Canto XVII

'Behold the monster[496] with the pointed tail,
Who passes mountains[497] and can entrance make
Through arms and walls! who makes the whole world ail,
Corrupted by him!' Thus my Leader spake,
And beckoned him that he should land hard by,
Where short the pathways built of marble break.
And that foul image of dishonesty
Moving approached us with his head and chest,
But to the bank[498] drew not his tail on high.

His face a human righteousness expressed,
'Twas so benignant to the outward view;
A serpent was he as to all the rest.
On both his arms hair to the arm-pits grew:
On back and chest and either flank were knot[499]
And rounded shield portrayed in various hue;
No Turk or Tartar weaver ever brought
To ground or pattern a more varied dye;[500]
Nor by Arachne[501] was such broidery wrought.
As sometimes by the shore the barges lie
Partly in water, partly on dry land;
And as afar in gluttonous Germany,[502]
Watching their prey, alert the beavers stand;
So did this worst of brutes his foreparts fling
Upon the stony rim which hems the sand.
All of his tail in space was quivering,
Its poisoned fork erecting in the air,
Which scorpion-like was armèd with a sting.

My Leader said: 'Now we aside must fare
A little distance, so shall we attain
Unto the beast malignant crouching there.'
So we stepped down upon the right,[503] and then
A half score steps[504] to the outer edge did pace,
Thus clearing well the sand and fiery rain.
And when we were hard by him I could trace
Upon the sand a little further on
Some people sitting near to the abyss.
'That what this belt containeth may be known
Completely by thee,' then the Master said;
'To see their case do thou advance alone.
Let thy inquiries be succinctly made.

While thou art absent I will ask of him,
With his strong shoulders to afford us aid.'
Then, all alone, I on the outmost rim
Of that Seventh Circle still advancing trod,
Where sat a woful folk.[505] Full to the brim
Their eyes with anguish were, and overflowed;
Their hands moved here and there to win some ease,
Now from the flames, now from the soil which glowed.
No otherwise in summer-time one sees,
Working its muzzle and its paws, the hound
When bit by gnats or plagued with flies or fleas.
And I, on scanning some who sat around
Of those on whom the dolorous flames alight,
Could recognise[506] not one. I only found
A purse hung from the throat of every wight,
Each with its emblem and its special hue;
And every eye seemed feasting on the sight.
As I, beholding them, among them drew,
I saw what seemed a lion's face and mien
Upon a yellow purse designed in blue.

Still moving on mine eyes athwart the scene
I saw another scrip, blood-red, display
A goose more white than butter could have been.
And one, on whose white wallet blazoned lay
A pregnant sow[507] in azure, to me said:
'What dost thou in this pit? Do thou straightway
Begone; and, seeing thou art not yet dead,
Know that Vitalian,[508] neighbour once of mine,
Shall on my left flank one day find his bed.
A Paduan I: all these are Florentine;
And oft they stun me, bellowing in my ear:
"Come, Pink of Chivalry,[509] for whom we pine,
Whose is the purse on which three beaks appear:"'
Then he from mouth awry his tongue thrust out[510]
Like ox that licks its nose; and I, in fear
Lest more delay should stir in him some doubt
Who gave command I should not linger long,
Me from those wearied spirits turned about.
I found my Guide, who had already sprung
Upon the back of that fierce animal:
He said to me: 'Now be thou brave and strong.

By stairs like this[511] we henceforth down must fall.
Mount thou in front, for I between would sit
So thee the tail shall harm not nor appal.'
Like one so close upon the shivering fit
Of quartan ague that his nails grow blue,
And seeing shade he trembles every whit,
I at the hearing of that order grew;
But his threats shamed me, as before the face
Of a brave lord his man grows valorous too.
On the great shoulders then I took my place,
And wished to say, but could not move my tongue
As I expected: 'Do thou me embrace!'
But he, who other times had helped me 'mong
My other perils, when ascent I made
Sustained me, and strong arms around me flung,
And, 'Geryon, set thee now in motion!' said;
'Wheel widely; let thy downward flight be slow;
Think of the novel burden on thee laid.'
As from the shore a boat begins to go
Backward at first, so now he backward pressed,
And when he found that all was clear below,
He turned his tail where earlier was his breast;
And, stretching it, he moved it like an eel,
While with his paws he drew air toward his chest.
More terror Phaëthon could hardly feel
What time he let the reins abandoned fall,
Whence Heaven was fired,[512] as still its tracts reveal;
Nor wretched Icarus, on finding all
His plumage moulting as the wax grew hot,
While, 'The wrong road!' his father loud did call;
Than what I felt on finding I was brought
Where nothing was but air and emptiness;
For save the brute I could distinguish nought.

He slowly, slowly swims; to the abyss
Wheeling he makes descent, as I surmise
From wind felt 'neath my feet and in my face.
Already on the right I heard arise
From out the caldron a terrific roar,[513]
Whereon I stretch my head with down-turned eyes.
Terror of falling now oppressed me sore;
Hearing laments, and seeing fires that burned,
My thighs I tightened, trembling more and more.
Earlier I had not by the eye discerned
That we swept downward; scenes of torment now
Seemed drawing nearer wheresoe'er we turned.

And as a falcon (which long time doth go
Upon the wing, not finding lure[514] or prey),
While 'Ha!' the falconer cries, 'descending so!'
Comes wearied back whence swift it soared away;
Wheeling a hundred times upon the road,
Then, from its master far, sulks angrily:
So we, by Geryon in the deep bestowed,
Were 'neath the sheer-hewn precipice set down:
He, suddenly delivered from our load,
Like arrow from the string was swiftly gone.


