Sinners in hell, stuck in a frozen river

Traffic in the lowest circle of Dante’s Inferno is at a standstill. The river Cocytus has turned to ice and holds the worst of sinners, the betrayers, in an array of tumbled postures, like debris picked up in a now-frozen flood. These souls (or “shades”) snarl and bite at one another, held forever in frustration and rage. The ice is like molten glass that has cooled and turned solid.

…l’ombre tutte eran coperte,
e trasparien come festuca in vetro.

…the shades were completely covered, visible
Through the ice like bits of straw trapped in glass. (34.11-12)

In Dante’s time, wet straw served as a layer of insulation for glass coming out of the furnace. Waste glass marred by flecks of straw was an everyday sight in the artisan’s workshop. The door of the furnace, stoked to temperatures well above the point where flames can even exist, must have been the scariest sight in town.

Translation by Mary Jo Bang (Bomb magazine, 112, Spring 2012), http://bombmagazine.org/article/6445/dante-s-inferno-canto-xxxiv

Photo: Il Libraio https://www.illibraio.it/socci-inferno-dante-610147/

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He wore cursing as his garment; it entered into his body like water, into his bones like oil.

– Psalms 109:18 (New International Version)

Psalm 109 indicts an enemy for cursing, but first has these choice words to say about him:

May his days be few…
May his children be wandering beggars…
May creditors seize all he has…
May the sin of his mother never be blotted out…

This psalm is unusual in having a very specific problem to talk about that anybody can relate to: someone is saying bad things about me. The poet feels the scorn of others, who shake their heads when he passes. They brush him off “like a locust.” He is being made to “fade away like an evening shadow.” The imagery is sharply seen and felt, seeming more personal than the generic green pastures and gold regalia of other psalms.

The metaphor of the garment, too, is personal in a subtle way, noticing how deliberately assumed guises can reshape identity (like Prufrock’s “face to meet the faces that you meet”). Just as the water that you drink gets into your body chemistry, so the words that you use habitually will infiltrate your character. The evil in those words gets into the marrow of your bones.

Photo: From an engraving of Elijah denouncing Ahab

Before there were any Geneva conventions

Plunder used to be the soldier’s reward for risking his life. Running wild in a conquered town was the cathartic climax after the rage of battle. So trying to restrain troops after a victory was futile, like trying to talk a whale into coming ashore.

Or, as Shakespeare said in Henry V (III.iii.24-27): “We may as bootless spend our vain command / Upon th’enraged soldiers in their spoil / As send precepts to the leviathan / To come ashore.”

(A beached whale must have been a rare sight in Shakespeare’s time. Today the term beached whale is common enough that it inspires pity when used literally and hilarity when used metaphorically – i.e., for a corpulent sunbather.)

In Shakespeare’s play, the young monarch beseeches the town of Harfleur to surrender before it is too late, “Whiles yet my soldiers are in my command” (29).

If not — why, in a moment look to see

The blind and bloody soldier with foul hand

Defile the locks of your shrill-shrieking daughters;

Your fathers taken by the silver beards,

And their most reverend heads dashed to the walls;

Your naked infants spitted upon pikes,

Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confused

Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry

At Herod’s bloody-hunting slaughtermen.

What say you? Will you yield and this avoid?

Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroyed? (33-43)

In another play, Shakespeare compares a ravaging army to a pack of hounds, maddened for the hunt: “Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war” (Julius Caesar III.i.273).

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Nephological hyperbole

Charlotte Bronte sometimes got a little carried away. In her introduction to the second edition of Jane Eyre, for example, she decided to pay a compliment to a writer she greatly admired, William Makepeace Thackeray, and this is what came out:

His wit is bright, his humour attractive, but both bear the same relation to his serious genius, that the mere lambent sheet-lightning playing under the edge of the summer-cloud, does to the electric death-spark hid in its womb.

Womb in a cloud? Yes, I can picture that. But a cirro-cumulus womb with a death-spark inside??? You do NOT want to see anything that comes out of there.

Click to enlarge.

NOAA graphic with enhancements

NOAA graphic with enhancements

(Posted on FB June 22, 2014)