Inferno, Canto XIV
Love of that land that was our common source
moved me to tears; I gathered up the leaves
and gave them back. He was already hoarse.
We came to the edge of the forest where one goes
from the second round to the third, and there we saw
what fearful arts the hand of Justice knows.
To make these new things wholly clear, I say
we came to a plain whose soil repels all roots.
The wood of misery rings it the same way
the wood itself is ringed by the red fosse.
We paused at its edge: the ground was burning sand,
just such a waste as Cato marched across.
O endless wrath of God: how utterly
thou shouldst become a terror to all men
who read the frightful truths revealed to me!
Enormous herds of naked souls I saw,
lamenting till their eyes were burned of tears;
they seemed condemned by an unequal law,
for some were stretched supine upon the ground,
some squatted with tbeir arms about themselves,
and others without pause roamed round and round.
Most numerous were those that roamed the plain.
Far fewer were the souls stretched on the sand,
but moved to louder cries by greater pain.
And over all that sand on which they lay
or crouched or roamed, great flakes of flame fell slowly
as snow falls in the Alps on a windless day.
Like those Alexander met in the hot regions
of India, flames raining from the sky
to fall still unextinguished on his legions:
whereat he formed his ranks, and at their head
set the example, trampling the hot ground
for fear the tongues of fire might join and spread—
just so in Hell descended the long rain
upon the damned, kindling the sand like tinder
under a flint and steel, doubling the pain.
In a never-ending fit upon those sands,
the arms of the damned twitched all about their bodies,
now here, now there, brushing away the brands.
“Poet,” I said, “master of every dread
we have encountered, other than those fiends
who sallied from the last gate of the dead—
who is that wraith who lies along the rim
and sets his face against the fire in scorn,
so that the rain seems not to mellow him?”
And he himself, hearing what I had said
to my Guide and Lord concerning him, replied:
“What I was living, the same am I now, dead.
Though Jupiter wear out his sooty smith
from whom on my last day he snatched in anger
the jagged thunderbolt he pierced me with;
though he wear out the others one by one
who labor at the forge at Mongibello
crying again ‘Help! Help! Help me, good Vulcan!’
as he did at Phlegra; and hurl down endlessly
with all the power of Heaven in his arm,
small satisfaction would he win from me,”
At this my Guide spoke with such vehemence
as I had not heard from him in all of Hell:
“O Capaneus, by your insolence
you are made to suffer as much fire inside
as falls upon you. Only your own rage
could be fit torment for your sullen pride.”
Then he turned to me more gently. “That,” he said,
“was one of the Seven who laid siege to Thebes.
Living, he scorned God, and among the dead
he scorns Him yet. He thinks he may detest
God’s power too easily, but as I told him,
his slobber is a fit badge for his breast.
Now follow me; and mind for your own good
you do not step upon the burning sand,
but keep well back along the edge of the wood.”
We walked in silence then till we reached a rill
that gushes from the wood; it ran so red
the memory sends a shudder through me still.
As from the Bulicame springs the stream
the sinful women keep to their own use;
so down the sand the rill flowed out in steam.
The bed and both its banks were petrified,
as were its margins; thus I knew at once
our passage through the sand lay by its side.
“Among all other wonders I have shown you
since we came through the gate denied to none,
nothing your eyes have seen is equal to
the marvel of the rill by which we stand,
for it stifles all the flames above its course
as it flows out across the burning sand.”
So spoke my Guide across the flickering light,
and I begged him to bestow on me the food
for which he had given me the appetite.
“In the middle of the sea, and gone to waste,
there lies a country known as Crete,” he said,
“under whose king the ancient world was chaste.
Once Rhea chose it as the secret crypt
and cradle of her son; and better to hide him,
her Corybantes raised a din when he wept.
An ancient giant stands in the mountain’s core.
He keeps his shoulder turned toward Damietta,
and looks toward Rome as if it were his mirror.
His head is made of gold; of silverwork
his breast and both his arms, of polished brass
the rest of his great torso to the fork.
He is of chosen iron from there down,
except that his right foot is terra cotta;
it is this foot he rests more weight upon.
Every part except the gold is split
by a great fissure from which endless tears
drip down and hollow out the mountain’s pit.
Their course sinks to this pit from stone to stone,
becoming Acheron, Phlegethon, and Styx.
Then by this narrow sluice they hurtle down
to the end of all descent, and disappear
into Cocytus. You shall see what sink that is
with your own eyes. I pass it in silence here.”
And I to him: “But if these waters flow
from the world above, why is this rill met only
along this shelf?” And he to me: “You know
the place is round, and though you have come deep
into the valley through the many circles,
always bearing left along the steep,
you have not traveled any circle through
its total round; hence when new things appear
from time to time, that hardly should surprise you.”
And I: “Where shall we find Phlegethon’s course?
And Lethe’s? One you omit, and of the other
you only say the tear-flood is its source.”
“In all you ask of me you please me truly,”
he answered, “but the red and boiling water
should answer the first question you put to me,
and you shall stand by Lethe, but far hence:
there, where the spirits go to wash themselves
when their guilt has been removed by penitence.”
And then he said: “Now it is time to quit
this edge of shade: follow close after me
along the rill, and do not stray from it;
for the unburning margins form a lane,
and by them we may cross the burning plain.”
-Dante Alighieri (Translated by John Ciardi)
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