Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

The Inferno, Canto XXVIII

A new translation

Eighth Circle: Ninth Ditch: The Sowers of Discord 

Who, even freed from all the chains of verse,

            and given endless time, could tell the tale

            of what I saw now? The blood, and guts, and worse? 

I guarantee you every tongue would fail:

            our minds weren’t built for such reality,

            beside which any form of words must pale.

If one could gather in a human sea

            all those who on Apulia’s fatal ground

            once mourned their blood, that had been spilled so freely

by the Trojans, and those from that long round            10

            of war, ‘which made such heaps of looted rings’

            as Livy writes (his facts are always sound), 

together with those dead, who by withstanding

            Robert Guiscard felt the shock of steel;

            and all those troops whose bones are whitening 

at Ceperan, where the Apulians wheeled on their heel

            and ran; with those at Tagliacozzo, where

            Alardo, without weapons, gained the field;

each one of them exhibiting his share

            of limbs and stumps: all this could not impart   20

            the horrors of the Ninth Ravine, I swear.

No barrel with its staves all ripped apart

            gaped wider than this sinner I saw slit

            from chin through belly to the farting part. 

His guts were dangling, having burst their pit;

            I saw his lungs, his liver, and the sack

            that turns whatever’s swallowed into shit. 

I stood and goggled at him; he stared back,

            then with his hands he opened up his chest,

            and said: ‘You want to see Mohammed rack     30

himself? To tear his heart? Oh be my guest!

            And look, in front of me, at Ali’s face,

            which weeps because it’s cleft from chin to crest;

see all the others wandering this place,

            who, when they lived, ripped everything in two

            by schism; hence they’re deuce instead of ace.


A devil stands behind our wretched crew

            and decorates us with his wicked sword

            to open up our cleavages anew

as we parade around the endless road,            40

            for by the time we come within his reach

            again, our wounds have closed. But what’s the word

on you there, ruminating on the ridge—

            maybe to delay the punishment

            doled out to you for being such a wretch?’

‘Death has not touched him yet; nor is he sent

            by guilt to suffer here,’ my master said;

            ‘but to experience the full extent

of hell, from gyre to gyre he must be led

            by me; and this is true as that I speak             50

            to you, as is the fact that I am dead.’

On hearing this a hundred in the creek

            below forgot their dire extremity

            to gawp amazed at me, the living freak.

‘Well, then, you who might return to see

            the sun, tell Fra Dolcino that unless

            he’s keen to follow me quite rapidly

he’d better lay in food against the stress

            of winter, which would help the Novarese

            to an otherwise improbable success.’            60 

With one foot poised as if to go, or weigh

            his words, Mohammed spoke this verse—not prose—

            then put his weight on it and went his way. 

Another, with his throat slit, and his nose

            chopped off up to the eyebrows, and a hole

            where one of his ears had been—one of those

who’d stood and gawped at me with his jaws on hold—

            opened his windpipe like a ruby pair

            of lips—they were aglow like burning coal—

and said: ‘O you, whom guilt as yet has spared, 70

            and whom I’ve seen above in Italy—

            unless a body double’s tricked me fair

and square—if ever you return to see

            the lovely plain that from Vercelli runs

            to Marcabo, then please remember me,

Pier da Medicina. Tell those worthy sons

            of Fano, Guido and Angiolello,

            that unless my prior information’s

off the beam, the pair of them will go

            to feed the fishes as they sail the coast    80

            of La Cattolica: a mafioso,

Greek, or Cypriot pirate could not boast

            such treachery, as Neptune will declare,

            who undersea has seen more crime than most.

The double-dealer who has half a pair

            of eyes (and rules the land whose sight my friend,

            who’s near at hand, remembers with despair)

will offer a meeting. Hoping to attend,

            they need not pray against Focara’s gale;

            before it strike, he has contrived their end.’    90

And I: ‘If you would have me tell your tale

            above, then introduce me to your mate

            who rues the prospect of that bitter vale.’

With that, on this one’s jaw he laid his mitt

            and opened up his mangled mouth, and cried:

            ‘Behold the man, a very speechless mute!

This Roman exile stood by Caesar’s side

            and drowned all Caesar’s doubts: he swore that men

            who are prepared to sail must catch the tide.’

And oh, how he appeared so helpless then—            100

            Curio with his tongue cut from his throat

            who once spoke with such verve and acumen!

