Canto XIV

Me of my native place the dear constraint[433]
Led to restore the leaves which round were strewn,
To him whose voice by this time was grown faint.
Thence came we where the second round joins on
Unto the third, wherein how terrible
The art of justice can be, is well shown.
But, clearly of these wondrous things to tell,
I say we entered on a plain of sand
Which from its bed doth every plant repel.
The dolorous wood lies round it like a band,
As that by the drear fosse is circled round.

Upon its very edge we came to a stand.
And there was nothing within all that bound
But burnt and heavy sand; like that once trod
Beneath the feet of Cato[434] was the ground.
Ah, what a terror, O revenge of God!
Shouldst thou awake in any that may read
Of what before mine eyes was spread abroad.
I of great herds of naked souls took heed.

Most piteously was weeping every one;
And different fortunes seemed to them decreed.
For some of them[435] upon the ground lay prone,
And some were sitting huddled up and bent,
While others, restless, wandered up and down.
More numerous were they that roaming went
Than they that were tormented lying low;
But these had tongues more loosened to lament.
O'er all the sand, deliberate and slow,
Broad open flakes of fire were downward rained,
As 'mong the Alps[436] in calm descends the snow.

Such Alexander[437] saw when he attained
The hottest India; on his host they fell
And all unbroken on the earth remained;
Wherefore he bade his phalanxes tread well
The ground, because when taken one by one
The burning flakes they could the better quell.
So here eternal fire[438] was pouring down;
As tinder 'neath the steel, so here the sands
Kindled, whence pain more vehement was known.
And, dancing up and down, the wretched hands[439]
Beat here and there for ever without rest;
Brushing away from them the falling brands.
And I: 'O Master, by all things confessed
Victor, except by obdurate evil powers
Who at the gate[440] to stop our passage pressed,
Who is the enormous one who noway cowers
Beneath the fire; with fierce disdainful air
Lying as if untortured by the showers?'
And that same shade, because he was aware
That touching him I of my Guide was fain
To learn, cried: 'As in life, myself I bear
In death. Though Jupiter should tire again
His smith, from whom he snatched in angry bout
The bolt by which I at the last was slain;[441]
Though one by one he tire the others out
At the black forge in Mongibello[442] placed,
While "Ho, good Vulcan, help me!" he shall shout--
The cry he once at Phlegra's[443] battle raised;
Though hurled with all his might at me shall fly
His bolts, yet sweet revenge he shall not taste.'
Then spake my Guide, and in a voice so high
Never till then heard I from him such tone:
'O Capaneus, because unquenchably
Thy pride doth burn, worse pain by thee is known.

Into no torture save thy madness wild
Fit for thy fury couldest thou be thrown.'
Then, to me turning with a face more mild,
He said: 'Of the Seven Kings was he of old,
Who leaguered Thebes, and as he God reviled
Him in small reverence still he seems to hold;
But for his bosom his own insolence
Supplies fit ornament,[444] as now I told.
Now follow; but take heed lest passing hence
Thy feet upon the burning sand should tread;
But keep them firm where runs the forest fence.'[445]
We reached a place--nor any word we said--
Where issues from the wood a streamlet small;
I shake but to recall its colour red.
Like that which does from Bulicamë[446] fall,
And losel women later 'mong them share;
So through the sand this brooklet's waters crawl.
Its bottom and its banks I was aware
Were stone, and stone the rims on either side.

From this I knew the passage[447] must be there.
'Of all that I have shown thee as thy guide
Since when we by the gateway[448] entered in,
Whose threshold unto no one is denied,
Nothing by thee has yet encountered been
So worthy as this brook to cause surprise,
O'er which the falling fire-flakes quenched are seen.'
These were my Leader's words. For full supplies
I prayed him of the food of which to taste
Keen appetite he made within me rise.
'In middle sea there lies a country waste,
Known by the name of Crete,' I then was told,
'Under whose king[449] the world of yore was chaste.
There stands a mountain, once the joyous hold
Of woods and streams; as Ida 'twas renowned,
Now 'tis deserted like a thing grown old.

