Photo: Dante’s 9 Circles of Hell
“Canto Audentium” (I Sing of the Daring)
By Lily Nesvold
After reading Dante’s Inferno in high school, I was inspired to write a descriptive piece that mimics his style of writing but presents a modern twist and incorporates the Latin language. Set forty years in the future, my rendition of the classic depicts a sin—hubris—tacked onto the end of “Incontinence,” the initial subsections of Hell, but occurring before the walls of the city of Dis. I included Vergil as my guide for the same reason as Dante: I read the Aeneid last year, and I particularly enjoyed Vergil and admired his writing—especially his ability to create an intriguing, complex narrative.
Differently from Dante, however, I made the choice to speak to Vergil in Latin and to revert to the original spelling of his name to make the writing more authentic. Throughout the story, I reference four characters: Icarus, Victor Frankenstein, Kanye West, and Donald Trump, the latter two of which are described in depth. All are guilty of hubris—excessive pride toward or defiance of the gods, leading to retributive justice. Immediately following my work is a discussion of the themes and artistic choices I implemented in the segment.
“Canto Audentium” (I Sing of the Daring)
And so, having wended through The Wrathful and Sullen,
We descended into the last circle of Incontinence.
My guide proclaimed: “Et iam sumus in regio audentium.”
And I to Vergil: “Sed quis est qui?”
Breath quickening, I shrunk with fear.
The impervious one replied: “Multa forma
Poenarum sunt audentibus. mox videbis.”
We continued on in darkness, that imperceptible air of unholiness.
Long as a day without warmth and bread, so the Journey
Felt. I stumbled over a rock—nay, a miscreant—and when I arose,
Shadows of light and dark surrounded me, flickers of sinners alive.
“Quis sunt hos populous? Non agnosco aliquem eorum,” I whispered.
To which my guide assured: “Ille est propositus,
Pars poenae. Homines non possunt agnoscere audentibus peccatoribus.
Apud illi, qui vivent hīc, sunt Icarus, Victor Frankenstein, et Kanye West.”
Within the realm of The Arrogant is not just He who has boasted,
But He who has dared to rival gods. Breathing harder,
I watched with eyes that could not close. Before me:
A mass of humanity, dejected and dirty, rags for clothes.
A wind from above thrusted these sinners
To the ground. Should any sinner, momentarily,
Gather the strength to stand, subverting the power,
He was thrashed back into submission, pummeled yet again to the dirt.
My eyes adjusting, I witnessed with a shutter,
Many sinners with mouths sewn shut, with Hubris no more.
(Let it be known that this was an agonizing sight,
More traumatic than words can describe.
But, alas, I must recount the nightmare lest others be tempted into sin.)
For others, who had declared themselves gods, greater punishments still.
A faint voice pitched upward—Vergil pointed downward.
Those that boast about their Physical prowess have been
Shrunk to the size of an ant. Pressing my ear to the ground,
I heard a small voice cry out: “Oh curse you,
Weak Hercules. Your might is nothing compared to mine,”
Passing deeper, I happened upon a bevy of toads, bloated and
Covered with dry, bumpy skin. One croaked:
“I am too beautiful, more so than Venus—that is why
I am condemned to this wretched place!”
I looked ahead to see Kanye West. I tried to approach him, but some force held
Me back. “Quis est hic ita, dominus” I questioned. He answered:
Poena huius est alia. Putat ut vivat, sed adhaesit infinito saeculo—vide.”
Kanye sang to an empty crowd: “I just talked to Jesus. He said, ‘what up Yeezus.’”
“Follow me people. I am the beacon, I am the light. I’ve got game,
I can make it rain.” So did the sky instantly darken
When once those words were spoken. And—there!—a bolt of lightening
Came crashing to the one who stood brazen. A flash of brilliance revealed
not a stage but a hand, extended from a monogramed sleeve of “DJT”,
Kanye in his palm. Caged, the Trump called President laughed,
Heart made of ice, his mind of stone.
I stood, motionless, gazing upon the massive figure,
I was stupefied, afraid to move.
“Silence is my favorite sound,” he screeched, and I trembled.
(That man—Can he even be called? It is more fitting a beast—will be
Further addressed later, although I may not proceed that far,
One journey was more than enough. Nay, I must persist.)
I hurried past him, quickening my pace.
I looked back—and so Kanye began performing again:
The never-ending cycle of torture resumed.
An eternity later, we neared the end of the circle.
“Iter ambulandus nobis iam ad Stygias,” Vergil urged.
I hurried behind—panting, dazed, and overwhelmed.
My journey was only beginning.
