Loading...

Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Inferno: Canto XVII, by Dante Alighieri

If you find this site helpful, please support by sending coffee money to . . . Julie Phelan @ 6209 E Seaside Walk, Cabin A in Long Beach, CA 90803. Thank you for your readership!                          Canto XVII: Summary:

Virgil to Dante says, “Now see the sharp-tailed beast that mounts the brink. He passes mountains, breaks through walls and weapons. Behold the beast that makes the whole world stink." The beast is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud. Geryon is represented as a giant with three heads and three bodies. Geryon is a monster with the general shape of a dragon, but with a tail similar to that of a scorpion. Geryon has hairy arms, a gaudily-marked reptilian body, and the face of a just and honest man. Geryon’s gaudily-spotted body suggests a body similar to a Leopard. Geryon’s hairy paws are similar to that of a Lion. Geryon’s human face represents the essentially human nature of Fraud. Fraud embodies corruption of the Appetite, of the Will, and of the Intellect.

Geryon’s description continues, “As a ferry sometimes lies along the strand, part breached and part afloat; and as the beaver, up yonder in the guzzling Germans’ land, squats halfway up the bank when a fight is on—just so lay that most ravenous of beasts on the rim which bounds the burning sand with stone. His tail twitched in the void beyond that lip, thrashing, and twisting up the envenomed fork which, like a scorpion’s stinger, armed the tip.”

Virgil and Dante descend “On the right [they] moved ten paces outward to be clear of sand and flames.” Virgil and Dante cross on the right bank of the rill. In the course of Geryon’s flight, Virgil and Dante will be carried to the other side of the falls. Therefore, Virgil and Dante will be continuing their course to the left. Please note: Inside the walls of Dis, approaching the second great division of Hell, as here the third, Virgil and Dante also moved to the right. There is no reason given for those exceptions.

Virgil and to Dante explains that they must fly down from the cliff on the back of this monster. Virgil to Dante says, “Now must you be undaunted: this beast must be our stairway to the pit: mount it in front, and I will ride between you and the tail, lest you be poisoned by it.” Dante regarding the ride responds, “I think there was no greater fear the day Phaethon let loose the reins and burned the sky along the great scar of the Milky Way, nor when Icarus, too close to the sun’s track felt the wax melt, unfeathering his loins and heard his father cry, ‘Turn back! Turn back!’”

Dante “Leaned [his] head out and stared into Hell.” Dante saw “The course of [their] down-spiral to the horrors that rose to [them] from all sides of the pit. As a flight-worn falcon sinks down wearily though neither bird nor lure has signaled it, the falconer crying out: ‘What! Spent already!’—then turns and in a hundred spinning gyres sulks from her master’s call, sullen and proud—so to that bottom lit by endless fires the monster Geryon circled and fell, setting us down at the foot of the precipice of ragged rock on the eighth shelf of Hell.”

Canto XVII: Analysis:

Virgil to Dante says, “Now see the sharp-tailed beast that mounts the brink. He passes mountains, breaks through walls and weapons. Behold the beast that makes the whole world stink” (1-3). The beast is Geryon, the Monster of Fraud.

Geryon is a mythical king of Spain. Geryon is represented as a giant with three heads and three bodies. Geryon was killed by Hercules, who coveted the king’s cattle. A later tradition represents Geryon as killing and robbing strangers whom he lured into his realm. It is probably on this account that Dante chose him as the prototype of fraud, though in a radically altered bodily form. Some of the details of Dante’s Geryon may be drawn from “Revelations,” ix, 9-20. However, most of the details are drawn from Dante’s own invention. Geryon is a monster with the general shape of a dragon, but with a tail similar to that of a scorpion. Geryon has hairy arms, a gaudily-marked reptilian body, and the face of a just and honest man. Geryon’s gaudily-spotted body suggests a body similar to a Leopard. Geryon’s hairy paws are similar to that of a Lion. Geryon’s human face represents the essentially human nature of Fraud. Fraud embodies corruption of the Appetite, of the Will, and of the Intellect.



“The filthy prototype of Fraud drew near and settled his head and breast upon the edge of the dark cliff, but let his tail hang clear. His face was innocent of every guile, benign and just in feature and expression; and under it his body was half reptile. His two great paws were hairy to the armpits; all his back and breast and both his flanks were figured with bright knots and subtle circlets: never was such a tapestry of bloom woven on earth by Tartar or by Turk, nor by Arachne at her flowering loom” (7-18).

