Canto VIII

I say, continuing,[312] that long before
To its foundations we approachèd nigh
Our eyes went travelling to the top of the tower;
For, hung out there, two flames[313] we could espy.
Then at such distance, scarce our eyesight made
It clearly out, another gave reply.
And, to the Sea of Knowledge turned, I said:
'What meaneth this? and what reply would yield
That other light, and who have it displayed?'
'Thou shouldst upon the impure watery field,'
He said, 'already what approaches know,
But that the fen-fog holds it still concealed.'
Never was arrow yet from sharp-drawn bow
Urged through the air upon a swifter flight
Than what I saw a tiny vessel show,
Across the water shooting into sight;
A single pilot served it for a crew,
Who shouted: 'Art thou come, thou guilty sprite?'[314]
'O Phlegyas, Phlegyas,[315] this thy loud halloo!
For once,' my Lord said, 'idle is and vain.

Thou hast us only till the mud we're through.'
And, as one cheated inly smarts with pain
When the deceit wrought on him is betrayed,
His gathering ire could Phlegyas scarce contain.
Into the bark my Leader stepped, and made
Me take my place beside him; nor a jot,
Till I had entered, was it downward weighed.
Soon as my Guide and I were in the boat,
To cleave the flood began the ancient prow,
Deeper[316] than 'tis with others wont to float.
Then, as the stagnant ditch we glided through,
One smeared with filth in front of me arose
And said: 'Thus coming ere thy period,[317] who
Art thou?' And I: 'As one who forthwith goes
I come; but thou defiled, how name they thee?'
'I am but one who weeps,'[318] he said. 'With woes,'
I answered him, 'with tears and misery,
Accursèd soul, remain; for thou art known
Unto me now, all filthy though thou be.'
Then both his hands were on the vessel thrown;
But him my wary Master backward heaved,
Saying: 'Do thou 'mong the other dogs be gone!'
Then to my neck with both his arms he cleaved,
And kissed my face, and, 'Soul disdainful,'[319] said,
'O blessed she in whom thou wast conceived!
He in the world great haughtiness displayed.

No deeds of worth his memory adorn;
And therefore rages here his sinful shade.
And many are there by whom crowns are worn
On earth, shall wallow here like swine in mire,
Leaving behind them names o'erwhelmed[320] in scorn.'
And I: 'O Master, I have great desire
To see him well soused in this filthy tide,
Ere from the lake we finally retire.'
And he: 'Or ever shall have been descried
The shore by thee, thy longing shall be met;
For such a wish were justly gratified.'
A little after in such fierce onset
The miry people down upon him bore,
I praise and bless God for it even yet.
'Philip Argenti![321] at him!' was the roar;
And then that furious spirit Florentine
Turned with his teeth upon himself and tore.
Here was he left, nor wins more words of mine.

Now in my ears a lamentation rung,
Whence I to search what lies ahead begin.
And the good Master told me: 'Son, ere long
We to the city called of Dis[322] draw near,
Where in great armies cruel burghers[323] throng.'
And I: 'Already, Master, I appear
Mosques[324] in the valley to distinguish well,
Vermilion, as if they from furnace were
Fresh come.' And he: 'Fires everlasting dwell
Within them, whence appear they glowing hot,
As thou discernest in this lower hell.'
We to the moat profound at length were brought,
Which girds that city all disconsolate;
The walls around it seemed of iron wrought.
Not without fetching first a compass great,
We came to where with angry cry at last:
'Get out,' the boatman yelled; 'behold the gate!'[325]
More than a thousand, who from Heaven[326] were cast,
I saw above the gates, who furiously
Demanded: 'Who, ere death on him has passed,
Holds through the region of the dead his way?'
And my wise Master made to them a sign
That he had something secretly to say.
Then ceased they somewhat from their great disdain,
And said: 'Come thou, but let that one be gone
Who thus presumptuous enters on this reign.

Let him retrace his madcap way alone,
If he but can; thou meanwhile lingering here,
Through such dark regions who hast led him down.'
Judge, reader, if I was not filled with fear,
Hearing the words of this accursèd threat;
For of return my hopes extinguished were.
'Beloved Guide, who more than seven times[327] set
Me in security, and safely brought
Through frightful dangers in my progress met,
Leave me not thus undone;' I him besought:
'If further progress be to us denied,
Let us retreat together, tarrying not.'
The Lord who led me thither then replied:
'Fear not: by One so great has been assigned
Our passage, vainly were all hindrance tried.
Await me here, and let thy fainting mind
Be comforted and with good hope be fed,
Not to be left in this low world behind.'
Thus goes he, thus am I abandonèd
By my sweet Father. I in doubt remain,
With Yes and No[328] contending in my head.
I could not hear what speech he did maintain,
But no long time conferred he in that place,
Till, to be first, all inward raced again.

