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Student Literary Snapshot: An Original Dante’s Inferno Canto

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Student Literary Snapshot: An Original Dante’s Inferno Canto

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The 11th graders recently read Dante’s epic poem The Inferno. The Inferno is broken into chapters called cantos, and each canto follows a loose pattern: Dante and his guide Virgil journey through Hell and observe the punishments for the sinners along the way; Virgil offers advice and explanations about the punishments they see; and Dante converses with particular sinners he recognizes. The sinners’ individual punishments correspond with the sin that caused their downfall, a concept called “contrapasso.”

Each student in Ms. Rice’s AP Literature and Composition course wrote an original canto inspired by Dante’s Inferno with the same basic structure as Dante’s. Each canto is written in poetry and includes a guide and traveler who observes a specific sin, a corresponding punishment and a sinner met along the way; the particulars of each of these aspects, however, was up to the choice and imagination of the students.

In this canto, the narrator is guided through Hell by the wizard Gandalf from The Lord of the Rings epic. The two observe sinners in their punishment for being uncharitable and passive, and Gandalf explains the contrapasso, why the particular punishment suits these sinners.

 

Sins of Uncharity:

An Original Canto Inspired by Dante’s Inferno

By MaryGrace King ‘16

 

Onward we walked, the Gray Wizard in front,

Myself slightly behind, following his staff’s thin trail of light

Through the dusty darkness.

 

“Gandalf,” I inquired after a time,

“What sinners should we see next,

And in what punishment should we find them?”

“Up ahead are the Uncharitable Ones:

Those who failed to lift even a finger to help a neighbor

Or to deign to understand the sufferings of a friend,”

 

My guide noted to me. “Indifferent,

Cold-hearted, aloof, you might call them,

But their real fault lies in their choice to be so;

 

For all are created with hearts set to love,

And those who disdain that gift in life

Find themselves thus confounded in Hell for it in death.”

 

And, walking further on, I began to hear

Distant, discordant rhythms –

And as prisoners, chained in a line

 

Might pound wearily with hammers and chisels

In a mountain tunnel, sentenced permanently to extract

Precious metals or gems they would never see polished,

 

So I heard the slow, unbearable clash of rock on rock

Clacking and grinding with a singular, hopeless intent

Never to be satisfied in this dull place.

 

Drawing yet closer to the noise, I made out

An openness in the ground before us, and looking down

I saw a shallow yet wide pit with walls of slick marble;

 

Figures milled in the center and also

Along the sides, slow-moving and sluggish

As if they carried heavy burdens, although I saw none.

 

Peering through the dim, I made out

The origin of the echoing clashes:

The sinners themselves were beating with bare hands

 

At the smooth walls of their open prison –

And with a start I realized their hands were of stone,

Rocks pounding rock with the slow beat of eternity.

 

Above the cacophony, I turned to my guide

With a question in my eyes, and he

Was swift to explain what was in front of us.

 

“Human hands are made to help:

To lift up the poor and to mend the broken.

Charity manifests through our fingers, but these –

 

The sinners below us had still hands in life,

Tight fists instead of ones reaching to care.

In truth, they did not reach to hinder,

 

But in their passivity their hands did not respond

To the compassion their hearts urged them to feel;

And so, if you look closely, now their hearts are of stone

 

As well as their hands.” Gandalf, sighing,

Leaned on his staff as if his own heart grew heavier

Upon looking at the sinners’ slow struggle below.

 

Still unsatisfied, I plied again: “But why do they

Lift their fists against the wall? Is that part of their

Punishment or do they choose to do so?”

 

My gray-cloaked guide responded, “Perhaps

Speaking to one of them might answer your questions

Better than I could. Go now, lean down and ask.”

 

So I knelt to bring my face closer to the sinners below.

I called to the nearest beneath me: “Sinner, what

Reason do you have to be beating an unyielding wall?

 

Is it the law of Hell that drives you or some

Other cause?” My words flinched and limped

Unwanted among unwelcome stone hearts.

 

Finally the soul stayed his fruitless business

And, as if my questioning were of great irritation to him,

He answered, “To leave this pit is my only desire

 

And my only intent. Being surrounded by such

Inferior beings pricks my flesh with a thousand

Needles and scrapes my insides as if with nails.

 

It is their fault for my agony in this pit:

Despicable weakness deserves no aid, so I offered none;

But in that sentiment, I found myself tossed down here.

 

Were I only rid of these stone fists and I might

Beat at my escape a little faster; but for lack of nimble flesh

I am reduced to sounding my fury by the rhythm of a dirge.”

 

To mark his point the rock-fisted figure

Raised both arms and crashed them as one on the marble;

In rebounding his stone hands swung wildly

And hit the figure standing next to him

Sinking rock into flesh with a dull thump.

I noted with unease that neither seemed to care.

 

I also noted the surface of the marble walls –

It was as polished and unmarked as if

Sinners hadn’t been pounding it for an eternity.

 

Last, I noticed that the space between me and

The sinner could be met by joining hands:

Me reaching down, him, up to me.

 

I spoke again after a pause. “If your one desire is

To leave, as you say… Has it not crossed your mind

That every soul here could easily escape

 

By hoisting first one, then reaching down and pulling

Up another? The marble may be hard and slippery

But it is low; all could gain in a minute what

 

Eternal pounding could not.” Those in the pit

Gave no indication of hearing my words, but still

I was afraid I had planted ideas contrary

 

To Divine Justice in the minds of Hell-dwellers.

I glanced at Gandalf in my anxiety,

But he soothed my fears and answered for the silent sinners:

 

“Their contempt for each other surpasses

Even their desire for freedom. I would not

Try reasoning with them as souls in Hell

 

Have no reason at all; Instead,

We should move on from this pit,

Having learned all there is to learn.

 

The most gained from cold hearts and listless hands

Is a burden of stone, but in lifting up each other

We find ourselves uplifted as well. Come,

 

Let us journey on.” And the two of us continued

Threading the way through Hell with a point of light

The Gray Wizard in front, myself following a step behind.

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Student Literary Snapshot: An Original Dante’s Inferno Canto