HELL IV

CANTO IV

Limbo, the first circle; the unbaptized; the poets

canto summary and diagram

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1 A clap of thunder burst the numbness deep * Within my head, making me Start like someone roused by force from sleep. inferno iv 4 On my feet, I strained intently to see This way and that, seeking Clues as to where I might be. 7 At last I saw that I was hovering On the brink of that abyss of despair Which funnels thunder from endless wailing. 10 So dark and deep was that valley, and the air So misty, that when I looked below Nothing showed itself, as much as I might stare. inferno iv 13 "Down to the blind world we'll go," Said the poet, his face losing color, "I'll descend first, and then you'll follow." 16 And I, who had observed his pallor, Asked: "How can I follow with the sight Of fear on the face of my protector?" 19 And he to me: "What you take for fright Is in reality pity * For these anguished souls' plight. inferno iv 22 Let us go now, the long road cries for activity." With this he set out, and made me enter The first circle surrounding that abyss' enormity. 25 Here one heard sounds no louder Than sighs, yet these were sufficient To make the eternal atmosphere quiver; 28 They arose from the grief, without torment, Of the crowds of men and women, young and old, Who milled about in hushed discouragement. inferno iv 31 My good master: "Don't you wish to be told Who these spirits are? I want you to know, Before some of their stories unfold, 34 That they did not sin; neither did their virtue bestow On them any advantage, for they did not receive Baptism, the gateway to the faith you follow. * 37 Living before Christianity, they could not believe In Him or worship God in the proper manner; And from their sad fate I too can expect no reprieve. inferno iv 40 For this sole deficiency and no other Are we lost, and punished in one way alone, That without hope, we must live in desire forever." 43 These words weighed upon my heart like a stone, For suspended in that limbo were many fine People for whose innocent sin nothing could atone. 46 " Tell me, master, help me determine This," I said, wishing him to confirm an article Of perfect Christian doctrine, inferno iv 49 " Has anyone ever left this circle, By merit or help, for a place of higher glory?" He grasped what I wanted him to chronicle. 52 "I was new here," he began his story, " When there came one who was mighty and potent, * Crowned with the sign of victory. 55 He took away the shade of our first parent, * His son Abel, Noah of the vessel, Moses the Lawgiver, most obedient, inferno iv 58 Abraham the patriarch, David the king, Israel With his father and children, and the companion He'd labored so long for, Rachel. 61 These and many others He raised to a blessed station; Before them, I want you to know, No human souls had ever achieved salvation." 64 While he thus tutored me we didn't slow Our advance through the wood, that's to say The wood of spirits, packed tightly, row upon row. inferno iv 67 We hadn't gone much of the way Beyond where I'd fainted when I saw a light * Holding a hemisphere of darkness at bay. 70 We were still a bit distant, but my sight Could discern that the space Was occupied by people honorable and upright. 73 "Oh you who speak with respect and grace Of every art and science," I said, "who are these men Whose dignity removes them from the common place?" inferno iv 76 And he: "The honor of their names, which even Now echoes through the world of the living, Also gains much favor in heaven 79 And thus advances them." While I was listening, I heard a second voice declare: "Honor the great poet, Whose departed shade is now returning." 82 When the voice had paused and all was quiet I saw approaching, with faces neither Sad nor joyful, an impressive quartet inferno iv 85 Of giant shades. And thus began my good master: "Note the one who holds the sword * And precedes the others like a leader; 88 That is Homer, poetry's sovereign lord; Next is Horace, of the satirical tone, Third is Ovid, and last is Lucan. They accord 91 Me honor by the name which that lone * Voice called out to me, a title we all share; And what they do in honoring me is well done." inferno iv 94 Thus I saw assembled that school of rare Poets, led by that lord of sublimest style, * With whose supremacy none but eagles can compare. 97 After they'd talked together for a while They turned to me with a cordial salute Which prompted my master to smile. 100 I was honored when these men of repute Invited me to join them, so that to my delight I became sixth among minds supremely astute. inferno iv 103 Thus we continued toward the light, Discussing things not fit to speak of now, although At the time they were exactly right. 106 When we came to a magnificent castle we stood below Seven high walls which protected it all around, As did a fair stream with a gentle flow. 109 Through this stream we passed as if on solid ground, And I went through seven gates with these sages. Coming to a fresh, verdant meadow, we found * inferno iv 112 People who wore the heavy authority of the ages, Their eyes grave and slow, Their mild voices passing infrequent messages. 115 We withdrew to one side of the meadow, To a high, open, luminous place From where we could observe the scene below. 118 Right there, on that brilliant green surface, The great spirits were clearly in view, So that I still glory in having seen them face to face. inferno iv 121 I saw Electra with quite a few Companions; among these Hector, Aeneas, And the armed, falcon–eyed Caesar were ones I knew. * 124 I saw Camilla's and Penthesilea's Shades, across from those of two kin, King Latinus' and his daughter Lavinia's. * 127 I saw Brutus who drove out Tarquin, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, Cornelia and, * Off to one side by himself, Saladin. * inferno iv 130 Sitting amid a congenial philosophers' band, Which I observed when I raised my line of vision, Was the master of those who understand. * 133 All look up to him, all show him admiration; Here I saw Plato and Socrates, Who stand closest to him in station, 136 Democritus, for whom chance orchestrates The world; Empedocles, Zeno and Heraclitus; Anaxagoras, Diogenes and Thales, for whom water creates * inferno iv 139 Everything; I also saw Tully and Linus; Dioscorides the herb gatherer; Seneca the moralist, and Orpheus; 142 I saw Euclid the geometer, Hippocrates, Avicenna, Galen, and Ptolemy, And Averrho_s, who commented on the great philosopher. * 145 I cannot mention them all, for so urgently Does my theme drive me that I often despair Of matching my words to reality. inferno iv 148 The company of six is reduced to a pair; * My wise guide leads me in another direction, Out of the quiet, into trembling air; 151 And I come to a place without illumination

