Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Stench of the Abyss

InfernoCanto XI

[Circle Six: The Heretics]
In su l’estremità d’un’alta ripa
che facevan gran pietre rotte in cerchio,
venimmo sopra più crudele stipa;
e quivi, per l’orribile soperchio
del puzzo che ’l profondo abisso gitta,
ci raccostammo, in dietro, ad un coperchio

d’un grand’ avello, ov’io vidi una scritta
che dicea: ‘Anastasio papa guardo,
lo qual trasse Fotin de la via dritta’.

«Lo nostro scender conviene esser tardo,
sì che s’ausi un poco in prima il senso
al tristo fiato; e poi no i fia riguardo».
We came to the edge of an enormous sink
rimmed by a circle of great broken boulders.
Here we found ghastlier gangs. And here the stink

thrown up by the abyss so overpowered us
that we drew back, cowering behind the wall
of one of the great tombs; and standing thus,

I saw an inscription in the stone, and read:
“I guard Anastasius, once Pope,
he whom Photinus led from the straight road.”

“Before we travel on to that blind pit
we must delay until our sense grows used
to its foul breath, and then we will not mind it,”

my Master said.

[Translation by John Ciardi]

A fine example of olfactory literature: the stench of the pit is simultaneously literal and figurative. Virgil’s advice to Dante to pause while their noses adapt draws on a keenly observed bit of odor perception; it also provides a dramatic interlude for him to explain the next levels of the damned. The presence in Hell of Pope Anastasius is nice reminder that popes too can be led astray.

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