Poem introduction

In 1994 I brought out a verse translation of Dante’s Inferno, which has been republished several times, and my poetic energies over the last few years have been given to the second part of The Divine Comedy, The Purgatorio, which is now, at the end of 2015, almost finished. To set the scene here Dante and his guide Vergil have just gone through Hell Gate and the first group of souls they see are not the damned, but the so-called ‘neutrals’, who refuse to serve either God or Satan in life but as Dante says live solely for themselves and now have to spend eternity in the vestibule of Hell. These are T. S. Eliot’s ‘Hollow Men’, in fact. Dante and Vergil treat them with disdain, journey on to the River Acheron, and there meet the infernal ferryman Charon who takes those who are damned over the river into Hell proper.

Inferno 3.22–136

(extract)

 

Here sighs and sobs and screams
    echo through the starless night,
    and had me in tears at first,
strange cries and awful language,
    moans of pain or anger, voices
    shrill or faint, sounds of blows,
they all make a great confusion
    whirling in the changeless dark
    like sand swept up in a storm.
And as the horror circles my head
    I ask, ‘Master, what’s all this?
    Who are they, so sunk in pain?’
He tells me, ‘This miserable state,
    it’s for the sad souls who lived
    without blame, without praise.
They’re mixed with that evil pack
   of angels, not faithful to God,
   not rebels, but all for themselves.
Heaven banishes them in its beauty,
   but they’re not down in deep hell
   since guilt might glory in them.’
I ask, ‘Master, what’s up with them,
   that they make such awful groans?’
   He says, ‘I’ll explain very quickly.
They haven’t any hopes of death,
    and this life’s so low, obscure,
    they’ve envy of all other states.
They’ve left no records on earth;
    mercy and justice disdain them;
    they’re not worth words: look, pass.’

 


from Dante Alighieri: Hell translated by Steve Ellis (Chatto & Windus, 1994), © Steve Ellis 1994, used by permission of the author

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