Canto IX

The hue which cowardice on my face did paint
When I beheld my guide return again,
Put his new colour[331] quicker 'neath restraint.

Like one who listens did he fixed remain;
For far to penetrate the air like night,
And heavy mist, the eye was bent in vain.
'Yet surely we must vanquish in the fight;'
Thus he, 'unless[332]--but with such proffered aid--
O how I weary till he come in sight!'
Well I remarked how he transition made,
Covering his opening words with those behind,
Which contradicted what at first he said.
Nath'less his speech with terror charged my mind,
For, haply, to the word which broken fell
Worse meaning than he purposed, I assigned.
Down to this bottom[333] of the dismal shell
Comes ever any from the First Degree,[334]
Where all their pain is, stripped of hope to dwell?
To this my question thus responded he:
'Seldom it haps to any to pursue
The journey now embarked upon by me.

Yet I ere this descended, it is true,
Beneath a spell of dire Erichtho's[335] laid,
Who could the corpse with soul inform anew.
Short while my flesh of me was empty made
When she required me to o'erpass that wall,
From Judas' circle[336] to abstract a shade.
That is the deepest, darkest place of all,
And furthest from the heaven[337] which moves the skies;
I know the way; fear nought that can befall.
These fens[338] from which vile exhalations rise
The doleful city all around invest,
Which now we reach not save in angry wise.'
Of more he spake nought in my mind doth rest,
For, with mine eyes, my every thought had been
Fixed on the lofty tower with flaming crest,
Where, in a moment and upright, were seen
Three hellish furies, all with blood defaced,
And woman-like in members and in mien.

Hydras of brilliant green begirt their waist;
Snakes and cerastes for their tresses grew,
And these were round their dreadful temples braced.
That they the drudges were, full well he knew,
Of her who is the queen of endless woes,
And said to me: 'The fierce Erynnyes[339] view!
Herself upon the left Megæra shows;
That is Alecto weeping on the right;
Tisiphone's between.' Here made he close.
Each with her nails her breast tore, and did smite
Herself with open palms. They screamed in tone
So fierce, I to the Poet clove for fright.
'Medusa,[340] come, that we may make him stone!'
All shouted as they downward gazed; 'Alack!
Theseus[341] escaped us when he ventured down.'
'Keep thine eyes closed and turn to them thy back,
For if the Gorgon chance to be displayed
And thou shouldst look, farewell the upward track!'
Thus spake the Master, and himself he swayed
Me round about; nor put he trust in mine
But his own hands upon mine eyelids laid.

O ye with judgment gifted to divine
Look closely now, and mark what hidden lore
Lies 'neath the veil of my mysterious line![342]
Across the turbid waters came a roar
And crash of sound, which big with fear arose:
Because of it fell trembling either shore.
The fashion of it was as when there blows
A blast by cross heats made to rage amain,
Which smites the forest and without repose
The shattered branches sweeps in hurricane;
In clouds of dust, majestic, onward flies,
Wild beasts and herdsmen driving o'er the plain.
'Sharpen thy gaze,' he bade--and freed mine eyes--
'Across the foam-flecked immemorial lake,
Where sourest vapour most unbroken lies.'
And as the frogs before the hostile snake
Together of the water get them clear,
And on the dry ground, huddling, shelter take;
More than a thousand ruined souls in fear
Beheld I flee from one who, dry of feet,
Was by the Stygian ferry drawing near.
Waving his left hand he the vapour beat
Swiftly from 'fore his face, nor seemed he spent
Save with fatigue at having this to meet.

Well I opined that he from Heaven[343] was sent,
And to my Master turned. His gesture taught
I should be dumb and in obeisance bent.
Ah me, how with disdain appeared he fraught!
He reached the gate, which, touching with a rod,[344]
He oped with ease, for it resisted not.
'People despised and banished far from God,'
Upon the awful threshold then he spoke,
'How holds in you such insolence abode?
Why kick against that will which never broke
Short of its end, if ever it begin,
And often for you fiercer torments woke?
Butting 'gainst fate, what can ye hope to win?
Your Cerberus,[345] as is to you well known,
Still bears for this a well-peeled throat and chin.'
Then by the passage foul he back was gone,
Nor spake to us, but like a man was he
By other cares[346] absorbed and driven on
Than that of those who may around him be.
And we, confiding in the sacred word,
Moved toward the town in all security.

We entered without hindrance, and I, spurred
By my desire the character to know
And style of place such strong defences gird,
Entering, begin mine eyes around to throw,
And see on every hand a vast champaign,
The teeming seat of torments and of woe.
And as at Arles[347] where Rhone spreads o'er the plain,
Or Pola,[348] hard upon Quarnaro sound
Which bathes the boundaries Italian,
The sepulchres uneven make the ground;
So here on every side, but far more dire
And grievous was the fashion of them found.
For scattered 'mid the tombs blazed many a fire,
Because of which these with such fervour burned
No arts which work in iron more require.
All of the lids were lifted. I discerned
By keen laments which from the tombs arose
That sad and suffering ones were there inurned.

I said: 'O Master, tell me who are those
Buried within the tombs, of whom the sighs
Come to our ears thus eloquent of woes?'
And he to me: 'The lords of heresies[349]
With followers of all sects, a greater band
Than thou wouldst think, these sepulchres comprise.
To lodge them like to like the tombs are planned.
The sepulchres have more or less of heat.'[350]
Then passed we, turning to the dexter hand,[351]
'Tween torments and the lofty parapet.


[331] _New colour_: Both have changed colour, Virgil in anger and Dante
in fear.

