Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Greed, Wrath and Sloth

Regaining consciousness after his harrowing ordeal, Dante finds himself in a harsh and cruel new place (for the precursor to this, please click here). The eerie, vast abyss of Hell plays tricks on our pilgrim's mind, as the true extent of unholy retribution against the damned slowly becomes clear. "New sufferings and new sinners suffering appeared to me, no matter where I turned my eyes, no matter where I gazed". His vision unblurring and his senses taking hold once more, fresh horrors await the traveller to the impious land.

Engraving by Gustave Doré.
No sooner than Dante spies his guide, Virgil, awaiting nearby than a dreadful alliance of foul things assault his senses. A fetid smell rises in the air, as thundering rain batters the ground. This is no ordinary rain however. Dense hail and filthy water churn with snow upon the ground of Hell, the disgusting slush spreading nausea all around. Just then, a howling roar echoes through the pounding rain, and our pilgrim starts in fear. Looking around in terror, his eyes find its source. The mighty hound of Hell, Cerberus, lies sprawling in the squalor, his three throats bellowing through the downpour. As sickening in sight as his lair is in smell, the gigantic beast is a horror for Dante to look upon. Eyes swollen red, black drool pouring from his three mouths and more a mound of twitching muscle than a true form, the polluted claws slash and mangle the spirits of the damned all about. The demonic dog suddenly is made aware of the presence of Dante and Virgil, snarling and baring his fangs in anger, aware that they do not belong in his realm. Virgil, however, is unperturbed. Kneeling into the grotesque muck, the great poet takes up a handful of the horrid slime and casts them into the greedy jaws:

             " As a howling cur, hungering to get fed,
                     quiets down with the first mouthful of his food,
                     busy with eating, wrestling with that alone,

               So it was with all three filthy heads
                     of the demon Cerberus, used to barking thunder
                     on these dead souls, who wished that they were deaf. "
                                       - VIRGIL WARDS OFF CERBERUS

Though marshy underfoot from the heavy rain, our two poets journey on into the pestilence. As they journey on, Dante becomes aware that he walks upon the cursed shades, beaten down to near nothingness by the torrential rain, struggling in the choking sludge. One among them sits up straight, a man Dante once knew in life, a fellow Florentine. Ciacco is his name and for his sin of gluttony, he was condemned to this place, the Third Circle of Hell, along with many others, all given over to engorgement. The two men speak of Florence and her politics, lamenting at so few good souls who dwelled within. Dante asks of his friends, Jacopo Rusticucci, Arrigo, Mosca and the others, do they enjoy Heaven's sweetness or have they been cast into the darkness? "They lie below with blacker souls" Ciacco mournfully concedes, beckoning Dante further on. Staring awhile at the living man, Ciacco soon falls down into the muddy wastes to join his voracious kin. Onwards the two poets venture, bemoaning the loss of hope all shades of Hell endure, as the path descends, twists and turns, to the Fourth Circle of Hell.

The Spendthrifts and the Misers
Engraving by Gustave Doré.
Upon the doors to the next realm, a swollen figure appears, in the shape of a man, yet muttering nonsensical noises and inane ramblings. This is Plutus, the god of wealth and enemy of man, and this Circle is his realm, to where all who worship riches are condemned. Shouting at the god, Virgil states their purpose as divinely ordained and willed from on high. Plutus shrinks back to the shadows, as the poets enter his domain. Great shouts and bellowings pierce the air, as Dante looks on in shock. Far more spirits are bound here than in any realm above. As though some twisted joust, the souls push enormous weights toward the centre, straining with all their might, sweat pouring from their limbs. When they meet in the centre one asks the other "Why hoard?", while the other "Why waste?", before turning back and beginning again, and again, and again, and again and again. For here are punished the spendthrifts, those who lavished riches in life, and the miserly, those who relentlessly pursued wealth in life yet could not bear to spend any of their own. Dante notices in dismay that there are great many priests and Popes among the damned here, most susceptible to avarice were they. Wondering if he will recognise any among these wretched men, Dante turns to his master. An empty hope, he replies, their lives were undistinguished, as they have become now. So enamoured of their riches are they that they are oblivious to all else around. Disgusted by their insatiable greed, Virgil turns to his follower:

               " You see, my son, the short-lived mockery
                         of all the wealth that is in Fortune's keep,
                         over which the human race is bickering;

                 For all the gold that is or ever was
                         beneath the moon won't buy a moment's rest
                         for even one among those weary souls. "
                                         - VIRGIL DESPAIRS OF THE FUTILITY OF GREED

The Wrathful
Painting by William-Adolphe Bougereau.
Appalled, and struck with revulsion, Virgil bids Dante on, as the stars which rose when they first met even now begin to fall. Crossing the Circle to a further bank, they pass a boiling spring, which spits and overflows with its raging waters into a ditch. Descending further into the bowels of Hell, Dante notices new faces appearing in the torrents. Filthy people, unclad and faces twisted with anger churned the vile water to rapids, as the stream flowed into the great River Styx. Consumed with their wrath, the souls rip and tear each other, their teeth rending flesh, there hands and feet tearing each other limb from limb. "Now see the souls that anger overcame", Virgil enlightens the curious Dante. Noticing strange bubbles breaking at the surface, Dante is confused. That is all you can see off the slothful, Virgil proclaims. Sluggish in life in the sweet air under the Sun, now they lie gurgling at the bottom of that foul muck. The condemned sing the hymn of their own doom into eternity, yet the bursting bubbles at the surface is all that is heard.

Nauseous once again, Dante hurries to rejoin his master, when suddenly, a towering citadel looms ominously ahead...

United Kingdom

Penguin Classics:
(A nice edition which even has the original Italian on the left hand side of the page!)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(Accessible and well annotated, also includes Purgatorio and Paradisio)

United States

Penguin Classics:
The Divine Comedy: Volume 1: Inferno (Penguin Classics) (Pt. 1)
(A nice edition which even has the original Italian on the left hand side of the page!)

Oxford World's Classics:
The Divine Comedy (Oxford World's Classics)
(Accessible and well annotated, also includes Purgatorio and Paradisio)

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