Failed Flyers

  • Dante’s treatment of usury continues the indictment of the Florentine nobility from the previous canto
  • Dante’s treatment of usury, like his treatment of sodomy, is culturally non-normative, since he avoids stigmatizing Jews or invoking the typical anti-Semitic rhetoric that associates Jews with usury and money-lending (for anti-Jewish iconography, see Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art, cited in Coordinated Reading)
  • Dante’s own family was involved in the money-lending business
  • there are numerous Ovidian references throughout this canto, which can be explored in greater detail through Intertextual Dante
  • the flight on Geryon and the evocation of the “failed flyers” of classical mythology: Phaethon and Icarus, figures doomed by their reckless daring
  • Arachne, a classical example of representational or artistic hubris, like Icarus’ father, Daedalus
  • spiral narrative structure of Inferno 16 and 17

In The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3, I analyze the “intercalatory structure” of the Geryon episode, referring to the complex way in which Dante uses splicing techniques to narrate the transition from the seventh circle (violence) to the eighth circle (fraud). In Inferno 17, the narrator begins with Geryon, and thus already seems to have moved forward to the eighth circle: Geryon is a representation of the circle of fraud who will serve as a vehicle of transition to the eighth circle. But, after the initial sequence describing Geryon, the narrator in Inferno 17 then “goes back” (narratologically and physically) to describe the encounter with the usurers, thus postponing the descent to the eighth circle and reminding us that we are in fact still in the seventh. The narrator finally goes forward in the last section of Inferno 17, which features the awe-inspiring depiction of the travelers’ downwards flight, into the abyss, on Geryon’s back.

Dante thus uses narrative structure to make a spiral pattern writ large, terza rima writ large, as demonstrated in the narratological analysis of these canti in The Undivine Comedy. The spiral pattern is visible in the following diagram (The Undivine Comedy, p. 73):

Narrative structure of Inferno 16 and 17

The approach to this transition begins in the first verse of Inferno 16, where the narrator first registers the “rimbombo” of the waterfall that cascades over the cliff that marks the end of the seventh circle (Inf. 16.1). After the interlude with the three Florentine nobles who are among the sodomites, in Inferno 16.91 the narrator returns to the waterfall and begins to describe the transition. There is a long section on the “cord” that Dante wears around his waist and that Virgilio now throws into the abyss as a kind of lure. We remember that Inferno 16 ends in medias res (as had Inferno 8), as the poet swears that the amazing creature that he saw swimming out of the deep was not a figment of his imagination but rather absolutely real. 

Using the “suspense” (etymologically, suspense is the condition of being suspended, i.e. left hanging, as at the end of Inferno 16 we are literally left hanging over the abyss) that is created by the interrupted action at the end of canto 16, Dante postpones the description of Geryon until the exordium of canto 17. Inferno 17 begins dramatically, with Virgilio heralding the arrival of Geryon: 

«Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti, e rompe i muri e l'armi!
Ecco colei che tutto 'l mondo appuzza!»  (Inf. 17.1-3)

“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!"

After the detailed description of “that filthy effigy of fraud”—“quella sozza imagine di froda” (Inf. 17.7)—who parks himself at the edge of the cliff and swishes his tail in the void (23-5), Virgilio and Dante head toward the monster. However, as the travelers approach the edge of the cliff, Virgilio points out the group of souls that sits on the edge: these are the usurers.

The usurers are the last sinners in the circle of violence. The English word “usury” derives from the medieval Latin noun “usuria,” which in turn is etymologically linked to “usus,” the past participle of the Latin verb “uti,” to use. Usury is, simply put, the excessive charging of interest on money loaned: literally, it is compensation for the “use” of money. The problem of usury is complexly interwoven with the growth of capitalism in the Italian city-states, where the great merchant banking houses are part of the new growth of trade and cultural exchange that liquidity promotes. Liquidity, money that is not tied up in great feudal landholdings but available for investment and self-promotion, undoubtedly underlies some of the anxiety that Dante feels about the rise of the “gente nuova” and their “sùbiti guadagni” (the new people and their sudden gains [Inf. 16.73]). Indeed, liquidity and “sùbiti guadagni” go hand in hand.

The changes in the texture of Florentine life that Dante rues are thus deeply connected to banking and money-lending. And yet, his own family’s principal occupation was money-lending: “l’attività principale della famiglia: il prestito del denaro” (Faini, “Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante,” p. 27).

The church viewed usury as an affront to God because it allows humans to make money from money rather than only through the sweat of their labor (see the end of Inferno 11). However most of the upcoming citizens of cities like Florence are merchants and/or bankers.

In Inferno 17 Dante focuses not on the individual but on the family, whose names are indicated through minute evocations of their heraldic crests. The various components of these crests are so carefully indicated that illustrators have been able to paint them with precision.

These crests emblazon the money-bags that hang around the necks of the unnamed usurers: “che dal collo a ciascun pendea una tasca / ch’avea certo colore e certo segno” (from the neck of each a purse was hung / that had a special color and an emblem [Inf. 17.55-56]). The crests are denoted with the bright colors that are so absent from Inferno, and they indicate noble Florentine families. Thus, the indictment of the Florentine nobility continues from Inferno 16.

