Dante at this point is not just writing about blasts (such as the ass-trumpeting through which at the end of Canto XXI Malacoda mock-heralds the action to come). Clearly, at this point, he’s having one himself. He can’t contain the fun he’s having conjuring Hell.
Dante opens Canto XXII with a sort of epic grandeur:
I have seen horsemen moving camp before,
And when they muster, and when an assault begins,
And beating a retreat when they retire;
I have seen coursers, too, O Aretines,
Over your lands, and raiders setting out,
And openings of jousts and tourneys (ll. 1-6)—
…only to upend such pomp and circumstance with something more George Carlin than Sir Edward Elgar. For, whereas the canto has opened with the aforequoted martial tableau, continuing with the evocation of “bell and trumpet and drum, and signals set / On castles by native and foreign signalry” (ll. 7-8), in line 9 Dante shifts—to the but(t):
But I never saw so strange a flageolet
Send foot or horsemen forth, nor ship at sea
Guided by land or star! (ll. 9-11)
Hold it. What is a flageolet? Furthermore, what is this “member of the fipple flute family” doing here in Canto XXII? Aha! It is the trumpet Malacoda made of his ass at the close of the last canto, for, “We journeyed now / With the ten demons” (ll. 11-2). In other words, there’s not just something comparative going on here; there’s something causal: The lesser Malebranche have received a signal to get moving.
As I said, Dante is having fun. Earlier I thought nothing more of the name Malacoda than “Evil Tail.” But now the name suggests both “Bad Ass” (as in big, bad leader) and “Foul End” or “Smelly Butt.” Moreover, the name seems to encode what happens here at the beginning of Canto XXII: We have a mal(odorous) coda, in a musical sense, that reprises what happened at the end of Canto XXI. (And it seems likely to me that Mr. Pinsky may be in on the fun, too. Sure, flageolet provides a rhyme with “signals set” that fulfills the terms of the rhyme scheme articulated by Mr. Pinsky in his “Translator’s Note” at the beginning of our text. But trumpet, at least in a slant-rhyme-y way, would do the same thing…but without the intimation/slant-echoing of flatulate.)
So much of what happens here in Canto XXII, while Dante and Virgil encounter frauds (the barrator of “good King Thibaut’s household,” p. 179; Fra Gomita, p. 181, who as chancellor in the court of Nino Visconti of Gallura appeared to serve his lord faithfully while, in fact, taking bribes whose payment resulted in the clandestine freeing of some of Nino’s prisoners) constitutes a sort of “mala-coda.”
On the canto’s opening page Dante identifies the sinners who suffer in this “pouch” of Malebolge with dolphins…only to specify that, in fact, the likeness here is perverted. Whereas in rising to the ocean’s surface and arching their backs dolphins do themselves no automatic harm in signaling to sailors to save their vessels, here in Malebolge the sinners who rise to the surface do, of course, signal to Dante not to make the same terrible errors that they have—but at the cost of hideous suffering.
Whereas frogs in nature save themselves by disappearing from a pond’s surface to take refuge in the depths below, the sinners who, frog-like, disappear into the liquid misery of Malebolge do avoid , at least for a moment, one kind of agony (attack by the Malebranche)…but only to experience the equally miserable torment of boiling.
Again and again, in this canto that focuses on the torment of frauds, the details operate as frauds do: They appear at first in one light, only to reveal, later on, other intentions, other outcomes. They present themselves initially with one face, only to turn somewhat later and conclude with a “foul end” or “evil tail.”
And so: A canto that began with mock seriousness, that then horsed (and “Wild Hog”ged and “Nasty Dragon”ned) around quite playfully for a good long while, turns into a cruel fight at the end. In a way, this is gladiatorial entertainment that amounts to comic relief; things continue to be fun. But in a way—a very real way—the fun is a fraud—a foul ending, a mala-coda.