Canto 23

IN silence and in solitude we went,
One first, the other following his steps,
As minor friars journeying on their road.

The present fray had turn'd my thoughts to muse
Upon old Aesop's fable, where he told
What fate unto the mouse and frog befell.
For language hath not sounds more like in sense,
Than are these chances, if the origin
And end of each be heedfully compar'd.
And as one thought bursts from another forth,
So afterward from that another sprang,
Which added doubly to my former fear.
For thus I reason'd: "These through us have been
So foil'd, with loss and mock'ry so complete,
As needs must sting them sore.  If anger then
Be to their evil will conjoin'd, more fell
They shall pursue us, than the savage hound
Snatches the leveret, panting 'twixt his jaws."

Already I perceiv'd my hair stand all
On end with terror, and look'd eager back.

"Teacher," I thus began, "if speedily
Thyself and me thou hide not, much I dread
Those evil talons.  Even now behind
They urge us: quick imagination works
So forcibly, that I already feel them."

He answer'd: "Were I form'd of leaded glass,
I should not sooner draw unto myself
Thy outward image, than I now imprint
That from within.  This moment came thy thoughts
Presented before mine, with similar act
And count'nance similar, so that from both
I one design have fram'd.  If the right coast
Incline so much, that we may thence descend
Into the other chasm, we shall escape
Secure from this imagined pursuit."

He had not spoke his purpose to the end,
When I from far beheld them with spread wings
Approach to take us.  Suddenly my guide
Caught me, ev'n as a mother that from sleep
Is by the noise arous'd, and near her sees
The climbing fires, who snatches up her babe
And flies ne'er pausing, careful more of him
Than of herself, that but a single vest
Clings round her limbs.  Down from the jutting beach
Supine he cast him, to that pendent rock,
Which closes on one part the other chasm.

Never ran water with such hurrying pace
Adown the tube to turn a landmill's wheel,
When nearest it approaches to the spokes,
As then along that edge my master ran,
Carrying me in his bosom, as a child,
Not a companion.  Scarcely had his feet
Reach'd to the lowest of the bed beneath,
When over us the steep they reach'd; but fear
In him was none; for that high Providence,
Which plac'd them ministers of the fifth foss,
Power of departing thence took from them all.

There in the depth we saw a painted tribe,
Who pac'd with tardy steps around, and wept,
Faint in appearance and o'ercome with toil.
Caps had they on, with hoods, that fell low down
Before their eyes, in fashion like to those
Worn by the monks in Cologne.  Their outside
Was overlaid with gold, dazzling to view,
But leaden all within, and of such weight,
That Frederick's compar'd to these were straw.
Oh, everlasting wearisome attire!

We yet once more with them together turn'd
To leftward, on their dismal moan intent.
But by the weight oppress'd, so slowly came
The fainting people, that our company
Was chang'd at every movement of the step.

Whence I my guide address'd: "See that thou find
Some spirit, whose name may by his deeds be known,
And to that end look round thee as thou go'st."

Then one, who understood the Tuscan voice,
Cried after us aloud: "Hold in your feet,
Ye who so swiftly speed through the dusk air.
Perchance from me thou shalt obtain thy wish."

Whereat my leader, turning, me bespake:
"Pause, and then onward at their pace proceed."

I staid, and saw two Spirits in whose look
Impatient eagerness of mind was mark'd
To overtake me; but the load they bare
And narrow path retarded their approach.

Soon as arriv'd, they with an eye askance
Perus'd me, but spake not: then turning each
To other thus conferring said: "This one
Seems, by the action of his throat, alive.
And, be they dead, what privilege allows
They walk unmantled by the cumbrous stole?"

Then thus to me: "Tuscan, who visitest
The college of the mourning hypocrites,
Disdain not to instruct us who thou art."

"By Arno's pleasant stream," I thus replied,
"In the great city I was bred and grew,
And wear the body I have ever worn.
but who are ye, from whom such mighty grief,
As now I witness, courseth down your cheeks?
What torment breaks forth in this bitter woe?"
"Our bonnets gleaming bright with orange hue,"
One of them answer'd, "are so leaden gross,
That with their weight they make the balances
To crack beneath them.  Joyous friars we were,
Bologna's natives, Catalano I,
He Loderingo nam'd, and by thy land
Together taken, as men used to take
A single and indifferent arbiter,
To reconcile their strifes.  How there we sped,
Gardingo's vicinage can best declare."

"O friars!"  I began, "your miseries—"
But there brake off, for one had caught my eye,
Fix'd to a cross with three stakes on the ground:
He, when he saw me, writh'd himself, throughout
Distorted, ruffling with deep sighs his beard.
And Catalano, who thereof was 'ware,
Thus spake: "That pierced spirit, whom intent
Thou view'st, was he who gave the Pharisees
Counsel, that it were fitting for one man
To suffer for the people.  He doth lie
Transverse; nor any passes, but him first
Behoves make feeling trial how each weighs.
In straits like this along the foss are plac'd
The father of his consort, and the rest
Partakers in that council, seed of ill
And sorrow to the Jews."  I noted then,
How Virgil gaz'd with wonder upon him,
Thus abjectly extended on the cross
In banishment eternal.  To the friar
He next his words address'd: "We pray ye tell,
If so be lawful, whether on our right
Lies any opening in the rock, whereby
We both may issue hence, without constraint
On the dark angels, that compell'd they come
To lead us from this depth."  He thus replied:
"Nearer than thou dost hope, there is a rock
From the next circle moving, which o'ersteps
Each vale of horror, save that here his cope
Is shatter'd.  By the ruin ye may mount:
For on the side it slants, and most the height
Rises below."  With head bent down awhile
My leader stood, then spake: "He warn'd us ill,
Who yonder hangs the sinners on his hook."