The representative of the Florentine Gianfigliazzi family (Black Guelph) boasts “a yellow purse with azure on it / that had the face and manner of a lion” (Inf. 17.59-60), while the representative of the Ghibelline Obriachi family wears a “purse that was bloodred, / and it displayed a goose more white than butter” (Inf. 17.62-3). The usurer who speaks to Dante is a Paduan of the Scrovegni family, as indicated by the crest on his money-bag:

E un che d’una scrofa azzurra e grossa
segnato avea lo suo sacchetto bianco,
mi disse: «Che fai tu in questa fossa?»  (Inf. 17.64-6)

And one who had an azure, pregnant sow
inscribed as emblem on his white pouch, said
to me: “What are you doing in this pit?” 

A key social issue related to usury is anti-Semitism, which was frequently expressed in attacks on Jewish money-lenders. The commentary tradition of the Commedia does not look at the social and historical context of usury and therefore readings of Inferno 17 do not bring up the topic of anti-Semitism. As a result the commentaries fail to note two key features of Dante’s treatment of usury in this canto: on the one hand Dante does not mention Jews; on the other he does mention the iconography that was associated with Jews, namely money-bags.

For further analysis of this aspect of Dante’s treatment of usury, I refer to my essay “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other” (cited in Coordinated Reading), where I draw on the visual documentation of anti-Semitism in Debra Strickland’s book, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art. Strickland documents the visual demonizing of Jews, including the depiction of Jews heading into Hell with money-bags around their necks.

Put into social and historical context, we can see that Dante’s treatment of usury is remarkable for its strict avoidance of Jews, marginal members of his society. He focuses instead on normative members: on the great Christian families whom he indicts through the heraldic crests that blazon the money-bags worn around their necks. 

In other words, Dante evokes the precise iconography associated with Jewish usurers in Inferno 17, namely the money-bags worn around the necks, but he jettisons the anti-Semitic cultural context to which that iconography is linked. Dante thus transfers the money-bag iconography, along with the status of usurer, to Christians: in Dante’s Hell the money-bags hang around the necks of Christian money-lenders.

* * *

The latter part of Inferno 17 describes in tactile and immediate language, which is at the same time highly literary, the experience of flying on Geryon’s back: Geryon carries the travelers in a spiraling motion down into the abyss, from the seventh to the eighth circle. Here Dante, citing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, tells us that neither Phaethon nor Icarus experienced more fear during their doomed flights than did he in his flight into the abyss of lower Hell:

  Maggior paura non credo che fosse
quando Fetonte abbandonò li freni,
per che ’l ciel, come pare ancor, si cosse;
  né quando Icaro misero le reni
sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,
gridando il padre a lui «Mala via tieni!»,
  che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era
ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta
ogne veduta fuor che de la fera. (Inf. 17.106-14)
  I do not think that there was greater fear
in Phaethon when he let his reins go free—
for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched—
  nor in poor Icarus when he could feel
his sides unwinged because the wax was melting,
his father shouting to him, “That way's wrong!”
  than was in me when, on all sides, I saw
that I was in the air, and everything
had faded from my sight—except the beast.

Ovid’s story of Daedalus and Icarus is found in Metamorphoses Book 8, verses 183-235. You can view the passage in Ovid side-by-side with Dante’s text through Digital Dante’s own Intertextual Dante, created by Julie van Peteghem.

Dante heightens the Ovidian description of Icarus’s flight with the insertion of the haunting and poignant words cried out by the father, Daedalus, to his son: “gridando il padre a lui «Mala via tieni!»” (his father shouting to him: “You’re on the wrong path!” [Inf. 17.111]). The words “Mala via tieni”—“You’re on the wrong path!”—are not only words of enormous resonance for this poem, constructed on the metaphor of the path, but they testify to the power of direct discourse. The use of direct discourse to heighten immediacy is a signature Dantean move (we find instances of direct discourse inserted even into Dante’s very early lyrics) and it is a hallmark of the Commedia, a poem built on dialogue.

And what could be more powerful than the concision of the extraordinary verb spennar (“to unfeather”)? Dante uses it in the description of Icarus feeling “his sides unwinged because the wax was melting”: “le reni / sentì spennar per la scaldata cera” (Inf. 17.109-10). The story of Daedalus and Icarus will be evoked again in Paradiso 8, where Dante will refer to Daedalus as the one “who flew through the air and lost his son”: “quello / che, volando per l’aere, il figlio perse” (Par. 8.125-26).

On the basis of the recurrence of the Daedalus-Icarus story in the Commedia, one could argue that for Dante the key figure is the artifex, Daedalus, whose hubris in creating a method for flying takes precedence over Icarus’ recklessness in the air. Daedalus will be invoked again in an interesting passage in Inferno 29, again as the artificer of flight (see verse 116), as a transgressor of human limits, and as mimetic genius par excellence. Moreover, Dante humanizes Daedalus by focusing on his tragedy as a father: to the roster of the Commedia’s fathers and sons, we must add Daedalus and Icarus.

In these Ovidian similes of Inferno 17, Dante makes substantial his self-comparison to great “failed flyers” of mythological antiquity. This is a group he simultaneously compares himself to and distances himself from. He fears he might be Phaethon or Icarus, but he knows—and hence we know—that he will not be. Dante’s voyage is not destined to end in failure: this we already learned from Virgilio quoting Beatrice in Inferno 2, when Dante-pilgrim initially feared that his journey might be “folle” (Inf. 2.35).

