Virgilio and Fallibility

  • the Dante-pilgrim/Virgilio relationship deepens: the manipulation of language and dialogue to reveal affect, subjectivity, and intimacy
  • a meta-canto, like Inferno 2, featuring language itself: “parole maladette” (Inf. 8.95)  → “parola tronca” (Inf. 9. 14) → “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105)
  • Dante-poet gives us new and troubling information about his character Virgilio in a canto that is an indictment of the dark aspects of classical culture
  • the narrator’s scripting of a “past” for his characters that precedes the diegesis of the poem: this is a key technique in creating a virtual reality, as too are the techniques that the narrator uses for creating suspense in an over-determined plot

As discussed in the previous Introduction, we here pick up a story-line that began in Inferno 8, which narrates the attempt of Dante and Virgilio to gain entrance to the city of Dis. As we saw, this story is literally suspended at canto’s end: Inferno 8 ends in medias res, while Dante and Virgilio are still blocked from entrance to the city guarded by devils.

With the shared story-line, there is a shared lexicon. A key little word that carries over from the last part of Inferno 8 to the opening of Inferno 9 is the indefinite pronoun “tal” (the shortened form of tale), used by Virgilio to refer to the unknown being who will come to their assistance. First used in Inferno 8.105 for the force that legitimizes the pilgrim’s journey (“da tal n’è dato” One so great has granted it [Inf. 8.105]), the pronoun recurs at the end of Inferno 8, again referring to the force that is coming to Dante’s aid: “tal che per lui ne fia la terra aperta” (the one who will open this realm for us [Inf. 8.130]). As we shall see, Virgilio uses the same pronoun as he fends off his uncertainty at the beginning of Inferno 9.

Inferno 9 picks up the story, emphasizing the doubt and concern that Virgilio is feeling, despite his reassuring words. The scene that follows focuses on the deepening intimacy and psychological connectedness of the two travelers: I can think of no other medieval text that manipulates dialogue and direct discourse to create affect and dramatic tension in the way that Dante here does. He uses language and the interruption of language to depict two people interacting in a context where one of them tries and fails to reassure the other.

It is worth parsing this scene in some detail, as an example of Dante’s ability to deploy subtle linguistic cues and narrative resources in order to create dramatic art and the sense of intimate and authentic feeling.

Inferno 9 begins with the simple information that Dante and Virgilio are both afraid. But the information relayed is, already in the first terzina, far from simple. Dante is afraid because he has deduced that Virgilio is afraid. As a result of seeing Virgilio turned back by the devils (“veggendo il duca mio tornare in volta” [Inf. 9.2]), Dante changes color, becoming pale: “Quel color che viltà di fuor mi pinse” (The color cowardice displayed in me [Inf. 9.1]). The pilgrim’s pallor is a cue that in turn causes Virgilio to repress his own fears, keeping his emotions “inside” (“dentro”) in order not to further alarm his disciple: “più tosto dentro il suo novo ristrinse” (made him more quickly mask his own new pallor [Inf. 9.3]).

Dante-poet here represents these two characters interacting on a very intuitive and psychologically intense level, in an interaction whose subtlety he now intensifies by adding a discursive component to the drama of changed aspects and physical pallor and inferred fear.

Having stipulated a psychological chain reaction of fear creating fear in verses 1-3, in the second terzina the narrator represents Virgilio as standing alert, listening for some sign that help is on its way. Then Virgilio begins to speak, in effect thinking out loud: he is literally “ex-pressing” his inner thoughts, as we can see from the fact that he articulates doubt and then cuts himself off. He interrupts himself, because he doesn’t want to alarm Dante. But, in a further chain reaction, the pilgrim infers from his guide’s self-interruption that his guide is truly afraid.

In these first two terzine of Inferno 9 Dante-narrator informs us about the respective aspects of Virgilio’s and Dante’s faces in order to open up a space of subjectivity, signaled by the word “dentro” (“inside”) in verse 3: “più tosto dentro il suo novo ristrinse” means literally that Virgilio keeps within himself, inside, the new fear that he feels (Inf. 9.3). Subsequently, in the next terzina, this inside space—the space of interiority and subjectivity that the poet is working to uncover—is reflected in Virgilio’s articulation of his thoughts and especially in the unfinished clause of verse 8.

The third terzina of Inferno 9 relates what Virgilio has been thinking and puts his thoughts into words, including his interrupted speech:

“Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga”,
cominciò el, “se non ... Tal ne s’offerse.
Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!”. 
(Inf. 9.7-9)
“We have to win this battle,” 
he began, “if not... But one so great had offered help. 
How slow that someone's coming to see me!”

In the above verses Virgilio allows himself to express doubt, first through the opening adverb pure in “Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga” (Inf. 9.7): “Surely we must be the ones to win this fight.” The on-line Hoepli Grande Dizionario Italiano notes of pure: “Rafforza il tono dubitativo di un’espressione” (It reinforces the dubious tone of an expression). And then Virgilio’s insecurity becomes explicit, when he begins to articulate the possibility of a negative outcome to their enterprise with the two little words “se non” (if not), subsequently interrupting himself before completing the thought. The doubt of “se non” is then countered by another little word, inherited from Inferno 8, “tal”: “Tal ne s’offerse” (Such a one had offered help [Inf. 9.8]).

Virgilio’s spoken thoughts in verses 7-8 proleptically outline the plot or action of Inferno 9. Specifically, the plot of this canto can be extrapolated from verse 8.

