Now new punishments I must fit to verse,
Shaping the subject for my twentieth canto
Of the first canticle on the buried damned.
Already I was fully set to look
Far down into the depth that opened to me
To see its bottom bathed with tears of anguish,
When through the valley’s circling I descried
People coming hushed and weeping, at the pace
Followed by processions in this world.
As my fixed gaze descended lower to them,
Each seemed bizarrely twisted at the neck
Between the chin and top part of the chest,
Because their faces turned round to their haunches
So that they were compelled to walk backwards
Since they could not possibly see ahead.
(Inf. XX, 1-15)
The poets have reached the fourth malebolge, where sorcerers, magicians, astrologers and fortune tellers walk in sad procession, weeping. Their heads, however, have been twisted round to face directly backwards, and so they are forced to walk backwards in order to see where they are going. Those who attempted to use unnatural means to see the future and gain power while on earth, now suffer from unnaturally twisted sight throughout eternity.
Dante is overcome at the site of this punishment, and Virgil chastises him:
When I saw close at hand our human image
Contorted so the tears streaming from their eyes
Bathed their buttocks and ran between the cleft.
I wept, surely, while I leaned back against
A rock there on that rugged ridge; my escort
Said, "Still like all the other fools, are you?
"Here pathos lives when its false meaning dies,
Since who is more pathetic than the person
Who agonizes over God’s just judgments?"
(Inf. XX, 22-30)
The first four malebolges have been dark in their imagery, but there is still much that is darker and more terrible to come before the poets reach the deepest pit of hell. Dante here, as he no doubt imagines his reader may, is overcome by the sheer scale of the grotesque suffering that he is witnessing. Virgil, however, reminds him that what he is seeing here is merely sin made explicit: the true nature of these sins with all their fair pretense stripped away. If the visions of nether hell are grotesque and squalid, this merely underlines the wrongness of remaining steadfastly attached to such sins.
Dante as character is certainly no preening pharisee. He knows and is personally fond of several of the characters that he meets, and he is shocked at the severity of some of the punishments that he witnesses. Yet Dante as narrator, and Virgil as his voice, must bring both Dante the character and the reader to an understanding of what sin is, and the importance of rejecting all attachment to it.
Virgil points out a number of magicians and astrologers, ancient and contemporary. They then move on to the fifth malebolge, where corrupt officials are boiling in a river of pitch. A troop of devils, the Malebrache, oversee the shades punished for their corruption (the civic version of the corrupt churchmen of the malebolge of simoniacs).
And I saw behind us a blackened devil
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,
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
"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
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!
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!"
(Inf. XXI, 29-54)
Virgil parleys with the demons and secures safe passage (after invoking the threat of God's will that the journey should take place) from one of their leaders, Malacoda. This demon guides them along the malebolge, and warns them that the nearest bridge over the sixth malebolge (hypocrits) was destroyed at the time of Christ's harrowing of hell. (In fact, the demon is lying to them. All of the the bridges over the sixth malebolge were destroyed. He's probably planning some sort of trap for them from the beginning. This is, incidentally, probably the part of the journey where Dante is in most danger of being detained with the damned souls, since he was himself accused of corruption while serving in Florence's government, and also stands in danger of hypocrisy.)
Malacoda calls together a squad of demons and leads the poets off along the river of pitch. The interlude with the demons provides a bit of comic relief similar to that found in many medieval mystery plays.
"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!
"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:
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.
(Inf. XXI, 127-139)
And yes, that translation by Cotter above is quite accurate. Mandelbaum translates the line "And he had made a trumpet of his ass." which is a pretty literal translation of the Italian: ed elli avea del cul fatto trombetta.
As they march along, Dante is watching the boiling pitch carefully.
My whole attention was fixed on the pitch
To study every aspect of this pocket
And of the people who, within it, burned.
Just as dolphins do, when with arching backs
They signal a storm-warning to the sailors
To make all hands ready to save the ship,
So here at times to soothe the suffering
Some sinner showed his back above the top
And hid again as fast as lightning flashes.