Phaethon and Icarus are treated by Dante, within the poetic economy of the Commedia, as failed flyers who are avatars of his Ulysses. In Inferno 26 Dante will tell a version of the Ulysses narrative that casts the Greek hero as a transgressor; Ulysses’ voyage is a “mad flight”—“folle volo” (Inf. 26.125)—that leads to his perdition. In other words, Dante borrows from classical mythology to construct a personal mythography: in his personal mythography, Dante uses Phaethon and Icarus as a template on which to construct Ulysses as his ultimate failed flyer, his ultimate example of transgression.

Inferno 17 is saturated with mythological figures whose hubris led to their failure: hubris not only existential (Phaeton and Icarus), but artistic (Arachne and Daedalus). Geryon’s adorned and colorful flanks are compared in the early section of this canto to the fabrics woven by Turks and Tartars, and to the webs of Arachne (Inf. 17.18):

Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte
non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.    (Inf. 17.16-18) 

No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs. 

Arachne will be cited as an example of artistic pride and consequent fall on the terrace of pride in Purgatorio 12. In the Ovidian account Arachne claims that her woven textiles are more beautiful and that the stories she narrates on them are more lifelike than those of the goddess Athena. Unfortunately for her she was right, with the result that the enraged goddess transforms Arachne into a spider. Dante, emphasizing the perils of Arachne’s creativity, of the “opera” (work) that she wrongly made, depicts her mid-metamorphosis, on the way to being a spider:

O folle Aragne, sì vedea io te
già mezza ragna, trista in su li stracci
de l’opera che mal per te si fé.    (Purg. 12.43-45)

O mad Arachne, I saw you already
half spider, wretched on the ragged remnants
of work that you had wrought to your own hurt!

In The Undivine Comedy, where I analyze the Ovidian component of Purgatorio’s terrace of pride, I classify Arachne as “the textual/artistic correlative of Ulysses”, and therefore also of Phaeton and Icarus:

By comparing the designs woven on Geryon’s flanks to the tele woven by Arachne, Dante summons
the mythological figure who more than any other is an emblem for textuality, for weaving the webs of discourse. Her tele are the webs of textuality, of art: they signify the inherent deceptiveness of an art that can deceive through its mimetic perfection, its achievement of verisimilitude (art, therefore, as “craft” in both its senses, as handiwork and Ulyssean guile); also, because Arachne challenged Minerva, her webs signify our hubris (again Ulyssean), our will to challenge, to go beyond. In other words, Arachne is the textual/artistic correlative of Ulysses, and also therefore of those surrogates for Ulysses who figure so prominently at the end of the Geryon episode. (The Undivine Comedy, p. 64)

Hubris and failure are evoked in both existential and representational terms in Inferno 17. Existential and representational hubris overlap in the story of Daedalus and his son Icarus, for artistic hubris is of course also present in the poignant figure of the great craftsman who is responsible for his son’s death. As Ovid writes, Daedalus seeks to imitate nature by constructing true wings that can really fly:

At once he starts
to work on unknown arts, to alter nature.
He lays out feathers—all in order, first
the shorter, then the longer (you’d have said
they’d grown along a slope); just like the kind
of pipes that country people used to fashion,
where from unequal reed to reed the rise
is gradual. And these he held together
with twine around the center; at the base
he fastened them with wax; and thus arranged—
he’d bent them slightly—they could imitate
the wings of true birds.
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Allen Mandelbaum)

The language used here by Ovid stresses the idea of art and human techne as the imitation of nature. Both Arachne and Daedalus are committed to the practice of mimesis and both incur disaster as a result of their mimetic prowess. Dante has already indirectly informed us of the theory of mimesis in his discussion of God’s two “possessions” (nature and art) in Inferno 11, where he instructs us that nature follows God and that our art follows nature.

These classical mythological figures—Arachne and Daedalus, along with Phaethon and Icarus—will have enormous resonance for Dante throughout the Commedia.

As the pilgrim prepares himself for the terrifying transition to yet further depths of evil, Virgilio stresses that there is no avoiding the evil around him. The pilgrim must himself make use of and confront the “filthy effigy of fraud” that is Geryon: “sozza imagine di froda” (Inf. 17.7). In other words, it is not enough for him to witness Geryon, he must have his own personal encounter with fraud, flying on Geryon’s back to the eighth circle. With respect to the pilgrim, we can say that the journey through Hell requires of Dante this level of commitment and engagement:  “Omai si scende per sì fatte scale” (for our descent is by this kind of stairs [Inf. 17.82]). With respect to the poet, The Undivine Comedy demonstrates the ways in which Geryon represents the fraud inherent in language, with which Dante himself must engage if he is to tell his story.

Coordinated Reading

On Geryon and the transition to lower hell of Inferno 16-17: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3: “Ulysses, Geryon, and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition”; on the iconography relating to Jews in the Middle Ages: Debra Higgs Strickland, Saracens, Demons, and Jews: Making Monsters in Medieval Art (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 2003); on Dante’s idiosyncratic featuring of Christian usurers: “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination.” For Dante’s family and its engagement with money-lending, see the essays in Dante attraverso i documenti. I. Famiglia e patrimonio (secolo XII-1300 circa), a cura di Giuliano Milani e Antonio Montefusco, Reti Medievali Rivista, 15, 2 (2014) <http://rivista.retimedievali.it> ISSN 1593-2214 © 2014, Firenze University Press. Below I cite Enrico Faini, “Ruolo sociale e memoria degli Alighieri prima di Dante,” Reti Medievali Rivista, 15, 2 (2014).

