Inferno -- Canto XXI

Grafters, Malacoda

 

Notes

 

 

 

7 The Venetian Arsenal (ship-building yard) was well known at the time. It had just been rebuilt (1304) by the time Dante wrote the Commedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

37 The Malebranche are the squadron leaders of the devils who torment the grafters of the fifth pocket of the eighth circle. The name means "Evil-Claws."

38 Saint Zita was the patron saint of Lucca where Bonturo Dati (l. 41) was a graft-taking politician. At Lucca, the Holy Face (l. 49), a wooden image of Christ, was venerated. Serchio (l. 49) is a river near the city.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

95 Caprona, a fortress close to Pisa, was captured by the Guelphs in 1289.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

112 It is seven o'clock on Holy Saturday morning. On Christ's harrowing of hell, see Canto IV, l. 53, and XII, l. 40, and notes.

 

 

118 Like Malacoda ("Evil-Tail") the names of the troops are jocular: "Dogsnout," "Curlybeard," "Dragonpuss," etc. But a sinister note undercuts the humor since Malacoda lies: there is no bridge across the sixth ditch (see Canto XXIII, ll. 140-141). He plans for his cohort to trap the wayfarers. The false charge of graft and the risk of hypocrisy are the chief challenges that the pilgrim Dante faces in his life's journey.

          So from bridge to bridge, talking of matters
          That my Comedy here has no care to sing,
          We traveled on, and we had reached the summit
 
          When we stopped to look at yet another gap
5         Of Malebolge and another empty sorrow:
          And I saw how awesomely dark it was!
 
          Just as at the arsenal of the Venetians
          In wintertime the sticky pitch for caulking
          The seams of the leaky vessels boils —
 
10       Since they cannot then set sail — and instead,
          Some rebuild the keels, some plug up the ribs
          Of hulls that rode on many voyagings,
 
          Some hammer at the prow and some the stern,
          Others cut oars, still others twist new rope,
15      Another sews patches on the jib and mainsail:
 
          So, not by the fire but by the art of God,
          Boiled, there below, a thick and sticky pitch
          Which glue-coated the banks on every side.
 
          I saw the pitch, but in it I saw nothing
20       Except the rising of the boiling bubbles,
          The whole swelling up and sinking down.
 
          While I stared down intently into it,
          My guide, calling to me, "Watch out! Watch out!"
          Drew me to his side from where I stood.
 
25       At that I turned around like someone anxious
          To see whatever he is supposed to shun
          While he remains so dashed by sudden panic
 
          That he won’t stop his flight but will look back:
          And I saw behind us a blackened devil
30       Come running up along the ridge’s length.
 
          Ah, what a ferocious look he had!
          And how fierce his actions seemed to me,
          With his wings wide-open and his light feet!
 
          Upon his shoulders, which were high and pointed,
35       He had loaded a sinner by both legs,
          Gripping him in front by the ankles.
 
          From our bridge he called, "Oh, Malebranche,
          Here is one of Saint Zita’s elders!
          Toss him below while I go back for more
 
40       "To that city which is so well supplied:
          All men there, except Bonturo, are grafters!
          In Lucca they will change no to yes for cash!"
 
          He plunged the sinner down and turned about
          Upon the rocky ridge: no hound freed from
45       Its leash ever chased a thief so swiftly!
 
          The sinner sank and surfaced rear end-up,
          But the demons under cover of the bridge
          Shouted, "The Holy Face has no place here!
 
          "Swimming here is not like in the Serchio!
50       If you don’t want to feel our grappling-hooks,
          Don’t raise yourself up above that pitch!"
 
          They chewed him with a hundred prongs or more,
          Screaming, "Here you frolic under cover!
          See if you can snitch the chance to surface!"
 
55       In just this way might cooks make their helpers
          Plunge the meat down deep into the pot
          With their forks, to keep it from floating up.
 
          My gracious master said, "We don’t want them
          To know that you are here, so crouch down low
60       Behind a crag to give yourself some cover.
 
          "No matter what affronts they offer me,
          Don’t be afraid: I know how things run here,
          And I had a skirmish like this once before."
 
          With this he passed beyond the top of the bridge
65       And, arriving upon the sixth embankment,
          Had need to prove his show of self-reliance.
 
          With just the same rage and roaring of dogs
          When they rush out on some poor passing beggar
          Who stops dead in his tracks and starts to beg,
 
70       So these devils, from beneath the bridge
          Shot out with all their prongs aimed at my guide,
          But he shouted, "Stop being savages!
 
          "Before you would impale me with your forks,
          One of you step forward to hear me out
75       And then resolve to grapple me or not."
 
          They all shouted, "Malacoda should go!"
          Then one of them moved up — the rest stood still —
          And, approaching, asked, "How will that help him?"
 
          "Do you think, Malacoda, I have come
80       So far, as you can see," my master said,
          "Safe from all these counterblows of yours,
 
          "Without the grace of God and a friendly fate?
          Let us pass, since it is willed in heaven
          That I show another along this savage path."
 
85       At this his pride became so crestfallen
          That he let his hook drop right at his feet
          And told the others, "Now, don’t any strike him!"
 
          And my guide said to me, "You, crouching there
          Among the shattered rockpiles of the bridge,
90       Now you can feel safe returning to me."
 
          At that I moved and quickly came to him,
          And the devils pressed forward all together;
          I panicked that they might not keep their pact.
 
          Just so, I once saw soldiers fill with panic,
95       As they filed from Caprona with safe conduct,
          Seeing themselves surrounded by their foes.
 
          With my whole body I pressed against my guide
          And not for a moment would I take my eyes
          From their looks that boded me no good.
 
100      They put out pitchforks, and "Shall I prick him,"
          One said to the other, "on his bottom?"
          And he answered, "Sure, let him have a nick!"
 
          But Malacoda, who all the while was talking
          To my master, whirled around suddenly
105     And yelled, "Stop, Scarmiglione, stop!"
 
          Then he told us, "It’s impossible to go
          Farther along this ridge since the sixth arch
          Lies smashed into pieces at the bottom.
 
          "But if you still are pleased to stroll ahead,
110     Then follow along the bluff until you come
          To another ridge, nearby, that offers crossing.
 
          "Yesterday, five hours from now, marked
          One thousand two hundred and sixty-six years
          Since this bridgeway crashed in ruins here.
 
115      "I am dispatching some of my troop there
          To watch if anyone pops up for air —
          Go along with them; they won’t hurt you.
 
          "Front and center, Alichino and Calcabrina,"
          He started off, "and you too, Cagnazzo!
120     And Barbariccia, lead the squad of ten.
 
         "Take Libicocco and Draghignazzo,
          And tusked Ciriatto and Graffiacane,
          And Farfarello and mad Rubicante.
 
          "Reconnoiter around the bubbling gluepot,
125     And see them safe as far as the next ridge
          That spans all unbroken from den to den."
 
          "O master," I said, "what am I looking at?
          Ah, let us walk alone without an escort:
          You know the way? I want no part of them!
 
130      "If you remain alert as usual,
          Do you not notice how they grind their teeth
          And how they threaten harm with their fierce looks?"
 
          And he: "I have no wish to see you panic.
          Let them grind away all that they want to:
135     They do it to impress the boiling wretches."
 
          They turned around upon the left-face bank,
          But first each pressed a tongue between his teeth
          To sound a signal to their commandant,
 
          And with his ass he blew a bugle-blast.
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