By Joseph Farrell

DANTE writes that at the age of 35, exactly half way through the 70 years the Bible tells us is the span of human life, he found himself lost in a dark wood, and that his way out was barred by three fierce animals – a leopard, a lion and a wolf. The wood is a symbol for the state of sin in which Dante believed himself to have fallen, and the animals may be specific sins – lust, arrogance and avarice, although the meanings are disputed.

As Dante flounders about, he is approached by a shadow who turns out to be Virgil, the great poet of ancient Rome, who tells him he has been dispatched by saints in heaven to aid him. Virgil will be Dante’s “Guide, Lord and Master”, as Alasdair Gray puts it. The only passable route will take him through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven, where he will end up before the throne of God.

On the way, he will meet with the souls of the damned or the saved. Canto three recounts the arrival of the two travellers at the gates of Hell with the famous inscription that those who pass through those portals must “abandon hope”, since damnation is for all eternity. The first group they meet on the outskirts of hell had been guilty of failing to choose between good and evil, and who are thus not worthy either of Hell or Heaven. Now they are blown about by a wind, incapable of controlling their own fate, as they had been while alive.

Here we meet the first of many Popes and churchmen in Hell, not named but probably Celestine V, whose crime was to be the only Pope to abdicate, until, that is, Benedict XVI, who abdicated in 2013! Poor Benedict, if Dante is right.

The two travellers then meet the boatman Charon, who will ferry the souls of the damned across the river Acheron, from where they will proceed to their allotted place in Hell.


The National:

A Gustavo Dore illustration of Canto three

These fearful words carved deeply I could see
above a great dark doorway, so I cried,
“O Master, do these words apply to me?”

Like a good teacher giving calm advice,
“Don’t think that I mislead you,” he replied.
“By now you should have lost your cowardice.

I am assigned (recall) to help you view
the final state of those dead sinners who
chose to corrupt the goodness of their minds.”

Smiling to cheer me on, he took my hand and led
me in beside a dreadful band
who hurt my ears with horrid lamentation

Screams, wails, howls, groans and other ugly cries
went blasting by us in a starless dark
with skirls of rancorous denunciation,

wild curses yelled in tongues of every nation
or hoarsely growled, or hissed in execration,
mingled with bitter moaning, sobs and sighs

that had me weeping too in emulation.
This madly squealing, roaring, snarling throng
arms flailing, clutching hands and trampling feet,

went reeling, shambling, charging, tumbling by,
like sands in whirlwinds, birling round and round
until their foggy billows hid the sky.

This ghastly crowd and din so filled my head I
gazed upon my guide and whispered, “Why?”
“These timid sinners stand aside,” he said,

“when strong oppressors tyrannise and slay.
They may feel sympathetic to the weak
but think it wise to keep out of the way.

When Satan, God’s prime minister, first planned
to rule the universe, he raised a band
of rebels who split Heaven in two, it seemed,

till moderates united in a team
to stay aloof from holiness and sin until they saw
which side was bound to win.

They were the foremost damned when virtue won.
Outcasts of Hell and Heaven, here they run.”
“But Master,” I asked, “why do they yell so loud?”

He said, “This sorry crowd have the distress
of being altogether meaningless.
They envy now the fate of anyone

whose deeds and misdeeds will preserve their name
in memory, through good or evil fame.
Justice and mercy both reject them, so

we’ll speak no more of them. Look, and let’s go.”
I looked and saw a whirling flag ahead,
chased by these multitudes. I never knew

such millions had been numbered with the dead,
but one I knew, that cowardly pope, who,
elected to reform the Church’s sins,

fearing to foul his hands by that, withdrew,
true to himself, but to our God untrue.
Hornets that stung like daggers sped this race

of frantic nudity, so tears, sweat, blood
splashing the ground from every limb and face
were sucked by worms wriggling in trampled mud.

Beyond that rushing rabble I could see,
though dimly lit, a mighty river’s shore
with quite a different crowd congesting it,

pressing and jostling. They seemed to me
like people keen to reach the other side.
I asked my guide, “What are they eager for?”

“Wait and you’ll see,” was all that he replied.
We reached the river. From the other shore
I saw a ferry-boat come shooting out,

rowed by a hoary ancient with white hair
who, when he neared our side, began to shout,
“Welcome to grief and welcome to despair,

you wicked ghosts! No glimpse of heavenly light
for you again, condemned to endless night,
with scorching heat or agonising frost.

Welcome to what forever hurts you most!
But you – a living man – cannot cross here.
My only business is to shift the dead,

so go another way, and fast!” he said
I did not move. “Trespasser, go!” he roared,
“I cannot carry you! Ghosts are my freight!

