Simple Samples: Inferno Canto XXXIII

Lifting his mouth from his horrendous meal,
this sinner first wiped off his messy lips
In the hair remaining on the chewed-up skull

Then spoke: “You want me to renew a grief
So desperate that just the thought of it,
Much less the telling, grips my heart with pain;

But if my words can be the seed to bear
The fruit of infamy for this betrayer,
Who feeds my hunger, then I shall speak– in tears.

I do not know your name, nor do I know
How you have come down here, but Florentine
You surely seem to be, to hear you speak.

First you should know I was Count Ugolino
And my neighbor here, Ruggieri the Archbishop;
Now I’ll tell you why I’m so unneighborly.

That I, trusting in him, was put in prison
Through his evil machinations, where I died,
This much I surely do not have to tell you.

What you could have not know, however, is
The inhuman circumstance of my death.
Now listen, then decide if he has wronged me!

Through a narrow slit of window high in that mew
(Which is called the tower of hunger, after me,
And I’ll not be the last to know that place)

I had watched moon after moon after moon go by,
When finally I dreamed the evil dream
Which ripped away the veil that hid my future.

I dreamed of this one here as lord and huntsman,
Pursuing the wolf and the wolf cubs up the mountain
(Which blocks the sight of Luca from the Pisans)

With skinny bitches, well trained and obedient;
He had out front as leaders of the pack
Gualandi with Sismondi and Lanfanchi.

A short run, and the father with his sons
Seemed to grow tired, and then I thought I saw
Long fangs sunk deep into their sides, ripped open.

When I awoke before the light of dawn,
I heard my children sobbing in their sleep
(You see they, too, were there), asking for bread.

If there thought of what my heart was telling me
Does not fill you with grief, how cruel you are!
If you are not weeping now- do you ever weep?

And then they awoke. It was around the time
They usually brought our food to us. But now
Each one of us was full of dread from dreaming;

Then from below I heard them driving nails
Into the dreadful tower’s door; with that,
I stared in silence at my flesh and blood.

I did not weep, I turned to stone inside;
They wept, and my little Anseluccio spoke:
‘What is it, father? Why do you look that way?’

For them I held my tears back, saying nothing,
All of that day, and then all of that night,
Until another sun shone on the world.

A meager ray of sunlight found its way
To the misery of our cell, and I could see
Myself reflected four times in their faces;

I bit my hands in anguish. And my children,
Who thought that hunger made me bite my hands,
Were quick to draw up closer to me, saying:

‘O, father, you would make us suffer less,
If you would feed on us: you were the one
Who gave us this sad flesh; you take it from us!’

I calmed myself to make them less unhappy.
That day we sat in silence, and the next day.
O pitiless earth! You should have swallowed us!

The fourth day came, and it was on that day
My Gaddo fell prostrate before my feet,
Crying: ‘Why don’t you help me? Why, my father?’

There he died. Just as you see me here,
I saw the other three fall one by one,
As the fifth day and sixth day passed. And I,

By then gone blind, groped over their dead bodies.
Though they were dead, two days I called their names.
Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.”

One of the benefits of literature is it’s ability to create images and forms in the hearts and minds of people. I wanted to share this excerpt simply because the first time I heard it read to me I was stunned.

This exert is from Dante’s Divine Comedy, a three part work depicting a tour through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This is from Inferno Canto XXXIII when Dante is near the end of his downward journey towards the bottom of hell where everything is frozen (yes, frozen) over. There he meets Count Ugolino. Quite graphically, the character finds Count Ugolino with most of his body frozen in ice except his head, which was free to move so that he can eternally chew the head of another person. The above is the accounting of his story.

The image cast in my imagination was more powerful than anything Dante could have written. “Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.” His choice to simply leave the account there showed me how words can be used not only to describe, but can instead leave implications that are more powerful than words.

It’s a good reminder that the various use and non-use of words are very powerful. I’ll explore more of Dante’s work as time moves on, however I wanted to share a personal, favorite, memorable moment. I hope more people come to literature with the expectation of enjoyment, satisfaction, and surprise.

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