Inferno 9 as a whole unpacks the dialectic of verse 8: between the doubt of “se non” and the belief of “Tal ne s’offerse” (Inf. 9.8).

The plot of Inferno 9 can therefore be outlined thus:

  1. The events of Inferno 9 through the appearance of Medusa and Virgilio’s response to Medusa are the unfolding of the “se non” scenario: this is the negative scenario of what could happen, the scenario based on the fear that does not ultimately materialize, the fear that remains as “tronca” or unfulfilled as Virgilio’s expression of that fear in what the narrator calls his “parola tronca” (cut-off word [Inf. 9.14]);
  2. The arrival of the angel who opens the gate of Dis is the fulfillment of “Tal ne s’offerse”: this is the positive scenario of what does happen.

One of the remarkable features of the opening sequence of Inferno 9 is the narrator’s participation in glossing the various linguistic events on which the psychological drama is built. Dante here connects linguistic praxis to intentionality and hermeneusis. Virgilio’s ruptured syntax itself becomes a signifier to be analyzed. It is labeled “la parola tronca” and the narrator tells us in verses 14-15 that he may well have inferred more negative content from Virgilio’s parola tronca than was warranted: “perch’ io traeva la parola tronca / forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne” (because I drew out from his broken phrase / a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended [Inf. 9.14-15]).

Dante-narrator explains the effect of Virgilio’s interrupted speech, noting Virgilio’s “covering up” of what he had started to say with what followed after:  “I’ vidi ben sì com’ ei ricoperse / lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne” (But I saw well enough how he had covered / his first words with the words that followed after [Inf. 9.10-11]). In verse 11 the narrator analyzes in detail the components of Virgilio’s previous discourse, breaking it down into a “beginning” (“cominciar”: this corresponds to “se non” in verse 8) that was then covered “with the other part that came after” (“l’altro che poi venne”: this corresponds to “Tal se n’offerse” in verse 8).

Here Dante shows his investment in understanding the inner workings of human speech acts. In this passage, full of meta-categories, Dante is functioning as a philosopher of language:

I’ vidi ben sì com’ei ricoperse
lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne,
che fur parole a le prime diverse;
  ma nondimen paura il suo dir dienne,
perch’io traeva la parola tronca
forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne.
(Inf. 9.10-15)
But I saw well enough how he had covered
his first words with the words that followed after—
so different from what he had said before;
  nevertheless, his speech made me afraid,
because I drew out from his broken phrase
a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended.

The result of the pilgrim’s scrutiny of Virgilio’s speech-acts is to become more nervous, and the pilgrim now shows, for the first time, a lack of confidence in his guide.

The pilgrim’s lack of confidence is dramatized by a further speech-act: he poses a question intended to ascertain whether Virgilio is qualified to be a guide through hell. In order not to pose his question too bluntly, Dante asks Virgilio not whether he himself has ever made this journey before, but whether anyone from Limbo has ever successfully before made the journey into lower Hell:

In questo fondo de la trista conca
discende mai alcun del primo grado,
che sol per pena ha la speranza cionca?
(Inf. 9.16-18)
Does anyone from the first circle, the one
whose only punishment is crippled hope,
ever descend so deep in this sad hollow?

This question on the part of Dante-pilgrim allows Dante-poet to add to the back-story of his character Virgilio.

We see here the narrator’s brilliance in constructing a virtual reality, in which we participate the more readily because he creates a “real” past for his characters, a past that precedes the diegesis of the poem. Similarly, in Inferno 10, when the pilgrim commissions Farinata to give a message to Cavalcante de’ Cavalcanti, the narrator has created a “future” for his characters, a narrative time that is successive to the diegesis of the poem.

With respect to Virgilio’s past, we remember that most of Inferno 2 is situated in a past before Dante meets Virgilio in Inferno 1, a past in which Beatrice went to Limbo to enlist Virgilio as Dante’s guide. The past related in Inferno 2 has given us one impression of Virgilio, while the past related in Inferno 9 gives us another.

Indeed, we need to consider why Dante chooses to give his beloved guide the dark and troubling back-story that he gives him here. Before proceeding to the analysis of this specific question, we should note a general truth: the addition of conflict and ambivalence to a character’s history brings to life the complexity of that human character, given that we are all products of histories that include actions that are at times hard to reconcile in “one” neat package.

We learn that Virgilio did indeed make the trip from the first circle to lower hell once before, and that he did so because he was “conjured” by the sorceress Eritòn (Erichtho). Erichtho is a witch from the Roman poet Lucan’s history-based epic, Pharsalia (De Bello Civili), where she is described as one of the darkest practitioners of black magic. Virgilio tells Dante that Erichtho sent him on a mission “per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda” (to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle [Inf. 9.27]). Virgilio thus offers the “comforting” information that he has been to the lowest circle of hell, the “circle of Judas”, in tandem with the disquieting information that he was in service to Erichtho and her black arts. I wrote in Dante’s Poets of the connection established between Virgilio and Erichtho as follows:

Thus, under the pretext of allaying the pilgrim’s fears, Dante raises far greater fears regarding his guide; the astonishing invention here related, whereby the Thessalian witch from Lucan’s poem once deployed Vergil for one of her nefarious missions, casts a long and intentional shadow over the Roman poet. (Dante’s Poets, p. 205)

We note too that the reference to the “cerchio di Giuda” in Inferno 9.27, like the reference to “Caina” in Inferno 5.107, suggests that Dante had prepared some kind of an outline of hell that included place-names, and that this outline was at least tentatively in place before composition of the canti.

