The poet Dante, in the thirty-fifth year of his life, this being the year 1300 A. D., on New Year’s day of the old reckoning, lost his way in a rough and thorny forest, and when he attempted to regain it by mounting a hill that rose before him resplendent in sunshine, encountered a leopard, a lion, and a wolf. Driven back by these, and utterly despairing of rescue, he met one who declared himself to be that Vergil who had sung the fall of Troy and the flight of Aeneas, and who promised to take him through the lower world and Purgatory, even unto Paradise. Dante questioned why it was permitted to him to take the journey denied to so many others, and was told that Vergil had been sent to his rescue by the beauteous Beatrice, long since in Paradise. When the poet, trembling with fear, heard that the shining eyes of Beatrice had wept over his danger in the forest, and that she had sought the gates of hell to effect his rescue, his strength was renewed, even as the flowers, chilled by the frosts of night, uplift themselves in the bright light of the morning sun; and he entered without fear on the deep and savage way.
This allegory, being interpreted, probably means that the poet, entangled in the dark forest of political anarchy, was driven from the hill of civil order by the Leopard of Pleasure (Florence), the Lion of Ambition (France), and the Wolf of Avarice (Rome), and was by divine grace granted a vision of the three worlds that he might realize what comes after death, and be the more firmly established in the right political faith,—Ghibellinism.
“Through me is the way into the sorrowful city; into eternal dole among the lost people. Justice incited my sublime Creator. Divine Omnipotence, the highest wisdom, and the Primal Love created me. Before me, there were no created things. Only eternal, and I eternal, last. Abandon hope, all ye who enter here!”
Such was the inscription over the doorway, after the reading of which Dante’s ears were assailed by words of agony and heart-rending cries. “This,” said Vergil, “is the home of those melancholy souls who lived without infamy and without praise. Cowards and selfish in life, they are denied even entrance to hell.” As they looked, a long train passed by, stung by gadflies and following a whirling standard.
Charon, about whose eyes were wheels of flame, endeavored to drive the poet and his guide away as they stood among the weary and naked souls that gathered shivering on the margin of Acheron; but as a blast of wind and a burst of crimson light caused a deep sleep to fall on the poet, he was wafted across the river, and awaking he found himself in the Limbo of the Unbaptized, the first of the nine circles of hell, where were the souls of many men, women, and infants, whose only punishment was, without hope, to live on in desire. Here was no torment, only the sadness caused by the ever-unsatisfied longing for the ever-denied divine grace. This was Vergil’s abode, and in the noble castles set among the green enamelled meadows dwelt Homer, Horace, and Ovid, Electra, Hector, and Camilla.
Passing down a narrow walk into a region of semi-darkness, they entered the second circle, where Minos stood, judging the sinners and girding himself with his tail as many times as was the number of the circle to which the spirit was to go. Here in darkness and storm were the carnal sinners, whose punishment was to be beaten hither and thither by the winds,—Semiramis, Dido, Cleopatra, Paris, Tristan, and all those who had sinned for love, and here Dante conversed with the spirit of Francesca da Rimini, whom he had known in life, and her lover Paolo, slain for their sin by her husband. Though there is no greater sorrow than to be mindful of the happy time in misery, she assured Dante that the sorrows of Hell were lightened by the presence of Paolo.
At the sight of Paolo’s grief Dante fell swooning with pity, and awoke to find himself in the circle where a cold rain fell forever on the gluttons. Cerberus guarded the entrance, and now and again devoured the unhappy ones who lay prone on their faces in the murk and mire. Here Ciacco of Florence recognized and spoke with Dante, falling back in the mire as the poet passed on, to rise no more until the Day of Judgment.
Plutus guarded the fourth circle, where were confined the avaricious and prodigal, who, divided into two bands, rolled weights against each other, uttering wretched insults. Down the sloping banks to the marsh of the Styx the poets went, past the sullen and angry, who in life refused the comfort of the sweet air and gladdening sun, and were in consequence doomed forever to remain buried in the sullen mire. As Dante and Vergil passed over the Styx in the boat of the vile Phlegyas, Dante was saluted by the spirit of the once haughty and arrogant Philippo Argenti, whom he repulsed, and gladly saw set upon and torn by the people of the mire.
