Canto 21

THUS we from bridge to bridge, with other talk,
The which my drama cares not to rehearse,
Pass'd on; and to the summit reaching, stood
To view another gap, within the round
Of Malebolge, other bootless pangs.

Marvelous darkness shadow'd o'er the place.

In the Venetians' arsenal as boils
Through wintry months tenacious pitch, to smear
Their unsound vessels; for th' inclement time
Sea-faring men restrains, and in that while
His bark one builds anew, another stops
The ribs of his, that hath made many a voyage;
One hammers at the prow, one at the poop;
This shapeth oars, that other cables twirls,
The mizen one repairs and main-sail rent
So not by force of fire but art divine
Boil'd here a glutinous thick mass, that round
Lim'd all the shore beneath.  I that beheld,
But therein nought distinguish'd, save the surge,
Rais'd by the boiling, in one mighty swell
Heave, and by turns subsiding and fall.  While there
I fix'd my ken below, "Mark! mark!" my guide
Exclaiming, drew me towards him from the place,
Wherein I stood.  I turn'd myself as one,
Impatient to behold that which beheld
He needs must shun, whom sudden fear unmans,
That he his flight delays not for the view.
Behind me I discern'd a devil black,
That running, up advanc'd along the rock.
Ah! what fierce cruelty his look bespake!
In act how bitter did he seem, with wings
Buoyant outstretch'd and feet of nimblest tread!
His shoulder proudly eminent and sharp
Was with a sinner charg'd; by either haunch
He held him, the foot's sinew griping fast.

"Ye of our bridge!" he cried, "keen-talon'd fiends!
Lo! one of Santa Zita's elders! Him
Whelm ye beneath, while I return for more.
That land hath store of such.  All men are there,
Except Bonturo, barterers: of 'no'
For lucre there an 'aye' is quickly made."

Him dashing down, o'er the rough rock he turn'd,
Nor ever after thief a mastiff loos'd
Sped with like eager haste.  That other sank
And forthwith writing to the surface rose.
But those dark demons, shrouded by the bridge,
Cried "Here the hallow'd visage saves not: here
Is other swimming than in Serchio's wave.
Wherefore if thou desire we rend thee not,
Take heed thou mount not o'er the pitch."  This said,
They grappled him with more than hundred hooks,
And shouted: "Cover'd thou must sport thee here;
So, if thou canst, in secret mayst thou filch."
E'en thus the cook bestirs him, with his grooms,
To thrust the flesh into the caldron down
With flesh-hooks, that it float not on the top.

Me then my guide bespake: "Lest they descry,
That thou art here, behind a craggy rock
Bend low and screen thee; and whate'er of force
Be offer'd me, or insult, fear thou not:
For I am well advis'd, who have been erst
In the like fray."  Beyond the bridge's head
Therewith he pass'd, and reaching the sixth pier,
Behov'd him then a forehead terror-proof.

With storm and fury, as when dogs rush forth
Upon the poor man's back, who suddenly
From whence he standeth makes his suit; so rush'd
Those from beneath the arch, and against him
Their weapons all they pointed.  He aloud:
"Be none of you outrageous: ere your time
Dare seize me, come forth from amongst you one,
"Who having heard my words, decide he then
If he shall tear these limbs."  They shouted loud,
"Go, Malacoda!"  Whereat one advanc'd,
The others standing firm, and as he came,
"What may this turn avail him?" he exclaim'd.

"Believ'st thou, Malacoda! I had come
Thus far from all your skirmishing secure,"
My teacher answered, "without will divine
And destiny propitious?  Pass we then
For so Heaven's pleasure is, that I should lead
Another through this savage wilderness."

Forthwith so fell his pride, that he let drop
The instrument of torture at his feet,
And to the rest exclaim'd: "We have no power
To strike him."  Then to me my guide: "O thou!
Who on the bridge among the crags dost sit
Low crouching, safely now to me return."

I rose, and towards him moved with speed: the fiends
Meantime all forward drew: me terror seiz'd
Lest they should break the compact they had made.
Thus issuing from Caprona, once I saw
Th' infantry dreading, lest his covenant
The foe should break; so close he hemm'd them round.

I to my leader's side adher'd, mine eyes
With fixt and motionless observance bent
On their unkindly visage.  They their hooks
Protruding, one the other thus bespake:
"Wilt thou I touch him on the hip?"  To whom
Was answer'd: "Even so; nor miss thy aim."