Inferno 9 features much classical culture, including many of its darker elements: not only the early stage-setting reference to Erichtho, but then the sighting of the Furies (“le feroci Erine” of Inf. 9.45, i.e. the Erinyes) and most of all the figure of Medusa, who turns men to stone. Note all the classical names: “Megera”, “Aletto”, “Tesifone”, “Medusa”, “Teseo”, “Gorgòn”, and then, later in the canto, “Stige” and “Cerbero”.

The Furies claim, as did the devils of Inferno 8, that there is no way forward. If Dante persists, they say, he will be not just sent back alone as the devils had threatened—“Sol si ritorni per la folle strada” (Inf. 8.91)—but turned into stone: “sì ’l farem di smalto” (Inf. 9.52).

In other words, if Dante fails to believe in the power that sent him on this voyage, he will be petrified, paralyzed with fear and despair.

But these threats are baseless, impotent. We should not be tempted to believe Medusa. Given what Beatrice told Virgilio about Hell’s inability to harm her, as related in Inferno 2.88-93, we should never feel fear or suspense with respect to the ability of any creature in Hell to harm the pilgrim. But the “living textuality” of the Commedia is such that the text works to make us feel fear or suspense, even though technically we should know that these feelings are without merit. This is an extraordinary testament to Dante’s magisterial craft: he can write a story whose plot is completely over-determined and yet still find ways to generate suspense.

In the latter half of Inferno 9 a messenger from heaven arrives, described with a masculine pronoun (“elli” in verse 85) and a masculine past participle: “da ciel messo” (sent from heaven [Inf. 9.85]). The celestial messenger is an angel. He has not “rained from heaven” like the angels who were cast out with Lucifer and became devils: he is not “da ciel piovut[o]” (Inf. 8.83), but “da ciel messo” (Inf. 9.85). He did not fall down, he was sent down. The intentionality of “messo” reminds us of the super-structure that guides Dante’s mission, as described in Inferno 2.

The heavenly messenger is dismissive and disdainful of the devils and the inhabitants of Hell, who in their thousands disperse in front of him like frogs in front of an enemy serpent. The inversion whereby a force of good is here figured as a serpent, an animal traditionally associated with the devil, is typical of Dante’s Inferno, and belongs to a program of inversions that culminates in the association of Dante himself with a “diavol” when he pulls Bocca degli Abati’s hair in Inferno 32.108.

The cleavage between the fear-based scenario and the faith-based scenario is absolute: the angel sent from heaven taps the gate of Dis with his diminutive wand—not “verga” but “verghetta” in Inf. 9.89—and opens it with the greatest ease.

This scene is based on the ancient story of Christ’s Harrowing of Hell after the Crucifixion, a tale already referred to by Virgilio in Inferno 4 and referenced again in Inferno 8. The result of the messo’s arrival is that Dante and Virgilio are able to enter the gates of Dis, “sicuri appresso le parole sante” (safely, behind his holy words [Inf. 9.105]). From Virgilio’s “cut-off word”—“parola tronca” (Inf. 9.14)—we have moved over the span of Inferno 9 to the heavenly messenger’s “holy words”: “parole sante” (Inf. 9.105).

There is a gendered component to this canto: pagan evil tends to be gendered female (though there are exceptions, like “Cerbero vostro”), starting with Erichtho and culminating in Medusa and the Furies, who “membra feminine avieno e atto” (had the limbs of women and their ways [Inf. 9.39]). In contrast, Christian good—notably, the being that is “da ciel messo”—is gendered male. That said, there are also overlaps: Medusa’s hair is made of various kinds of snakes in verses 40-41, and the angel is analogous to a biscia in verse 77.

We can interpret Medusa as the making real of the fear of failure, the vindication of the devils’ taunt in Inferno 8 that the pilgrim’s quest is at an end. It is as though the way forward had never been granted, as though the events of Inferno 2 had never occurred.

Virgilio’s greatest failure in Inferno 9 is his failure to believe, made explicit when he affirms that Medusa has the power to stop Dante in his tracks: “se ’l Gorgòn si mostra e tu ’l vedessi, / nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso” (should the Gorgon show herself and you behold her, / never again would you return above [Inf. 9.56-57]). Virgilio’s passive acceptance of Medusa’s power over the pilgrim is reminiscent of the power that, as we learned at the beginning of Inferno 9, the witch Erichtho had once wielded over him.

Inferno 9 constitutes a first exploration of Virgilio’s limitations, and by extension an indictment of classical culture. When the angel rebukes the inhabitants of Dis for blocking the pilgrim’s path, reminding them of their impotence in the face of heaven’s dictates, he identifies them with Cerberus, who still bears the marks of his futile attempt to withstand Hercules: “Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda, / ne porta ancor pelato il mento e ’l gozzo” (Your Cerberus, if you remember well, / for that, had both his throat and chin stripped clean [Inf. 9.98-99]).

Dante’s address to those who have “intelletti sani” in Inf. 9.61-63 recalls his prior use of the expression in the canzone Le dolci rime:

Per ch’a ’ntelletti sani
è manifesto i lor diri esser vani,
ed io così per falsi li ripruovo 
(Le dolci rime, 74-76)
Thus it is clear to every mind that's sound
that what they say lacks sense,
and hence I claim their words are false (Lansing trans.)

