We came to the barrier, which divided
The second round from the third, and where
Is seen a horrible dispensing of Justice.
In order to clearly explain these things,
I'll tell how we arrived at a plain,
Which rejected every plant from its terrain;
Circled by the mournful forest like a wreath,
As round the forest the dismal moat coiled,
There at its edge we halted our steps.
The area was spread with arid, dense sand,
Resembling most that ancient ground
That once was trod by the feet of Cato.
Vengeance of Heaven! O how much dreaded
You should be by all, who are able to read
That which was manifest before my eyes!
I beheld many herds of naked souls,
Who all were weeping with great lamentation,
Each subjected, it seemed, to different edicts.
Some lay supine upon the ground;
And some were sitting all huddled together,
While others never ceased to pace about.
Those pacing around were far more numerous,
And fewer were those who lay down in torment,
But these were louder in their lamentation.
Over all the sand was slowing drifting,
A steady rain of broad flakes of fire,
Like snow on the Alps when there is no wind.
As Alexander, in India's torrid regions,
Saw streams of fire descend to earth
And fall upon his warrior band,
Whereupon he commanded his troops to trample
Upon the soil, because the flames
Were easier to extinguish while newly fallen;
So fell the eternal fiery deluge,
Whereby the sand was made to glow,
Like coals in a stove, thus doubling the torment.
Unceasing was the movement of wretched hands,
Now here, now there, to brush away
The fiery flakes that had newly fallen.
"Master," I began, "you who overcame
All things except those horrid demons,
That rushed to stop our entrance at the gate,
Who is that gigantic spirit that seems
To ignore the fire, but in proud scorn
Lies curled as though unaffected by the rain?"
When he was aware that I'd asked my Guide,
He cried: "Just as I was when alive,
So am I now that I am dead.
If Jove should tire out his smith from whom
In anger he seized the lightning bolt
With which he smote me on my last day,
And if he wore out the others in Mongibello
Who labored by turns at their blackened forge,
While crying aloud, 'Help, help, good Vulcan!'
As once he did in the Phlegraean warfare,
And with all his might launched his bolts at me,
He would still not enjoy his sweet revenge."
Then spoke my Guide with such great force,
That never had I heard him speak so loud:
"O Capaneus, herein lies your greatest punishment:
Your arrogance lives within you unextinguished;
There is no torment, beside your own rage,
That could fully equal your own fury's pain."
Then he turned to me with a milder tongue,
Saying: "He was one of the Seven Kings
Who besieged Thebes, and now, it seems,
Holds God in disdain, setting at nought
His high omnipotence; but as I told him,
His own malignity is his breast's fittest ornament.
Now follow me, and be sure you avoid
Putting your feet on the burning sand,
But keep them always upon the foliage."
Speaking not a word, we came to where
A little brook gushes from the wood,
Whose redness still makes my hair stand on end.
As the brooklet that springs from the Bulicame,
Which is portioned out to the sinful women,
So down through the sand it flowed on its way.
Its bottom and both of its sloping sides
Were made of stone, with a bank at each shore
Where I perceived our passage lay.
"Of all the things that I have shown you
Since first we entered through that gate
Whose threshold is denied to none,
Nothing which your eyes have discovered
Is so worthy of regard as is this river,
Which quenches all the flames above it."
So spoke my Guide; and I besought him
That he would satisfy the hunger
For knowledge whose appetite he had awakened.
Immediately he began, "In the midst of the ocean,"
Lies a wasted land named Crete, whose king
Of old ruled a world pure and chaste.
A mountain called Ida rises there,
That once was gladsome with flowers and streams,
But now is deserted like a thing forbidden.
It was the place which Rhea once chose
For her son's secret cradle, and the better to conceal him,
She drowned with her shouts his infant cries.
An ancient colossus stands within the mount,
And turns his shoulders towards Damiata,
And looks at Rome as if in his mirror.
His head is fashioned of finest gold,
And the arms and breast are of purest silver;
And then he is brass down to the loins.
From there and below all is well-tempered steel,
Except the right foot, made of potter's clay,
On which he stands more than on the other.
Each part, except the gold, is severed,
And from the crack are tears dripping down,
Which join together and flow through that cave.
From rock to rock they splash into this valley,
And form Acheron, and Styx, and Phlegethon;
Then pass below through this narrow brook
Down to a point, the lowest possible.
They form Cocytus, whose lake you shall see,
So I'll give no account of it for now."
Then I to him: "If from our world
This narrow channel makes its origin,
Why only now does it appear at this shore?"
He replied: "This place, as you know, is round,
And though you have passed through the greater part,
Ever descending on the left to the bottom,
You have not yet travelled throughout the circle.
Therefore if something new does appear to us,
It should not bring amazement to your face."
And I again: "Where flows the streams
Of Lethe and Phlegethon? for of one you are silent,
But the other, you say, is made of this rain."
"I am pleased to hear all the questions you ask,"
He replied to me. "But the boiling red stream
Should resolve the one that now you ask.
You shall see Lethe, but not in this place,
It is where the souls go to bathe themselves,
Whose guilt has been cleansed by doing penance.
The time has come to abandon the wood;
Take care that you follow closely," he added.
"The shores provide a way free from burning,
And all the flames are extinguished over them."
Copyright © 1998 by Eyler Robert Coates, Sr. All rights reserved.