In Canto 7 of the Inferno, Dante vividly imagines the fate of those given over to wrath and sullenness in their earthly lives. The wrathful in the end turn their whole bodies into weapons, externalizing, as it were, the rage they had always had within. The sullen, who would not enjoy God’s good gifts, are buried in mud–again, an externalization and concretization of the darkness they insisted was really real; now they can only “gargle” a perverse hymn, having lost the full power of speech they would not use for giving thanks.
There is wisdom here, I think, for those who would have it. Left to ourselves, our sins–especially the ones we most cherish–have the power to destroy us, to make of us a parody of what we are meant to be. If the ugliness we try to keep well hid were to be exposed, all onlookers would be shocked to see it, as would an observer of Dante’s scene below. But thanks be to God that he rescues us from the end to which our sins should drive us, and restores us to the end for which we were created.
Even the wrath of man shall praise the Lord; but woe to him who will only praise him in this way and by necessity. For our part, let us rather be cheerful that God has declared his judgment upon sin–even ours–at the cross, and let us believe that he wills to be gracious to us in Christ.
And I, who gazed intently as I stood,
saw people in that slough all slimed with mud,
stripped naked, and their faces torn with rage.
They thumped each other not with hands alone
but with the head, the chest, the feet, the teeth!–
snapping to rip each other limb from limb.
“Son,” my good Teacher said, “now you may see
the souls of those whom wrath has overcome,
and you should take it for a certainty
that underwater here are souls who sigh
and make the river bubble to the top,
as you may see wherever you turn your eye.
Stuck in the mire they say: ‘Sullen we were
up in the sweet air gladdened by the sun,
bearing a sluggish smoke within our hearts.
Now we are sullen in this black bog here.’
Such is the hymn they gargle in the throat.
They cannot get the words out whole and clear.”
So in a wide arc we walked round that pond
between the dry slope and the rotten squelch,
eyes turned upon the souls who gulped down mud. (ll. 109-29, tr. A. Esolen)
E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.
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