.

Moments from Dante’s Inferno

Prepared to travel, if the gods allowed,
I saw the woods were dreary, dark as death.
I chose to heed a blessing there endowed,
before emerging spirits took a breath.
And that was Virgil, orator and font
of god-like wisdom. He began to speak:
“The lion, wolf, and leopard each will want
to taste your flesh before you reach the peak.
Another pathway beckons: as your guide
I’ll show you spirits who await reward
as well as doomed and wretched souls denied
the entrance to the kingdom of your lord.”
And then we saw, as if to sanctify
our path, a brilliant burst of golden sky.

We stood before the gates of hell. A sign
foretold the misery and dark despair,
and issued warnings blunt and saturnine:
Abandon Hope! and Idle Souls Beware!
A ferryman had come to shore. He turned
to take us close to Hades’ borderline.
Said Virgil, “Spirits here have never earned
their destinies; through folly or design
they wasted time, embraced incompetence,
and loved themselves instead of those in need.”
And as he spoke I saw the consequence
of their transgressions: worms began to feed
upon their flesh, and all the dreadful fears
of hell were flowing in their blood and tears.

We came upon the River Styx. A boat
approached, and Virgil roared, “The gods ordain
that we shall travel to the most remote
extents of hell!” Ahead, the dark terrain
was filled with spirits stuck in oozing slime.
“I know that man!” I yelled, for there, immersed
in mud, appeared a soul who spent his time
on earth in politics, where all the worst
assaults on common people were conceived.
“It’s risky here,” said Virgil, “You’ll survive
for now, but as a human you’ve achieved
the depths allowable. If you’re alive
you must return.” (He slyly reassured
me: “We’ll continue on, you have my word.”)

Along the way we faced the putrid smell
of excrement. The spirits were interred
in waste, and watched by Cérberus: all hell
was frightened by this beast—three heads assured
a view of all the flesh that he could tear
with bird-like talons. Virgil counseled: “Throw
some slime at all its heads to try to wear
him down!” But then a spirit from below
exclaimed, “We’re damned because of gluttony!”
He seemed inclined to tell his tale of woe:
“I lived in self-absorbed depravity,
and paid the price. A wastrel long ago,
I’m dining now on feces like a beast!”
And so we left him to his reeking feast.

Beyond a ridge we heard the frightful sound
of women crying out, delirious
with anger. These were Furies, now unbound
from husbands, gathered with mysterious
Medusa, who had serpents in her hair
and powers magical. “You’ll turn to stone,”
said Virgil with dismay. “Don’t even dare
to look at her!” A Fury will dethrone
her man, my Master said. Misogyny
is first upon her plate: a man proclaims
a woman is a source of fantasy,
a charm for his indulgence. But the flames
of rightful vengeance will consume the beds
of lust as Furies rip their men to shreds.

Descending through the rocks, we heard a grunt:
the Minotaur, half-human, head of bull,
and bloody red with anger, stood in front
of boiling river water that was full
of spirits damned because of violence
on earth. And then the Centaurs came: half-horse,
half-man, with bows and arrows to dispense
their cruelty on runaways, to force
them back to Bloody River. Boiling there
were famous men: Attila, and the Great
but brutal Alexander. With a flair
for wrangling Virgil started to berate
the horsemen: “heed the gods and be our guide!”
So on the backs of Centaurs we would ride.

The next display of horror made me grieve
for spirits punished for eternity.
We saw the devils stepping up to cleave
a tongue, a neck, a groin, repeatedly.
Once healed, the spirit had its injury
renewed by demons joined in morbid rounds
of revelry. I learned the history
of spirits split in two: the common grounds
were schism and division, civil war,
and separation based on color, creed,
and other hateful reasons. Men abhor
their fellow men through arrogance or greed,
and they condemn themselves to demon knives
in punishment for all the severed lives.

And lastly, in the depths of hell, I grasped
the ghastly truth of Lucifer, the prince
of death, a triple-headed beast. I gasped
at wings and claws and teeth that might evince
a spirit’s frantic plea for swift demise.
But Virgil swept me onto Satan’s wing
and clambered up. Above my frightened cries
a brilliant sun appeared, a sparkling spring
enlivened us, and now, with demons gone,
I looked ahead to blessings in the dawn.

.

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Paul Buchheit is an author of books, poems, progressive essays, and scientific journal articles. He recently completed his first historical novel, 1871: Rivers on Fire.  His poetry has appeared in The Lyric, Illinois State Poetry Society, Poets & Patrons of Chicagoland, Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest, Society of Classical Poets, and other publications.


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14 Responses

  1. Brian A Yapko

    Paul, this is quite an achievement — you’ve managed to craft a retelling of Dante’s Inferno in an idiom which is relatable for English speakers by being presented using English poetic form — specifically, rhyming iambic pentameter. It is quite daring of you to boldly dispense with Dante’s tercets and his rhyme scheme in what I can only describe as a “reimagining” of his work. I read the Longfellow translation of the Divine Comedy last year which I enjoyed but found challenging. Though your poem is not a substitute for the original, I believe your reimagining presents a fresh and accessible companion piece.

    Reply
  2. Roy Eugene Peterson

    Your “Moments” is a masterful introduction to Dante’s representation of the circles of hell and encapsulates the pain and suffering of the sinners sent to their horrible future. Well done.

    Reply
  3. Julian D. Woodruff

    Very impressive, Paul. The stanza that speaks to me most starkly is “The next display …” You list many manifestations of what seems to me a vast disconnect felt at the individual level that must have been plaguing us since before Donne wrote “No man is an island” (i.e., since the Fall?), but which has grown by leaps and bounds in my lifetime.

    Reply
    • Paul Buchheit

      Thanks, Julian. Selfishness — putting one’s self above others — seems to be one of the sins most vilified by Dante.

      Reply
  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    An interesting take on the Inferno, but I don’t think either Dante or Vergil would have used the plural noun “gods” (as you do in line 1 of the first section and in line 13 of the sixth section). References to mythological figures by Dante would have been conventionally acceptable, as they were to most medieval writers. But a Christian speaker such as Dante in the first line wouldn’t have said that he was traveling “if the gods allowed,” nor would his guide have asked the Centaurs to “heed the gods.”

    However, since every poem is a fictive artifact, you can write whatever you please. You can choose to de-Christianize the text in favor of polytheism.

    Reply
    • Paul Buchheit

      Thanks for the insight, Joseph. I took many liberties in trying to modernize the basic story. However, I’m working on a longer version, and will keep your comments in mind! –Paul

      Reply
  5. Jeff Eardley

    Paul, for someone who has never read Dante’s Inferno, I certainly enjoyed this. Full of gruesome imagery and extremely readable.

    Reply
  6. Geoffrey S.

    Excellent rhyming. Nothing strained. Seems effortless. Adherence to metrical rules. Very interesting material which never gets old. Impressive.

    Reply

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