And just as on the water’s edge of ditches
Frogs squat with only their muzzles showing,
To hide their legs and the rest of their fat flesh,
So here on all sides these sinners squatted,
But the instant Barbariccia stepped forward,
They dived back underneath the boiling pitch.
I saw, and still my heart shudders with it,
One lag behind — just as sometimes one frog
Will stay back while another leaps below —
And Graffiacane, the closest to him,
Hooked him up by his pitch-knotted hair
And hauled him out — he looked just like an otter!
I knew all of the devils now by name,
For I had watched them when they were selected,
And when they called each other, I had listened.
"Oh Rubicante, see that you get your claws
Into his back so you can skin and flay him!"
The whole damned squad shouted all together.
And I: "My master, if you can, please do
Find out the name of the unfortunate soul
Who’s fallen in the clutches of his foes."
(Inf. XXII, 16-45)
Virgil asks Ciampolo, the captured sinner, to tell his story, and he obligingly does so, telling how he was a young man of no family who was put in the service of King Thibault II of Navarre, where he proceeded to make his fortune by taking bribes. He then tells Dante about some of the other notable corrupt officials who also inhabit the boiling pitch.
The demons, however, are restive, wanting to tear Ciampolo to pieces for being caught lurking on the shore out of the pitch. However, the wily ex-official tricks the demons and (in the moment they are distracted) leaps back into the pitch, escaping the shredding they had planned for him. After failing to catch him before he vanishes into the boiling river, a fight breaks out among the demons, and two of them fall into the pitch themselves and have to be fished out with pitchforks.
The poets slip away in the commotion, however the demons are furious with them and come flying after them to avenge themselves for their humiliation, forcing the poets to dash down into the sixth malebolge to escape them. Thus, Virgil and Dante find themselves among the slow procession of the hypocrites.
Below that point we found a painted people
Who walked in circles with the slowest steps,
Weeping and worn in looks and overwhelmed.
The cloaks they wore had cowls drawn down low
Over their eyes, made in a similar style
As those that are made for monks in Cluny.
These are so gilded outside that they dazzle,
But inside, solid lead, and so heavy that,
Compared to them, Frederick’s capes were straw.
O mantle of unending weariness!
Once again we turned to the left hand,
Along with those souls rapt in their sad tears.
But with their weights the tired people trod
So slowly that we had fresh company
With every step we took along the way.
(Inf. XXIII, 58-72)
Again Dante shows us a physical manifestation of the sin for which these souls are condemned. Hypocrisy puts a bright exterior on a base reality, as symbolized by the gold plated lead of the hypocrites cloaks. There is also the weight of lies which grows with time as pretence is layered on top of pretence, all in the effort to achieve an appearance of virtue, which the incredible weight of these cloaks symbolizes.
Hypocrisy resides rightly in nether hell, the region of fraud, for hypocrisy consists of lies (to ourselves and to others) designed to make us look better than we are. But like the cloaks of those treading the endless path around the sixth malebolge, when we build a cloak of lies to hide ourselves under, we slow ourselves to a crawl, held down by a weight of falsehood and guilt that pushes us to add ever more lies to the weight of our cloak of hypocrisy.
Dante converses briefly with two members of a military order, who describe to him the punishment of the hypocrites. Dante is about to remonstrate with them when he sees something which catches his attention.
I began, "O friars, your wicked ..." — but said
No more: my eyes caught the sight of one
Crucified with three stakes on the ground.
When he saw me, he twisted all around,
Breathing hard into his beard with sighs,
And brother Catalano, who observed this,
Said to me, "That one you see nailed down
Advised the Pharisees it was expedient
To sacrifice one man for the people.
"Stretched out naked he lies, across the way,
As you yourself see, and is made to feel
The full weight of every passer-by.
"In the same way is his father-in-law racked
In this same ditch, and the rest of that council
Which has sowed so much evil for the Jews."
(Inf. XXIII, 109-123)
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum
And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.