[496] _The monster_: Geryon, a mythical king of Spain, converted here
into the symbol of fraud, and set as the guardian demon of the Eighth
Circle, where the fraudulent are punished. There is nothing in the
mythology to justify this account of Geryon; and it seems that Dante has
created a monster to serve his purpose. Boccaccio, in his _Genealogy of
the Gods_ (Lib. i.), repeats the description of Geryon given by 'Dante
the Florentine, in his poem written in the Florentine tongue, one
certainly of no little importance among poems;' and adds that Geryon
reigned in the Balearic Isles, and was used to decoy travellers with his
benignant countenance, caressing words, and every kind of friendly lure,
and then to murder them when asleep.

[497] _Who passes mountains, etc._: Neither art nor nature affords any
defence against fraud.

[498] _The bank_: Not that which confines the brook but the inner limit
of the Seventh Circle, from which the precipice sinks sheer into the
Eighth, and to which the embankment by which the travellers have crossed
the sand joins itself on. Virgil has beckoned Geryon to come to that
part of the bank which adjoins the end of the causeway.

[499] _Knot and rounded shield_: Emblems of subtle devices and

[500]_ Varied dye_: Denoting the various colours of deceit.

[501] _Arachne_: The Lydian weaver changed into a spider by Minerva. See
_Purg._ xii. 43.

[502] _Gluttonous Germany_: The habits of the German men-at-arms in
Italy, odious to the temperate Italians, explains this gibe.

[503] _The right_: This is the second and last time that, in their
course through Inferno, they turn to the right. See _Inf._ ix. 132. The
action may possibly have a symbolical meaning, and refer to the
protection against fraud which is obtained by keeping to a righteous
course. But here, in fact, they have no choice, for, traversing the
Inferno as they do to the left hand, they came to the right bank of the
stream which traverses the fiery sands, followed it, and now, when they
would leave its edge, it is from the right embankment that they have to
step down, and necessarily to the right hand.

[504] _A half score steps, etc._: Traversing the stone-built border
which lies between the sand and the precipice. Had the brook flowed to
the very edge of the Seventh Circle before tumbling down the rocky wall
it is clear that they might have kept to the embankment until they were
clear beyond the edge of the sand. We are therefore to figure to
ourselves the water as plunging down at a point some yards, perhaps the
width of the border, short of the true limit of the circle; and this is
a touch of local truth, since waterfalls in time always wear out a
funnel for themselves by eating back the precipice down which they
tumble. It was into this funnel that Virgil flung the cord, and up it
that Geryon was seen to ascend, as if by following up the course of the
water he would find out who had made the signal. To keep to the narrow
causeway where it ran on by the edge of this gulf would seem too full of

[505] _Woful folk_: Usurers; those guilty of the unnatural sin of
contemning the legitimate modes of human industry. They sit huddled up
on the sand, close to its bound of solid masonry, from which Dante looks
down on them. But that the usurers are not found only at the edge of the
plain is evident from _Inf._ xiv. 19.

[506] _Could recognise, etc._: Though most of the group prove to be from
Florence Dante recognises none of them; and this denotes that nothing so
surely creates a second nature in a man, in a bad sense, as setting the
heart on money. So in the Fourth Circle those who, being unable to spend
moderately, are always thinking of how to keep or get money are
represented as 'obscured from any recognition' (_Inf._ vii. 44).

[507] _A pregnant sow_: The azure lion on a golden field was the arms of
the Gianfigliazzi, eminent usurers of Florence; the white goose on a red
ground was the arms of the Ubriachi of Florence; the azure sow, of the
Scrovegni of Padua.

[508] _Vitalian_: A rich Paduan noble, whose palace was near that of the

[509] _Pink of Chivalry_: 'Sovereign Cavalier;' identified by his arms
as Ser Giovanni Buiamonte, still alive in Florence in 1301, and if we
are to judge from the text, the greatest usurer of all. A northern poet
of the time would have sought his usurers in the Jewry of some town he
knew, but Dante finds his among the nobles of Padua and Florence. He
ironically represents them as wearing purses ornamented with their coats
of arms, perhaps to hint that they pursued their dishonourable trade
under shelter of their noble names--their shop signs, as it were. The
whole passage may have been planned by Dante so as to afford him the
opportunity of damning the still living Buiamonte without mentioning his

[510] _His tongue thrust out_: As if to say: We know well what sort of
fine gentleman Buiamonte is.

[511] _By stairs like this_: The descent from one circle to another
grows more difficult the further down they come. They appear to have
found no special obstacle in the nature of the ground till they reached
the bank sloping down to the Fifth Circle, the pathway down which is
described as terrible (_Inf._ vii. 105). The descent into the Seventh
Circle is made practicable, and nothing more (_Inf._ xii. I).

[512] _Heaven was fired_: As still appears in the Milky Way. In the
_Convito_, ii. 15, Dante discusses the various explanations of what
causes the brightness of that part of the heavens.

[513] _A terrific roar_: Of the water falling to the ground. On
beginning the descent they had left the waterfall on the left hand, but
Geryon, after fetching one or more great circles, passes in front of it,
and then they have it on the right. There is no further mention of the
waters of Phlegethon till they are found frozen in Cocytus (_Inf._
xxxii. 23). Philalethes suggests that they flow under the Eighth Circle.

[514] _Lure_: An imitation bird used in training falcons. Dante
describes the sulky, slow descent of a falcon which has either lost
sight of its prey, or has failed to discover where the falconer has
thrown the lure. Geryon has descended thus deliberately owing to the
command of Virgil.