Poems about the Underworld
"I did not die, and yet I lost life's breath," writes Dante Alighieri, having made his way to the deepest pit of Hell in John Ciardi's translation of The Divine Comedy. The Inferno, the first book of the work, is considered among the greatest descriptions of Hell ever written—and one of the great masterworks of world literature. Divided into nine levels, Dante's Hell is organized by the concept of Contrapasso, or "counter-suffering," in which souls are punished to varying degrees according to the nature of the sin.
Dante's guide through the Inferno is the poet Virgil, who himself described Hell in his epic the Aeneid. While Virgil describes Hell in a book of his epic ("Some heave at a great boulder, or revolve, / Spreadeagled, hung on wheel-spokes"), he is not as relentless as Dante, who spends a full third of his masterwork detailing doomed souls' suffering.
In Dante's telling, the vestibule of Hell is populated by those who refused to take sides in life; they are left without a definitive place to rest, chased by swarms of hornets "that goaded them the more they fled, // and made their faces stream with bloody gouts / of pus and tears that dribbled to their feet / to be swallowed there by loathsome worms and maggots." In rings of hell devoted to the Lustful, the Gluttonous, and the Avaricious, souls are blown about forever in pitch blackness, ripped apart by a barking three-headed dog, and forced to spend eternity rolling boulders, respectively. Crossing the Styx into a lower region, Dante passes through rings where heretics burn in tombs, tyrants and war-mongers boil in blood, and those who bartered their public office for private gain are ducked in boiling tar, ripped apart with hooks should they risk coming up for air.
Satan, having betrayed God, is himself trapped at Hell's core, at the sunken tip of the inverted cone he created when he fell to Earth, cast out of Heaven. Entering the ninth circle of the underworld, Dante describes him ("The Emperor of the Universe of Pain") as frozen up to the breastbone in a great lake of ice, his leathery bat-like wings beating furiously, creating a storm of icy winds: "With what a sense of awe I saw his head / towering above me! for it had three faces: / one was in front, and it was fiery red; // the other two, as weirdly wonderful, / merged with it from the middle of each shoulder / to the point where all where all converged at the top of the skull."
Dante describes Satan's faces in detail: "He wept from his six eyes, and down three chins / the tears ran mixed with bloody froth and pus. // In every mouth he worked a broken sinner / between his rake-like teeth. Thus he kept three / in eternal pain at his eternal dinner." The three sinners trapped in agony are revealed to be Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius, the three great traitors of history.
Much of the moral and ethical views expressed in the work reflect betrayals that occurred in Dante's personal life. He began outlining the Inferno after being exiled from his birthplace of Florence due in part to his political views. In contrast to the famous depictions of Hell that came before, Dante's underworld is populated by the author's real-life enemies, offering a level of allegory to the epic. This vision can be traced throughout the history of poetry, with several poets paying homage to the work.
The poet John Milton, who was no doubt influenced by Dante, wrote his own allegorical depiction of Hell nearly three and a half centuries later. Having served Oliver Cromwell—the English political leader best known for his leadership in the revolution that temporarily made England, Scotland, and Ireland into a republican Commonwealth—Milton explored the failed rebellion through his writing of Paradise Lost, in which Satan is the protagonist: "Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n."
William Blake adopted both Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, as well as the Christian mysticism of Emanuel Swedenborg, to create a new version of the underworld in Proverbs of Hell, the most famous book of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Instead of focusing on the punishment of souls, Blake subverts the Biblical Book of Proverbs, offering a Hell in which "Prisons are built with stones of Law, Brothels with bricks of Religion" and "Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps." The most influential of Blake's work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell describes Hell as an energized realm of revolution, prophecizing an end of religious and political oppression.
In describing Hell in his own Cantos, Ezra Pound echoes Dante's convention of presenting judgements by listing who populates Hell: politicians, profiteers, and other "perverters of language" are shown "Standing bare bum, / Faces smeared on their rumps," "Addressing crowds through their arse-holes," and "drinking blood sweetened with sh-t." In Pound's version, the philosopher Plotinus replaces Virgil as his guide, and Pound emerges, as Dante did before him, out of the mouth of hell, the victor of his own tale.
