Canto XVII

Italian

«Ecco la fiera con la coda aguzza,
che passa i monti e rompe i muri e l’armi!
Ecco colei che tutto ’l mondo appuzza!».

Sì cominciò lo mio duca a parlarmi;
e accennolle che venisse a proda,
vicino al fin d’i passeggiati marmi.

E quella sozza imagine di froda
sen venne, e arrivò la testa e ’l busto,
ma ’n su la riva non trasse la coda.

La faccia sua era faccia d’uom giusto,
tanto benigna avea di fuor la pelle,
e d’un serpente tutto l’altro fusto;

due branche avea pilose insin l’ascelle;
lo dosso e ’l petto e ambedue le coste
dipinti avea di nodi e di rotelle.

Con più color, sommesse e sovraposte
non fer mai drappi Tartari né Turchi,
né fuor tai tele per Aragne imposte.

Come talvolta stanno a riva i burchi,
che parte sono in acqua e parte in terra,
e come là tra li Tedeschi lurchi

lo bivero s’assetta a far sua guerra,
così la fiera pessima si stava
su l’orlo ch’è di pietra e ’l sabbion serra.

Nel vano tutta sua coda guizzava,
torcendo in sù la venenosa forca
ch’a guisa di scorpion la punta armava.

Lo duca disse: «Or convien che si torca
la nostra via un poco insino a quella
bestia malvagia che colà si corca».

Però scendemmo a la destra mammella,
e diece passi femmo in su lo stremo,
per ben cessar la rena e la fiammella.

E quando noi a lei venuti semo,
poco più oltre veggio in su la rena
gente seder propinqua al loco scemo.

Quivi ’l maestro «Acciò che tutta piena
esperïenza d’esto giron porti»,
mi disse, «va, e vedi la lor mena.

Li tuoi ragionamenti sian là corti;
mentre che torni, parlerò con questa,
che ne conceda i suoi omeri forti».

Così ancor su per la strema testa
di quel settimo cerchio tutto solo
andai, dove sedea la gente mesta.

Per li occhi fora scoppiava lor duolo;
di qua, di là soccorrien con le mani
quando a’ vapori, e quando al caldo suolo:

non altrimenti fan di state i cani
or col ceffo or col piè, quando son morsi
o da pulci o da mosche o da tafani.

Poi che nel viso a certi li occhi porsi,
ne’ quali ’l doloroso foco casca,
non ne conobbi alcun; ma io m’accorsi

che dal collo a ciascun pendea una tasca
ch’avea certo colore e certo segno,
e quindi par che ’l loro occhio si pasca.

E com’ io riguardando tra lor vegno,
in una borsa gialla vidi azzurro
che d’un leone avea faccia e contegno.

Poi, procedendo di mio sguardo il curro,
vidine un’altra come sangue rossa,
mostrando un’oca bianca più che burro.

E un che d’una scrofa azzurra e grossa
segnato avea lo suo sacchetto bianco,
mi disse: «Che fai tu in questa fossa?

Or te ne va; e perché se’ vivo anco,
sappi che ’l mio vicin Vitalïano
sederà qui dal mio sinistro fianco.

Con questi Fiorentin son padoano:
spesse fïate mi ’ntronan li orecchi
gridando: “Vegna ’l cavalier sovrano,

che recherà la tasca con tre becchi!”».
Qui distorse la bocca e di fuor trasse
la lingua, come bue che ’l naso lecchi.

E io, temendo no ’l più star crucciasse
lui che di poco star m’avea ’mmonito,
torna’mi in dietro da l’anime lasse.

Trova’ il duca mio ch’era salito
già su la groppa del fiero animale,80
e disse a me: «Or sie forte e ardito.

Omai si scende per sì fatte scale;
monta dinanzi, ch’i’ voglio esser mezzo,
sì che la coda non possa far male».

Qual è colui che sì presso ha ’l riprezzo
de la quartana, c’ha già l’unghie smorte,
e triema tutto pur guardando ’l rezzo,

tal divenn’ io a le parole porte;
ma vergogna mi fé le sue minacce,
che innanzi a buon segnor fa servo forte.

I’ m’assettai in su quelle spallacce;
sì volli dir, ma la voce non venne
com’ io credetti: ‘Fa che tu m’abbracce’.

Ma esso, ch’altra volta mi sovvenne
ad altro forse, tosto ch’i’ montai
con le braccia m’avvinse e mi sostenne;

e disse: «Gerïon, moviti omai:
le rote larghe, e lo scender sia poco;
pensa la nova soma che tu hai».