The reference of “Tartar or by Turk” refers to the most skilled weavers of Dante’s time (17). “Arachne” was a famous spinner and weaver. Arachne challenged Minerva to a weaving contest. There are different variations of what happened during the contest, but all accounts end with the goddess so moved to anger that she changed Arachne into a spider (18).

Geryon’s description continues, “As a ferry sometimes lies along the strand, part breached and part afloat; and as the beaver, up yonder in the guzzling Germans’ land, squats halfway up the bank when a fight is on—just so lay that most ravenous of beasts on the rim which bounds the burning sand with stone. His tail twitched in the void beyond that lip, thrashing, and twisting up the envenomed fork which, like a scorpion’s stinger, armed the tip” (7-27).

The reference to the “Beaver” is most likely drawn from old bestiary or natural history. In the medieval times, people believed the beaver fished by crouching on the bank, scooping the fish out with its tail (20). The “Guzzling Germans” refers to the heavy drinking done by the Germans in the Middle Ages and far back into antiquity (21).

Virgil and Dante descend “On the right [they] moved ten paces outward to be clear of sand and flames” (29-31). Virgil and Dante cross on the right bank of the rill. In the course of Geryon’s flight, Virgil and Dante will be carried to the other side of the falls. Therefore, Virgil and Dante will be continuing their course to the left. Please note: Inside the walls of Dis, approaching the second great division of Hell, as here the third, Virgil and Dante also moved to the right. There is no reason given for those exceptions.

Virgil and to Dante explains that they must fly down from the cliff on the back of this monster. Dante examines the Usurers, the Violent against Art. As Dante examines, “Their eyes burst with their grief; their smoking hands jerked about their bodies, warding off now the flames and now the burning sands. Dogs in summer bit by fleas and gadflies, jerking their snouts about, twitching their paws now here, now there, behave no otherwise. I examined several faces there among that sooty throng, and I saw none I knew; but I observed that from each neck there hung an enormous purse, each marked with its own beast and its own colors like a coat of arms. On these their streaming eyes appeared to feast. Looking about, I saw one purse display azure on or, a kind of lion; another on a blood red field, a goose whiter than whey. And one that bore a huge and swollen sow azure on field argent said to me: ‘What are you doing in the pit of sorrow?’” (43-60)

The words, “Azure on or, a kind of lion” refers to the Gianfigliazzi of Florence were a lion azure on a field of gold. The sinner bearing this purse must be Catello di Rosso Gianfigliazzi, who set up as a usurer in France, and was made a knight on his return to Florence. The phrase, “On a blood red field, a goose whiter than whey” refers to a white goose on a red field, and was the arms of the noble Ghibelline family of the Ubriachi, or Ebriachi, of Florence. The wearer is probably Ciappo Ubriachi, a notorious usurer. The reference to “Sow azure on field argent” refers to the arms of the Scrovegni of Padua. The bearer is probably Reginaldo Scrovegni.

Reginaldo to Dante says, “I’ll have you know my neighbor Vitaliano has a place reserved for him here at my side. A Paduan among Florentines, I sit here while hour by hour they nearly deafen me shouting: ‘Send us the sovereign cavalier with the purse of the three goats!’” (62-66) “The Sovereign cavalier is Giovanni di Buiamonte. Giovanni was esteemed in Florence as “The sovereign cavalier.” Giovanni was chose for man high offices. Giovanni was a usurer and gambler who lost great sums at play. Dante’s intent is to bewail the decay of standards which permits Florence to honor so highly a man for whom Hell is waiting for with baited breath. Giovanni was of the Becchi family whose arms were three black goats on a gold field. “Becchi” in Italian is plural for “goat.”

Virgil to Dante says, “Now must you be undaunted: this beast must be our stairway to the pit: mount it in front, and I will ride between you and the tail, lest you be poisoned by it” (75-78). Dante regarding the ride responds, “I think there was no greater fear the day Phaethon let loose the reins and burned the sky along the great scar of the Milky Way, nor when Icarus, too close to the sun’s track felt the wax melt, unfeathering his loins and heard his father cry, ‘Turn back! Turn back!’” (100-105)

The “Phaethon” is the son of Apollo who drove the chariot of the sun (101). Phaethon begged his father for a chance to drive the chariot himself but he lost control of the horses and Zeus killed him with a thunderbolt for fear the whole earth would catch fire. The scar left in the sky by the runaway horses is marked by the Milky Way. “Icarus’” father, Daedalus, made wings for himself and his son and they flew into the sky, but Icarus, ignoring his father’s commands, flew too close to the sun (103). The heat melted the wax with which the wings were fastened and Icarus fell into the Aegean and was drowned.