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 17: Failed Flyers.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-17/

About the Commento

1 «Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
2 che passa i monti, e rompe i muri e l’armi!
3 Ecco colei che tutto ’l mondo appuzza!».

4 Sì cominciò lo mio duca a parlarmi;
5 e accennolle che venisse a proda
6 vicino al fin d’ i passeggiati marmi.

7 E quella sozza imagine di froda
8 sen venne, e arrivò la testa e ’l busto,
9 ma ’n su la riva non trasse la coda.

10 La faccia sua era faccia d’ uom giusto,
11 tanto benigna avea di fuor la pelle,
12 e d’un serpente tutto l’altro fusto;

13 due branche avea pilose insin l’ascelle;
14 lo dosso e ’l petto e ambedue le coste
15 dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.

16 Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte
17 non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
18 né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.

19 Come talvolta stanno a riva i burchi,
20 che parte sono in acqua e parte in terra,
21 e come là tra li Tedeschi lurchi

22 lo bivero s’assetta a far sua guerra,
23 così la fiera pessima si stava
24 su l’orlo ch’è di pietra e ’l sabbion serra.

25 Nel vano tutta sua coda guizzava,
26 torcendo in sù la venenosa forca
27 ch’ a guisa di scorpion la punta armava.

28 Lo duca disse: «Or convien che si torca
29 la nostra via un poco insino a quella
30 bestia malvagia che colà si corca».

31 Però scendemmo a la destra mammella,
32 e diece passi femmo in su lo stremo,
33 per ben cessar la rena e la fiammella.

34 E quando noi a lei venuti semo,
35 poco più oltre veggio in su la rena
36 gente seder propinqua al loco scemo.

37 Quivi ’l maestro «Acciò che tutta piena
38 esperïenza d’esto giron porti»,
39 mi disse, «va, e vedi la lor mena.

40 Li tuoi ragionamenti sian là corti;
41 mentre che torni, parlerò con questa,
42 che ne conceda i suoi omeri forti».

43 Così ancor su per la strema testa
44 di quel settimo cerchio tutto solo
45 andai, dove sedea la gente mesta.

46 Per li occhi fora scoppiava lor duolo;
47 di qua, di là soccorrien con le mani
48 quando a’ vapori, e quando al caldo suolo:

49 non altrimenti fan di state i cani
50 or col ceffo, or col piè, quando son morsi
51 o da pulci o da mosche o da tafani.

52 Poi che nel viso a certi li occhi porsi,
53 ne’ quali ’l doloroso foco casca,
54 non ne conobbi alcun; ma io m’ accorsi

55 che dal collo a ciascun pendea una tasca
56 ch’avea certo colore e certo segno,
57 e quindi par che ’l loro occhio si pasca.

58 E com’ io riguardando tra lor vegno,
59 in una borsa gialla vidi azzurro
60 che d’ un leone avea faccia e contegno.

61 Poi, procedendo di mio sguardo il curro,
62 vidine un’ altra come sangue rossa,
63 mostrando un’oca bianca più che burro.

64 E un che d’una scrofa azzurra e grossa
65 segnato avea lo suo sacchetto bianco,
66 mi disse: «Che fai tu in questa fossa?

67 Or te ne va; e perché se’ vivo anco,
68 sappi che ’l mio vicin Vitaliano
69 sederà qui dal mio sinistro fianco.

70 Con questi Fiorentin son padoano:
71 spesse fïate mi ’ntronan li orecchi
72 gridando: “Vegna ’l cavalier sovrano,

73 che recherà la tasca con tre becchi!”».
74 Qui distorse la bocca e di fuor trasse
75 la lingua, come bue che ’l naso lecchi.

76 E io, temendo no ’l più star crucciasse
77 lui che di poco star m’ avea ’mmonito,
78 torna’ mi in dietro da l’ anime lasse.

79 Trova’ il duca mio ch’era salito
80 già su la groppa del fiero animale,
81 e disse a me: «Or sie forte e ardito.

82 Omai si scende per sì fatte scale;
83 monta dinanzi, ch’ i’ voglio esser mezzo,
84 sì che la coda non possa far male».

85 Qual è colui che sì presso ha ’l riprezzo
86 de la quartana, c’ha già l’unghie smorte,
87 e triema tutto pur guardando ’l rezzo,

88 tal divenn’ io a le parole porte;
89 ma vergogna mi fé le sue minacce,
90 che innanzi a buon segnor fa servo forte.

91 I’ m’assettai in su quelle spallacce;
92 sì volli dir, ma la voce non venne
93 com’ io credetti: ‘ Fa che tu m’ abbracce’ .

94 Ma esso, ch’ altra volta mi sovvenne
95 ad altro forse, tosto ch’ i’ montai
96 con le braccia m’ avvinse e mi sostenne;

97 e disse: «Gerïon, moviti omai:
98 le rote larghe, e lo scender sia poco:
99 pensa la nova soma che tu hai».

100 Come la navicella esce di loco
101 in dietro in dietro, sì quindi si tolse;
102 e poi ch’al tutto si sentì a gioco,

103 là ’v’ era ’l petto, la coda rivolse,
104 e quella tesa, come anguilla, mosse,
105 e con le branche l’aere a sé raccolse.

106 Maggior paura non credo che fosse
107 quando Fetonte abbandonò li freni,
108 per che ’l ciel, come pare ancor, si cosse;

109 né quando Icaro misero le reni
110 sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,
111 gridando il padre a lui «Mala via tieni!»,

112 che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’ i’ era
113 ne l’aere d’ ogne parte, e vidi spenta
114 ogne veduta fuor che de la fera.