And then the gates were closed in my Lord's face
By these our enemies; outside stood he;
Then backward turned to me with lingering pace,
With downcast eyes, and all the bravery
Stripped from his brows; and he exclaimed with sighs;
'Who dare[329] deny the doleful seats to me!'
And then he said: 'Although my wrath arise,
Fear not, for I to victory will pursue,
Howe'er within they plot, the enterprise.
This arrogance of theirs is nothing new;
They showed it[330] once at a less secret door
Which stands unbolted since. Thou didst it view,
And saw the dark-writ legend which it bore.
Thence, even now, is one who hastens down
Through all the circles, guideless, to this shore,
And he shall win us entrance to the town.'


[312] _Continuing_: The account of the Fifth Circle, begun in the
preceding Canto, is continued in this. It is impossible to adopt
Boccaccio's story of how the first seven Cantos were found among a heap
of other papers, years after Dante's exile began; and that 'continuing'
marks the resumption of his work. The word most probably suggested the
invention of the incident, or at least led to the identification of some
manuscript that may have been sent to Dante, with the opening pages of
the _Comedy_. If the tale were true, not only must Ciacco's prophecy
(_Inf._ vi.) have been interpolated, but we should be obliged to hold
that Dante began the poem while he was a prosperous citizen.--Boccaccio
himself in his Comment on the _Comedy_ points out the difficulty of
reconciling the story with Ciacco's prophecy.

[313] _Two flames_: Denoting the number of passengers who are to be
conveyed across the Stygian pool. It is a signal for the ferryman, and
is answered by a light hung out on the battlements of the city of Dis.

[314] _Guilty sprite_: Only one is addressed; whether Virgil or Dante is
not clear.

[315] _Phlegyas_: Who burnt the temple of Apollo at Delphi in revenge
for the violation of his daughter by the god.

[316] _Deeper, etc._: Because used to carry only shades.

[317] _Ere thy period_: The curiosity of the shade is excited by the
sinking of the boat in the water. He assumes that Dante will one day be
condemned to Inferno. Neither Francesca nor Ciacco made a like mistake.

[318] _One who weeps_: He is ashamed to tell his name, and hopes in his
vile disguise to remain unknown by Dante, whose Florentine speech and
dress, and perhaps whose features, he has now recognised.

[319] _Soul disdainful_: Dante has been found guilty of here glorying in
the same sin which he so severely reprobates in others. But, without
question, of set purpose he here contrasts righteous indignation with
the ignoble rage punished in this circle. With his quick temper and zeal
so often kindling into flame, he may have felt a special personal need
of emphasising the distinction.

[320] _Names o'erwhelmed, etc._: 'Horrible reproaches.'

[321] _Philip Argenti_: A Florentine gentleman related to the great
family of the Adimari, and a contemporary of Dante's. Boccaccio in his
commentary describes him as a cavalier, very rich, and so ostentatious
that he once shod his horse with silver, whence his surname. In the
_Decameron_ (ix. 8) he is introduced as violently assaulting--tearing
out his hair and dragging him in the mire--the victim of a practical
joke played by the Ciacco of Canto vi. Some, without reason, suppose
that Dante shows such severity to him because he was a Black, and so a
political opponent of his own.

[322] _Dis_: A name of Pluto, the god of the infernal regions.

[323] _Burghers_: The city of Dis composes the Sixth Circle, and, as
immediately appears, is populated by demons. The sinners punished in it
are not mentioned at all in this Canto, and it seems more reasonable to
apply _burghers_ to the demons than to the shades. They are called
_gravi_, generally taken to mean sore burdened, and the description is
then applicable to the shades; but _grave_ also bears the sense of
cruel, and may describe the fierceness of the devils. Though the city is
inhabited by the subjects of Dis, he is found as Lucifer at the very
bottom of the pit. By some critics the whole of the lower Inferno, all
that lies beyond this point, is regarded as being the city of Dis. But
it is the Sixth Circle, with its minarets, that is the city; its walls,
however, serving as bulwarks for all the lower Inferno. The shape of the
city is, of course, that of a circular belt. Here it may be noted that
the Fifth and Sixth Circles are on the same level; the water of Styx,
which as a marsh covers the Fifth, is gathered into a moat to surround
the walls of the Sixth.

[324] _Mosques_: The feature of an Infidel city that first struck
crusader and pilgrim.

[325] _The gate_: They have floated across the stagnant marsh into the
deeper waters of the moat, and up to the gate where Phlegyas is used to
land his passengers. It may be a question whether his services are
required for all who are doomed to the lower Inferno, or only for those
bound to the city.

[326] _From Heaven_: 'Rained from Heaven.' Fallen angels.

[327] _Seven times_: Given as a round number.

[328] _Yes and No_: He will return--He will not return. The demons have
said that Virgil shall remain, and he has promised Dante not to desert

[329] _Who dare, etc._: Virgil knows the hindrance is only temporary,
but wonders what superior devilish power can have incited the demons to
deny him entrance. The incident displays the fallen angels as being
still rebellious, and is at the same time skilfully conceived to mark a
pause before Dante enters on the lower Inferno.

[330] _They showed it, etc._: At the gate of Inferno, on the occasion of
Christ's descent to Limbo. The reference is to the words in the Missal
service for Easter Eve: 'This is the night in which, having burst the
bonds of death, Christ victoriously ascended from Hell.'