Come la navicella esce di loco
in dietro in dietro, sì quindi si tolse;
e poi ch’al tutto si sentì a gioco,

là ’v’ era ’l petto, la coda rivolse,
e quella tesa, come anguilla, mosse,
e con le branche l’aere a sé raccolse.

Maggior paura non credo che fosse
quando Fetonte abbandonò li freni,
per che ’l ciel, come pare ancor, si cosse;

né quando Icaro misero le reni
sentì spennar per la scaldata cera,110
gridando il padre a lui «Mala via tieni!»,

che fu la mia, quando vidi ch’i’ era
ne l’aere d’ogne parte, e vidi spenta
ogne veduta fuor che de la fera.

Ella sen va notando lenta lenta;
rota e discende, ma non me n’accorgo
se non che al viso e di sotto mi venta.

Io sentia già da la man destra il gorgo
far sotto noi un orribile scroscio,
per che con li occhi ’n giù la testa sporgo.

Allor fu’ io più timido a lo stoscio,
però ch’i’ vidi fuochi e senti’ pianti;
ond’ io tremando tutto mi raccoscio.

E vidi poi, ché nol vedea davanti,
lo scendere e ’l girar per li gran mali
che s’appressavan da diversi canti.

Come ’l falcon ch’è stato assai su l’ali,
che sanza veder logoro o uccello
fa dire al falconiere «Omè, tu cali!»,

discende lasso onde si move isnello,
per cento rote, e da lunge si pone
dal suo maestro, disdegnoso e fello;

così ne puose al fondo Gerïone
al piè al piè de la stagliata rocca,
e, discarcate le nostre persone,

si dileguò come da corda cocca.

English

“Look! It’s the beast with the pointed tail[1] [2]
Who leaps tall mountains and breaks barriers —
Natural wall or man-made weapon. Look! It’s him

Who stinks up the world.” My teacher was speaking
To me while motioning him to the marble ledge
On which we walked and that ends at the abyss.

That loathsome image of fraud came forward[3]
And landed his head and chest on the parapet
But left his tail dangling down behind.

He wore a face that looked like the face
Of an honest man, outwardly humble and affable —
But the trunk was all serpent.

His two paws were clawed and covered with fur
Up to his armpits; back, belly and both flanks
Were tattooed with an arabesque of interlocking wheels.[4]

Neither Tartars nor Turks ever made more[5]
Intricately embroidered patterned fabric,
Nor did Arachne’s loom ever weave such an intricate web.[6]

Like flat-bottomed boats sometimes lie at the shore,
Half in water, half on sand, or like the otter who lives[7]
Among beer-swilling Germans crouches on the bank

With its tail in the water to wait for prey,
So this beast, the worst of the worst, hung on the stone
Bank that bounds the sand circle.

The length of his tail thrashed in the air —
Its forked tip twisting up, each poisoned prong
Armed with a scorpion stinger.

My teacher said, “Now we have to change course
A little so we can reach this evil creature
Where he’s perched over there at the border.”

We then went down the right bank
And took some ten steps toward the outer rim,
In order to avoid the sand and flame.

Once we reached him, I was able to see,
A little farther on, a group of people sitting on the sand
At the edge of the empty expanse.

My teacher said, “Just so you won’t think, ‘Something[8]
Is happening here but you don’t know what it is,’
Go over and take a good look at their condition.

But don’t take too long.
While you’re away, I’ll talk to the beast
About whether he’ll lend us his massive back.”

So I went on alone even farther along
The outer margin of that seventh layer
To where the sufferers were suffering.

Their eyes conveyed their pain,
Their hands tried to manage it: first brushing off flames
(Now here, now there), then raising themselves up

To relieve their burning rumps — not unlike dogs
In summer will use first a paw, then the snout,
When they’re being eaten alive by fleas or flies or gadflies.

When I looked at some of the faces
The misery-making fire falls on
I didn’t recognize anyone, but I did notice

That around each neck was a coin purse[9]
Each with a shield of a particular color. Their eyes
Seemed fixed on those, as if on a sumptuous feast.

When I walked closer and could see better,
I saw a yellow purse,[10]
That had on it a blue shape and face of a lion.

I looked farther out into the crowd
And could see another: this one was blood red[11]
With a goose whiter than butter before it’s dyed yellow.

One wearing a white wallet decorated[12]
With a pregnant blue sow, said to me,
“What are you doing in this hellhole?

