Canto XV

Now lies[454] our way along one of the margins hard;
Steam rising from the rivulet forms a cloud,
Which 'gainst the fire doth brook and borders guard.

Like walls the Flemings, timorous of the flood
Which towards them pours betwixt Bruges and Cadsand,[455]
Have made, that ocean's charge may be withstood;
Or what the Paduans on the Brenta's strand
To guard their castles and their homesteads rear,
Ere Chiarentana[456] feel the spring-tide bland;
Of the same fashion did those dikes appear,
Though not so high[457] he made them, nor so vast,
Whoe'er the builder was that piled them here.
We, from the wood when we so far had passed
I should not have distinguished where it lay
Though I to see it backward glance had cast,
A group of souls encountered on the way,
Whose line of march was to the margin nigh.
Each looked at us--as by the new moon's ray
Men peer at others 'neath the darkening sky--
Sharpening his brows on us and only us,
Like an old tailor on his needle's eye.
And while that crowd was staring at me thus,
One of them knew me, caught me by the gown,
And cried aloud: 'Lo, this is marvellous!'[458]
And straightway, while he thus to me held on,
I fixed mine eyes upon his fire-baked face,
And, spite of scorching, seemed his features known,
And whose they were my memory well could trace;
And I, with hand[459] stretched toward his face below,
Asked: 'Ser Brunetto![460] and is this your place?'
'O son,' he answered, 'no displeasure show,
If now Brunetto Latini shall some way
Step back with thee, and leave his troop to go.'
I said: 'With all my heart for this I pray,
And, if you choose, I by your side will sit;
If he, for I go with him, grant delay.'
'Son,' said he, 'who of us shall intermit
Motion a moment, for an age must lie
Nor fan himself when flames are round him lit.

On, therefore! At thy skirts I follow nigh,
Then shall I overtake my band again,
Who mourn a loss large as eternity.'
I dared not from the path step to the plain
To walk with him, but low I bent my head,[461]
Like one whose steps are all with reverence ta'en.
'What fortune or what destiny,' he said,
'Hath brought thee here or e'er thou death hast seen;
And who is this by whom thou'rt onward led?'
'Up yonder,' said I, 'in the life serene,
I in a valley wandered all forlorn
Before my years had full accomplished been.
I turned my back on it but yestermorn;[462]
Again I sought it when he came in sight
Guided by whom[463] I homeward thus return.'
And he to me: 'Following thy planet's light[464]
Thou of a glorious haven canst not fail,
If in the blithesome life I marked aright.
And had my years known more abundant tale,
Seeing the heavens so held thee in their grace
I, heartening thee, had helped thee to prevail.

But that ungrateful and malignant race
Which down from Fiesole[465] came long ago,
And still its rocky origin betrays,
Will for thy worthiness become thy foe;
And with good reason, for 'mong crab-trees wild
It ill befits the mellow fig to grow.
By widespread ancient rumour are they styled
A people blind, rapacious, envious, vain:
See by their manners thou be not defiled.
Fortune reserves such honour for thee, fain
Both sides[466] will be to enlist thee in their need;
But from the beak the herb shall far remain.
Let beasts of Fiesole go on to tread
Themselves to litter, nor the plants molest,
If any such now spring on their rank bed,
In whom there flourishes indeed the blest
Seed of the Romans who still lingered there
When of such wickedness 'twas made the nest.'
'Had I obtained full answer to my prayer,
You had not yet been doomed,' I then did say,
'This exile from humanity to bear.

For deep within my heart and memory
Lives the paternal image good and dear
Of you, as in the world, from day to day,
How men escape oblivion you made clear;
My thankfulness for which shall in my speech
While I have life, as it behoves, appear.
I note what of my future course you teach.
Stored with another text[467] it will be glozed
By one expert, should I that Lady reach.
Yet would I have this much to you disclosed:
If but my conscience no reproaches yield,
To all my fortune is my soul composed.

Not new to me the hint by you revealed;
Therefore let Fortune turn her wheel apace,
Even as she will; the clown[468] his mattock wield.'
Thereon my Master right about[469] did face,
And uttered this, with glance upon me thrown:
'He hears[470] to purpose who doth mark the place.'
And none the less I, speaking, still go on
With Ser Brunetto; asking him to tell
Who of his band[471] are greatest and best known.
And he to me: 'To hear of some is well,
But of the rest 'tis fitting to be dumb,
And time is lacking all their names to spell.
That all of them were clerks, know thou in sum,
All men of letters, famous and of might;
Stained with one sin[472] all from the world are come.
Priscian[473] goes with that crowd of evil plight,
Francis d'Accorso[474] too; and hadst thou mind
For suchlike trash thou mightest have had sight
Of him the Slave[475] of Slaves to change assigned
From Arno's banks to Bacchiglione, where
His nerves fatigued with vice he left behind.

