Outsider poems, a mini-anthology in progress (58): Armand Schwerner’s translation of Canto XV from Dante's 'Inferno'

[In the construction of an assemblage of outside & subterranean poetry the question looms of whether to include in the composition some of those who in the aftermath are celebrated & canonized as the ultimate & necessary insiders.  For Dante the outsidering came in his 37th year, when he was banished from Florence into what came to be a lifetime of exile from his native city.  That the Commedia emerges from this is a point to be considered, the Inferno in particular an image of a world peopled with those similarly exiled or outsidered.  Of the heroic damned, as Dante imagines them, Brunetto Latini, who was Dante’s guardian & teacher, stands out with his stride, curiously triumphant, as he runs off into the distance more like “one who wins, not one who loses.”  The spirits of the ancient poets in Limbo (Canto 4) is yet another nod to the subterranean & outsidered nature of what was clearly dear to him.

Armand Schwerner’s translation of the Inferno, as presented here, was one of his own last works, still in progress at the time of his death in 1999.]

Right now one of the harsh banks conveys us
and up above, the rivermist hovers,
and screens water and embankments from the fire.
As the Flemings, from Wissant to Bruges,
afraid of the impinging flood
set up their dikes to blunt the sea-threat
and as the Paduans of Chiarentana, along the Brent’s edges,
shore up their castles and towns
against the snowmelt torrents
so did these mounds, of like construction,
rise, though their architect, whoever he was,
had made them neither as high, nor as wide.
We walked so far beyond the wood
that even if I’d turn to the rear
I couldn’t have made it out.
Then we came upon a company of souls
walking by the bank; and everyone
peered at us as men under a new moon
will gaze each at each;
squinting, they peered at us,
like an old tailor into his needle’s eye.
As we were being eyed by the tribe of shades
I was recognized by one of them, who seized the hem
of my gown and cried out,
“Amazing. Is it you?
And I, when he stretched out his arm to me,
peered so intently at his baked face
that even his scorched features
couldn’t prevent my recognizing him
and lowering my face to his face
I answered,
“Ser Brunetto. It’s you! here?”
And he,
“o my son, please don’t be annoyed
if Brunetto Latini turns back to walk with you
a little, and lets the others go their way.”
I said to him
“yes, with a full heart
as much as I’m able;
if you want me to sit with you
I’ll do it, if my guide will let me.”
He said:
“My son, if any being in this flock
stop walking for even a second, the fire will eat
at him for a hundred years.
So move on; I will follow you closely
And soon will rejoin my company,
which goes on mourning endless loss.”
I didn’t dare to step down to his level
But kept my head inclined
as in a reverential stance.
He said to me,
“What fortune or what fate
Has brought you here before your time,
And who’s your guide on this path?”
I answered him,
“In earth’s tranquil life,
before I attained
to a fullness of years
I wandered in a valley,
but just yesterday I turned my back on it.
This man appeared when I was losing ground
and by this path now leads me home.”
And he:
“As long as you’re guided by your star,
you will not fail to reach fair harbor;
if I’d judged you well in our life on earth
if I hadn’t died so early in my life—
Seeing that heaven makes its face to shine upon you—
I would have cheered you on in your work,
but those malign, ungrateful people
with rockhard mountain hearts
who came down from old Fiesole
will fall on you for your good works.
That’s how things should be: it isn’t right
that the sweet fig should come to fruit
among the sour serviceberries.
Common knowledge asserts those men are blind,
envious, arrogant, greedy.
Rid yourself of their usages; be sure to do it.
Your future is signed with such honor
that the factions will both hunger after you,
but the grass will forever elude those goats.
Let the beasts of Fiesole eat
themselves: on their dunghill some plants may bear
the sacred seed of brave Romans
who stayed and did not move to Florence;
such plants are never for the beasts of Fiesole,
denizens of wickedness and vice.”
I answered him:
“If I had my wish,
you would not have lost your human place:
you live in my mind, how clearly
I remember you, sweet and fatherly,
when, for hour and hour on end in the world,
you used to teach how man makes himself eternal.
What I owe you my tongue will declare all my life.
What you tell me of my coming fate
I will note down, and save with other texts
to submit to one who knows, if I can arrive at that Lady.
There’s a thing I need to say to you:
with a clean conscience
I am prepared for Fortune; whatever happens.
I’m not new to such prophecy;
let Fortune spin her wheel
and the churl strike with his mattock.”
My guide now turned around, to his right,
And looked at me and said,
“A good listener hears.”
Without responding, I walked ahead
And talked with Ser Brunetto, asking
About his fellow shades, which best-born
and which most famous.
And he to me:
“Some deserve words; others silence.
There wouldn’t be enough time for such talk.
In brief, we were men of worth, clerics, all of us—
Scholars of great renown, who on the earth
Were polluted with the same sin.
There’s Priscian the grammarian, with that sad bunch,
And with him is Francesco of Accorso, the Oxford law professor.
If you had any wish to see such scum
look at that man there, who stiff in his iniquity
was moved from Arno to the Bacchiglione by the Pope
—the Servant’s Servant!—and died unnatural.
I’d say more, but here’s an end to talk;
I see a new dustcloud rising from the sand,
and new people approach, not my shades.
To your care I commend my Treasure.
My name lives on in it; I ask no more.”
The he turned back and ran, like one of those
who across the plain at Verona race for the green cloth;
and as he ran, he seemed
the one who wins, not the one who loses.