In Le dolci rime the “intelletti sani” motif comes precisely at the junction of the canzone where Dante moves from “Christian” revelation to Aristotelian exposition. In Inferno 9 the motif is used at a similar suturing point: this time, however, he is moving from pagan false reality to Christian truth.

Inferno 9 marks a low point for classical culture in the Commedia, and the pall over antiquity continues through to the canto’s end. When the travelers move through the gate opened by the angel into the city of Dis, they find themselves in a huge cemetery, a veritable city of death. This city is compared, in the canto’s final association of classical culture with death and impotence, to the Roman necropolises of Arles in Provence and of Pola in Istria.

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 3, “Ulysses, Geryon, and the Aeronautics of Narrative Transition,” pp. 68-71; Dante’s Poets, pp. 205-8.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 9: Virgilio and Fallibility.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-9/

About the Commento

1Quel color che viltà di fuor mi pinse
2veggendo il duca mio tornare in volta,
3più tosto dentro il suo novo ristrinse.

4Attento si fermò com’ uom ch’ascolta;
5ché l’occhio nol potea menare a lunga
6per l’aere nero e per la nebbia folta.

7«Pur a noi converrà vincer la punga»,
8cominciò el, «se non . . . Tal ne s’offerse.
9Oh quanto tarda a me ch’altri qui giunga!».

10I’ vidi ben sì com’ ei ricoperse
11lo cominciar con l’altro che poi venne,
12che fur parole a le prime diverse;

13ma nondimen paura il suo dir dienne,
14perch’ io traeva la parola tronca
15forse a peggior sentenzia che non tenne.

16«In questo fondo de la trista conca
17discende mai alcun del primo grado,
18che sol per pena ha la speranza cionca?».

19Questa question fec’ io; e quei «Di rado
20incontra», mi rispuose, «che di noi
21faccia il cammino alcun per qual io vado.

22Ver è ch’altra fïata qua giù fui,
23congiurato da quella Eritón cruda
24che richiamava l’ombre a’ corpi sui.

25Di poco era di me la carne nuda,
26ch’ella mi fece intrar dentr’ a quel muro,
27per trarne un spirto del cerchio di Giuda.

28Quell’ è ’l più basso loco e ’l più oscuro,
29e ’l più lontan dal ciel che tutto gira:
30ben so ’l cammin; però ti fa sicuro.

31Questa palude che ’l gran puzzo spira
32cigne dintorno la città dolente,
33u’ non potemo intrare omai sanz’ ira».

34E altro disse, ma non l’ho a mente;
35però che l’occhio m’avea tutto tratto
36ver’ l’alta torre a la cima rovente,

37dove in un punto furon dritte ratto
38tre furïe infernal di sangue tinte,
39che membra feminine avieno e atto,

40e con idre verdissime eran cinte;
41serpentelli e ceraste avien per crine,
42onde le fiere tempie erano avvinte.

43E quei, che ben conobbe le meschine
44de la regina de l’etterno pianto,
45«Guarda», mi disse, «le feroci Erine.

46Quest’ è Megera dal sinistro canto;
47quella che piange dal destro è Aletto;
48Tesifón è nel mezzo»; e tacque a tanto.

49Con l’unghie si fendea ciascuna il petto;
50battiensi a palme e gridavan sì alto,
51ch’i’ mi strinsi al poeta per sospetto.

52«Vegna Medusa: sì ’l farem di smalto»,
53dicevan tutte riguardando in giuso;
54«mal non vengiammo in Tesëo l’assalto».

55«Volgiti ’n dietro e tien lo viso chiuso;
56ché se ’l Gorgón si mostra e tu ’l vedessi,
57nulla sarebbe di tornar mai suso».

58Così disse ’l maestro; ed elli stessi
59mi volse, e non si tenne a le mie mani,
60che con le sue ancor non mi chiudessi.

61O voi ch’avete li ’ntelletti sani,
62mirate la dottrina che s’asconde
63sotto ’l velame de li versi strani.

64E già venìa su per le torbide onde
65un fracasso d’un suon, pien di spavento,
66per cui tremavano amendue le sponde,

67non altrimenti fatto che d’un vento
68impetüoso per li avversi ardori,
69che fier la selva e sanz’ alcun rattento

70li rami schianta, abbatte e porta fori;
71dinanzi polveroso va superbo,
72e fa fuggir le fiere e li pastori.

73Li occhi mi sciolse e disse: «Or drizza il nerbo
74del viso su per quella schiuma antica
75per indi ove quel fummo è più acerbo».

76Come le rane innanzi a la nimica
77biscia per l’acqua si dileguan tutte,
78fin ch’a la terra ciascuna s’abbica,

79vid’ io più di mille anime distrutte
80fuggir così dinanzi ad un ch’al passo
81passava Stige con le piante asciutte.

82Dal volto rimovea quell’ aere grasso,
83menando la sinistra innanzi spesso;
84e sol di quell’ angoscia parea lasso.

85Ben m’accorsi ch’elli era da ciel messo,
86e volsimi al maestro; e quei fé segno
87ch’i’ stessi queto ed inchinassi ad esso.

88Ahi quanto mi parea pien di disdegno!
89Venne a la porta e con una verghetta
90l’aperse, che non v’ebbe alcun ritegno.