115 Ella sen va notando lenta lenta:
116 rota e discende, ma non me n’ accorgo
117 se non che al viso e di sotto mi venta.

118 Io sentia già da la man destra il gorgo
119 far sotto noi un orribile scroscio,
120 per che con li occhi ’n giù la testa sporgo.

121 Allor fu’ io più timido a lo stoscio,
122 però ch’ i’ vidi fuochi e senti’ pianti;
123 ond’ io tremando tutto mi raccoscio.

124 E vidi poi, ché nol vedea davanti,
125 lo scendere e ’l girar per li gran mali
126 che s’appressavan da diversi canti.

127 Come ’l falcon ch’ è stato assai su l’ ali,
128 che sanza veder logoro o uccello
129 fa dire al falconiere «Omè, tu cali!»,

130 discende lasso onde si move isnello,
131 per cento rote, e da lunge si pone
132 dal suo maestro, disdegnoso e fello;

133 così ne puose al fondo Gerione
134 al piè al piè de la stagliata rocca,
135 e, discarcate le nostre persone,

136 si dileguò come da corda cocca.

“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!”

So did my guide begin to speak to me,
and then he signaled him to come ashore
close to the end of those stone passageways.

And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.

The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;

he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.

No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.

As boats will sometimes lie along the shore,
with part of them on land and part in water,
and just as there, among the guzzling Germans,

the beaver sets himself when he means war,
so did that squalid beast lie on the margin
of stone that serves as border for the sand.

And all his tail was quivering in the void
while twisting upward its envenomed fork,
which had a tip just like a scorpion’s.

My guide said: “Now we’d better bend our path
a little, till we reach as far as that
malicious beast which crouches over there.”

Thus we descended on the right hand side
and moved ten paces on the stony brink
in order to avoid the sand and fire.

When we had reached the sprawling beast, I saw—
a little farther on, upon the sand—
some sinners sitting near the fissured rock.

And here my master said to me: “So that
you may experience this ring in full,
go now, and see the state in which they are.

But keep your conversation with them brief;
till you return, I’ll parley with this beast,
to see if he can lend us his strong shoulders.”

So I went on alone and even farther
along the seventh circle’s outer margin,
to where the melancholy people sat.

Despondency was bursting from their eyes;
this side, then that, their hands kept fending off,
at times the flames, at times the burning soil:

not otherwise do dogs in summer—now
with muzzle, now with paw—when they are bitten
by fleas or gnats or by the sharp gadfly.

When I had set my eyes upon the faces
of some on whom that painful fire falls,
I recognized no one; but I did notice

that from the neck of each a purse was hung
that had a special color and an emblem,
and their eyes seemed to feast upon these pouches.

Looking about—when I had come among them—
I saw a yellow purse with azure on it
that had the face and manner of a lion.

Then, as I let my eyes move farther on,
I saw another purse that was bloodred,
and it displayed a goose more white than butter.

And one who had an azure, pregnant sow
inscribed as emblem on his white pouch, said
to me: “What are you doing in this pit?

Now you be off; and since you’re still alive,
remember that my neighbor Vitaliano
shall yet sit here, upon my left hand side.

Among these Florentines, I’m Paduan;
I often hear them thunder in my ears,
shouting, ‘Now let the sovereign cavalier,

the one who’ll bring the purse with three goats, come!'”
At this he slewed his mouth, and then he stuck
his tongue out, like an ox that licks its nose.

And I, afraid that any longer stay
might anger him who’d warned me to be brief,
made my way back from those exhausted souls.

I found my guide, who had already climbed
upon the back of that brute animal,
and he told me: “Be strong and daring now,

for our descent is by this kind of stairs:
you mount in front; I want to be between,
so that the tail can’t do you any harm.”

As one who feels the quartan fever near
and shivers, with his nails already blue,
the sight of shade enough to make him shudder,

so I became when I had heard these words;
but then I felt the threat of shame, which makes
a servant—in his kind lord’s presence—brave.

I settled down on those enormous shoulders;
I wished to say (and yet my voice did not
come as I thought): “See that you hold me tight.”

But he who—other times, in other dangers—
sustained me, just as soon as I had mounted,
clasped me within his arms and propped me up,

and said: “Now, Geryon, move on; take care
to keep your circles wide, your landing slow;
remember the new weight you’re carrying.”

Just like a boat that, starting from its moorings,
moves backward, backward, so that beast took off;
and when he felt himself completely clear,

he turned his tail to where his chest had been
and, having stretched it, moved it like an eel,
and with his paws he gathered in the air.

I do not think that there was greater fear
in Phaethon when he let his reins go free—
for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched—

nor in poor Icarus when he could feel,
his sides unwinged because the wax was melting,
his father shouting to him, “That way’s wrong!”

than was in me when, on all sides, I saw
that I was in the air, and everything
had faded from my sight—except the beast.

Slowly, slowly, swimming, he moves on;
he wheels and he descends, but I feel only
the wind upon my face and the wind rising.

Already, on our right, I heard the torrent
resounding, there beneath us, horribly,
so that I stretched my neck and looked below.

Then I was more afraid of falling off,
for I saw fires and I heard laments,
at which I tremble, crouching, and hold fast.

And now I saw what I had missed before:
his wheeling and descent—because great torments
were drawing closer to us on all sides.