Dante “Leaned [his] head out and stared into Hell” (114). Dante saw “The course of [their] down-spiral to the horrors that rose to [them] from all sides of the pit. As a flight-worn falcon sinks down wearily though neither bird nor lure has signaled it, the falconer crying out: ‘What! Spent already!’—then turns and in a hundred spinning gyres sulks from her master’s call, sullen and proud—so to that bottom lit by endless fires the monster Geryon circled and fell, setting us down at the foot of the precipice of ragged rock on the eighth shelf of Hell” (119-129).

The reference to “Flight-worn falcon” refers to when falcons, when sent aloft, were trained to circle until sighting a bird, or until signaled back by the lure, a stuffed bird. Flight-weary Dante’s uses that phrase as a metaphor for sinking bit by bit, rebelling against his training and sulking away from his master in wide slow circles. The weighed, slow, downward flight of Geryon is powerfully contrasted with his escaping bound into the air once he has deposited his burden. For Geryon, “Once freed of [Virgil and Dante’s] weight, he shot from there into the dark like an arrow into air” (130-131).

Canto XVII: English Translation:

(1) “Now see the sharp-tailed beast that mounts the brink.
(2) He passes mountains, breaks through walls and weapons.
(3) Behold the beast that makes the whole world stink.”

(4) These were the words my Master spoke to me;
(5) Then signaled the weird beast to come to ground
(6) Close to the sheer end of our rocky levee.

(7) The filthy prototype of Fraud drew near
(8) And settled his head and breast upon the edge
(9) Of the dark cliff, but let his tail hang clear.

(10) His face was innocent of every guile,
(11) Benign and just in feature and expression;
(12) And under it his body was half reptile.

(13) His two great paws were hairy to the armpits;
(14) All his back and breast and both his flanks
(15) Were figured with bright knots and subtle circlets:

(16) Never was such a tapestry of bloom
(17) Woven on earth by Tartar or by Turk,
(18) Nor by Arachne at her flowering loom.

(19) As a ferry sometimes lies along the strand,
(20) Part beached and part afloat; and as the beaver,
(21) Up yonder in the guzzling Germans’ land,

(22) Squats halfway up the bank when a fight is on―
(23) Just so lay that most ravenous of beasts
(24) On the rim which bounds the burning sand with stone.

(25) His tail twitched in the void beyond that lip,
(26) Thrashing, and twisting up the envenomed fork
(27) Which, like a scorpion’s stinger, armed the tip.

(28) My Guide said: “it is time now we drew near
(29) That monster.” And descending on the right
(30) We moved ten paces outward to be clear

(31) Of sand and flames. And when we were beside him,
(32) I saw upon the sand a bit beyond us
(33) Some people crouching close beside the brim.

(34) The Master paused. “That you may take with you
(35) The full experience of this round,” he said,
(36) “go now and see the last state of that crew.

(37) But let your talk be brief, and I will stay
(38) And reason with this beast till you return,
(39) That his strong back may serve us on our way.”

(40) So further yet along the outer edge
(41) Of the seventh circle I moved on alone.
(42) And came to the sad people of the ledge.

(43) Their eyes burst with their grief; their smoking hands
(44) Jerked about their bodies, warding off
(45) Now the flames and now the burning sands.

(46) Dogs in summer bit by fleas and gadflies,
(47) Jerking their snouts about, twitching their paws
(48) Now here, now there, behave no otherwise.

(49) I examined several faces there among
(50) That sooty throng, and I saw none I knew;
(51) But I observed from each neck there hung

(52) An enormous purse, each marked with its own beast
(53) And its own colors like a coat of arms.
(54) On these their streaming eyes appeared to feast.

(55) Looking about, I saw one purse display
(56) Azure on or, a kind of lion; another,
(57) On a blood red field, a goose whiter than whey.

(58) And one that bore a huge and swollen sow
(59) Azure on field argent said to me:
(60) “What are you doing in this pit of sorrow?

(61) Leave us alone! And since you have not yet died,
(62) I’ll have you know my neighbor Vitaliano
(63) Has a place reserved for him here at my side.