This boat can’t bear a living body’s weight.”
“Don’t bluster, Charon. You’ll convey this man,”
my master said. “On high it has been willed

your boat shall take him, so of course it can.”
The quiet reasoning of this reply
shut the grim captain’s mouth, although his rage

glowed in a ring of flame around each eye
glaring upon the crowded landing stage
where his rude voice turned the bare bodies white

and made teeth chatter. Gibbering with fright
or wailing with it, those damned souls cursed God,
mankind, themselves, cursed worst their parents’ bed,

the genitals and womb whence they were bred.
Beckoned by Charon, one by one they sped
downward. Like hawks they swooped into his boat

or spun down and round like drifts of leaves
abandoning a tree to coat the ground.
That demon with the eyes like flaming coals

packed tightly in his cargo of damned souls,
whacking the hindmost smartly with his oar.
I went out with them over the dark water

and as we left behind the nearest shore
I saw it was as crowded as before.
My kindly teacher said to me, “My son,

no nation is without a downward path
on which the dead are flocking here – each one
who dies within the shadow of God’s wrath.

Their weight of guilt, by force of gravity,
drags them all quickly down for punishment
at the true depth of their iniquity,

a state they want, yet dread. No gleam of light
(which they rejected) halts that downward flight.
Charon precipitates their grim descent,

so hates conveying you who go elsewhere.”
We reached the further shore and disembarked
onto a desolate and gloomy plain

shaking with earthquakes, and I saw it split
by a great gust of wind that carried out
black coiling clouds with crimson lightning lit.

So shocking was the sight that even yet,
despite worse things I later saw in Hell,
the recollection soaks my skin with sweat.

Exhausted then I fell down in a fit


By Joseph Farrell

DANTE’S Hell is not a place of universal fire, but a pit divided into ten circles which narrows as it descends. Each circle contains one category of sinner, and the lower the circle, the more grievous the sin. The punishment fits the crime, and Dante has devised some of the most shocking and macabre tortures ever imagined by any human being.

In canto XX, the two men come to the circle of wizards, chiromancers, soothsayers or seers. Since in life they attempted, against the laws of nature, to see into the future, their punishment is to have their heads twisted round so that they can only look backwards.

Among the damned in this circle, they meet Manto, daughter of Tiresias, who describes the foundation of Mantua, Virgil’s native city, as well as Michael Scott of Balwearie, the only Scotsman in the Divine Comedy. He features in Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel. Michael Scott was a philosopher and translator of Greek and Arabic, and worked in the court of Emperor Frederick II in Palermo, which is presumably how Dante got to know of him. He is reputedly buried in Melrose Abbey.


This, the twentieth chapter of my book,
first section of my triple enterprise,
must put new matter here before your eyes.

Along that circling valley I could see
a wailing crowd of folk approaching me
at pace of priests chanting the litany.

I saw their nakedness from feet to necks
but higher they were faceless – there appeared
the backs of heads. No epileptic fit

could twist a human head so wholly round.
I turned, saw grieving faces move away
with tears flooding each spine to buttock cleft,

and these distortions of our human shape
made me weep too until my guide said, “Stop!
Pity for those in Hell is impious

so lift your head. See Amphiaraus.
An earthquake swallowed him because he hid
from death he had foretold. His chest is now

his shoulder-blades. He goes backwards with the rest
who used black arts to see too far ahead
so can’t see forwards now. See Tiresias.

His belly is in front of Aruns’ bum,
prophet who read the stars from his high home,
the cave of marble in Carrara’s cliff.

See her with breasts concealed by flowing hair,
Manto, the daughter of Tiresias
and virgin witch who founded Mantua,

my birthplace, of which I will tell you more.
Forced out of Thebes, Manto first roamed afar
in search of a new home. In Italy

among the mountain ramparts of the north
she saw Lake Garda fed by Alpine snow.
The overflow led her to Mincio,

a sluggish stream spreading in marshes round
a plot of firm ground, uninhabited.
On this she lived secure until she died.

Over her bones the scattered folk nearby
built, fortified the town of Mantua.
Tell all you know the truth of my account

which some misguided fools deny.” “O yes!”
cried I, “but, please, first tell me more about
the sinners trudging in this dreary ditch.

Which is that brown old man with the white beard?”
“Eurypylus,” my guide explained, “the priest
who chose when Greeks should sail to Trojan war.

I’ve written of him in my Aeneid.
On his lean shanks see stalking Michael Scott,
the Caledonian astrologer –

Guido Bonatti, another sly cheat
who told the Montefeltro when to fight –
Asdente, Parma’s toothless shoemaker

sorry he’d not stuck to his former trade
with many wretched women who betrayed
their sex and sold to neighbours magic drinks,

curses, revengeful hocuses and worse
But let us leave this place, for high above
moon sets and day dawns. It is Saturday,

a golden morning before Easter Day.

The National:

Hell: Dante’s Divine Trilogy Decorated and Englished in Prosaic Verse, Alasdair Gray’s translation of the first part of Dante’s trilogy The Divine Comedy, is published by Canongate, £14.99 The extracts are published here with permission