Similarly, in Sterling A. Brown's poem "Slim Greer in Hell," St. Peter urges the protagonist to visit hell and report back to him, but when the occupants of Hell include "white devils with pitchforks" and "a cracker, / wid a shefiff's star," Slim Greer returns, thinking he's failed his mission:
St. Peter said, "Well,
You got back quick.
How's de devil? An' what's
His latest trick?"
An' Slim Say, "Peter,
I really cain't tell,
The place was Dixie
That I took for hell."
Then Peter say, "you must
Be crazy, I vow,
Where'n hell dja think Hell was,
Still for others, referencing hell is a way of evoking personal torment, real or imagined. As Robert Lowell famously writes in the poem "Skunk Hour": "I myself am hell, / nobody's here— // only skunks, that search /in the moonlight for a bite to eat." Here, Lowell offers a Hell no less escapable than Dante's, but one in which the poet is not a visitor. In Arthur Rimbaud's "A Season in Hell," the poet states, "I managed to make every trace of human hope vanish from my mind. I pounced on every joy like a ferocious animal eager to strangle it." He goes on to announce: "Bad luck was my god. I stretched out in the muck. I dried myself in the air of crime," concluding, "let me rip out these few ghastly pages from my notebook of the damned."
For many others, however, referencing literary narratives of the underworld is a way of exploring the interior spaces of Hell's most famous characters. Countless contemporary poets have drawn inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman myths, for many of which the underworld is a prominent landscape. D. H. Lawrence, Louise Glück, Rita Dove, Eavan Boland, and Rachel Zucker have all written poems (or in some cases entire collections of poems) that mine the experience of Persephone, as told in Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the tale, Persephone is abducted by Hades, who makes her Queen of the Underworld. Her mother, Demeter fights for her return, but because she has already eaten from the fruit of Hell, she can never return home entirely. Instead, she can only resurface for half of the year. As Rita Dove explains in the forward to her collection Mother Love, "It is a modern dilemma as well—there comes a point when a mother can no longer protect her child, when the daughter must go her own way into womanhood."
In Rachel Zucker's collection Eating in the Underworld, the story is re-imagined so that Persephone is not abducted but chooses to become a creature of Hell. In the poem "Letter [Persephone to Demeter]," the young woman describes her new home to her mother:
Here bodies are lined in blue against the sea.
And where red is red there is only red.
I have to be blue to bathe in the sea.
Red, to live in the red room with red air
to rest my head, red cheek down, on the red table.
The tale of Orpheus and Eurydice is another in which characters suffer the consequences of the underworld. Eurydice, the wife of Orpheus, dies suddenly, and when her husband sings for her in mourning, the gods weep sypathetically. An arrangement is made, and Hades agrees to let Eurydice return to the land of the living—but under the condition that Orpheus walk ahead and not look back at his wife until they've left the underworld. However, Orpheus grows suspicious and, looking back, damns Eurydice to remain in the underworld forever. Called by Pindar "the father of songs," and considered one of the great poets of antiquity, Orpheus has long been a muse to poets and lyricists, representing the tragic loss of love. Poets Jack Spicer, Robert Kelly, Rae Armantrout, Seamus Heaney, and John Ashbery have all written poems evoking the Orpheus myth.
For other poems concerning Hell, consider the following:
"A Myth of Devotion" by Louise Glück
"A Season in Hell" by Arthur Rimbaud
"from the Aeneid ["First, the sky and the earth"]" by Virgil
"Canto XIV" by Ezra Pound
"Diary [Surface]" by Rachel Zucker
"How Can It Be I Am No Longer I" by Lucie Brock-Broido
"I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" by Ishmael Reed
"In the Park" by Maxine Kumin
"Orfeo" by Jack Spicer
"Proverbs of Hell" by William Blake
"Silence Raving" by Clayton Eshleman
"Strange Meeting" by Wilfred Owen
"Styx" by Dana Levin
"The Bistro Styx" by Rita Dove
"The Philosophy of Pitchforks" by Sue Owen
"The Pomegranate" by Eavan Boland
"Upper World" by Rae Armantrout
"What Mr. Cogito Thinks about Hell" by Zbigniew Herbert
"Purple Anemones" by D. H. Lawrence