And one whose hands had been cut off by rote

            waved both his bleeding stumps above his head

            and shouted, like a man who wants your vote: 

‘You’ll remember Mosca too, who said

            the fatal, “Deeds are ends”, in which began

            the seed that flowered with the Tuscan dead.’

‘And led to the destruction of your clan!’

            I added, so that, frenzied by this dose     110

            of double misery, he upped and ran.

But I stayed on to watch this troop of ghosts,

            and saw a thing that even to relate

            without more proof would seem an empty boast,

except my conscience, like a trusty mate,

            assures me of my true sincerity,

            which guards me like a suit of armour plate.

I swear I saw, and still I seem to see

            a corpse without a head parading there

            like others of that wretched company.            120 

It held its severed head up by the hair

            and swung it like a lantern in its hand;

            it looked at us and cried: ‘See my despair!’

At arm’s length, like a phantom crew, it manned

            the lightship of itself; how one in two

            or two in one can be, He understands

who so ordained the thing. When it hove to

            below our bridge, it raised its arm on high

            to let the head give forth its words of rue,

which were: ‘O living pilgrim, passing by            130

            to view the dead, now see my punishment!

            Did ever any such so horrify?

And know, to carry back some testament

            of me, that I am Bertran de Born, the one

            who gave the Young King false encouragement. 

I set at odds the father and the son;

            just as with Absalom and royal David

            Achitophel made evil instigation.

Since I split them that had been united,

            what I think with’s parted from its source. 140

            My brain and spine will always be divided.

I illustrate the law of counter-force.’


8 Apulia: modern Puglia, the region of south-east Italy where all the battles in this passage took place.

11 looted rings: Livy writes that in the battle of the Cannae (216 BC) so many Romans were killed that three bushels of gold rings were collected from their bodies and taken to Carthage by Hannibal.

14  Robert Guiscard: the Norman adventurer who fought against the Greeks and Saracens in the eleventh century.

16 Ceperan(o): the Apulian barons deserted the pass at Ceperano, thus allowing Charles of Anjou to defeat Manfred at the battle of Benevento (1266).

17 Tagliacozzo: Charles of Anjou defeated Manfred’s nephew Conradino at the battle of Tagliacozzo in 1268, aided by the clever strategy (‘without weapons’) of his general Alardo (Erard de Valéry).

30 Mohammed: in the Middle Ages Mohammed was regarded as a Nestorian Christian (the Nestorians denied the unity of Christ’s divine and human natures) before founding Islam; he was thus a heretic and a schismatic.

32 Ali: Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. The issues surrounding his succession to the leadership of the Muslims in 656 resulted in their being divided into two factions—Sunni and Shiite.

56 Fra Dolcino: head of the sect of Apostolic Brothers, who were accused of heretical practices, including the community of goods and women. Clement V ordered a crusade against them, and in 1307, after holding out for a year in the hills between Novara and Vercelli, they were starved out. Dolcino and his ‘Sister in Christ’, Margaret of Trent, were burned at Vercelli in June 1307.

74-6 Vercelli…Marcabo…Pier da Medicina: the towns of Vercelli and Marcabo are at the west and east extremities of Romagna. Da Medicina was infamous for intriguing among the rulers of Romagna, and succeeded in setting the houses of Polenta and Malatesta against each other.

77-90 Fano…their end: Malatestino, the one-eyed lord of Rimini, invited Angiolello da Carignano and Guido del Cassero, representatives of Fano, to a conference at La Cattolica (on the Adriatic, between Fano and Rimini) and had them treacherously drowned off the headland of Focara, which was notorious for its dangerous winds.

101 Curio: Gaius Curio, the Roman tribune who, by advising Caesar to cross the Rubicon, started the Civil War in 49 BC.

106 Mosca: Mosca dei Lamberti, who in 1215 advised the Amidei family to end their feud with Buondelmonte dei Buondelmonti by killing him. This act was seen as the beginning of the division of Florence into Guelfs and Ghibellines.

134 Bertran de Born: lord of Hautefort, near Périgord, and one of the most influential of the Provençal troubadours. It was alleged that he incited Henry the Young of England to rebel against his father, Henry II, just as Achitophel encouraged Absalom to rebel against his father, King David (2 Samuel 15-17).