More would I say, but neither must I fare
Nor talk at further length, for from the sand
I see new dust-clouds[476] rising in the air,
I may not keep with such as are at hand.
Care for my _Treasure_;[477] for I still survive
In that my work. I nothing else demand.'
Then turned he back, and ran like those who strive
For the Green Cloth[478] upon Verona's plain;
And seemed like him that shall the first arrive,
And not like him that labours all in vain.


[454] _Now lies, etc._: The stream on issuing from the wood flows right
across the waste of sand which that encompasses. To follow it they must
turn to the right, as always when, their general course being to the
left, they have to cross a Circle. But such a veering to the right is a
consequence of their leftward course, and not an exception to it.

[455] _Cadsand_: An island opposite to the mouth of the great canal of

[456] _Chiarentana_: What district or mountain is here meant has been
much disputed. It can be taken for Carinthia only on the supposition
that Dante was ignorant of where the Brenta rises. At the source of that
river stands the Monte Chiarentana, but it may be a question how old
that name is. The district name of it is Canzana, or Carenzana.

[457] _Not so high, etc._: This limitation is very characteristic of
Dante's style of thought, which compels him to a precision that will
produce the utmost possible effect of verisimilitude in his description.
Most poets would have made the walls far higher and more vast, by way of
lending grandeur to the conception.

[458] _Marvellous_: To find Dante, whom he knew, still living, and
passing through the Circle.

[459] _With hand, etc._: 'With my face bent to his' is another reading,
but there seems to be most authority for that in the text.--The fiery
shower forbids Dante to stoop over the edge of the causeway. To
Brunetto, who is some feet below him, he throws out his open hand, a
gesture of astonishment mingled with pity.

[460] _Ser Brunetto_: Brunetto Latini, a Florentine, was born in 1220.
As a notary he was entitled to be called Ser, or Messer. As appears from
the context, Dante was under great intellectual obligations to him, not,
we may suppose, as to a tutor so much as to an active-minded and
scholarly friend of mature age, and possessed of a ripe experience of
affairs. The social respect that Dante owed him is indicated by the use
of the plural form of address. See note, _Inf._ x. 51. Brunetto held
high appointments in the Republic. Perhaps with some exaggeration,
Villani says of him that he was the first to refine the Florentines,
teaching them to speak correctly, and to administer State affairs on
fixed principles of politics (_Cronica_, viii. 10). A Guelf in politics,
he shared in the exile of his party after the Ghibeline victory of
Montaperti in 1260, and for some years resided in Paris. There is reason
to suppose that he returned to Florence in 1269, and that he acted as
prothonotary of the court of Charles of Valois' vicar-general in
Tuscany. His signature as secretary to the Council of Florence is found
under the date of 1273. He died in 1294, when Dante was twenty-nine, and
was buried in the cloister of Santa Maria Maggiore, where his tombstone
may still be seen. (Not in Santa Maria Novella.) Villani mentions him in
his Chronicle with some reluctance, seeing he was a 'worldly man.' His
life must indeed have been vicious to the last, before Dante could have
had the heart to fix him in such company. Brunetto's chief works are the
_Tesoro_ and _Tesoretto_. For the _Tesoro_, see note at line 119. The
_Tesoretto_, or _Little Treasure_, is an allegorical poem in Italian
rhymed couplets. In it he imagines himself, as he is on his return from
an embassy to Alphonso of Castile, meeting a scholar of Bologna of whom
he asks 'in smooth sweet words for news of Tuscany.' Having been told of
the catastrophe of Montaperti he wanders out of the beaten way into the
Forest of Roncesvalles, where he meets with various experiences; he is
helped by Ovid, is instructed by Ptolemy, and grows penitent for his
sins. In this, it will be seen, there is a general resemblance to the
action of the _Comedy_. There are even turns of expression that recall
Dante (_e.g._ beginning of _Cap._ iv.); but all together amounts to

[461] _Low I bent my head_: But not projecting it beyond the line of
safety, strictly defined by the edge of the causeway. We are to imagine
to ourselves the fire of Sodom falling on Brunetto's upturned face, and
missing Dante's head only by an inch.

[462] _Yestermorn_: This is still the Saturday. It was Friday when Dante
met Virgil.

[463] _Guided by whom_: Brunetto has asked who the guide is, and Dante
does not tell him. A reason for the refusal has been ingeniously found
in the fact that among the numerous citations of the _Treasure_ Brunetto
seldom quotes Virgil. See also the charge brought against Guido
Cavalcanti (_Inf._ x. 63), of holding Virgil in disdain. But it is
explanation enough of Dante's omission to name his guide that he is
passing through Inferno to gain experience for himself, and not to
satisfy the curiosity of the shades he meets. See note on line 99.

[464] _Thy planet's light_: Some think that Brunetto had cast Dante's
horoscope. In a remarkable passage (_Parad._ xxii. 112) Dante attributes
any genius he may have to the influence of the Twins, which
constellation was in the ascendant when he was born. See also _Inf._
xxvi. 23. But here it is more likely that Brunetto refers to his
observation of Dante's good qualities, from which he gathered that he
was well starred.