Get out of here! But, hey, since you’re still alive,
I can tell you this — my neighbor, Vitaliano,[13]
Is slated any day now to take his place on my left.

I’m a Paduan stuck here among Florentines;
They’re always making my ears ring, shouting
‘Let the Sovereign Knight come, let him come[14]

Wearing his purse with three eagle beaks.’”
He twisted his mouth
And stuck out his tongue like an ox licking his nose.

I was worried that if I stayed longer
I might annoy my teacher who’d told me
To hurry, so I turned my back on the dreary throng.

I found my teacher already seated
On the back of the fierce beast;
He said, “Okay now, show some strength and courage.

From now on, we’ll always go down via escalators[15]
Like these. You sit in front so I can wedge myself
Between you and the dangerous tail.”

Like someone with a malarial fever on the verge
Of a shivering fit, pale-nailed
And dreading the very sight of shade,

That’s how I felt hearing that.
But shame, which makes the humble gofer eager
To impress a likeable boss, made me brave.

I climbed up onto those ugly shoulders;
I wanted to say, except my voice wouldn’t work
In spite of wanting, “Make sure you hold me tight.”

But the man who had repeatedly protected me
Whenever things were dangerous, as soon as I was seated
Encircled me with his arms and held me steady.

He then said, “Geryon, it’s time to move;
Make wide circles and come down slowly.
Keep in mind the weight of the load on your back.”

As a small ship, inch by inch, backs out of its berth,
So Geryon backed away from the ledge;
When he was sure he’d cleared the rim, he twisted

Around so his tail was where his chest had been, then
Extended it lashing like an eel in water;
Meanwhile he paddled the air with his paws.

Phaeton himself couldn’t have felt more fear[16]
When he dropped the reins of fire and scorched the sky —
Leaving this majestical roof fretted with golden fire —[17]

Nor poor ill-fated Icarus when he felt himself unfeathered[18]
As the wax began to melt and he heard
His father’s hollow shout, “You’re going the wrong way!”

Than I was when surrounded by nothing
But air and when all I could see was nothing
But the beast.

He swims on, slowly, slowly, wheeling downward
In descent, which I only know by the feel
Of the wind on my face as it blows from below.

Already I heard on my right the hideous roar
Of the vortex the boiling blood empties into,
So I lean my head out to have a look.

That made me even more terrified of the cliff below
Since I could see fires and hear howling;
Shaking, I shrank back into myself.

I could see now, as I hadn’t seen before,
That our spiral was delivering us ever more nearer
The great horrors drawing in on every side.

Like the falcon too long off forth on swing[19]
That gives up the hunt without having been called,
And makes the falconer cry, “Oh no, you’re coming back.”

And wheels many times and comes in weary
Right where it took off earlier with speed and now
Alights pissy and sulking at a distance from its master

So Geryon dropped us on the bottom
At the base of a jagged cliff face.
His back now unburdened of its cargo, he disappeared

Like a heat-seeking missile released from its mount.[20]