But he, who was in conf'rence with my guide,
Turn'd rapid round, and thus the demon spake:
"Stay, stay thee, Scarmiglione!"  Then to us
He added: "Further footing to your step
This rock affords not, shiver'd to the base
Of the sixth arch.  But would you still proceed,
Up by this cavern go: not distant far,
Another rock will yield you passage safe.
Yesterday, later by five hours than now,
Twelve hundred threescore years and six had fill'd
The circuit of their course, since here the way
Was broken.  Thitherward I straight dispatch
Certain of these my scouts, who shall espy
If any on the surface bask.  With them
Go ye: for ye shall find them nothing fell.
Come Alichino forth," with that he cried,
"And Calcabrina, and Cagnazzo thou!
The troop of ten let Barbariccia lead.
With Libicocco Draghinazzo haste,
Fang'd Ciriatto, Grafflacane fierce,
And Farfarello, and mad Rubicant.
Search ye around the bubbling tar.  For these,
In safety lead them, where the other crag
Uninterrupted traverses the dens."

I then: "O master! what a sight is there!
Ah! without escort, journey we alone,
Which, if thou know the way, I covet not.
Unless thy prudence fail thee, dost not mark
How they do gnarl upon us, and their scowl
Threatens us present tortures?"  He replied:
"I charge thee fear not: let them, as they will,
Gnarl on: 't is but in token of their spite
Against the souls, who mourn in torment steep'd."

To leftward o'er the pier they turn'd; but each
Had first between his teeth prest close the tongue,
Toward their leader for a signal looking,
Which he with sound obscene triumphant gave.


  1. Dante tells Virgil that if he knows the way, it would be better to go without the escort of Malebranche, whom he does not trust.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. The names of the Malebranche are as follows: Alichino means "Harlequin"; Calcabrina means "Frost Trampler"; Cagnazzo means "Nasty Dog"; Libicocco means "Stormbreath"; Barbariccia means "Curly Beard"; Draghignazzo means "Nasty Dragon"; Ciriatto means "Wild Swine"; Graffiacane means "Dog Scratcher"; Farfarello means "Goblin"; and Rubicante means "Red-faced Terror." While the names are inventions, it is possible that Dante crafted them out of perversions of the family names of corrupt Italian politicians.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. Malacoda assures Virgil and Dante that they will be safe with the Malebranche for guides.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Malacoda orders the demon Scarmiglione, whose name roughly translates to "Troublemaker," not to touch Dante.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. Malacoda, which literally means "evil tail," is the leader of the Malebranche, the demons who so enthusiastically enjoy torturing the corrupt officials.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. It is important for Virgil to show that he is not terrified by what he sees. Cary translates this moment as Virgil displaying a "forehead terror-proof." In Dante's Italian, Virgil has a "sicura fronte," more accurately translated as a "face of security" or a "front of security," in the sense of a façade. Thus, "fronte" has two meanings: on a literal level, Virgil's face; on a figurative level, his demeanor.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. Dante compares the way the demons push the sinners back under the boiling tar to the way cooks push stewing meat back into the broth when it rises to the top of the cooking pot.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. This as-yet-unidentified demon has a sinner slung across each shoulder and is holding the pair of them by the ankles.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. Dante compares the darkness of this "pouch" to the pitch (tar) used in Venetian shipyards to coat ships' hulls to make them seaworthy.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. As Virgil and Dante move to the Fifth Pouch, they talk about things not related to the journey in the Inferno.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Dante and Virgil have entered the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle, the area in which barrators—corrupt public officials—are tortured.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. The Caprona was a castle approximately five miles from the Tuscan city of Pisa. The castle surrendered to the Guelphs (both Florentines and Lucchese) in 1289. Dante was a member of the invading Guelph army. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  13. The Serchio is a river near Lucca. It seems to have been a popular spot for summer swimming. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  14. This line is heavy with sarcasm, given that Bonturo was allegedly the most corrupt official in Lucca. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  15. The condemned soul here is an unnamed politician who died on the day of this canto's setting. He is guilty of barratry: the buying and selling of public offices.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  16. Canonized in 1690, Zita was a servant woman of the Italian city of Lucca, and several miracles were attributed to her. She is known as Saint Zita, or, in Italian, Santa Zita.

    — Jamie Wheeler