A Dantean post-Christmas

The world is too frozen and snow covered for serious blogging today. Instead, I’m comfortably under a quilt, re-reading John Ciardi’s translation of Dante. Here is the beginning of Canto VI of The Inferno, where Dante and Virgil travel through the Third Circle of Hell where reside the Gluttons. Though the deep snow on the streets of New York City today is pristine and nothing like the filthy snow in Canto VI, Dante’s version somehow fits my mood better.

The canto is preceded by Ciardi’s summary:

Dante recovers from his swoon and finds himself in the THIRD CIRCLE. A great storm of putrefaction falls incessantly, a mixture of stinking snow and freezing rain, which forms into a vile slush underfoot. Everything about this circle suggests a gigantic garbage dump. The souls of the damned lie in the icy paste, swollen and obscene, and CERBERUS, the ravenous three-headed dog of hell, stands guard over them, ripping and tearing them with his claws and teeth.

These are the GLUTTONS. In life they made no higher use of the gifts of God than to wallow in food and drink, producers of nothing but garbage and offal. Here they lie through all eternity, themselves like garbage, half-buried in fetid slush, while Cerberus slavers over them as they in life slavered over their food …

My senses had reeled from me out of pity
for the sorrow of those kinsmen and lost lovers.
Now they return, and waking gradually,

I see new torments and new souls in pain
about me everywhere. Wherever I turn
away from grief I turn to grief again.

I am in the Third Circle of the torments.
Here to all time with neither pause nor change
the frozen rain of Hell descends in torrents.

Huge hailstones, dirty water, and black snow
pour from the dismal air to putrefy
the putrid slush that waits for them below.

Here monstrous Cerberus, the ravening beast,
howls through his triple throats like a mad dog
over the spirits sunk in that foul paste.

His eyes are red, his beard is greased with phlegm,
his belly is swollen, and his hands are claws
to rip the wretches and flay and mangle them.

And they, too, howl like dogs in the freezing storm,
turning and turning from it as if they thought
one naked side could keep the other warm.

When Cerberus discovered us in that swill
his dragon-jaws yawed wide, his lips drew back
in a grin of fangs. No limb of him was still.

My Guide bent down and seized in either fist
a clod of the stinking dirt that festered there
and flung them down the gullet of the beast.

As a hungry cur will set the echoes racing
And then fall still when he is thrown a bone,
All of his clamor being in his craving,

So the three ugly heads of Cerberus,
whose yowling at those wretches deafened them
choked on their putrid sobs and stopped their fuss.

We made our way across the sodden mess
of souls the rain beat down, and when our steps
fell on a body, they sank through emptiness.

- end of initial entry -

December 28

Richard C. writes:

I was happy to see that you mentioned poet John Ciardi, whose name I hadn’t heard in quite some time. About 15 years ago I saw Robert Pinsky, also a New Jersey poet and translator of Dante, address the NJ Library Association. It was my intention to ask him what it is about New Jersey that produced two poets who translated Dante, but I didn’t get the opportunity. Anyway, thanks for the nice memory.

LA replies:

In fact, I heard John Ciardi address my high school, Columbia, in Maplewood, New Jersey in the 1960s. I read his Inferno in my freshman year of college, then, much later, in my thirties, I read his Purgatorio and Paradiso.

Having seen him in person created a sense of a personal connection with him that stayed with me for some reason. However, I didn’t know he was a fellow New Jerseyan.

Richard C. replies:

You’re correct. Ciardi was born in Massachusetts but was a long time resident of Metuchen, NJ and taught at Rutgers for many years. I read his translation of the Purgatorio while at Rugters in 1961.

LA replies:

So he wasn’t born in New Jersey. Well, no one’s perfect.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 27, 2010 01:34 PM | Send

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