First, I describe the punishment of ordinary, arrogant sinners. The significance of the wind as a punishment is God’s way of putting The Arrogant back into their place. In life, they metaphorically perceived themselves as above others, so a just punishment is for them to be unrecognizable and physically pushed to the ground—to convey that they are, in fact, level with everyone else. Having the sinners be “dirty” and “clothed with ripped rags” is an attempt to humble the sinners, or, at the very least, humiliate them. Additionally, the ordinary sinners’ mouths are “sewn shut” so that they are not able to boast of their accomplishments or exert the superiority they felt in life.
I chose to have the more arrogant sinners be transformed into animals: both ants and toads. For those who claim to be stronger than gods (an affront to Hercules), an ant is fitting because ants themselves are strong—one can carry between 10 and 50 times its own body weight—however, they are so small as to be insignificant in the grand scheme of life. For those who claim to be more beautiful than gods (in defiance of Venus), being transformed into a toad is suitable because toads are considered ugly, bloated with dry bumpy skin—the antithesis of modern beauty standards.
I then describe the exact punishment of Kanye West, a modern musician notorious for such songs as “I Am a God”. The line, “I just talked to Jesus, he said, ‘what up Yeezus,’” is part of an actual lyric in which Kanye West specifically calls himself god or god-like. This action in itself is the definition of hubris. However, in the poem, Kanye takes it a step further when he claims to have just seen Jesus in Hell, triggering the lightning bolt from above. In line 45, the use of the word, “there!”, which is set off by two em-dashes, is intended not only to show the suddenness of the event and to draw the reader into the moment, but the exclamation point is intended to resemble a lightning bolt itself. In line 42, the diction of “empty crowd” might initially sound like an oxymoron, however, it reflects the disorder and confusion of Hell. I also left it to the reader to interpret whether “empty crowd” suggests that the arena was empty or if those in the crowd were empty, hollowed out souls.
I also decided to place Kanye West in the palm of Donald Trump’s hand, a subtle reference to past events in which Kanye had been so publicly supportive of the President, culminating in an incredibly awkward meeting in the Oval Office, in which the President praised Kanye. My intention was to demonstrate my belief that Trump was using Kanye as a puppet, and how Kanye was oblivious to this manipulation. I reveal my opinion through the fact that Kanye thinks he’s performing on a stage, but Trump actually plays a part in his torture—much like how Lucifer tortures Brutus, Cassius, and Judas in Dante’s poem. Here, I have equated Trump with Lucifer. Moreover, I chose to have Trump be forced into a cage as a slight to his immigration policies on breaking families apart.
There is a recurring theme of light and dark in my section of the Inferno. The scene opens with Lily the pilgrim in the dark—she even trips over a “miscreant,” mistaking him for a rock. Gradually, however, she is brought to light by seeing the sinners. Later in the poem, Kanye describes himself as being “the light.” Here, light is equated with being Jesus, and Kanye is punished for this reason.
Overall, all of my punishments center around contrapasso—punishment by a process either resembling or contrasting the sin itself, a tactic Dante employs numerous times throughout the Inferno. Furthermore, I include two parenthetical statements, which, in effect, create two characters: Lily the pilgrim and poet. In the second parenthetical, the poet’s reluctance to continue reliving the journey—by writing—is prevalent. Finally, I chose to write my poem not as if it was a singular poem, but as if it belonged to a larger set of Cantos—possibly even to Dante’s Inferno.
In the study of Classics, hubris is a concept that constantly arises: Sophocles’ Ajax and Oedipus Rex are notable examples. Therefore, I wanted to examine other fictional characters and modern people through this lens—I handpicked a variety of characters in which I was interested, across time period and societies, to show how this idea is universally recognized.
I haven’t had much exposure to the practice of creative writing, as most of my written works have been research papers and structured analytical essays for class assignments. However, this piece allowed me to explore new methods and approaches to writing and to access my creative side. As soon as the idea came to me, I kept writing and didn’t stop until I finished because of how quickly my brain was conjuring up the narrative. I have never experienced such ease with writing; the words naturally flowed onto the page. I highly recommend that everyone dabble in this genre. While seemingly a daunting undertaking, I gained confidence in my abilities from the process—perhaps you will too.
Lily Nesvold (College ’23) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania majoring in Classical Studies and minoring in Economics.
 “And now we are in the region of the daring.”
 “But what does that mean?”
 “There are various forms of punishment for the daring. Soon, you will see.”
 “Who are these people? I don’t recognize any of them.”
 “That is intentional, part of the punishment. Mortals are not able to recognize the daring sinners. Among those that reside here are Icarus, Victor Frankenstein, and Kanye West.”
 “Why is this so, master?”
 “That one’s torture is different. He thinks he is alive, but he is stuck in an infinite loop—watch.”
 “We must hurry now to the River Styx.”