For a safe cradle 'twas by Rhea found.
To nurse her child[450] in; and his infant cry,
Lest it betrayed him, she with clamours drowned.
Within the mount an old man towereth high.
Towards Damietta are his shoulders thrown;
On Rome, as on his mirror, rests his eye.

His head is fashioned of pure gold alone;
Of purest silver are his arms and chest;
'Tis brass to where his legs divide; then down
From that is all of iron of the best,
Save the right foot, which is of baken clay;
And upon this foot doth he chiefly rest.
Save what is gold, doth every part display
A fissure dripping tears; these, gathering all
Together, through the grotto pierce a way.
From rock to rock into this deep they fall,
Feed Acheron[451] and Styx and Phlegethon,
Then downward travelling by this strait canal,
Far as the place where further slope is none,
Cocytus form; and what that pool may be
I say not now. Thou'lt see it further on.'
'If this brook rises,' he was asked by me,
'Within our world, how comes it that no trace
We saw of it till on this boundary?'
And he replied: 'Thou knowest that the place
Is round, and far as thou hast moved thy feet,
Still to the left hand[452] sinking to the base,
Nath'less thy circuit is not yet complete.
Therefore if something new we chance to spy,
Amazement needs not on thy face have seat.'
I then: 'But, Master, where doth Lethe lie,
And Phlegethon? Of that thou sayest nought;
Of this thou say'st, those tears its flood supply.'
'It likes me well to be by thee besought;
But by the boiling red wave,' I was told,
'To half thy question was an answer brought.

Lethe,[453] not in this pit, shalt thou behold.
Thither to wash themselves the spirits go,
When penitence has made them spotless souled.'
Then said he: 'From the wood 'tis fitting now
That we depart; behind me press thou nigh.
Keep we the margins, for they do not glow,
And over them, ere fallen, the fire-flakes die.'


[433] _Dear constraint_: The mention of Florence has awakened Dante to
pity, and he willingly complies with the request of the unnamed suicide
(_Inf._ xiii. 142). As a rule, the only service he consents to yield the
souls with whom he converses in Inferno is to restore their memory upon
earth; a favour he does not feign to be asked for in this case, out of
consideration, it may be, for the family of the sinner.

[434] _Cato_: Cato of Utica, who, after the defeat of Pompey at
Pharsalia, led his broken army across the Libyan desert to join King

[435] _Some of them, etc._: In this the third round of the Seventh
Circle are punished those guilty of sins of violence against God,
against nature, and against the arts by which alone a livelihood can
honestly be won. Those guilty as against God, the blasphemers, lie prone
like Capaneus (line 46), and are subject to the fiercest pain. Those
guilty of unnatural vice are stimulated into ceaseless motion, as
described in Cantos XV. and XVI. The usurers, those who despise honest
industry and the humanising arts of life, are found crouching on the
ground (_Inf._ xvii. 43).

[436] _The Alps_: Used here for mountains in general.

[437] _Such Alexander, etc._: The reference is to a pretended letter of
Alexander to Aristotle, in which he tells of the various hindrances met
with by his army from snow and rain and showers of fire. But in that
narrative it is the snow that is trampled down, while the flakes of fire
are caught by the soldiers upon their outspread cloaks. The story of the
shower of fire may have been suggested by Plutarch's mention of the
mineral oil in the province of Babylon, a strange thing to the Greeks;
and of how they were entertained by seeing the ground, which had been
sprinkled with it, burst into flame.

[438] _Eternal fire_: As always, the character of the place and of the
punishment bears a relation to the crimes of the inhabitants. They
sinned against nature in a special sense, and now they are confined to
the sterile sand where the only showers that fall are showers of fire.

[439] _The wretched hands_: The dance, named in the original the
_tresca_, was one in which the performers followed a leader and imitated
him in all his gestures, waving their hands as he did, up and down, and
from side to side. The simile is caught straight from common life.

[440] _At the gate_: Of the city of Dis (_Inf._ viii. 82).

[441] _Was slain, etc._: Capaneus, one of the Seven Kings, as told
below, when storming the walls of Thebes, taunted the other gods with
impunity, but his blasphemy against Jupiter was answered by a fatal

[442] _Mongibello_: A popular name of Etna, under which mountain was
situated the smithy of Vulcan and the Cyclopes.

