He stood attentive, like a man who listens,
For his eyes could barely see the way
Through the murky air and the heavy fog.
"Still it behooves us to win this fight,"
Thus he began, "Else, help is offered...
But Oh! How long till the help arrive?!"
I noticed how the words that he at first
Had spoken were confused by what came afterward:
The last agreed not with the first;
But still his speaking gave me fear;
Perhaps I finished the broken phrases,
Making worse meaning than he'd intended.
"Into the depths of this sorrowful pit
Does any ever come from the first degree,
Whose pain is merely loss of hope?"
Thus I inquired, and he replied:
"Seldom it happens that one of us
Will make the journey upon which I go.
'Tis true I once came here below
Conjured by Erictho, that vile sorceress,
Who summoned the shades back to their bodies.
'Twas shortly after my flesh was rid of me,
Within these walls she made me enter,
To draw forth a spirit from the circle of Judas;
That is the lowest and darkest region,
And farthest removed from the orb of heaven.
Hence I know the way; therefore rest assured.
This moat, which exhales a prodigious stench,
Encompasses about the city of grief,
Which now we can't enter without invoking rage."
And more he said, but I recall it not;
For my eye's attention was drawn away
To the lofty tower with the flame on its summit,
Where all in an instant I saw uprisen
Three hellish Furies stained with blood,
Whose limbs and movements appeared as feminine,
Around them greenish hydras were twisted;
Small serpents and vipers replaced their hair,
And entwined about their horrid temples.
Then he who knew well these miserable hags
Which serve the Queen of endless woe,
Said: "Watch carefully the fierce Erinnys.
The one on the left-hand side is Megaera;
She who weeps on the right is Alecto;
In the middle is Tisiphone," and then fell silent.
Each one her breast ripped with her nails;
And beating themselves with their palms, cried so loud,
That I for dread stood near the Poet.
"Come, Medusa, we will change him to stone!"
All shouted while looking down. "When Theseus
assaulted us, we took no revenge!"
"Turn yourself round, and hide your face!
For if the Gorgon appear and you see it,
Your returning upward is forever lost!"
Thus said the Master as he whirled me around,
Nor trusted my hands to cover my face,
But with his own he hid my eyes.
O you with unclouded intellectual vision,
Discern the teaching that conceals itself
Beneath the veil of these mysterious words!
And now there came over the turbid waves
A roaring sound, so filled with terror,
It made both of the shores to tremble;
It was like the rush of an impetuous wind
That arises from the conflict of clashing vapours,
And smites the forest with all its might,
Rending the branches and beating them down,
Then hurling them away; it rages supreme,
Putting wild beasts and shepherds to flight.
He uncovered my eyes and said: "Now direct
Your vision across that ancient foam,
Over there where the fog is most impenetrable."
As frogs all scatter across the water
Upon the approach of a devouring serpent,
Till each is huddled in the earth,
More than a thousand ruined souls
I saw flee before a Being whose feet
Stayed dry after passing over the Styx.
While off his face he fanned that noxious air,
Often waving his left hand before him,
And only seemed wearied with that annoyance.
I then perceived he was sent from Heaven,
And turning to my Master he signalled
That I should stand quiet and bow before him.
Ah! how filled with noble indignation he appeared!
He approached the gate, and touched it with his rod,
Whereupon it flew open without hesitation.
"You outcasts of Heaven! You people despised!"
Thus he began upon the horrid threshold;
"Whence is this arrogance which is lodged within you?
Why do you rebel against that will,
Whose end can never be frustrated,
And thereby multiply your pain?
What does it profit to resist the Fates?
For that Cerberus, you well remember,
Had his chin and throat both stripped of hair."
Speaking thus, he returned to the filthy road,
And spoke not a word to us, but had
The look of one by care oppressed,
Unaware of him who stood in his presence;
Then we directed our steps toward the city,
Feeling secure after those holy words.
We entered therein without opposition;
And I, with a mind that was eager to learn
What was the state of such a fortress,
As soon as I entered, cast my eye around,
And saw on every hand an abyss
Full of bitter distress and torment.
As at Arles where the Rhone stagnates on the plains,
Or at Pola near the gulf of Quarnaro,
That closes 'round Italy and bathes its borders,
Where the land is covered with numerous tombs;
So was it here on every side,
Save that here it far excelled in horror;
For flames were scattered between the tombs,
By which they were so greatly heated,
That no craft needs iron made any hotter.
All of their lids were hung suspended,
And from them issued such lamentable moans
Only as come from the wretched and tormented.
Said I: "My Master, who are these people
Who lie interred within these vaults,
From whom we hear these doleful sighs?"
He answered: "Here lie the arch-heretics,
Together with their disciples of every sect,
For the tombs are filled with more than you think.
Here like with like are buried together;
And the monuments are heated, some more, some less."
Saying that, he turned to the right, and we passed
Between the tormented and the high parapets.
Copyright © 1998 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. All rights reserved.