Just as a falcon long upon the wing—
who, seeing neither lure nor bird, compels
the falconer to cry, “Ah me, you fall!”—

descends, exhausted, in a hundred circles,
where he had once been swift, and sets himself,
embittered and enraged, far from his master;

such, at the bottom of the jagged rock,
was Geryon, when he had set us down.
And once our weight was lifted from his back,

he vanished like an arrow from a bow.

“BEHOLD the monster with the pointed tail,
Who cleaves the hills, and breaketh walls and weapons,
Behold him who infecteth all the world.”

Thus unto me my Guide began to say,
And beckoned him that he should come to shore,
Near to the confine of the trodden marble;

And that uncleanly image of deceit
Came up and thrust ashore its head and bust,
But on the border did not drag its tail.

The face was as the face of a just man,
Its semblance outwardly was so benign,
And of a serpent all the trunk beside.

Two paws it had, hairy unto the armpits;
The back, and breast, and both the sides it had
Depicted o’er with nooses and with shields.

With colours more, groundwork or broidery
Never in cloth did Tartars make nor Turks,
Nor were such tissues by Arachne laid.

As sometimes wherries lie upon the shore,
That part are in the water, part on land;
And as among the guzzling Germans there,

The beaver plants himself to wage his war;
So that vile monster lay upon the border,
Which is of stone, and shutteth in the sand.

His tail was wholly quivering in the void,
Contorting upwards the envenomed fork,
That in the guise of scorpion armed its point.

The Guide said: “Now perforce must turn aside
Our way a little, even to that beast
Malevolent, that yonder coucheth him.”

We therefore on the right side descended,
And made ten steps upon the outer verge,
Completely to avoid the sand and flame;

And after we are come to him, I see
A little farther off upon the sand
A people sitting near the hollow place.

Then said to me the Master: “So that full
Experience of this round thou bear away,
Now go and see what their condition is.

There let thy conversation be concise;
Till thou returnest I will speak with him,
That he concede to us his stalwart shoulders.”

Thus farther still upon the outermost
Head of that seventh circle all alone
I went, where sat the melancholy folk.

Out of their eyes was gushing forth their woe;
This way, that way, they helped them with their hands
Now from the flames and now from the hot soil.

Not otherwise in summer do the dogs,
Now with the foot, now with the muzzle, when
By fleas, or flies, or gadflies, they are bitten.

When I had turned mine eyes upon the faces
Of some, on whom the dolorous fire is falling,
Not one of them I knew; but I perceived

That from the neck of each there hung a pouch,
Which certain colour had, and certain blazon;
And thereupon it seems their eyes are feeding.

And as I gazing round me come among them,
Upon a yellow pouch I azure saw
That had the face and posture of a lion.

Proceeding then the current of my sight,
Another of them saw I, red as blood,
Display a goose more white than butter is.

And one, who with an azure sow and gravid
Emblazoned had his little pouch of white,
Said unto me: “What dost thou in this moat ?

Now get thee gone; and since thou’rt still alive,
Know that a neighbour of mine, Vitaliano,
Will have his seat here on my left—hand side.

A Paduan am I with these Florentines;
Full many a time they thunder in mine ears,
Exclaiming, ‘ Come the sovereign cavalier,

He who shall bring the satchel with three goats ;”‘
Then twisted he his mouth, and forth he thrust
His tongue, like to an ox that licks its nose.

And fearing lest my longer stay might vex
Him who had warned me not to tarry long,
Backward I turned me from those weary souls.

I found my Guide, who had already mounted
Upon the back of that wild animal,
And said to me: “Now be both strong and bold.

Now we descend by stairways such as these;
Mount thou in front, for I will be midway,
So that the tail may have no power to harm thee.”

Such as he is who has so near the ague
Of quartan that his nails are blue already,
And trembles all, but looking at the shade;

Even such became I at those proffered words;
But shame in me his menaces produced,
Which maketh servant strong before good master.

I seated me upon those monstrous shoulders;
I wished to say, and yet the voice came not
As I believed, “Take heed that thou embrace me.”

But he, who other times had rescued me
In other peril, soon as I had mounted,
Within his arms encircled and sustained me,

And said: “Now, Geryon, bestir thyself;
The circles large, and the descent be little;
Think of the novel burden which thou hast.”

Even as the little vessel shoves from shore,
Backward, still backward, so he thence withdrew;
And when he wholly felt himself afloat,

There where his breast had been he turned his tail,
And that extended like an eel he moved,
And with his paws drew to himself the air.

A greater fear I do not think there was
What time abandoned Phaeton the reins,
Whereby the heavens, as still appears, were scorched;

Nor when the wretched Icarus his flanks
Felt stripped of feathers by the melting wax,
His father crying, “An ill way thou takest !”

Than was my own, when I perceived myself
On all sides in the air, and saw extinguished
The sight of everything but of the monster.

Onward he goeth, swimming slowly, slowly;
Wheels and descends, but I perceive it only
By wind upon my face and from below.

I heard already on the right the whirlpool
Making a horrible crashing under us;
Whence I thrust out my head with eyes cast downward.

Then was I still more fearful of the abyss;
Because I fires beheld, and heard laments,
Whereat I, trembling, all the closer cling.

I saw then, for before I had not seen it,
The turning and descending, by great horrors
That were approaching upon divers sides.