[443] _Phlegra_: Where the giants fought with the gods.

[444] _Fit ornament, etc._: Even if untouched by the pain he affects to
despise, he would yet suffer enough from the mad hatred of God that
rages in his breast. Capaneus is the nearest approach to the Satan of
Milton found in the _Inferno_. From the need of getting law enough by
which to try the heathen Dante is led into some inconsistency. After
condemning the virtuous heathen to Limbo for their ignorance of the one
true God, he now condemns the wicked heathen to this circle for
despising false gods. Jupiter here stands for, as need scarcely be said,
the Supreme Ruler; and in that sense he is termed God (line 69). But it
remains remarkable that the one instance of blasphemous defiance of God
should be taken from classical fable.

[445] _The forest fence_: They do not trust themselves so much as to
step upon the sand, but look out on it from the verge of the forest
which encircles it, and which as they travel they have on the left hand.

[446] _Bulicamë_: A hot sulphur spring a couple of miles from Viterbo,
greatly frequented for baths in the Middle Ages; and, it is said,
especially by light women. The water boils up into a large pool, whence
it flows by narrow channels; sometimes by one and sometimes by another,
as the purposes of the neighbouring peasants require. Sulphurous fumes
rise from the water as it runs. The incrustation of the bottom, sides,
and edges of those channels gives them the air of being solidly built.

[447] _The passage_: On each edge of the canal there is a flat pathway
of solid stone; and Dante sees that only by following one of these can a
passage be gained across the desert, for to set foot on the sand is
impossible for him owing to the falling flakes of fire. There may be
found in his description of the solid and flawless masonry of the canal
a trace of the pleasure taken in good building by the contemporaries of
Arnolfo. Nor is it without meaning that the sterile sands, the abode of
such as despised honest labour, is crossed by a perfect work of art
which they are forbidden ever to set foot upon.

[448] _The gateway_: At the entrance to Inferno.

[449] _Whose king_: Saturn, who ruled the world in the Golden Age. He,
as the devourer of his own offspring, is the symbol of Time; and the
image of Time is therefore set by Dante in the island where he reigned.

[450] _Her child_: Jupiter, hidden in the mountain from his father

[451] _Feed Acheron, etc._: The idea of this image is taken from the
figure in Nebuchadnezzar's dream in Daniel ii. But here, instead of the
Four Empires, the materials of the statue represent the Four Ages of the
world; the foot of clay on which it stands being the present time, which
is so bad that even iron were too good to represent it. Time turns his
back to the outworn civilisations of the East, and his face to Rome,
which, as the seat of the Empire and the Church, holds the secret of the
future. The tears of time shed by every Age save that of Gold feed the
four infernal streams and pools of Acheron, Styx, Phlegethon, and
Cocytus. Line 117 indicates that these are all fed by the same water;
are in fact different names for the same flood of tears. The reason why
Dante has not hitherto observed the connection between them is that he
has not made a complete circuit of each or indeed of any circle, as
Virgil reminds him at line 124, etc. The rivulet by which they stand
drains the boiling Phlegethon--where the water is all changed to blood,
because in it the murderers are punished--and flowing through the forest
of the suicides and the desert of the blasphemers, etc., tumbles into
the Eighth Circle as described in Canto xvi. 103. Cocytus they are
afterward to reach. An objection to this account of the infernal rivers
as being all fed by the same waters may be found in the difference of
volume of the great river of Acheron (_Inf._ iii. 71) and of this
brooklet. But this difference is perhaps to be explained by the
evaporation from the boiling waters of Phlegethon and of this stream
which drains it. Dante is almost the only poet applied to whom such
criticism would not be trifling. Another difficult point is how Cocytus
should not in time have filled, and more than filled, the Ninth Circle.

[452] _To the left hand_: Twice only as they descend they turn their
course to the right hand (_Inf._ ix. 132, and xvii. 31). The circuit of
the Inferno they do not complete till they reach the very base.

[453] _Lethe_: Found in the Earthly Paradise, as described in
_Purgatorio_ xxviii. 130.