The Ninth Circle of Hell

Dante reserves the lowest circle of Hell for the treacherous, those guilty of fraud. Here I quote from John Ciardi’s introduction to Canto XXXII of The Inferno (this page has Ciardi’s introductions to each Canto plus Salvador Dali’s illustrations), followed by the first section of the Canto.

Ciardi writes:

At the bottom of the well Dante finds himself on a huge frozen lake. This is Cocytus, the Ninth Circle, the fourth and the last great water of Hell. Here, frozen in the ice, are punished sinners guilty of treachery against those to whom they were bound by special ties. The ice is divided into four concentric rings marked only by different positions of the damned within the ice.

This is Dante’s symbolic equivalent of the final guilt. The treacheries of these souls were denials of love and of all human warmth. Only the remorseless dead center of the ice will serve to express their natures. As they denied God’s love, so are they furthest removed from the light and warmth of His Sun. As they denied all human ties, so are they bound only by the unyielding ice.

Here is the beginning of Canto XXXII in Ciardi’s translation:

If I had rhymes as harsh and horrible
as the hard fact of that final dismal hole
which bears the weight of all the steeps of Hell,

I might more fully press the sap and substance
from my conception; but since I must do
without them, I begin with some reluctance.

For it is no easy undertaking, I say,
to describe the bottom of the Universe;
nor is it for tongue’s that only babble child’s play.

But may those Ladies of Heavenly Spring
who helped Amphion wall Thebes, assist my verse,
that the word may be the mirror of the thing.

O most miscreant rabble, you who keep
the stations of that place whose name is pain,
better had you been born as goats or sheep!

We stood now in the dark pit of the well,
far down the slope below the Giant’s feet,
and while I still stared up at the great wall,

I heard a voice cry: “Watch which way you turn:
take care you do not trample on the heads
of the forworn and miserable brethren.”

Whereat I turned and saw beneath my feet
and stretching out ahead, a lake so frozen
it seemed to be made of glass. So thick a sheet

never yet hid the Danube’s winter course,
nor, far away beneath the frigid sky,
locked the Don up in its frozen source:

for were Tanbernick and the enormous peak
of Pietrapana to crash down on it,
not even the edges would so much as creak.

The way frogs sit to croak, their muzzles leaning
out of the water, at the time and season
when the peasant woman dreams of her day’s gleaning—

Just so the livid dead are sealed in place
up to the part at which they blushed for shame,
and they beat their teeth like storks. Each holds his face

bowed toward the ice, each of them testifies
to the cold with his chattering mouth, to his heart’s grief
with tears that flood forever from his eyes.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at March 13, 2009 11:15 PM | Send

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