91«O cacciati del ciel, gente dispetta»,
92cominciò elli in su l’orribil soglia,
93«ond’ esta oltracotanza in voi s’alletta?

94Perché recalcitrate a quella voglia
95a cui non puote il fin mai esser mozzo,
96e che più volte v’ha cresciuta doglia?

97Che giova ne le fata dar di cozzo?
98Cerbero vostro, se ben vi ricorda,
99ne porta ancor pelato il mento e ’l gozzo».

100Poi si rivolse per la strada lorda,
101e non fé motto a noi, ma fé sembiante
102d’omo cui altra cura stringa e morda

103che quella di colui che li è davante;
104e noi movemmo i piedi inver’ la terra,
105sicuri appresso le parole sante.

106Dentro li ’ntrammo sanz’ alcuna guerra;
107e io, ch’avea di riguardar disio
108la condizion che tal fortezza serra,

109com’ io fui dentro, l’occhio intorno invio:
110e veggio ad ogne man grande campagna,
111piena di duolo e di tormento rio.

112Sì come ad Arli, ove Rodano stagna,
113sì com’ a Pola, presso del Carnaro
114ch’Italia chiude e suoi termini bagna,

115fanno i sepulcri tutt’ il loco varo,
116così facevan quivi d’ogne parte,
117salvo che ’l modo v’era più amaro;

118ché tra li avelli fiamme erano sparte,
119per le quali eran sì del tutto accesi,
120che ferro più non chiede verun’ arte.

121Tutti li lor coperchi eran sospesi,
122e fuor n’uscivan sì duri lamenti,
123che ben parean di miseri e d’offesi.

124E io: «Maestro, quai son quelle genti
125che, seppellite dentro da quell’ arche,
126si fan sentir coi sospiri dolenti?».

127E quelli a me: «Qui son li eresïarche
128con lor seguaci, d’ogne setta, e molto
129più che non credi son le tombe carche.

130Simile qui con simile è sepolto,
131e i monimenti son più e men caldi».
132E poi ch’a la man destra si fu vòlto,

133passammo tra i martìri e li alti spaldi.

The color cowardice displayed in me
when I saw that my guide was driven back,
made him more quickly mask his own new pallor.

He stood alert, like an attentive listener,
because his eye could hardly journey far
across the black air and the heavy fog.

“We have to win this battle,” he began,
“if not. . . But one so great had offered help.
How slow that someone’s coming to see me!”

But I saw well enough how he had covered
his first words with the words that followed after—
so different from what he had said before;

nevertheless, his speech made me afraid,
because I drew out from his broken phrase
a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended.

“Does anyone from the first circle, one
whose only punishment is crippled hope,
ever descend so deep in this sad hollow?”

That was my question. And he answered so:
“It is quite rare for one of us to go
along the way that I have taken now.

But I, in truth, have been here once before:
that savage witch Erichtho, she who called
the shades back to their bodies, summoned me.

My flesh had not been long stripped off when she
had me descend through all the rings of Hell,
to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle.

That is the deepest and the darkest place,
the farthest from the heaven that girds all:
so rest assured, I know the pathway well.

This swamp that breeds and breathes the giant stench
surrounds the city of the sorrowing,
which now we cannot enter without anger.”

And he said more, but I cannot remember
because my eyes had wholly taken me
to that high tower with the glowing summit

where, at one single point, there suddenly
stood three infernal Furies flecked with blood,
who had the limbs of women and their ways

but wore, as girdles, snakes of deepest green;
small serpents and horned vipers formed their hairs,
and these were used to bind their bestial temples.

And he, who knew these handmaids well—they served
the Queen of never-ending lamentation—
said: “Look at the ferocious Erinyes!

That is Megaera on the left, and she
who weeps upon the right, that is Allecto;
Tisiphone’s between them.” He was done.

Each Fury tore her breast with taloned nails;
each, with her palms, beat on herself and wailed
so loud that I, in fear, drew near the poet.

“Just let Medusa come; then we shall turn
him into stone,” they all cried, looking down;
“we should have punished Theseus’ assault.”

“Turn round and keep your eyes shut fast, for should
the Gorgon show herself and you behold her,
never again would you return above,”

my master said; and he himself turned me
around and, not content with just my hands,
used his as well to cover up my eyes.

O you possessed of sturdy intellects,
observe the teaching that is hidden here
beneath the veil of verses so obscure.

And now, across the turbid waves, there passed
a reboantic fracas—horrid sound,
enough to make both of the shorelines quake:

a sound not other than a wind’s when, wild
because it must contend with warmer currents,
it strikes against the forest without let,

shattering, beating down, bearing off branches,
as it moves proudly, clouds of dust before it,
and puts to flight both animals and shepherds.

He freed my eyes and said: “Now let your optic
nerve turn directly toward that ancient foam,
there where the mist is thickest and most acrid.”

As frogs confronted by their enemy,
the snake, will scatter underwater till
each hunches in a heap along the bottom,

so did the thousand ruined souls I saw
take flight before a figure crossing Styx
who walked as if on land and with dry soles.

He thrust away the thick air from his face,
waving his left hand frequently before him;
that seemed the only task that wearied him.

I knew well he was Heaven’s messenger,
and I turned toward my master; and he made
a sign that I be still and bow before him.

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

“O you cast out of Heaven, hated crowd,”
were his first words upon that horrid threshold,
“why do you harbor this presumptuousness?

Why are you so reluctant to endure
that Will whose aim can never be cut short,
and which so often added to your hurts?

