Last quarter I was lucky enough to work as a writing intern for a course which read Dante’s Inferno. I love Dante, despite (more likely because of) feeling that I’ll never do more than scratch the surface of the Commedia. Mostly, I just hang back and wonder at it. A few images in particular that stood out on this read through.
In the 7th Circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil enter a vast forest, the suicides. I read this while sitting in front of a fire filled with snow-damp branches:
Then I stretched out my hand a little way
and from a great thornbush snapped off a branch
at which its trunk cried out: “Why do you tear me?”
And then, when it had grown more dark with blood,
it asked again: “Why do you break me off?”
Are you without all sentiment of pity?
As from a sapling log that catches fire
along one of its ends, while at the other
it drips and hisses with escaping vapor,
so from that broken stump issued together
both words and blood; at which I let the branch
fall, and I stood like one who is afraid.
Later, he runs into Ugolino in the circle of traitors:
We had already taken leave of him,
when I saw two shades frozen in one hole,
so that one’s head served as the other’s cap;
and just as he who’s hungry chews his bread,
one sinner dug his teeth into the other
right at the place where brain is joined to nape
[Ugolino explains that he was walled into a tower with his sons, whom he watches die one by one of starvation.]
But after we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo,
throwing himself, outstretched, down at my feet,
implored me: ‘Father, why do you not help me?’
And there he died, and just as you see me,
I saw the other three fall one by one
between the fifth day and the sixth; at which,
now blind, I started groping over each:
and after they were dead, I called them for
two days; then fasting had more force than grief.”
When he had spoken this, with eyes awry,
again he gripped the sad skull in his teeth,
which, like a dog’s, were strong down to the bone.
“then fasting had more force than grief” is wonderfully (horribly?) ambiguous way to end what I’ve always found to be the most compelling speech in the Inferno. On the whole though, Inferno is my least favorite of the Comedy, which is maybe why my favorite lines are the final:
My guide and I came on that hidden road
to make our way back into the bright world;
and with no care for any rest, we climbed —
he first, I following — until I saw,
through a round opening, some of those things
of beauty Heaven bears. It was from there
that we emerged, to see — once more — the stars.
As a bonus, Dante inspired me to revisit Virgil, mainly because the Georgics was already sitting on my desk. I can’t articulate or even understand what makes Virgil great, I just know that he is great:
Come the sweet o’ the year when streams begin to melt and tumble down the heavy hills
And clods to crumble underneath the current of west winds,
it’s time again to put the bull before the deep-pointed plough to pull his weight
and have the share glisten, burnished by the broken sod.