It was like that wasteland dashed up by the Adige
On this side of Trent, created by earthquake,
Or by lands sinking down into the morass;
For from the summit, from which it descends
Down to the plain, the cliff is so fractured
As to provide a path to him who is above;
And thus was our descent into that chasm:
At the summit of this fractured ridge
The miscreant of Crete lay stretched before us,
Detested offspring of the brutish cow;
And when he saw us, he gnawed himself,
As one whom anger consumes from within.
To him my guide cried out: "Perhaps
You think here comes the King of Athens,
Who brought you death in the world above?
Be gone, you monster! for this one comes not
Informed by secrets obtained from your sister,
But rather he comes to observe your torments."
As with a bull who gives way at the moment
When he has been struck by the blow that brings death,
Who cannot walk, but staggers here and there,
So did the Minotaur as I looked on;
Whereupon the sage shouted: "Run to the passage!
While he is struggling, it is well you descend."
Thus we hastened down the path over those rugged crags
Which often shifted beneath my feet
To whose weight the stones were unaccustomed.
I proceeded thoughtfully; and he said: "You art thinking,
Perhaps, of this rugged steep, guarded
By that brute force which I just overcame.
Now you should realize, the other time
I descended down to the lowest Hell,
This precipice had not yet split apart.
For it was, if rightly I recall,
Just before His coming, who carried from Dis
The myriad spoil to the highest circle,
When throughout this deep and loathsome valley
Such trembling occurred, that I thought the Universe
Was thrilled with love, by which, some think,
The world is ofttimes thrown into chaos;
And at that moment this primeval crag
Was opened wide and broken down.
But fix your eyes below; we approach
The river of blood, wherein are engulfed
All those who injure others by violence."
O blind desire! O wrath insane!
That goads us onward in our short life,
Then in the eternal so miserably engulfs us!
I saw a huge and bow-shaped moat,
Which circled all around the plain,
Just like that which my Guide described.
Between it and the base of the cliff,
Along trails ran Centaurs armed with arrows,
As on the earth they used to hunt.
All halted on seeing us descend;
Three left the troop, each charged with bows
And with their arrows at the ready;
From afar one cried: "To what torment condemned?
You who down the hillside are descending,
Speak from there, else I draw the bow."
My Master shouted: "We'll answer to Chiron
When we come nearer to him over there;
Your mind is ill-tempered, your will quick and rash."
Then he touched me and whispered: "This one is Nessus,
Who perished for the lovely Dejanira,
And himself took vengeance for his own fate.
And he in the middle, with his head bowed down,
Is the great Chiron, who tutored Achilles;
That other is Pholus, so prone to wrath.
By the thousands these go about the moat
Piercing with spears any soul that emerges
Out of the blood, more than guilt allows."
We drew near those beasts that sprinted about;
Chiron took an arrow, and with the notch
Pushed back his beard upon his jaw,
Exposing to view his enormous mouth,
And shouted to his comrades: "Are you aware
That he walking behind moves whatever he touches?
The feet of the dead don't do such things."
My good Guide, who now was aside the beast
Where joins one nature to the other,
Replied: "Just he alone is alive,
And this dark valley must I show him;
Necessity compels us, not idle wish.
She ceased from singing Hallelujas in Heaven,
Who consigned this new office unto my care;
No invader is he, nor dark spirit I.
But by that virtue which empowers my journey,
Grant us, I pray, one of your band
To guide our steps on so harsh a path:
One who may lead us to the ford,
And carry this one upon his back;
For he's not a spirit that can walk on air."
Chiron turned round on his right and spoke
To Nessus: "Return, and be their guide,
And dispatch any band you chance to encounter."
Onward we moved with our faithful escort
Along the shore of the crimson flood,
Wherein arose loud shrieks from the drowned.
Some that I saw were sunk to their eyebrows,
And the great Centaur said: "These are the souls
Of tyrants who dealt in bloodshed and pillaging.
Here they lament their merciless wrongs;
Here is Alexander, and fierce Dionysius
Who brought upon Sicily many years of woe.
That forehead over there where hangs hair so black
Is Azzolino; and the other nearby,
Whose locks are blond is Obizzo of Esti,
Who, up in the world, was slain by his stepson."
Then I turned to the Poet; and thus he spoke:
"Make him your first guide, and I your second."
A little farther on the Centaur paused
Above a group, whose throat, it seemed,
Extended out from that turbulent stream;
And showing us a spirit, to one side, alone,
He said: "Before God, he smote the heart
Of him still honored on the bank of Thames."
Some people I saw next, whose head and chest
Were lifted entirely above the stream;
And many among these I remembered well.
Thus more and more shallow the blood became
Till at last it covered the feet alone;
And there across the moat our passage lay.
"Even, as you see, the boiling stream
At this point is reduced to little,"
The Centaur said, "You should understand
As it continues, the bed sinks lower,
More and more, until it rejoins
The part where tyranny's lot is to mourn.
There Justice divine lays a punishing hand
On Attila, who was a scourge on earth,
And Pyrrhus, and Sextus; and forever milks
The tears which are released by the boiling
From Rinieri da Corneto and Rinieri Pazzo,
Who filled the highways with violence and war."
This said, he left us, and recrossed the ford.
Copyright © 1998 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. All rights reserved.