What good is it to thrust against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
for that, had both his throat and chin stripped clean.”

At that he turned and took the filthy road,
and did not speak to us, but had the look
of one who is obsessed by other cares

than those that press and gnaw at those before him;
and we moved forward, on into the city,
in safety, having heard his holy words.

We made our way inside without a struggle;
and I, who wanted so much to observe
the state of things that such a fortress guarded,

as soon as I had entered, looked about.
I saw, on every side, a spreading plain
of lamentation and atrocious pain.

Just as at Arles, where Rhone becomes a marsh,
just as at Pola, near Quarnero’s gulf,
that closes Italy and bathes its borders,

the sepulchers make all the plain uneven,
so they did here on every side, except
that here the sepulchers were much more harsh;

for flames were scattered through the tombs, and these
had kindled all of them to glowing heat;
no artisan could ask for hotter iron.

The lid of every tomb was lifted up,
and from each tomb such sorry cries arose
as could come only from the sad and hurt.

And I: “Master, who can these people be
who, buried in great chests of stone like these,
must speak by way of sighs in agony?”

And he to me: “Here are arch—heretics
and those who followed them, from every sect;
those tombs are much more crowded than you think.

Here, like has been ensepulchered with like;
some monuments are heated more, some less.”
And then he turned around and to his right;

we passed between the torments and high walls.

THAT hue which cowardice brought out on me,
Beholding my Conductor backward turn,
Sooner repressed within him his new colour.

He stopped attentive, like a man who listens,
Because the eye could not conduct him far
Through the black air, and through the heavy fog.

“Still it behoveth us to win the fight,”
Began he; “Else . . . Such offered us herself . . .
O how I long that some one here arrive !”

Well I perceived, as soon as the beginning
He covered up with what came afterward,
That they were words quite different from the first;

But none the less his saying gave me fear,
Because I carried out the broken phrase,
Perhaps to a worse meaning than he had.

“Into this bottom of the doleful conch
Doth any e’er descend from the first grade,
Which for its pain has only hope cut off?”

This question put I; and he answered me:
“Seldom it comes to pass that one of us
Maketh the journey upon which I go.

True is it, once before I here below
Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho,
Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies.

Naked of me short while the flesh had been,
Before within that wall she made me enter,
To bring a spirit from the circle of Judas;

That is the lowest region and the darkest,
And farthest from the heaven which circles all.
Well know I the way; therefore be reassured.

This fen, which a prodigious stench exhales,
Encompasses about the city dolent,
Where now we cannot enter without anger.”

And more he said, but not in mind I have it;
Because mine eye had altogether drawn me
Tow’rds the high tower with the red—flaming summit,

Where in a moment saw I swift uprisen
The three infernal Furies stained with blood,
Who had the limbs of women and their mien,

And with the greenest hydras were begirt;
Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,
Wherewith their horrid temples were entwined.

And he who well the handmaids of the Queen
Of everlasting lamentation knew,
Said unto me: “Behold the fierce Erinnys.

This is Megaera, on the left—hand side;
She who is weeping on the right, Alecto;
Tisiphone is between;”and then was silent.

Each one her breast was rending with her nails;
They beat them with their palms, and cried so loud,
That I for dread pressed close unto the Poet.

“Medusa come, so we to stone will change him !”
All shouted looking down; “in evil hour
Avenged we not on Theseus his assault !”

“Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,
For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,
No more returning upward would there be.”

Thus said the Master; and he turned me round
Himself, and trusted not unto my hands
So far as not to blind me with his own.

O ye who have undistempered intellects,
Observe the doctrine that conceals itself
Beneath the veil of the mysterious verses !

And now there came across the turbid waves
The clangour of a sound with terror fraught,
Because of which both of the margins trembled;

Not otherwise it was than of a wind
Impetuous on account of adverse heats,
That smites the forest, and, without restraint,

The branches rends, beats down, and bears away;
Right onward, laden with dust, it goes superb,
And puts to flight the wild beasts and the shepherds.

Mine eyes he loosed, and said: “Direct the nerve
Of vision now along that ancient foam,
There yonder where that smoke is most intense.”

Even as the frogs before the hostile serpent
Across the water scatter all abroad,
Until each one is huddled in the earth.

More than a thousand ruined souls I saw,
Thus fleeing from before one who on foot
Was passing o’er the Styx with soles unwet

From off his face he fanned that unctuous air,
Waving his left hand oft in front of him,
And only with that anguish seemed he weary.

Well I perceived one sent from Heaven was he,
And to the Master turned; and he made sign
That I should quiet stand, and bow before him.

Ah! how disdainful he appeared to me !
He reached the gate, and with a little rod
He opened it, for there was no resistance.

“O banished out of Heaven, people despised !”
Thus he began upon the horrid threshold;
“Whence is this arrogance within you couched ?

Wherefore recalcitrate against that will,
From which the end can never be cut off,
And which has many times increased your pain ?

What helpeth it to butt against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
For that still bears his chin and gullet peeled.”

Then he returned along the miry road,
And spake no word to us, but had the look
Of one whom other care constrains and goads

Than that of him who in his presence is;
And we our feet directed tow’rds the city,
After those holy words all confident.

Within we entered without any contest;
And I, who inclination had to see
What the condition such a fortress holds,

Soon as I was within, cast round mine eye,
And see on every hand an ample plain,
Full of distress and torment terrible.