[465] _Fiesole_: The mother city of Florence, to which also most of the
Fiesolans were believed to have migrated at the beginning of the
eleventh century. But all the Florentines did their best to establish a
Roman descent for themselves; and Dante among them. His fellow-citizens
he held to be for the most part of the boorish Fiesolan breed, rude and
stony-hearted as the mountain in whose cleft the cradle of their race
was seen from Florence.

[466] _Both sides_: This passage was most likely written not long after
Dante had ceased to entertain any hope of winning his way back to
Florence in the company of the Whites, whose exile he shared, and when
he was already standing in proud isolation from Black and White, from
Guelf and Ghibeline. There is nothing to show that his expectation of
being courted by both sides ever came true. Never a strong partisan, he
had, to use his own words, at last to make a party by himself, and stood
out an Imperialist with his heart set on the triumph of an Empire far
nobler than that the Ghibeline desired. Dante may have hoped to hold a
place of honour some day in the council of a righteous Emperor; and this
may be the glorious haven with the dream of which he was consoled in the
wanderings of his exile.

[467] _Another text_: Ciacco and Farinata have already hinted at the
troubles that lie ahead of him (_Inf._ vi. 65, and x. 79).

[468] _The clown, etc._: The honest performance of duty is the best
defence against adverse fortune.

[469] _Right about_: In traversing the sands they keep upon the
right-hand margin of the embanked stream, Virgil leading the way, with
Dante behind him on the right so that Brunetto may see and hear him

[470] _He hears, etc._: Of all the interpretations of this somewhat
obscure sentence that seems the best which applies it to Virgil's
_Quicquid erit, superanda omnis fortuna ferendo est_--'Whatever shall
happen, every fate is to be vanquished by endurance' (_Æn._ v. 710).
Taking this way of it, we have in the form of Dante's profession of
indifference to all the adverse fortune that may be in store for him a
refined compliment to his Guide; and in Virgil's gesture and words an
equally delicate revelation of himself to Brunetto, in which is conveyed
an answer to the question at line 48, 'Who is this that shows the
way?'--Otherwise, the words convey Virgil's approbation of Dante's
having so well attended to his advice to store Farinata's prophecy in
his memory (_Inf._ x.127).

[471] _His band_: That is, the company to which Brunetto specially
belongs, and from which for the time he has separated himself.

[472] _Stained with one sin_: Dante will not make Brunetto individually
confess his sin.

[473] _Priscian_: The great grammarian of the sixth century; placed here
without any reason, except that he is a representative teacher of youth.

[474] _Francis d'Accorso_: Died about 1294. The son of a great civil
lawyer, he was himself professor of the civil law at Bologna, where his
services were so highly prized that the Bolognese forbade him, on pain
of the confiscation of his goods, to accept an invitation from Edward I.
to go to Oxford.

[475] _Of him the Slave, etc._: One of the Pope's titles is _Servus
Servorum Domini_. The application of it to Boniface, so hated by Dante,
may be ironical: 'Fit servant of such a slave to vice!' The priest
referred to so contemptuously is Andrea, of the great Florentine family
of the Mozzi, who was much engaged in the political affairs of his time,
and became Bishop of Florence in 1286. About ten years later he was
translated to Vicenza, which stands on the Bacchiglione; and he died
shortly afterwards. According to Benvenuto he was a ridiculous preacher
and a man of dissolute manners. What is now most interesting about him
is that he was Dante's chief pastor during his early manhood, and is
consigned by him to the same disgraceful circle of Inferno as his
beloved master Brunetto Latini--a terrible evidence of the corruption of
life among the churchmen as well as the scholars of the thirteenth

[476] _New dust-clouds_: Raised by a band by whom they are about to be

[477] _My Treasure_: The _Trésor_, or _Tesoro_, Brunetto's principal
work, was written by him in French as being 'the pleasantest language,
and the most widely spread.' In it he treats of things in general in the
encyclopedic fashion set him by Alphonso of Castile. The first half
consists of a summary of civil and natural history. The second is
devoted to ethics, rhetoric, and politics. To a great extent it is a
compilation, containing, for instance, a translation, nearly complete,
of the Ethics of Aristotle--not, of course, direct from the Greek. It is
written in a plodding style, and speaks to more industry than genius. To
it Dante is indebted for some facts and fables.

[478] _The Green Cloth_: To commemorate a victory won by the Veronese
there was instituted a race to be run on the first Sunday of Lent. The
prize was a piece of green cloth. The competitors ran naked.--Brunetto
does not disappear into the gloom without a parting word of applause
from his old pupil. Dante's rigorous sentence on his beloved master is
pronounced as softly as it can be. We must still wonder that he has the
heart to bring him to such an awful judgment.