To whom the friar: "At Bologna erst
I many vices of the devil heard,
Among the rest was said, 'He is a liar,
And the father of lies!'"  When he had spoke,
My leader with large strides proceeded on,
Somewhat disturb'd with anger in his look.

I therefore left the spirits heavy laden,
And following, his beloved footsteps mark'd.


  1. In Hell, Caiaphas is nailed to a cross that is lain horizontally on the ground so that Caiaphas feels the weight of everyone walking over him.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. This passage refers to the Jewish High Priest Caiaphas, who in John 18 advised that it is better for one man to die—a nod to Jesus Christ—than for the whole nation to perish. Caiaphas does not specifically say that Jesus should be executed, but his meaning is understood by the council of the Pharisees (religious leaders of the Jews in the early 1st century). The Pharisees thus judged Caiaphas a hypocrite.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. Dante and Virgil have encountered two friars, Catalano de' Malavolti (1210–1285 CE) and Loderingo degli Andalo (1210–1293 CE), members of a group known as Knights of the Militia of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was a militant religious group, similar to the Knights Templar, established to protect widows and orphans. Their opulent lifestyle and lax religious practices resulted in their being called the Jolly Friars. Although they were forbidden to hold political office, Catalano, who was a Guelph, and Loderingo, a Ghibelline, jointly became political leaders in Florence through the offices of Pope Clement IV. The pope appointed them ostensibly to maintain peace between the two political parties. At the pope's prompting, they allowed the Guelph side more influence, which resulted in an uprising that ousted prominent Ghibelline families from a key stronghold known as the Gardingo (the "Watchtower").

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Dante is referring here to the widespread belief that the Benedictine monks of Cluny were more drawn to the wealth of their monastery than to their calling, which required poverty. Bernard of Clairvaux, a Benedictine, was so appalled by the Cluny opulence that he and others left the Benedictines and joined the Cistercians, all of whom were former Bendictines attempting to return to a state of proper piety and poverty in their monastic lives.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. In this ditch are the hypocrites, who wear cloaks made of lead. These lead cloaks are painted with gold to metaphorically reflect how, while alive, these people disguised their malice with false good will.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. Virgil carries Dante "in his bosom, as a child." The implicitly parental nature of the relationship between Virgil and Dante is now quite explicit. There is no doubt that their relationship is nearly that of parent and child

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. This passage marks another example of the father-son relationship that Virgil and Dante have developed on the journey. The relationship is much closer than that of leader and follower.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. Virgil explains that, having intuited Dante's thoughts, he has formulated a plan that incorporates both of their wishes.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. Virgil tells Dante that he can perceive his friend's thoughts more quickly than a mirror could reflect his face. This comment marks the deepening camaraderie between the two men.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. In Dante's original, he invents the word Malebranche to describe the demons. The word literally translates to "evil talons," used here in Cary's version.

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Caiaphas was the high priest of the Jews. He argued that Jesus' teachings threatened political authority. He urged that Jesus be secretly turned over to the Romans. Caiaphas's father, Annas, as well as other members of the Sanhedrin, aided and abetted Caiaphas in his mission. In Dante's estimation, Caiaphas's betrayal lead the the destruction of Jerusalem and the diaspora (Jews living outside of Israel)

    — Jamie Wheeler
  12. "Gardingo's vinciage" is a reference to the Knights of the Blessed Virgin Mary. These friars attempted to reconcile warring factions and protect the weak. These friars were not well regarded; they were often sarcastically called the "Jolly Friars" because of their lax rules and corrupt activities. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  13. Emperor Frederick II (1194–1250 CE) punished those convicted of treason by ordering them to be boiled in a cauldron while wearing a lead cape. When the cape melted, it would peel away the traitor's skin.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  14. The monks of the German city of Cologne—Köln in German—are known as "Clony." These monks inhabit the abbey founded by the Benedictines in 910 CE. As Dante mentions here, these monks wore their hoods so low as to veil their eyes.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  15. This is a reference to the fable Aesop in which a mouse asks a frog to carry him over a stream. The frog ties the mouse to his leg. As they cross, the frog tries to drown the mouse by holding it under water. The mouse puts up a fight; the struggling frog and mouse attract the attention of a hawk. The hawk gobbles up the frog but frees the mouse. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  16. "Minor Friars" are Franciscan monks, members of a monastic order founded in 1209. Following their spiritual leader, Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans strove toward humility and lived in purposeful poverty. They went begging in pairs, the older friar walking ahead of the younger. Virgil and Dante walk through the Fifth Pouch of the Eighth Circle in such a manner.

    — Jamie Wheeler