Even as at Arles, where stagnant grows the Rhone,
Even as at Pola near to the Quarnaro,
That shuts in Italy and bathes its borders,

The sepulchres make all the place uneven;
So likewise did they there on every side,
Saving that there the manner was more bitter;

For flames between the sepulchres were scattered,
By which they so intensely heated were,
That iron more so asks not any art.

All of their coverings uplifted were,
And from them issued forth such dire laments,
Sooth seemed they of the wretched and tormented.

And I: “My Master, what are all those people
Who, having sepulture within those tombs,
Make themselves audible by doleful sighs ?”

And he to me: “Here are the Heresiarchs,
With their disciples of all sects, and much
More than thou thinkest laden are the tombs.

Here like together with its like is buried;
And more and less the monuments are heated.”
And when he to the right had turned, we passed

Between the torments and high parapets.

The color cowardice displayed in me
when I saw that my guide was driven back,
made him more quickly mask his own new pallor.

He stood alert, like an attentive listener,
because his eye could hardly journey far
across the black air and the heavy fog.

“We have to win this battle,” he began,
“if not. . . But one so great had offered help.
How slow that someone’s coming to see me!”

But I saw well enough how he had covered
his first words with the words that followed after—
so different from what he had said before;

nevertheless, his speech made me afraid,
because I drew out from his broken phrase
a meaning worse—perhaps—than he’d intended.

“Does anyone from the first circle, one
whose only punishment is crippled hope,
ever descend so deep in this sad hollow?”

That was my question. And he answered so:
“It is quite rare for one of us to go
along the way that I have taken now.

But I, in truth, have been here once before:
that savage witch Erichtho, she who called
the shades back to their bodies, summoned me.

My flesh had not been long stripped off when she
had me descend through all the rings of Hell,
to draw a spirit back from Judas’ circle.

That is the deepest and the darkest place,
the farthest from the heaven that girds all:
so rest assured, I know the pathway well.

This swamp that breeds and breathes the giant stench
surrounds the city of the sorrowing,
which now we cannot enter without anger.”

And he said more, but I cannot remember
because my eyes had wholly taken me
to that high tower with the glowing summit

where, at one single point, there suddenly
stood three infernal Furies flecked with blood,
who had the limbs of women and their ways

but wore, as girdles, snakes of deepest green;
small serpents and horned vipers formed their hairs,
and these were used to bind their bestial temples.

And he, who knew these handmaids well—they served
the Queen of never-ending lamentation—
said: “Look at the ferocious Erinyes!

That is Megaera on the left, and she
who weeps upon the right, that is Allecto;
Tisiphone’s between them.” He was done.

Each Fury tore her breast with taloned nails;
each, with her palms, beat on herself and wailed
so loud that I, in fear, drew near the poet.

“Just let Medusa come; then we shall turn
him into stone,” they all cried, looking down;
“we should have punished Theseus’ assault.”

“Turn round and keep your eyes shut fast, for should
the Gorgon show herself and you behold her,
never again would you return above,”

my master said; and he himself turned me
around and, not content with just my hands,
used his as well to cover up my eyes.

O you possessed of sturdy intellects,
observe the teaching that is hidden here
beneath the veil of verses so obscure.

And now, across the turbid waves, there passed
a reboantic fracas—horrid sound,
enough to make both of the shorelines quake:

a sound not other than a wind’s when, wild
because it must contend with warmer currents,
it strikes against the forest without let,

shattering, beating down, bearing off branches,
as it moves proudly, clouds of dust before it,
and puts to flight both animals and shepherds.

He freed my eyes and said: “Now let your optic
nerve turn directly toward that ancient foam,
there where the mist is thickest and most acrid.”

As frogs confronted by their enemy,
the snake, will scatter underwater till
each hunches in a heap along the bottom,

so did the thousand ruined souls I saw
take flight before a figure crossing Styx
who walked as if on land and with dry soles.

He thrust away the thick air from his face,
waving his left hand frequently before him;
that seemed the only task that wearied him.

I knew well he was Heaven’s messenger,
and I turned toward my master; and he made
a sign that I be still and bow before him.

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

“O you cast out of Heaven, hated crowd,”
were his first words upon that horrid threshold,
“why do you harbor this presumptuousness?

Why are you so reluctant to endure
that Will whose aim can never be cut short,
and which so often added to your hurts?

What good is it to thrust against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
for that, had both his throat and chin stripped clean.”

At that he turned and took the filthy road,
and did not speak to us, but had the look
of one who is obsessed by other cares

than those that press and gnaw at those before him;
and we moved forward, on into the city,
in safety, having heard his holy words.

We made our way inside without a struggle;
and I, who wanted so much to observe
the state of things that such a fortress guarded,

as soon as I had entered, looked about.
I saw, on every side, a spreading plain
of lamentation and atrocious pain.

Just as at Arles, where Rhone becomes a marsh,
just as at Pola, near Quarnero’s gulf,
that closes Italy and bathes its borders,

the sepulchers make all the plain uneven,
so they did here on every side, except
that here the sepulchers were much more harsh;

for flames were scattered through the tombs, and these
had kindled all of them to glowing heat;
no artisan could ask for hotter iron.

The lid of every tomb was lifted up,
and from each tomb such sorry cries arose
as could come only from the sad and hurt.

And I: “Master, who can these people be
who, buried in great chests of stone like these,
must speak by way of sighs in agony?”