[332] _Unless_: To conceal his misgiving from Dante, Virgil refrains
from expressing all his thought. The 'unless' may refer to what the
lying demons had told him or threatened him with; the 'proffered aid,'
to that involved in Beatrice's request.

[333] _This bottom_: The lower depths of Inferno. How much still lies
below him is unknown to Dante.

[334] _First Degree_: The limbo where Virgil resides. Dante by an
indirect question, seeks to learn how much experience of Inferno is
possessed by his guide.

[335] _Erichtho_: A Thessalian sorceress, of whom Lucan (_Pharsalia_
vi.) tells that she evoked a shade to predict to Sextus Pompey the
result of the war between his father and Cæsar. This happened thirty
years before the death of Virgil.

[336] _Judas' circle_: The Judecca, or very lowest point of the Inferno.
Virgil's death preceded that of Judas by fifty years. He gives no hint
of whose the shade was that he went down to fetch; but Lucan's tale was
probably in Dante's mind. In the Middle Ages the memory of Virgil was
revered as that of a great sorcerer, especially in the neighbourhood of

[337] _The heaven, etc._: The _Primum Mobile_; but used here for the
highest heaven. See _Inf._ ii. 83, _note_.

[338] _These fens, etc._: Virgil knows the locality. They have no
choice, but must remain where they are, for the same moat and wall gird
the city all around.

[339] _Erynnyes_: The Furies. The Queen of whom they are handmaids is
Proserpine, carried off by Dis, or Pluto, to the under world.

[340] _Medusa_: One of the Gorgons. Whoever looked on the head of Medusa
was turned into stone.

[341] _Theseus_: Who descended into the infernal regions to rescue
Proserpine, and escaped by the help of Hercules.

[342] _Mysterious line_: 'Strange verses:' That the verses are called
strange, as Boccaccio and others of the older commentators say, because
treating of such a subject in the vulgar tongue for the first time, and
in rhyme, is difficult to believe. Rather they are strange because of
the meaning they convey. What that is, Dante warns the reader of
superior intellect to pause and consider. It has been noted (_Inf._ ii.

28) how he uses the characters of the old mythology as if believing in
their real existence. But this is for his poetical ends. Here he bids us
look below the surface and seek for the truth hidden under the strange
disguise.--The opposition to their progress offered by the powers of
Hell perplexes even Virgil, while Dante is reduced to a state of
absolute terror, and is afflicted with still sharper misgivings than he
had at the first as to the issue of his adventure. By an indirect
question he seeks to learn how much Virgil really knows of the economy
of the lower world; but he cannot so much as listen to all of his
Master's reassuring answer, terrified as he is by the sudden appearance
of the Furies upon the tower, which rises out of the city of unbelief.
These symbolise the trouble of his conscience, and, assailing him with
threats, shake his already trembling faith in the Divine government.
How, in the face of such foes, is he to find the peace and liberty of
soul of which he is in search? That this is the city of unbelief he has
not yet been told, and without knowing it he is standing under the very
walls of Doubting Castle. And now, if he chance to let his eyes rest on
the Gorgon's head, his soul will be petrified by despair; like the
denizens of Hell, he will lose the 'good of the intellect,' and will
pass into a state from which Virgil--or reason--will be powerless to
deliver him. But Virgil takes him in time, and makes him avert his eyes;
which may signify that the only safe course for men is to turn their
backs on the deep and insoluble problem of how the reality of the Divine
government can be reconciled with the apparent triumph of evil.

[343] _From Heaven_: The messenger comes from Heaven, and his words are
holy. Against the obvious interpretation, that he is a good angel, there
lies the objection that no other such is met with in Inferno, and also
that it is spoken of as a new sight for him when Dante first meets with
one in Purgatory. But the obstruction now to be overcome is worthy of
angelic interference; and Dante can hardly be said to meet the
messenger, who does not even glance in his direction. The commentators
have made this angel mean all kind of outlandish things.

[344] _A rod_: A piece of the angelic outfit, derived from the
_caduceus_ of Mercury.

[345] _Cerberus_: Hercules, when Cerberus opposed his entrance to the
infernal regions, fastened a chain round his neck and dragged him to the
gate. The angel's speech answers Dante's doubts as to the limits of
diabolical power.

[346] _By other cares, etc._: It is not in Inferno that Dante is to hold
converse with celestial intelligences. The angel, like Beatrice when she
sought Virgil in Limbo, is all on fire to return to his own place.

[347] _Arles_: The Alyscampo (Elysian Fields) at Arles was an enormous
cemetery, of which ruins still exist. It had a circumference of about
six miles, and contained numerous sarcophagi dating from Roman times.

[348] _Pola_: In Istria, near the Gulf of Quarnaro, said to have
contained many ancient tombs.

[349] _Lords of heresies_: 'Heresiarchs.' Dante now learns for the first
time that Dis is the city of unbelief. Each class of heretics has its
own great sepulchre.

[350] _More or less of heat_: According to the heinousness of the heresy
punished in each. It was natural to associate heretics and punishment by
fire in days when Dominican monks ruled the roast.

[351] _Dexter hand_: As they move across the circles, and down from one
to the other, their course is usually to the left hand. Here for some
reason Virgil turns to the right, so as to have the tombs on the left as
he advances. It may be that a special proof of his knowledge of the
locality is introduced when most needed--after the repulse by the
demons--to strengthen Dante's confidence in him as a guide; or, as some
subtly think, they being now about to enter the abode of heresy, the
movement to the right signifies the importance of the first step in
forming opinion. The only other occasion on which their course is taken
to the right hand is at _Inf._ xvii. 31.