Canto XXI

Conversing still from bridge to bridge[575] we went;
But what our words I in my Comedy
Care not to tell. The top of the ascent
Holding, we halted the next pit to spy
Of Malebolge, with plaints bootless all:
There, darkness[576] full of wonder met the eye.
As the Venetians[577] in their Arsenal
Boil the tenacious pitch at winter-tide,
To caulk the ships with for repairs that call;
For then they cannot sail; and so, instead,
One builds his bark afresh, one stops with tow
His vessel's ribs, by many a voyage tried;
One hammers at the poop, one at the prow;
Some fashion oars, and others cables twine,
And others at the jib and main sails sew:
So, not by fire, but by an art Divine,
Pitch of thick substance boiled in that low Hell,
And all the banks did as with plaster line.

I saw it, but distinguished nothing well
Except the bubbles by the boiling raised,
Now swelling up and ceasing now to swell.
While down upon it fixedly I gazed,
'Beware, beware!' my Leader to me said,
And drew me thence close to him. I, amazed,
Turned sharply round, like him who has delayed,
Fain to behold the thing he ought to flee,
Then, losing nerve, grows suddenly afraid,
Nor lingers longer what there is to see;
For a black devil I beheld advance
Over the cliff behind us rapidly.
Ah me, how fierce was he of countenance!
What bitterness he in his gesture put,
As with spread wings he o'er the ground did dance!
Upon his shoulders, prominent and acute,
Was perched a sinner[578] fast by either hip;
And him he held by tendon of the foot.
He from our bridge: 'Ho, Malebranche![579] Grip
An Elder brought from Santa Zita's town:[580]
Stuff him below; myself once more I slip
Back to the place where lack of such is none.

There, save Bonturo, barrates[581] every man,
And No grows Yes that money may be won.'
He shot him down, and o'er the cliff began
To run; nor unchained mastiff o'er the ground,
Chasing a robber, swifter ever ran.
The other sank, then rose with back bent round;
But from beneath the bridge the devils cried:
'Not here the Sacred Countenance[582] is found,
One swims not here as on the Serchio's[583] tide;
So if thou wouldst not with our grapplers deal
Do not on surface of the pitch abide.'
Then he a hundred hooks[584] was made to feel.
'Best dance down there,' they said the while to him,
'Where, if thou canst, thou on the sly mayst steal.'
So scullions by the cooks are set to trim
The caldrons and with forks the pieces steep
Down in the water, that they may not swim.
And the good Master said to me: 'Now creep
Behind a rocky splinter for a screen;
So from their knowledge thou thyself shalt keep.

And fear not thou although with outrage keen
I be opposed, for I am well prepared,
And formerly[585] have in like contest been.'
Then passing from the bridge's crown he fared
To the sixth bank,[586] and when thereon he stood
He needed courage doing what he dared.
In the same furious and tempestuous mood
In which the dogs upon the beggar leap,
Who, halting suddenly, seeks alms or food,
They issued forth from underneath the deep
Vault of the bridge, with grapplers 'gainst him stretched;
But he exclaimed: 'Aloof, and harmless keep!
Ere I by any of your hooks be touched,
Come one of you and to my words give ear;
And then advise you if I should be clutched.'
All cried: 'Let Malacoda then go near;'
On which one moved, the others standing still.
He coming said: 'What will this[587] help him here?'
'O Malacoda, is it credible
That I am come,' my Master then replied,
'Secure your opposition to repel,
Without Heaven's will, and fate, upon my side?
Let me advance, for 'tis by Heaven's behest
That I on this rough road another guide.'
Then was his haughty spirit so depressed,
He let his hook drop sudden to his feet,
And, 'Strike him not!' commanded all the rest
My Leader charged me thus: 'Thou, from thy seat
Where 'mid the bridge's ribs thou crouchest low,
Rejoin me now in confidence complete.'
Whereon I to rejoin him was not slow;
And then the devils, crowding, came so near,
I feared they to their paction false might show.
So at Caprona[588] saw I footmen fear,
Spite of their treaty, when a multitude
Of foes received them, crowding front and rear.