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NOTES

1. The poet finds himself transported across Acheron. ^
 20.   Virgil feels pity for the souls in Limbo, where he himself 
dwells, but not for those in Hell, where pity would be inappropriate. ^
 34–42.   Christian doctrine denies salvation to the unbaptized.  
Those in Limbo were virtuous on earth, and receive no physical 
punishment; their spiritual torment is that their desire to see 
God will never be satisfied. ^
 53.   Virgil died in 19 B.C. and Christ descended into Limbo 
in 33 A.D., so Virgil had been there for fifty years.  
This journey, during which Christ removed the Old Testament 
figures and brought them to Heaven, is called the Harrowing 
of Hell, and originates in the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.
This was later incorporated into Christian dogma. Virgil, without
the comprehension of a Christian, honors Christ in pagan terms. ^
 55.   "Our first parent" is Adam. ^
68. The light emanates from the "magnificent castle" in line 106 ^
86–90. Greek literature was known to Dante either in Latin translation or by indirect reference. Homer, as the poet of the Trojan War, is portrayed with a sword. Horace, 65–8 B.C.) was in fact both a lyric poet and satirist. Ovid's Metamorphoses was the main source for mythology during the middle ages (43 B.C.–17 A.D.) Lucan's Pharsalia provided Dante with information on the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (39–65 A.D.) ^
91–92. The "name which that lone voice called out" would be "poet".^
 95.   Most likely Homer, although perhaps Virgil. 
^
 111.   The castle may stand for philosophy without divine wisdom, 
the walls being the seven virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, 
temperance, intellect, knowledge, understanding), the seven gates 
being the liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, 
arithmetic, geometry, astronomy), and the stream perhaps being 
eloquence. The fresh, verdant meadow indicates that the genius and 
fame of these honored pagans will never fade. ^
 121–123.   Electra was the daughter of Atlas and mother of 
Dardanus, founder of Troy.  Hector, eldest son of Priam, king 
of Troy, and Aeneas, were descendents of Electra.  As Aeneas is 
the mythical founder of Rome, so Caesar was its first emperor. ^
 124–126.   Figures from the Aeneid;  Camilla died fighting 
the Trojans; Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, was killed 
by Achilles; Latinus, father–in–law of Aeneas, was the King 
of Latium; Lavinia, his daughter, was the wife of Aeneas. 
^
 127–128.   Lucius Junius Brutus drove out the Tarquins in 510 B.C.  
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia and Cornelia were four women who 
exemplified Roman virtue. ^
 129.   Although he fought against the Crusaders, Saladin 
(1137–1193) was admired in medieval Europe for his magnanimity. ^
 132.   Aristotle. ^
 136–138.   Greek philosophers. ^
139–144. Tully is Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 B.C.) orator and philosopher; Linus and Orpheus are mythical Greek poets; Dioscorides, Hippocrates and Galen were Greek physicians; Seneca (4 B.C.–65 A.D.) was a moral philosopher; Avicenna, or ibn–Sina, (980–1037) was an Arab philosopher and physician; Ptolemy was a first century Greek mathematician and astronomer born in Egypt, after whom the geocentric system of the universe was named; Averrho_s, or ibn–Rushd, was a twelfth century Spanish–Arab philosopher whose commentaries on Aristotle were widely studied, and influenced Aquinas.^
 148. Either the company divides in two, or is reduced to two. ^


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