As falcon who has long been on the wing,
Who, without seeing either lure or bird,
Maketh the falconer say, “Ah me, thou stoopest,”

Descendeth weary, whence he started swiftly,
Thorough a hundred circles, and alights
Far from his master, sullen and disdainful;

Even thus did Geryon place us on the bottom,
Close to the bases of the rough—hewn rock,
And being disencumbered of our persons,

He sped away as arrow from the string.

“Behold the beast who bears the pointed tail,
who crosses mountains, shatters weapons, walls!
Behold the one whose stench fills all the world!”

So did my guide begin to speak to me,
and then he signaled him to come ashore
close to the end of those stone passageways.

And he came on, that filthy effigy
of fraud, and landed with his head and torso
but did not draw his tail onto the bank.

The face he wore was that of a just man,
so gracious was his features’ outer semblance;
and all his trunk, the body of a serpent;

he had two paws, with hair up to the armpits;
his back and chest as well as both his flanks
had been adorned with twining knots and circlets.

No Turks or Tartars ever fashioned fabrics
more colorful in background and relief,
nor had Arachne ever loomed such webs.

As boats will sometimes lie along the shore,
with part of them on land and part in water,
and just as there, among the guzzling Germans,

the beaver sets himself when he means war,
so did that squalid beast lie on the margin
of stone that serves as border for the sand.

And all his tail was quivering in the void
while twisting upward its envenomed fork,
which had a tip just like a scorpion’s.

My guide said: “Now we’d better bend our path
a little, till we reach as far as that
malicious beast which crouches over there.”

Thus we descended on the right hand side
and moved ten paces on the stony brink
in order to avoid the sand and fire.

When we had reached the sprawling beast, I saw—
a little farther on, upon the sand—
some sinners sitting near the fissured rock.

And here my master said to me: “So that
you may experience this ring in full,
go now, and see the state in which they are.

But keep your conversation with them brief;
till you return, I’ll parley with this beast,
to see if he can lend us his strong shoulders.”

So I went on alone and even farther
along the seventh circle’s outer margin,
to where the melancholy people sat.

Despondency was bursting from their eyes;
this side, then that, their hands kept fending off,
at times the flames, at times the burning soil:

not otherwise do dogs in summer—now
with muzzle, now with paw—when they are bitten
by fleas or gnats or by the sharp gadfly.

When I had set my eyes upon the faces
of some on whom that painful fire falls,
I recognized no one; but I did notice

that from the neck of each a purse was hung
that had a special color and an emblem,
and their eyes seemed to feast upon these pouches.

Looking about—when I had come among them—
I saw a yellow purse with azure on it
that had the face and manner of a lion.

Then, as I let my eyes move farther on,
I saw another purse that was bloodred,
and it displayed a goose more white than butter.

And one who had an azure, pregnant sow
inscribed as emblem on his white pouch, said
to me: “What are you doing in this pit?

Now you be off; and since you’re still alive,
remember that my neighbor Vitaliano
shall yet sit here, upon my left hand side.

Among these Florentines, I’m Paduan;
I often hear them thunder in my ears,
shouting, ‘Now let the sovereign cavalier,

the one who’ll bring the purse with three goats, come!'”
At this he slewed his mouth, and then he stuck
his tongue out, like an ox that licks its nose.

And I, afraid that any longer stay
might anger him who’d warned me to be brief,
made my way back from those exhausted souls.

I found my guide, who had already climbed
upon the back of that brute animal,
and he told me: “Be strong and daring now,

for our descent is by this kind of stairs:
you mount in front; I want to be between,
so that the tail can’t do you any harm.”

As one who feels the quartan fever near
and shivers, with his nails already blue,
the sight of shade enough to make him shudder,

so I became when I had heard these words;
but then I felt the threat of shame, which makes
a servant—in his kind lord’s presence—brave.

I settled down on those enormous shoulders;
I wished to say (and yet my voice did not
come as I thought): “See that you hold me tight.”

But he who—other times, in other dangers—
sustained me, just as soon as I had mounted,
clasped me within his arms and propped me up,

and said: “Now, Geryon, move on; take care
to keep your circles wide, your landing slow;
remember the new weight you’re carrying.”

Just like a boat that, starting from its moorings,
moves backward, backward, so that beast took off;
and when he felt himself completely clear,

he turned his tail to where his chest had been
and, having stretched it, moved it like an eel,
and with his paws he gathered in the air.

I do not think that there was greater fear
in Phaethon when he let his reins go free—
for which the sky, as one still sees, was scorched—

nor in poor Icarus when he could feel,
his sides unwinged because the wax was melting,
his father shouting to him, “That way’s wrong!”

than was in me when, on all sides, I saw
that I was in the air, and everything
had faded from my sight—except the beast.

Slowly, slowly, swimming, he moves on;
he wheels and he descends, but I feel only
the wind upon my face and the wind rising.

Already, on our right, I heard the torrent
resounding, there beneath us, horribly,
so that I stretched my neck and looked below.

Then I was more afraid of falling off,
for I saw fires and I heard laments,
at which I tremble, crouching, and hold fast.

And now I saw what I had missed before:
his wheeling and descent—because great torments
were drawing closer to us on all sides.

Just as a falcon long upon the wing—
who, seeing neither lure nor bird, compels
the falconer to cry, “Ah me, you fall!”—

descends, exhausted, in a hundred circles,
where he had once been swift, and sets himself,
embittered and enraged, far from his master;

such, at the bottom of the jagged rock,
was Geryon, when he had set us down.
And once our weight was lifted from his back,

he vanished like an arrow from a bow.

