Who could find words, even in free-running prose,
To describe the wounds I saw, in all their horror—
Telling it over as many times as you choose,
It’s certain no human tongue could take the measure
Of those enormities. Our speech and mind,
Straining to comprehend them, flail, and falter.
If all the Apulians who long ago mourned
Their lives cut off by Trojans could live once more.
Assembled to grieve again with the thousands stained
By their own blood in the long Carthaginian war—
The rings pillaged from their corpses poured by the bushel,
As Livy writes, who has never been known to err—
Together with those who took mortal blows in battle
With Robert Guiscard, and the others whose bones are heaped
At Ceperano, killed in the Puglian betrayal,
And the soldiers massacred in the stratagem shaped
By old Alardo, who conquered without a weapon
Near Tagliacozzo when their army was trapped,
And some were showing wounds still hot and open.
Others the gashes where severed limbs had been,—
It would be nothing to equal the mutilation
I saw in that Ninth Chasm. No barrel staved-in
With a missing end-piece ever gaped open as wide
As the man I saw now, split open from his chin
Down to the farting-place, and from the splayed
Trunk the spilled entrails dangled between his thighs.
I saw his organs, and the sack that turns the bread
We swallow into shit. Seeing my helpless eyes
Fastened upon him, he pulled open his chest
With both hands, saying, “Look how Maometto claws
And mangles himself, torn open down from the breast!
Look how I tear myself! And my follower goes
Weeping before me—like me, a schismatic, and
Split open upward from the chin along his face
Up to the forelock. And all you see here, when alive,
Taught schism, and so they all are cleavered like this
A devil is waiting with a sword back there, to carve
Each of us open afresh each time we’ve gone
Our circuit around this road, where while we grieve
Our wounds close up before we pass him again—
But who are you that stand here, perhaps to delay
Torments pronounced on your own false words to men ?
“Neither has death yet reached him, nor does he stay
For punishment of guilt,” my master replied,
“But for experience. And for that purpose I,
Who am dead, lead him through Hell as rightful guide,
From circle to circle. Of this, you can be as sure
As that I stand and speak to you, here at his side.”
A throng of more than a hundred were gathered there.
Who at hearing my master’s words had halted, and came
Along the trench toward me in order to stare,
Forgetting their torment in wonder for a time.
“Tell Fra Dolcino, you who may see the sun.
If he’d like not to follow too soon, to the same
Punishment here, he should scurry to store up grain
Against a winter siege and the snows’ duress.
Or the Novarese will easily bring him down”—
After he had lifted his foot to resume the pace,
MaÖmetto spoke these words, and having spoken
He stepped away again on his painful course.
Another there, whose face was cruelly broken,
The throat pierced through, the nose cut off at the brow,
With only one ear, had stopped and gazed at me,stricken
With recognition as well as wonder. “Ah, you,”
His bleeding throat spoke, “You here, yet not eternally
Doomed here by guilt—unless I’m deceived, I knew
Your face when I still walked above, in Italy.—
If you return to that sweet plain I knew well.
The one that rises from Marcabò towards Vercelli,
Remember Pier da Medicina. And you may tell
Sir Guido and Angiolello, two gentlemen
From Fano, that if we have foresight here in Hell
They will be thrown from their vessel, and will drown
Near La Cattolica by a tyrant’s treachery.
From Cyprus to Majorca, never has Neptune
Witnessed such evil in all the history
Of pirates and Argolic raiders. Their betrayer.
Who sees from one eye only (he holds a city
Found bitter by another who’s with me here)
Will lure them sailing there for truce-talks, and then.
When he has dealt with them, they’ll need no prayer
For safe winds near Focara—not ever again.”
Then I to him, “If you’d have me be the bearer
Of news from you to those above, explain—
What man do you mean—who found a city bitter?”
Then he grasped one who stood near him by the jaw,
And opened the mouth, saying “This one is the creature,
And he does not speak, who once, in exile, knew
Words to persuade great Caesar at the Rubicon
That hesitation was risky, a treacherous flaw,
And: ’Once he’s prepared, delaying injures a man.’ ”
I felt dull horror at how Curio’s tongue was cut
To a stub in his throat, whose speech had been so keen.
Then one with both hands lopped off came forward to shout,
Raising the stumps so his cheeks were spattered by blood,
“And remember Mosca Lamberti!—I, too, gave out
Slogans persuading to bloodshed, it was I who said
’What’s done is done with’: words that brought such pain
To the Tuscan people.” Then, when he heard me add,
“—and death to your family tree,” utterly undone
By sorrow piled on sorrow, the man fell still.
And walked off like one whom grief had made insane.
I stayed to see more, one sight so incredible
As I should fear to describe, except that conscience,
Being pure in this, encourages me to tell:
I saw—and writing it now, my brain still envisions—
A headless trunk that walked, in sad promenade
Shuffling the dolorous track with its companions.
And the trunk was carrying the severed head,
Gripping it by the hair like a lantern, letting it swing,
And the head looked up at us: “Oh me!” it cried.
He was himself and his lamp as he strode along,
Two in one, and one in two—and how it can be,
Only He knows, who created every thing.
Reaching the bridge, the trunk held the head up high
So we could hear his words, which were, “Look well,
You who come breathing to view the dead, and say
If there is a punishment harder than mine in Hell.
Carry the word, and know me: Bertran de Born,
Who made the father and the son rebel
The one against the other, by the evil turn
I did the young king, counseling him to ill.
David and Absalom had nothing worse to learn
From the wickedness contrived by Achitophel.
Because I parted their union, I carry my brain
Parted from this, its pitiful stem: Mark well
This retribution that you see is mine.”
—translated from the Italian
by Robert Pinsky
NOTE: Apparently, Dante and his contemporaries believed that Mohammed was a renegade cardinal. This divergence from historical truth amounts to the invention of an imaginary character, which the translator here indicates by retaining the Italian “Maömetto.” The meaning of Dante’s “Maömetto” cannot be adequately signified by modern English’s Mohammed.