A few years ago, I came upon a poem mimicry I had created back in high school. My favorite English teacher, Mr. M, gave out the assignment to create our own level of Hell in Dante Alighieri’s The Inferno. Hippie that I was (am), my level was for “The Litterers,” those who disrespect the earth.
Finding the poem after the fact, I decided to expand upon it and create what I am calling “The 21st Century Inferno.” The rhyme scheme and cadence are in direct parallel to the original epic poem.
Without further hesitation, here are my first four “cantos”:
As Virgil was the guide of Dante Alighieri, so Dante becomes mine into his own infamous Inferno. Having reached a pinnacle when his life was half through, mine has come earlier as I seek reason for all of the world’s horrors that have descended upon the earth.
A quarter of my life had come to pass
when I made my way into a wood,
seeking solace in nature’s trees and grass.
My Piscean nature lured me to water, good
for my mood to be by a stream
despite the reason, then misunderstood.
Reposing by moss, hoping to dream,
I was jostled before drifting to sleep
by a voice in the forest, strange it did seem.
“Follow my voice,” it said from the deep
darkness within the timberland.
“Curious you are, but don’t make a peep.
“These thickets spell danger so heed my demand.”
Rising I did, just as he told,
meeting a shaded figure who held out his hand.
My breath caught when I took hold,
noting his face and his headband, a wreath.
“Dante!” I shouted, to which he did scold.
“Shh, my dove, your volume must be sheathed,
so as not to disturb the demons and souls
that are always around, though right now, beneath.”
He motioned with his chin to a cavernous hole.
“If you trust me we will enter there
so as to take you on patrol;
“over 600 years under my care,
have these sinners suffered viciously
for their lives’ heinous affairs.”
Thinking back on books read ambitiously,
this man’s Divine Comedy and Inferno
came to me expeditiously.
“This can’t be real,” I started, slow.
“You died in 1321,
688 years ago!”
“Man I may not be, but do not shun
this opportunity I give to you
to see the punishments seen by none,
“at least no one alive, tis true.
A gift to me from Virgil, my master,
just as it is me that you view.
“Knowing the world now in all its disaster,
mirroring my own Florence in time,
you must come now, all the faster
“since your earth may perish under these crimes
that I intend to show you now
within the inferno, opposing the sublime.”
Thrusting disbelief aside, I wiped my brow,
nodding to this new guide of mine
to lead on. “I’ll come,” my spoken vow.
Recalling Dante’s own uncertainty before readily following Virgil into the underworld, I pause to voice my own:
Knowing the cause must be divine,
for me to be standing there
with Dante, a true sign
that I was meant to prepare
for a journey like his
that I’d studied, though unaware
I could follow a path that is
like that of my mentor.
“Is this a test? A quiz?”
I questioned. “Shall I enter
that which you did,
going down to the center
of the world as I know, to bid
adieu to the life I now know
in lieu of this, to so many forbid?”
With a pause he said, “Follow
and you will be sure
that you were meant to be below.
“So few will ever venture,
you are only number two.
Intentions like yours, pure
“and impossibly true,
to better the planet and humankind,
such a travel is meant for nobody but you.”
His assurance at the forefront of my mind,
I breathed in and was ready
knowing that fate had assigned
this as my destiny, no matter how heady.
I nodded to Dante then
and walked forward, steady.
As it was written in my guide’s own book, the same inscription above the Gate of Hell stood before us as we entered a place where no life is meant:
“THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.
JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.
BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.”
Dante read the words, once and again,
cementing them within my head
as if I’d ever forget that which he’d penned.
With chin in the air I shed any dread
that may have taken over
seeing that gate ahead.
“You’ve learned, dear clover,
from those words of mine,
to leave behind cowardice, and hesitation moreover.
“These traits won’t serve you in this shrine
of malice and cruelty and all other sins
that will be before you as we decline.”
I startled when much to my chagrin,
the laments and cries he had heard
when his past travels did begin
came to my ears, though obscured and slurred,
setting my very hair on end.
As Virgil had done, so Dante was stirred
to place his hand on mine, trying to lend
me his own courage and lack of fear
that he had gained when he first did descend.
“As you know my work, you know we’re near
to many a frightful sight,
but you are also aware, my dear,
“that I made it out, as you will despite
viewing abuses shelled out
to those whose lives invited such blight
“onto themselves and others, no doubt,
each is deserving of their
“pity from you, but do be aware
that they’ll try to solicit
just that, should they dare.”
Taking his advice, to memory I’d commit,
all my guide told me,
I made sure of it.
Seeing a banner, white, flying free,
I noticed the NEUTRALS that
had no place to be.
Without taking a stand for God through combat,
now as bad as angels, gutless,
standing apart from any spat,
they trailed the sheet without progress.
Aloof in life now suffered in their end,
stung by wasps and flies in excess.
Gruesome, yes, but deserved to amend
for their lack of action,
never to transcend.
Unknown while alive, even by a fraction,
I recognized none of them then
and kept walking without distraction.
Reaching the River Acheron, an aged man of men
rowed fore to meet us two
in a boat suited for ten.
“Charon!” my guide greeted the slight crew.
“Take us across please,
we’ve a goal to pursue.”
“It’s you again,” Charon said with disease,
“But you’ve died and now here
is another lively one to tease.”
Pointing at me with an expression, queer,
he asked Dante, “Is it so?”
Does he command you across this frontier?”
My guide then affirmed and Charon showed
us into his craft to take us away,
his demon eyes of fire aglow.
CIRCLE ONE Limbo
The first circle of Hell has historically been reserved for those who are virtuous in life, yet lacked religious conviction; LIMBO used to encompass the eternal resting place for a great many unbaptised children, virtuous pagans, thinkers, scientists, artists, philosophers and more. They were relegated to spend the rest of time in a peaceful yet sorrowful valley with a seven-walled castle, as per Dante’s past description. The so-called “light of reason” illuminates the meadows within. Since Dante’s own passing, however, the Higher Power has allowed a majority of LIMBO’s occupants to ascend to Purgatory and, some, to Paradise.
I first heard the wailing, approaching the bay,
of a number of spirits who
inhabited a valley, misty and grey.
“Sorrow without torments,” Dante reviewed,
recalling his own words
that then proved to be true.
“There used to be more, but something occurred,
bringing up the pagans and unbaptised youth,
their reasoning finally heard.
“He from above learned of the truth,
that these souls did not deserve
an eternity as uncouth
“even as LIMBO, so he drummed up the nerve,
to bring them higher,
as you may soon observe.”
I took from his meaning a future desire
to bring me to Purgatory or perhaps
Paradise where I too hoped to retire.
Merely nodding then, lacking a map,
I continued to follow
Still some remained, only to wallow
with longing, devoid of hope,
an endless certainly hard to swallow.
I worried then of my own slippery slope
that I might soon befall
despite the scope
of good deeds committed for one and all,
living a life for others
even with no god to recall.
“Tell me, Dante, my guide, my brother,
as an Agnostic or skeptic,
am I bound to be smothered
“by the despair of LIMBO? It’d make me sick
to be punished for believing
that which makes me tick.
“Why should I suffer for conceiving
of personal morals
of which others are disbelieving?”
This elicited a smile instead of a quarrel;
with a hand on my head
his thoughts became aural.
“Worry not, I promise that once you’ve fled
from the world of the living you surely will
be spared from here, ascending instead.”
His assurance within me, my concerns were killed,
at least for the moment as we
approached a walled castle just barely uphill.
Advancing on, a descension was seen.
From Circle One down to the second,
the sound of thunder became the cry of a banshee.