(64) At Paduan among Florentines, I sit here
(65) While hour by hour they nearly deafen me
(66) Shouting: ‘Send us the sovereign cavalier

(67) With the purse of the three goats!’” He half arose,
(68) Twisted his mouth, and darted out his tongue
(69) For all the world like an ox licking its nose.

(70) And I, afraid that any longer stay
(71) Would anger him who had warned me to be brief,
(72) Left those exhausted souls without delay.

(73) Returned, I found my Guide already mounted
(74) Upon the rump of that monstrosity.
(75) He said to me: “Now must you be undaunted:

(76) This beast must be our stairway to the pit:
(77) Mount it in front, and I will ride between
(78) You and the tail, lest you be poisoned by it.”

(79) Like one so close to the quartanary chill
(80) That his nails are already pale and his flesh trembles
(81) At the very sight of shade or a cool rill―

(82) So did I tremble at each frightful word.
(83) But his scolding filled me with that shame that makes
(84) The servant brave in the presence of his lord.

(85) I mounted the great shoulders of that freak
(86) And tried to say “Now help me to hold on!”
(87) But my voice clicked in my throat and I could not speak.

(88) But no sooner had I settled where he place me
(89) Than he, my stay, my comfort, and my courage
(90) In other perils, gathered and embraced me.

(91) Then he called out: “Now, Geryon, we are ready:
(92) Bear well in mind that his is living weight
(93) And make your circles wide and your flight steady.”

(94) As a small ship slides from a beaching or its pier,
(95) Backward, backward―so that monster slipped
(96) Back from the rim. And when he had drawn clear

(97) He swung about, and stretching out his tail
(98) He worked it like an eel, and with his paws
(99) He gathered in the air, while I turned pale.

(100) I think there was no greater fear the day
(101) Phaethon let loose the reins and burned the sky
(102) Along the great scar of the Milky Way,

(103) Nor when Icarus, too close to the sun’s track
(104) Felt the wax melt, unfeathering his loins,
(105) And heard his father cry, “Turn back! Turn back!”―

(106) Than I felt when I found myself in air,
(107) Afloat in space with nothing visible
(108) But the enormous beast that bore me there.

(109) Slowly, slowly, he swims on through space,
(110) Wheels and descends, but I can sense it only
(111) By the way the wind blows upward past my face.

(112) Already on the right I heard the swell
(113) And thunder of the whirlpool. Looking down
(114) I leaned my head out and stared into Hell.

(115) I trembled again at the prospect of dismounting
(116) And cowered in on myself, for I saw fires
(117) On every hand, and I heard a long lamenting.

(118) And then I saw―till then I had but felt it―
(119) The course of our down-spiral to the horrors
(120) That rose to us from all sides of the pit.

(121) As a flight-worn falcon sinks down wearily
(122) Though neither bird nor lure has signaled it,
(123) The falconer crying out: “What! Spent already!”―

(124) Then turns and in a hundred spinning gyres
(125) Sulks from her master’s call, sullen and proud―
(126) So to that bottom lit by endless fires

(127) The monster Geryon circled and fell,
(128) Setting us down at the foot of the precipice
(129) Of ragged rock on the eighth shelf of Hell.

(130) And once freed of our weight, he shot from there
(131) Into the dark like an arrow into air.

Canto XVII: Italian Manuscript:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(22) lo bivero s’assetta a far sua guerra,
(23) così la fiera pessima si stave
(24) su l’orlo ch’è di pietra e ’l sabbion serra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(70) Con questi Fiorentin son padoano:
(71) spesse fïate mi ’ntronan li orecchi
(72) gridando: "Vegna ’l cavalier sovrano,

(73) che recherà la tasca con tre becchi!"».
(74) Qui distorse la bocca e di fuor trasse
(75) la lingua, come bue che ’l naso lecchi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(127) Come ’l falcon ch’è stato assai su l’ali,
(128) che sanza veder logoro o Uccello
(129) fa dire al falconiere «Omè, tu cali!»,

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

(133) così ne puose al fondo Gerïone
(134) al piè al piè de la stagliata rocca,
(135) e, discarcate le nostre persone,

(136) si dileguò come da corda cocca.

Work Citied:

Alighieri, Dante, “The Inferno,” Trans. John Ciardi, Signet Classics, New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., New York, New York, 2009, Print.