“BEHOLD the monster with the pointed tail,
Who cleaves the hills, and breaketh walls and weapons,
Behold him who infecteth all the world.”

Thus unto me my Guide began to say,
And beckoned him that he should come to shore,
Near to the confine of the trodden marble;

And that uncleanly image of deceit
Came up and thrust ashore its head and bust,
But on the border did not drag its tail.

The face was as the face of a just man,
Its semblance outwardly was so benign,
And of a serpent all the trunk beside.

Two paws it had, hairy unto the armpits;
The back, and breast, and both the sides it had
Depicted o’er with nooses and with shields.

With colours more, groundwork or broidery
Never in cloth did Tartars make nor Turks,
Nor were such tissues by Arachne laid.

As sometimes wherries lie upon the shore,
That part are in the water, part on land;
And as among the guzzling Germans there,

The beaver plants himself to wage his war;
So that vile monster lay upon the border,
Which is of stone, and shutteth in the sand.

His tail was wholly quivering in the void,
Contorting upwards the envenomed fork,
That in the guise of scorpion armed its point.

The Guide said: “Now perforce must turn aside
Our way a little, even to that beast
Malevolent, that yonder coucheth him.”

We therefore on the right side descended,
And made ten steps upon the outer verge,
Completely to avoid the sand and flame;

And after we are come to him, I see
A little farther off upon the sand
A people sitting near the hollow place.

Then said to me the Master: “So that full
Experience of this round thou bear away,
Now go and see what their condition is.

There let thy conversation be concise;
Till thou returnest I will speak with him,
That he concede to us his stalwart shoulders.”

Thus farther still upon the outermost
Head of that seventh circle all alone
I went, where sat the melancholy folk.

Out of their eyes was gushing forth their woe;
This way, that way, they helped them with their hands
Now from the flames and now from the hot soil.

Not otherwise in summer do the dogs,
Now with the foot, now with the muzzle, when
By fleas, or flies, or gadflies, they are bitten.

When I had turned mine eyes upon the faces
Of some, on whom the dolorous fire is falling,
Not one of them I knew; but I perceived

That from the neck of each there hung a pouch,
Which certain colour had, and certain blazon;
And thereupon it seems their eyes are feeding.

And as I gazing round me come among them,
Upon a yellow pouch I azure saw
That had the face and posture of a lion.

Proceeding then the current of my sight,
Another of them saw I, red as blood,
Display a goose more white than butter is.

And one, who with an azure sow and gravid
Emblazoned had his little pouch of white,
Said unto me: “What dost thou in this moat ?

Now get thee gone; and since thou’rt still alive,
Know that a neighbour of mine, Vitaliano,
Will have his seat here on my left—hand side.

A Paduan am I with these Florentines;
Full many a time they thunder in mine ears,
Exclaiming, ‘ Come the sovereign cavalier,

He who shall bring the satchel with three goats ;”‘
Then twisted he his mouth, and forth he thrust
His tongue, like to an ox that licks its nose.

And fearing lest my longer stay might vex
Him who had warned me not to tarry long,
Backward I turned me from those weary souls.

I found my Guide, who had already mounted
Upon the back of that wild animal,
And said to me: “Now be both strong and bold.

Now we descend by stairways such as these;
Mount thou in front, for I will be midway,
So that the tail may have no power to harm thee.”

Such as he is who has so near the ague
Of quartan that his nails are blue already,
And trembles all, but looking at the shade;

Even such became I at those proffered words;
But shame in me his menaces produced,
Which maketh servant strong before good master.

I seated me upon those monstrous shoulders;
I wished to say, and yet the voice came not
As I believed, “Take heed that thou embrace me.”

But he, who other times had rescued me
In other peril, soon as I had mounted,
Within his arms encircled and sustained me,

And said: “Now, Geryon, bestir thyself;
The circles large, and the descent be little;
Think of the novel burden which thou hast.”

Even as the little vessel shoves from shore,
Backward, still backward, so he thence withdrew;
And when he wholly felt himself afloat,

There where his breast had been he turned his tail,
And that extended like an eel he moved,
And with his paws drew to himself the air.

A greater fear I do not think there was
What time abandoned Phaeton the reins,
Whereby the heavens, as still appears, were scorched;

Nor when the wretched Icarus his flanks
Felt stripped of feathers by the melting wax,
His father crying, “An ill way thou takest !”

Than was my own, when I perceived myself
On all sides in the air, and saw extinguished
The sight of everything but of the monster.

Onward he goeth, swimming slowly, slowly;
Wheels and descends, but I perceive it only
By wind upon my face and from below.

I heard already on the right the whirlpool
Making a horrible crashing under us;
Whence I thrust out my head with eyes cast downward.

Then was I still more fearful of the abyss;
Because I fires beheld, and heard laments,
Whereat I, trembling, all the closer cling.

I saw then, for before I had not seen it,
The turning and descending, by great horrors
That were approaching upon divers sides.

As falcon who has long been on the wing,
Who, without seeing either lure or bird,
Maketh the falconer say, “Ah me, thou stoopest,”

Descendeth weary, whence he started swiftly,
Thorough a hundred circles, and alights
Far from his master, sullen and disdainful;

Even thus did Geryon place us on the bottom,
Close to the bases of the rough—hewn rock,
And being disencumbered of our persons,

He sped away as arrow from the string.