NOTES

  1. 1: Look! It’s the beast with the pointed tail: Geryon, who remains unnamed until line 97, was a fearsome giant in Greek mythology who was eventually killed by Hercules. He is often pictured as having three heads but here Dante has instead given him three different animal identities: serpent, human, and furry beast. Dante may have based his image on a description by Pliny the Elder of a beast called Mantichora (Historia Naturalis, VIII, 30) which “has the face of a man, the body of a lion, and a tail ending in a sting like a scorpion’s” (re-quoted from a note by Grandgent by Robert Hollander, Inferno, note to line 1-3). Similar creatures with human faces and scorpion tails are described in several books of the Bible and by Solinus, a Latin grammarian of the third century.
  1. 1-2: leaps / Tall mountains: Superman, the comic book superhero and American culture icon created in 1932 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster could “leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
  1. 7-12: That loathsome image of fraud came forward… the face / Of an honest man… the trunk was all serpent: The creature embodies the manner in which those who practice fraud prey on a trusting victim — by presenting a benign and friendly front, behind which they keep hidden their sinister intentions.
  1. 15: an arabesque of interlocking wheels: Medieval dragons were sometimes pictured with rings covering their bodies.
  1. 16-17: Neither Tartars nor Turks: Both were famous in the Medieval era for colorful woven fabrics with intricate embroidered patterns.
  1. 18: Nor did Arachne’s loom ever weave such an intricate web: In GreeK mythology, Arachne brags that she is a better weaver than Minerva. When that proves to be the case, Minerva in a jealous rage destroys Arachne’s loom and weaving. Arachne then hangs herself in despair, but Minerva frees her and turns her into a spider.
  1. 20-21: like the otter who lives / Among beer-swilling Germans crouches on the bank / With its tail in the water to wait for prey: Dante says “bivero,” or beaver, but most commentators assume he was confused and was actually describing the fish-eating otter.
  1. 37-38: My teacher said, Just so you won’t think, ‘Something / Is happening here but you don’t know what it is: Bob Dylan,
    You walk into the room
    With your pencil in your hand
    And you say, “Who is that man?”
    You try so hard
    But you don’t understand
    Just what you’ll say when you get home
    Because something is happening here
    But you don’t know what it is
    Do you, Mister Jones?
  1. 55: That around each neck was a coin purse / Each with a shield of a particular color: these purses are the moneychanger’s purses (also called a “borsa” in line 59 and a “sacchetto” in line 65). In this way, Dante reveals that these sinners are here for the crime of usury; usury, in his scheme, is a type of fraud. On each purse, is a coat of arms.
  1. 59-60: I saw a yellow purse / That had on it a blue shape and face of a lion: The coat of arms of the prominent Gianfigliazzi family, Guelphs from Florence, had an azure lion on a gold field.
  1. 62-63: This one was blood red / With a goose whiter than butter before it’s dyed yellow: This is the coat of arms of the Ubriacchi family of Florence. They were Ghibellines and among those expelled from Florence in 1258.
  1. 64-65: One wearing a white wallet decorated / With a pregnant blue sow, said to me: The coat of arms of the Paduan family of the Scrovegni. The usurer in question is believed to be either Rinaldo or Reginaldo Scrovegni, one of the rishest men in Padua before this death in either 1288 or 1299.
  1. 68-69: I can tell you this — my neighbor, Vitaliano / Is slated any day now to take his place on my left: This is Giovanni Buiamonte, a Pauduan who amassed a large fortune but fell into disrepute when he was changed with theft by the merchant society in Florence. He died in poverty in 1310. The fact that he will be seated on the speaker’s left implies greater guilt.
  1. 72-73: Let the Sovereign Knight come, let him come // Wearing his purse with three eagle beaks: Buiamonte’s crest had three black eagle beaks on a yellow background.
  1. 82-83: From now on, we’ll always go down via escalators / Like these: Dante uses the word “stairs.” The design for an escalator, a motor-driven moving stairway, was patented as early as 1859 but the first working escalator was not built until 1896. The word “escalator” was trademarked 1900 and subsequently became the property of the Otis Elevator Company. In 1950, it was decided in court that the term had moved into the public domain and Otis Elevator no longer had exclusive rights to its use.
  1. 106-107: Phaëton himself couldn’t have felt more fear / When he dropped the reins of fire and scorched the sky: In Greek mythology, Phaëton persuades his reluctant father, Helios (the Sun god), to allow him to drive his chariot. He loses control and when he comes dangerously close to earth, Jupiter kills him with a thunderbolt. Ovid recounts the story in the Metamorphoses (II, 1-328).
  1. 108: this majestical roof fretted with golden fire: Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, sc. ii:
    Hamlet: …the
    earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
    excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
    o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
    with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
    me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
  1. 109-111: Nor poor ill-fated Icarus when he felt himself unfeathered / As the wax began to melt and he heard his father’s hollow shout / “You’re going the wrong way: In Greek mythology, Daedalus, the master craftsman, constructs wings for out of wax and feathers for himself and his son, Icarus, so they can escape Crete. The father warns the son not to fly too close to the sun but he doesn’t listen. Pieter Bruegel the Elder famously painted the scene in “Landscape with Fall of Icarus” (c. 1558); W.H. Auden wrote a poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which references the painting; William Carlos Williams did as well. Stephen Daedalus is the name of the anti-hero of James Joyce’s Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man. Ovid relates the story in Metamorphoses VIII, 200-209, 222-35).
  1. 127: Like the falcon too long off forth on swing: Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover (To Christ Our Lord)”:
    I CAUGHT this morning morning’s minion, king-
    dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
    High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
    In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
    As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
    Stirred for a bird,— the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!
  1. 136: Like a heat-seeking missile released from its mount: “The earliest successful passive homing munitions were ‘heat-seeking’ air-to-air missiles that homed onto the infrared emissions of jet engine exhausts.” (FROM Encyclopedia Britannica.)

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