Then appeared to him the mosques of the city of Dis, within the valley, vermilion-hued from the fire eternal. Deep were the moats; the walls appeared to be of iron. Upon the flaming summit sat the Furies, stained with blood, begirt with Hydras. Here even Vergil trembled as they waited the arrival of one sent from Heaven to open the gate and admit them.
Within, over the plain, were scattered sepulchres heated red hot, with uplifted coverings, from which issued forth dire laments from the Infidels and Heresiarchs tormented within. To Farinata degli Uberti, who rose from his tomb to ask the news of Florence, Dante spoke, observing in the mean time a shade that, on hearing the Tuscan tongue, rose next Uberti, questioning, “Where is my son, my Guido?” Fancying from the poet’s delay in answering, and his use of the past tense, that his beloved child no longer enjoyed the sweet light, Cavalcante fell back and appeared no more.
Leaving the dismal plain, whose countless tombs would remain open until the Judgment Day, the poets entered upon the next and seventh circle, composed of three smaller circles in which were punished the Violent against their neighbors, against nature, and against God. The steep banks of the ravine were guarded by the huge Minotaur, from which Dante and Vergil escaped only by running.
Within Phlegethon, the boiling river of blood, stood the tyrants, among whom were Dionysius, Azzolin, and Attila, uttering loud laments. If they ventured to stir from their place of torment they were pierced by the arrows of the Centaurs that guarded the banks. The Centaur Nessus conveyed Dante across the river into the second circle, the dolorous forest, where the Violent against nature, the Suicides, were transformed into closely set, twisted thorn-trees, infested with harpies that fed on their leaves, inflicting perpetual pain; thence into the third circle, where the Violent against God, chief among whom was the arrogant Capaneus, dwelt in a sandy plain surrounded by the dolorous forest. Upon the naked souls, some of whom were lying supine, some crouching, others moving about continually, fell a perpetual shower of flakes of fire.
Picking their way along the edge of the forest, not daring to step on the sand waste, the poets came upon a little blood-red rivulet quenching the flames above it, Phlegethon again, formed by the rivers Acheron and Styx, whose source is the tears of Time. As they skirted the forest they saw a troop of spirits hastening past, one of whom, after a sharp look, grasped Dante’s garment exclaiming, “What a wonder!” The baked countenance, the ghastly face, was that of his old teacher Ser Brunetto, who not daring to stop for fear of increasing his punishment, followed him, questioning him on his appearance below, and comforting him by the assurance of his future greatness. Deep were the burns in the limbs of the other Florentines Dante met below, to whom he gave tidings of the state of affairs in their former home.
Mounting on the shoulders of the hideous monster Geryon, the poets were carried into a fearful abyss whose sides were Alp-like in steepness. This was the eighth circle, Malebolge, or Evil pits, consisting of ten concentric bolge, or ditches of stone with dikes between and rough bridges running across them to the centre.
In the first pit Jason and other deceivers of women were being lashed by horned demons. In pit two, a Florentine friend of Dante’s was submerged with others in filth as a punishment for flattery. In pit three the Simoniacs were placed head down in purses in the earth, their projecting feet tortured with flames. The poets crossed the bridge, and Vergil carried Dante down the sloping bank so that he could speak to one who proved to be the unhappy Nicholas III., who accused Boniface for his evil deeds and expressed a longing for his arrival in this place of torture. From the next bridge-top Dante dimly perceived the slow procession of weeping soothsayers with heads reversed on their shoulders. There walked Amphiarus, Tiresias, Manto, and Michael Scott. So great was Dante’s sorrow on beholding the misery of these men who had once been held in such great esteem, that he leaned against a crag and wept until reproved by Vergil as a reprobate for feeling compassion at the doom divine. Through the semi-darkness the poets looked down into pit five, where devils with fantastic names pitched barrators into a lake of boiling pitch and speared those who dared to raise their heads above the surface. From these Evil Claws Dante and Vergil escaped only by running into the sixth pit, where walked the hypocrites in richly gilded mantles. When Dante wondered at their weary faces and their tears, he was told by two of the Frati Gaudenti (Jolly Friars) of Florence who suffered here, that the cloaks and hoods were of heaviest lead, a load