Inferno: Canto XXI

The following is an excerpt from my translation of Dante's Inferno in terza rima, the rhyme scheme of the original Italian poem.

Doré, Malebranche
Malebranche, by Gustave Doré

            So from bridge to bridge, speaking of other things
            of which my comedy cares not to start
            to sing, we came; and when we took the peak,

4          we stopped to see another rifted part
            of Malebolge and other vain laments;
            and I saw it miraculously dark.

7          As in the Venetian Arsenal, in
            the wintertime, they boil sticky pitch
            to smear their unsound vessels with again,

10        for they cannot set sail—instead of which,
            some build their vessels new, and some caulk the ribs
            of crafts that have made many voyages;

13        some hammer the prows and some the sterns of ships;
            others make oars and others, for their part,
            twist ropes; some patch the mainsails and the jibs—:

16        so, not by fire, but by divine art,
            was boiling tar below there, thick and dense,
            which glued along the bank at every part.

19        I saw it, but saw nothing from within
            except the bubbles that were boiling out,
            and swelling, and subsiding back condensed.

22        While I was so intently looking down,
            my guide, saying “Watch out, watch out!”, came near
            and pulled me from where I was standing now.

25        Then I turned like the man who longs to peer
            at that from which he really ought to flee
            and who’s discouraged by a sudden fear,

28        who, looking, doesn’t hesitate to leave:
            and I saw a black devil when I looked
            come running up behind us on the reef.

31        Ah how brutal he was in the way he looked!
            and how he seemed so bitter in his actions,
            with open wings and light upon his foot!

34        His shoulder, which was proud and high and jagged,
            was holding up a sinner by the hips,
            and by the tendon of the foot he’d snagged him.

37        “O Malebranche,” he called out from our bridge,
            “behold an elder of Saint Zita!  —Set
            him under, and I’ll take another trip

40        to that land where full stores of them are kept:
            all men there but Bonturo do barratry;
            out of a no, there, money makes a yes.”

43        He flung him down there, and by the hard reef
            turned back; no mastiff was ever unleashed here
            with so much haste in chasing down a thief.

46        That one plunged in, and reeling, reappeared;
            but the demons, from the cover of the bridge,
            cried out: “The Holy Face has no place here!

49        here you’re not in the Serchio for a dip!
            So, if you do not wish to catch our gaffs,
            don’t swim above the cover of the pitch.”

52        They bit into him with a hundred shafts,
            saying: “You must dance in cover here, you crook,
            so, if you can, covertly take your graft.”

55        No differently are the lackeys of a cook
            ordered to plunge the meat down into the pot,
            so that it won’t float up, with forks and hooks.

58        The good master told me: “So that it’s not
            apparent that you’re here, that you may screen
            yourself from them, crouch down behind a rock;

61        whatever outrage may be done to me,
            fear not, because I’ve been in such a bout
            before, and I’ve accounted for these things.”

64        He went across beyond the bridgehead now;
            and as he came to the sixth bank, it was
            his duty to maintain a steady brow.

67        With that fury and tempest of the dogs
            who leap onto the back of a vagabond
            who begs at once wherever he has paused,

70        they leapt out from beneath the bridge, their prongs
            turned against him with all their prodding hooks;
            but he cried: “None of you be rash!  Be calm.

73        Before your hooks and pitchforks seize me, look—
            let one of you come forth who’ll hear me out,
            and then decide if I am to be hooked.”

76        They all cried: “Malacoda, you go now!”;
            so one moved up—and the rest stood still—and he
            was saying: “What good does it do him now?”

79        “Do you believe, Malacoda, to see
            that I’ve come here,” my master said, “still safe
            so far from all your obstacles and screens,

82        without divine will and a righteous fate?
            Let us go, for it’s willed in Heaven that
            I may show someone else this wild way.”

85        Then his arrogance had fallen so far back,
            he dropped his pitchfork to his feet; and now
            he told them: “Then, let him not be attacked.”

88        And then my guide to me: “O you who crouch
            among the jagged rocks of the bridge, unheard,
            safely return to me, then, come on out.”

91        And so I moved, and rapidly returned;
            and all the devils came in close to me,
            so that I feared they might not keep their word;

94        I’ve seen the same fear in the infantry
            who emerged from Caprona under pact,
            seeing themselves among their enemies.

97        With all my body, I retreated back
            beside my guide, and did not wrench my eyes
            from their expressions, each of which was bad.

100      They lowered their hooks and, “Shall I strike him,” cried
            one to the others, “on his backside now?”
            And: “Yes, give him a spanking!” they replied.

103      But then that demon quickly turned around
            who had been holding parley with my guide,
            and he said: “Down, Scarmiglione, down!”

106      Then he told us: “You can’t go farther by
            this ridge, for at the bottom of the ditch,
            all shattered into bits, the sixth arch lies.

109      And if going onwards is still your wish,
            then go along this cliff; another way
            is just ahead, made by another ridge.

112      Five hours past this hour yesterday,
            one thousand two hundred sixty-six years
            had passed since the pathway ruptured and gave way.

115      I’m sending some of mine out there from here
            to look for any airing out their skin;
            go with them—they will not be wicked here.”

118      “Step forward, Alichino,” he commenced,
            “and Calcabrina too, and you Cagnazzo;
            and Barbariccia, you will lead the ten.

121      Libicocco, come forth, and Draghignazzo,
            madman Rubicante and Farfarello,
            and Graffiacane and tusked Ciriatto.

124      Search all around the boiling sludge, be thorough;
            and keep them safe until the other crag
            which goes unbroken over all the burrows.”

127      “O me, master, what’s this I see?” I asked,
            “aah, let us go alone, if you know how,
            without an escort; I don’t ask for that.

130      If you’re as keen as you’ve been up to now,
            do you not see them gnash their teeth, and leer
            at us and threaten torment with their brows?”

133      And he to me: “I want you not to fear;
            let them gnash their teeth as much as they please—
            they do it for the wretches stewing here.”

136      Along the lefthand bank, they turned to leave;
            but first, each of them stuck his tongue out past
            his teeth, to make a signal, toward their chief;

139      and he made a little trumpet of his ass.

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