With all my body braced I closer stood
To him, my Leader, and intently eyed
The aspect of them, which was far from good.
Lowering their grapplers, 'mong themselves they cried:
'Shall I now tickle him upon the thigh?'
'Yea, see thou clip him deftly,' one replied.
The demon who in parley had drawn nigh
Unto my Leader, upon this turned round;
'Scarmiglione, lay thy weapon by!'
He said; and then to us: 'No way is found
Further along this cliff, because, undone,
All the sixth arch lies ruined on the ground.
But if it please you further to pass on,
Over this rocky ridge advancing climb
To the next rib,[589] where passage may be won.

Yestreen,[590] but five hours later than this time,
Twelve hundred sixty-six years reached an end,
Since the way lost the wholeness of its prime.
Thither I some of mine will straightway send
To see that none peer forth to breathe the air:
Go on with them; you they will not offend.
You, Alichin[591] and Calcabrin, prepare
To move,' he bade; 'Cagnazzo, thou as well;
Guiding the ten, thou, Barbariccia, fare.
With Draghignazzo, Libicocco fell,
Fanged Ciriatto, Graffiacane too,
Set on, mad Rubicant and Farfarel:
Search on all quarters round the boiling glue.

Let these go safe, till at the bridge they be,
Which doth unbroken[592] o'er the caverns go.'
'Alas, my Master, what is this I see?'
Said I, 'Unguided, let us forward set,
If thou know'st how. I wish no company.
If former caution thou dost not forget,
Dost thou not mark how each his teeth doth grind,
The while toward us their brows are full of threat?'
And he: 'I would not fear should fill thy mind;
Let them grin all they will, and all they can;
'Tis at the wretches in the pitch confined.'
They wheeled and down the left hand bank began
To march, but first each bit his tongue,[593] and passed
The signal on to him who led the van.
He answered grossly as with trumpet blast.


[575] _From bridge to bridge_: They cross the barrier separating the
Fourth from the Fifth Bolgia, and follow the bridge which spans the
Fifth until they have reached the crown of it. We may infer that the
conversation of Virgil and Dante turned on foreknowledge of the future.

[576] _Darkness, etc._: The pitch with which the trench of the Bolgia is
filled absorbs most of the scanty light accorded to Malebolge.

[577] _The Venetians_: But for this picturesque description of the old
Arsenal, and a passing mention of the Rialto in one passage of the
_Paradiso_, and of the Venetian coinage in another, it could not be
gathered from the _Comedy_, with all its wealth of historical and
geographical references, that there was such a place as Venice in the
Italy of Dante. Unlike the statue of Time (_Inf._ xiv.), the Queen of
the Adriatic had her face set eastwards. Her back was turned and her
ears closed as in a proud indifference to the noise of party conflicts
which filled the rest of Italy.

[578] _A sinner_: This is the only instance in the _Inferno_ of the
arrival of a sinner at his special place of punishment. See _Inf._ v.
15, _note_.

[579] _Malebranche_: Evil Claws, the name of the devils who have the
sinners of this Bolgia in charge.

[580] _Santa Zita's town_: Zita was a holy serving-woman of Lucca, who
died some time between 1270 and 1280, and whose miracle-working body is
still preserved in the church of San Frediano. Most probably, although
venerated as a saint, she was not yet canonized at the time Dante writes
of, and there may be a Florentine sneer hidden in the description of
Lucca as her town. Even in Lucca there was some difference of opinion as
to her merits, and a certain unlucky Ciappaconi was pitched into the
Serchio for making fun of the popular enthusiasm about her. See
Philalethes, _Gött. Com._ In Lucca the officials that were called Priors
in Florence, were named Elders. The commentators give a name to this
sinner, but it is only guesswork.

[581] _Save Bonturo_, _barrates, etc._: It is the barrators, those who
trafficked in offices and sold justice, that are punished in this
Bolgia. The greatest barrator of all in Lucca, say the commentators, was
this Bonturo; but there seems no proof of it, though there is of his
arrogance. He was still living in 1314.

[582] _The Sacred Countenance_: An image in cedar wood, of Byzantine
workmanship, still preserved and venerated in the cathedral of Lucca.

