is a huge Old Man,
who stands erect—his back turned toward Damietta—
and looks at Rome as if it were his mirror.

The Old Man’s head is fashioned of fine gold,
the purest silver forms his arms and chest,
but he is made of brass down to the cleft;

below that point he is of choicest iron
except for his right foot, made of baked clay;
and he rests more on this than on the left.

Each part of him, except the gold, is cracked;
and down that fissure there are tears that drip;
when gathered, they pierce through that cavern’s floor

and, crossing rocks into this valley, form
the Acheron and Styx and Phlegethon;
and then they make their way down this tight channel,

and at the point past which there’s no descent,
they form Cocytus; since you are to see
what that pool is, I’ll not describe it here.”

And I asked him: “But if the rivulet
must follow such a course down from our world,
why can we see it only at this boundary?”

And he to me: “You know this place is round;
and though the way that you have come is long,
and always toward the left and toward the bottom,

you still have not completed all the circle:
so that, if something new appears to us,
it need not bring such wonder to your face.”

And I again: “Master, where’s Phlegethon
and where is Lethe? You omit the second
and say this rain of tears has formed the first.”

“I’m pleased indeed,” he said, “with all your questions;
yet one of them might well have found its answer
already—when you saw the red stream boiling.

You shall see Lethe, but past this abyss,
there where the spirits go to cleanse themselves
when their repented guilt is set aside.”

Then he declared: “The time has come to quit
this wood; see that you follow close behind me;
these margins form a path that does not scorch,

and over them, all flaming vapor is quenched.”

BECAUSE the charity of my native place
Constrained me, gathered I the scattered leaves,
And gave them back to him, who now was hoarse.

Then came we to the confine, where disparted
The second round is from the third, and where
A horrible form of Justice is beheld.

Clearly to manifest these novel things,
I say that we arrived upon a plain,
Which from its bed rejecteth every plant;

The dolorous forest is a garland to it
All round about, as the sad moat to that;
There close upon the edge we stayed our feet.

The soil was of an arid and thick sand,
Not of another fashion made than that
Which by the feet of Cato once was pressed.

Vengeance of God, O how much oughtest thou
By each one to be dreaded, who doth read
That which was manifest unto mine eyes !

Of naked souls beheld I many herds,
Who all were weeping very miserably,
And over them seemed set a law diverse.

Supine upon the ground some folk were lying;
And some were sitting all drawn up together,
And others went about continually.

Those who were going round were far the more,
And those were less who lay down to their torment,
But had their tongues more loosed to lamentation.

O’er all the sand—waste, with a gradual fall,
Were raining down dilated flakes of fire,
As of the snow on Alp without a wind.

As Alexander, in those torrid parts
Of India, beheld upon his host
Flames fall unbroken till they reached the ground,

Whence he provided with his phalanxes
To trample down the soil, because the vapour
Better extinguished was while it was single;

Thus was descending the eternal heat,
Whereby the sand was set on fire, like tinder
Beneath the steel, for doubling of the dole.

Without repose forever was the dance
Of miserable hands, now there, now here,
Shaking away from off them the fresh gleeds.

“Master,” began I, “thou who overcomest
All things except the demons dire, that issued
Against us at the entrance of the gate,

Who is that mighty one who seems to heed not
The fire, and lieth lowering and disdainful,
So that the rain seems not to ripen him ?”

And he himself, who had become aware
That I was questioning my Guide about him,
Cried: “Such as I was living, am I, dead

If Jove should weary out his smith, from whom
He seized in anger the sharp thunderbolt,
Wherewith upon the last day I was smitten,

And if he wearied out by turns the others
In Mongibello at the swarthy forge,
Vociferating, ‘ Help, good Vulcan, help ! ‘

Even as he did there at the fight of Phlegra,
And shot his bolts at me with all his might,
He would not have thereby a joyous vengeance.”

Then did my Leader speak with such great force,
That I had never heard him speak so loud:
“O Capaneus, in that is not extinguished

Thine arrogance, thou punished art the more;
Not any torment, saving thine own rage,
Would be unto thy fury pain complete.”

Then he turned round to me with better lip,
Saying: “One of the Seven Kings was he
Who Thebes besieged, and held, and seems to hold

God in disdain, and little seems to prize him;
But, as I said to him, his own despites
Are for his breast the fittest ornaments.

Now follow me, and mind thou do not place
As yet thy feet upon the burning sand,
But always keep them close unto the wood.”

Speaking no word, we came to where there gushes
Forth from the wood a little rivulet,
Whose redness makes my hair still stand on end.

As from the Bulicame springs the brooklet,
The sinful women later share among them,
So downward through the sand it went its way.

The bottom of it, and both sloping banks,
Were made of stone, and the margins at the side;
Whence I perceived that there the passage was.

“In all the rest which I have shown to thee
Since we have entered in within the gate
Whose threshold unto no one is denied,

Nothing has been discovered by thine eyes
So notable as is the present river,
Which all the little ‘dames above it quenches.”

These words were of my Leader; whence I prayed him
That he would give me largess of the food,
For which he had given me largess of desire.

“In the mid—sea there sits a wasted land,”
Said he thereafterward,”whose name is Crete,
Under whose king the world of old was chaste.

There is a mountain there, that once was glad
With waters and with leaves, which was called Ida;
Now ’tis deserted, as a thing worn out.

Rhea once chose it for the faithful cradle
Of her own son; and to conceal him better,
Whene’er he cried, she there had clamours made.

A grand old man stands in the mount erect,
Who holds his shoulders turned tow’rds Damietta,
And looks at Rome as if it were his mirror.

His head is fashioned of refined gold,
And of pure silver are the arms and breast;
Then he is brass as far down as the fork.

From that point downward all is chosen iron,
Save that the right foot is of kiln—baked clay,
And more he stands on that than on the other.

Each part, except the gold, is by a fissure
Asunder cleft, that dripping is with tears,
Which gathered together perforate that cavern

From rock to rock they fall into this valley;
Acheron, Styx, and Phlegethon they form;
Then downward go along this narrow sluice

Unto that point where is no more descending.
They form Cocytus; what that pool may be
Thou shalt behold, so here ’tis not narrated.”

And I to him: “If so the present runnel
Doth take its rise in this way from our world,
Why only on this verge appears it to us ?”

And he to me: “Thou knowest the place is round
And notwithstanding thou hast journeyed far,
Still to the left descending to the bottom,

Thou hast not yet through all the circle turned.
Therefore if something new appear to us,
It should not bring amazement to thy face.”

And I again: “Master, where shall be found
Lethe and Phlegethon, for of one thou’rt silent,
And sayest the other of this rain is made ?”

“In all thy questions truly thou dost please me,”
Replied he;”but the boiling of the red
Water might well solve one of them thou makest.

Thou shalt see Lethe, but outside this moat,
There where the souls repair to lave themselves,
When sin repented of has been removed.”

Then said he: “It is time now to abandon
The wood; take heed that thou come after me;
A way the margins make that are not burning,

And over them all vapours are extinguished.”