that grew more irksome with the ages. Caiaphas, Annas, and the members of the council that condemned Christ lay on the ground transfixed with stakes, and over their bodies passed the slow moving train of the hypocrites. The next bridge lay in ruins as a result of the earthquake at the Crucifixion, and Vergil experienced the utmost difficulty in conveying Dante up the crags to a point where he could look down into the dark dungeon of thieves, where the naked throng were entwined with serpents and at their bite changed from man to serpent and back again. Some burned and fell into ashes at the venomous bite, only to rise again and suffer new tortures. Here Dante spoke with Vanni Fucci of Pistoja, who robbed the sacristy of Florence, and whose face “was painted with a melancholy shame” at being seen in his misery. The eighth pit was brightly lighted by the flames that moved back and forth, each concealing within an evil counsellor. Ulysses and Diomed walked together in a flame cleft at the top, for the crime of robbing Deidamia of Achilles, of stealing the Palladium, and of fabricating the Trojan horse. As Dante looked into pit nine he saw a troop compelled to pass continually by a demon with a sharp sword who mutilated each one each time he made the round of the circle, so that the wounds never healed. These were the evil counsellors. Mahomet was there; there too was Ali. But ghastliest of sights was that of a headless trunk walking through the grim plain, holding its severed head by the hair like a lantern, and exclaiming “O me!” This was the notorious Bertrand de Born, the Troubadour, who had caused dissension between Henry II. of England and his son. Among this throng Dante recognized his kinsman Geri del Bello, who gave him a disdainful look because he had not yet avenged his death. From the tenth and last pit of Malebolge came a stench as great as though it came from all the hospitals of Valdichiana, Maremma, and Sardinia, between July and September. All the loathsome diseases were gathered into this moat to afflict the forgers and falsifiers. Here Dante saw Athamas, mad king of Thebes, the mad Gianni Schicchi, and Messer Adam of Brescia, the false coiner, who, distorted with dropsy, was perishing of thirst, and thinking constantly of the cool rivulets that descended from the verdant hills of Casentino.
As Dante and his guide turned their backs on the wretched valley and ascended the bank that surrounded it, the blare of a loud horn fell upon their ears, louder than Roland’s blast at Roncesvalles. This came from the plain of the giants between Malebolge and the mouth of the infernal pit. All around the pit, or well, were set the giants with half their bodies fixed in earth. Nimrod, as a punishment for building the tower of Babel, could speak no language, but babbled some gibberish. Ephialtes, Briareus, and Antaeus were here, all horrible in aspect; Antaeus, less savage than the others, lifted the two poets, and stooping set them down in the pit below. This was the last and ninth circle, a dismal pit for the punishment of traitors, who were frozen in the vast lake that Cocytus formed here. In Caina were the brothers Alessandro and Napoleone degli Alberti, mutual fratricides, their heads frozen together. In Antenora was that Guelph Bocca who had caused his party’s defeat; but the most horrible sight they encountered was in Ptolemaea, where Count Ugolino, who had been shut up with his sons and grandsons in a tower to starve by the Archbishop Ruggieri, was now revenging himself in their place of torture by continually gnawing the archbishop’s head, frozen in the ice next his own. Farther down they walked among those who, when they shed tears over their woe had their teardrops frozen, so that even this solace was soon denied them. Dante promised to break the frozen veil from the eyes of one who prayed for aid, but when he learned that it was the Friar Alberigo, whose body was still on earth, and whose soul was already undergoing punishment, he refused, “for to be rude to him was courtesy.”
In the fourth and last division of the ninth circle, the Judecca, a strong wind was blowing. Then Dante saw the emperor of the kingdom frozen in the ice, a mighty giant foul to look upon, with three faces, vermilion, white and yellow, and black. The waving of his two featherless wings caused the great winds that froze Cocytus. Teardrops fell from his six eyes; in each mouth he was crunching a sinner, Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius.
Being warned by Vergil that it was time to depart, Dante clasped his guide around his neck, and Vergil began to climb down the huge monster until they reached his middle, the centre of gravity, where with much difficulty they turned and climbed upward along the subterranean course of Lethe, until they again beheld the stars.