And he to me: “Here are arch—heretics
and those who followed them, from every sect;
those tombs are much more crowded than you think.

Here, like has been ensepulchered with like;
some monuments are heated more, some less.”
And then he turned around and to his right;

we passed between the torments and high walls.

THAT hue which cowardice brought out on me,
Beholding my Conductor backward turn,
Sooner repressed within him his new colour.

He stopped attentive, like a man who listens,
Because the eye could not conduct him far
Through the black air, and through the heavy fog.

“Still it behoveth us to win the fight,”
Began he; “Else . . . Such offered us herself . . .
O how I long that some one here arrive !”

Well I perceived, as soon as the beginning
He covered up with what came afterward,
That they were words quite different from the first;

But none the less his saying gave me fear,
Because I carried out the broken phrase,
Perhaps to a worse meaning than he had.

“Into this bottom of the doleful conch
Doth any e’er descend from the first grade,
Which for its pain has only hope cut off?”

This question put I; and he answered me:
“Seldom it comes to pass that one of us
Maketh the journey upon which I go.

True is it, once before I here below
Was conjured by that pitiless Erictho,
Who summoned back the shades unto their bodies.

Naked of me short while the flesh had been,
Before within that wall she made me enter,
To bring a spirit from the circle of Judas;

That is the lowest region and the darkest,
And farthest from the heaven which circles all.
Well know I the way; therefore be reassured.

This fen, which a prodigious stench exhales,
Encompasses about the city dolent,
Where now we cannot enter without anger.”

And more he said, but not in mind I have it;
Because mine eye had altogether drawn me
Tow’rds the high tower with the red—flaming summit,

Where in a moment saw I swift uprisen
The three infernal Furies stained with blood,
Who had the limbs of women and their mien,

And with the greenest hydras were begirt;
Small serpents and cerastes were their tresses,
Wherewith their horrid temples were entwined.

And he who well the handmaids of the Queen
Of everlasting lamentation knew,
Said unto me: “Behold the fierce Erinnys.

This is Megaera, on the left—hand side;
She who is weeping on the right, Alecto;
Tisiphone is between;”and then was silent.

Each one her breast was rending with her nails;
They beat them with their palms, and cried so loud,
That I for dread pressed close unto the Poet.

“Medusa come, so we to stone will change him !”
All shouted looking down; “in evil hour
Avenged we not on Theseus his assault !”

“Turn thyself round, and keep thine eyes close shut,
For if the Gorgon appear, and thou shouldst see it,
No more returning upward would there be.”

Thus said the Master; and he turned me round
Himself, and trusted not unto my hands
So far as not to blind me with his own.

O ye who have undistempered intellects,
Observe the doctrine that conceals itself
Beneath the veil of the mysterious verses !

And now there came across the turbid waves
The clangour of a sound with terror fraught,
Because of which both of the margins trembled;

Not otherwise it was than of a wind
Impetuous on account of adverse heats,
That smites the forest, and, without restraint,

The branches rends, beats down, and bears away;
Right onward, laden with dust, it goes superb,
And puts to flight the wild beasts and the shepherds.

Mine eyes he loosed, and said: “Direct the nerve
Of vision now along that ancient foam,
There yonder where that smoke is most intense.”

Even as the frogs before the hostile serpent
Across the water scatter all abroad,
Until each one is huddled in the earth.

More than a thousand ruined souls I saw,
Thus fleeing from before one who on foot
Was passing o’er the Styx with soles unwet

From off his face he fanned that unctuous air,
Waving his left hand oft in front of him,
And only with that anguish seemed he weary.

Well I perceived one sent from Heaven was he,
And to the Master turned; and he made sign
That I should quiet stand, and bow before him.

Ah! how disdainful he appeared to me !
He reached the gate, and with a little rod
He opened it, for there was no resistance.

“O banished out of Heaven, people despised !”
Thus he began upon the horrid threshold;
“Whence is this arrogance within you couched ?

Wherefore recalcitrate against that will,
From which the end can never be cut off,
And which has many times increased your pain ?

What helpeth it to butt against the fates?
Your Cerberus, if you remember well,
For that still bears his chin and gullet peeled.”

Then he returned along the miry road,
And spake no word to us, but had the look
Of one whom other care constrains and goads

Than that of him who in his presence is;
And we our feet directed tow’rds the city,
After those holy words all confident.

Within we entered without any contest;
And I, who inclination had to see
What the condition such a fortress holds,

Soon as I was within, cast round mine eye,
And see on every hand an ample plain,
Full of distress and torment terrible.

Even as at Arles, where stagnant grows the Rhone,
Even as at Pola near to the Quarnaro,
That shuts in Italy and bathes its borders,

The sepulchres make all the place uneven;
So likewise did they there on every side,
Saving that there the manner was more bitter;

For flames between the sepulchres were scattered,
By which they so intensely heated were,
That iron more so asks not any art.

All of their coverings uplifted were,
And from them issued forth such dire laments,
Sooth seemed they of the wretched and tormented.

And I: “My Master, what are all those people
Who, having sepulture within those tombs,
Make themselves audible by doleful sighs ?”

And he to me: “Here are the Heresiarchs,
With their disciples of all sects, and much
More than thou thinkest laden are the tombs.

Here like together with its like is buried;
And more and less the monuments are heated.”
And when he to the right had turned, we passed

Between the torments and high parapets.

Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 9

For more readings by Francesco Bausi, see the Bausi Readings page.