According to the legend, it was carved from memory by Nicodemus, and
after being a long time lost was found again in the eighth century by an
Italian bishop travelling in Palestine. He brought it to the coast at
Joppa, where it was received by a vessel without sail or oar, which,
with its sacred freight, floated westwards and was next seen at the port
of Luna. All efforts to approach the bark were vain, till the Bishop of
Lucca descended to the seashore, and to him the vessel resigned itself
and suffered him to take the image into his keeping. 'Believe what you
like of all this,' says Benvenuto; 'it is no article of faith.'--The
sinner has come to the surface, bent as if in an attitude of prayer,
when he is met by this taunt.

[583] _The Serchio_: The stream which flows past Lucca.

[584] _A hundred hooks_: So many devils with their pronged hooks were
waiting to receive the victim. The punishment of the barrators bears a
relation to their sins. They wrought their evil deeds under all kinds of
veils and excuses, and are now themselves effectually buried out of
sight. The pitch sticks as close to them as bribes ever did to their
fingers. They misused wards and all subject to them, and in their turn
are clawed and torn by their devilish guardians.

[585] _Formerly, etc._: On the occasion of his previous descent (_Inf._
ix. 22).

[586] _The sixth bank_: Dante remains on the crown of the arch
overhanging the pitch-filled moat. Virgil descends from the bridge by
the left hand to the bank on the inner side of the Fifth Bolgia.

[587] _What will this, etc._: As if he said: What good will this delay
do him in the long-run?

[588] _At Caprona_: Dante was one of the mounted militia sent by
Florence in 1289 to help the Lucchese against the Pisans, and was
present at the surrender by the Pisan garrison of the Castle of Caprona.
Some make the reference to be to a siege of the same stronghold by the
Pisans in the following year, when the Lucchese garrison, having
surrendered on condition of having their lives spared, were met as they
issued forth with cries of 'Hang them! Hang them!' But of this second
siege it is only a Pisan commentator that speaks.

[589] _The next rib_: Malacoda informs them that the arch of rock across
the Sixth Bolgia in continuation of that by which they have crossed the
Fifth is in ruins, but that they will find a whole bridge if they keep
to the left hand along the rocky bank on the inner edge of the
pitch-filled moat. But, as appears further on, he is misleading them. It
will be remembered that from the precipice enclosing the Malebolge there
run more than one series of bridges or ribs into the central well of

[590] _Yestreen, etc._: This is the principal passage in the _Comedy_
for fixing the date of the journey. It is now, according to the text,
twelve hundred and sixty-six years and a day since the crucifixion.
Turning to the _Convito_, iv. 23, we find Dante giving his reasons for
believing that Jesus, at His death, had just completed His thirty-fourth
year. This brings us to the date of 1300 A.D. But according to Church
tradition the crucifixion happened on the 25th March, and to get
thirty-four years His life must be counted from the incarnation, which
was held to have taken place on the same date, namely the 25th March. It
was in Dante's time optional to reckon from the incarnation or the birth
of Christ. The journey must therefore be taken to have begun on Friday
the 25th March, a fortnight before the Good Friday of 1300; and,
counting strictly from the incarnation, on the first day of 1301--the
first day of the new century. So we find Boccaccio in his unfinished
commentary saying in _Inf._ iii. that it will appear from Canto xxi.
that Dante began his journey in MCCCI.--The hour is now five hours
before that at which the earthquake happened which took place at the
death of Jesus. This is held by Dante (_Convito_ iv. 23), who professes
to follow the account by Saint Luke, to have been at the sixth hour,
that is, at noon; thus the time is now seven in the morning.

[591] _Alichino, etc._: The names of the devils are all descriptive:
Alichino, for instance, is the Swooper; but in this and the next Canto
we have enough of the horrid crew without considering too closely how
they are called.

[592] _Unbroken_: Malacoda repeats his lie.

[593] _Each bit his tongue, etc._: The demons, aware of the cheat played
by Malacoda, show their devilish humour by making game of Virgil and
Dante.--Benvenuto is amazed that a man so involved in his own thoughts
as Dante was, should have been such a close observer of low life as this
passage shows him. He is sure that he laughed to himself as he wrote the