Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Markest thou what sentry is seated in the doorway? what shape guards the threshold?

Jan Brueghel the Younger, Aeneus and the Sybil in the Underworld, 1630's.

Aeneas looks swiftly back, and sees beneath the cliff on the left hand a wide city, girt with a triple wall and encircled by a racing river of boiling flame, Tartarean Phlegethon, that echoes over its rolling rocks. In front is the gate, huge and pillared with solid adamant, that no warring force of men nor the very habitants of heaven may avail to overthrow; it stands up a tower of iron, and Tisiphone sitting girt in bloodstained pall keeps sleepless watch at the entry by night and day. Hence moans are heard and fierce lashes resound, with the clank of iron and dragging chains. Aeneas stopped and hung dismayed at the tumult.

'What shapes of crime are here? declare, O maiden; or what the punishment that pursues them, and all this upsurging wail?'

Then the soothsayer thus began to speak:

'Illustrious chief of Troy, no pure foot may tread these guilty courts; but to me Hecate herself, when she gave me rule over the groves of Avernus, taught how the gods punish, and guided me through all her realm. Gnosian Rhadamanthus here holds unrelaxing sway, chastises secret crime revealed, and exacts confession, wheresoever in the upper world one vainly exultant in stolen guilt hath till the dusk of death kept clear from the evil he wrought. Straightway avenging Tisiphone, girt with her scourge, tramples down the shivering sinners, menaces them with the grim snakes in her left hand, and summons forth her sisters in merciless train. Then at last the sacred gates are flung open and grate on the jarring hinge. Markest thou what sentry is seated in the doorway? what shape guards the threshold? More grim within sits the monstrous Hydra with her fifty black yawning throats: and Tartarus' self gapes sheer and strikes into the gloom through twice the space that one looks upward to Olympus and the skyey heaven. Here Earth's ancient children, the Titans' brood, hurled down by the thunderbolt, lie wallowing in the abyss. Here likewise I saw the twin Aloïds, enormous of frame, who essayed with violent hands to pluck down high heaven and thrust Jove from his upper realm. Likewise I saw Salmoneus in the cruel payment he gives for mocking Jove's flame and Olympus' thunders. Borne by four horses and brandishing a torch, he rode in triumph midway through the populous city of Grecian Elis, and claimed for himself the worship of deity; madman! who would mimic the storm-cloud and the inimitable bolt with brass that rang under his trampling horse-hoofs. But the Lord omnipotent hurled his shaft through thickening clouds (no firebrand his nor smoky glare of torches) and dashed him headlong in the fury of the whirlwind. Therewithal Tityos might be seen, fosterling of Earth the mother of all, whose body stretches over nine full acres, and a monstrous vulture with crooked beak eats away the imperishable liver and the entrails that breed in suffering, and plunges deep into the breast that gives it food and dwelling; nor is any rest given to the fibres that ever grow anew. Why tell of the Lapithae, of Ixion and Pirithoüs? over whom a stone hangs just slipping and just as though it fell; or the high banqueting couches gleam golden-pillared, and the feast is spread in royal luxury before their faces; couched hard by, the eldest of the Furies wards the tables from their touch and rises with torch upreared and thunderous lips. Here are they who hated their brethren while life endured, or struck a parent or entangled a client in wrong, or who brooded alone over found treasure and shared it not with their fellows, this the greatest multitude of all; and they who were slain for adultery, and who followed unrighteous arms, and feared not to betray their masters' plighted hand. Imprisoned they await their doom. Seek not to be told that doom, that fashion of fortune wherein they are sunk. Some roll a vast stone, or hang outstretched on the spokes of wheels; hapless Theseus sits and shall sit for ever, and Phlegyas in his misery gives counsel to all and witnesses aloud through the gloom, Learn by this warning to do justly and not to slight the gods. This man sold his country for gold, and laid her under a tyrant's sway; he set up and pulled down laws at a price; this other forced his daughter's bridal chamber and a forbidden marriage; all dared some monstrous wickedness, and had success in what they dared. Not had I an hundred tongues, an hundred mouths, and a voice of iron, could I sum up all the shapes of crime or name over all their punishments.'


The Aeneid of Virgil, translated by J.W. Mackail, M.A., London, MacMillan and Co., 1885.

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