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The Divine Comedy: Inferno

by Dante Alighieri (Tr. H.W. Longfellow)












































Dante, following Virgil, comes to the gate of Hell; where, after having read the dreadful words that are written thereon, they both enter. Here, as he understands from Virgil, those were punished who passed their time (for living it could not be called in a state of apathy and indifference both to good and evil. Then pursuing their way, they arrive at the river Acheron; and there find the old ferryman Charon, who takes the spirits over to the opposite shore; which as soon as Dante reaches, he is seized with terror, and falls into a trance.

Through me the way is to the city dolent; 1
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in!"

These words in sombre colour I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: "Their sense is, Master, hard to me!"

And he to me, as one experienced:
"Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.

We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect." 18

And after he had laid his hand on mine
With joyful mien, whence I was comforted,
He led me in among the secret things.

There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud 22
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,

Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
For ever in that air for ever black,
Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.

And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said:"Master, what is this which now I hear?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished?"

And he to me:"This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise. 36

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them." 42

And I: "O Master, what so grievous is
To these, that maketh them lament so sore?"
He answered: " I will tell thee very briefly.

These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.

No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass."

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner, 52
Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;

And after it there came so long a train
Of people, that I ne'er would have believed
That ever Death so many had undone.

When some among them I had recognised.
I looked, and I beheld the shade of him 59
Who made through cowardice the great refusal.

Forthwith I comprehended, and was certain,
That this the sect was of the caitiff wretches
Hateful to God and to his enemies.

These miscreants, who never were alive,
Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
By gadflies and by hornets that were there.

These did their faces irrigate with blood,
Which, with their tears commingled, at their feet
By the disgusting worms was gathered up.

And when to gazing farther I betook me.
People I saw on a great river's bank;
Whence said I: " Master, now vouchsafe to me,

That I may know who these are, and what law
Makes them appear so ready to pass over,
As I discern athwart the dusky light." 75

And he to me: "These things shall all be known
To thee, as soon as we our footsteps stay
Upon the dismal shore of Acheron."

Then with mine eyes ashamed and downward cast,
Fearing my words might irksome be to him,
From speech refrained I till we reached the river.

And lo! towards us coming in a boat 82
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: " Woe unto you, ye souls depraved

Hope nevermore to look upon the heavens;
I come to lead you to the other shore,
To the eternal shades in heat and frost. 87

And thou, that yonder standest, living soul,
Withdraw thee from these people, who are dead- 89
But when he saw that I did not withdraw,

He said:"By other ways, by other ports
Thou to the shore shalt come, not here, for,passage;
A lighter vessel needs must carry thee." 93

And unto him the Guide:"Vex thee not, Charon; 94
It is so willed there where is power to do
That which is willed; and farther question not."

There at were quieted the fleecy cheeks
Of him the ferryman of the livid fen,
Who round about his eyes had wheels of flame.

But all those souls who weary were and naked
Their colour changed and gnashed their teeth together,
As soon as they had heard those cruel words.

God they blasphemed and their progenitors,
The human race, the place, the time, the seed
Of their engendering and of their birth!

Thereafter all together they drew back,
Bitterly weeping, to the accursed shore,
Which waiteth every man who fears not God.

Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede, 109
Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
Beats with his oar whoever lags behind.

As in the autumn-time the leaves fall off, 112
First one and then another, till the branch
Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils;

In similar wise the evil seed of Adam
Throw themselves from that margin one by one,
At signals, as a bird unto its lure.

So they depart across the dusky wave,
And ere upon the other side they land,
Again on this side a new troop assembles.

"My son,"the courteous Master said to me,
"All those who perish in the wrath of God
Here meet together out of every land;

And ready are they to pass o'er the river,
Because celestial Justice spurs them on,
So that their fear is turned into desire.

This way there never passes a good soul;
And hence if Charon doth complain of thee
Well mayst thou know now what his speech imports."

This being finished, all the dusk champaign
Trembled so violently, that of that terror
The recollection bathes me still with sweat.

The land of tears gave forth a blast of wind,
And fulminated a vermilion light,
'Which overmastered in me every sense,

And as a man whom sleep hath seized I fell.

Footnotes 3

Canto 3

1. This canto begins with a repetition of sounds like the tolling of a funeral bell: dolente...dolore! Ruskin, Modern Painters, III. 215, speaking of the Inferno, says:--

"Milton's effort, in all that he tells us of his Inferno, is to make it indefinite; Dante's, to make it definite. Both, indeed, describe it as entered through gates; but, within the gate, all is wild and fenceless with Milton, having indeed its four rivers, -- the last vestige of the mediaeval tradition,--but rivers which flow through a waste of mountain and moorland, and by `many a frozen, many a fiery Alp.' But Dante's Inferno is accurately separated into circles drawn with well-pointed compasses; mapped and properly surveyed in every direction, trenched in a thoroughly good style of engineering from depth to depth, and divided, in the ` accurate middle' (dritto mezzo) of its deeper abyss, into a concentric series of ten moats and embankments, like those about a castle, with bridges from each embankment to the next; precisely in the manner of those bridges over Hiddekel and Euphrates, which Mr. Macauley thinks so innocently designed, apparently not aware that he is also laughing at Dante. These larger fosses are of rock, and the bridges also; but as he goes further into detail, Dante tells us a various minor fosses and embankments, in which he anxiously points out to us not only the formality, but the neatness and perfectness, of the stonework. For instance, in describing the river Phlegethon, he tells us that it was `paved with stone at the bottom, and at the sides, and over the edges of the sides, ' just as the water is at the baths of Bulicame; and for fear we should think this embankment at all larger than it really was, Dante adds, carefully, that it was made just like the embankments of Ghent or Bruges against the sea, or those in Lombardy which bank the Brenta, only `not so high, nor so wide,' as any of these. And besides the trenches, we have two well-built castles; one like Ecbatana, with seven circuits of wall (and surrounded by a fair stream), wherein the great poets and sages of antiquity live; and another, a great fortified city with walls of iron, red-hot, and a deep fosse round it, and full of `grave citizens, '--the city of Dis.

"Now, whether this be in what we moderns call `good taste,' or not, I do not mean just now to inquire, -- Dante having nothing to do with taste, but with the facts of what he had seen; only, so far as the imaginative faculty of the two poets is concerned, note that Milton's vagueness is not the sign of imagination, but of its absence, so far as it is significative in the matter. For it does not follow, because Milton did not map out his Inferno as Dante did, that he could not have done so if he had chosen; only it was the easier and less imaginative process to leave it vague than to define it. Imagination is always the seeing and asserting faculty; that which obscures or conceals may be judgment, or feeling, but not invention. The invention, whether good or bad, is in the accurate engineering, not in the fog and uncertainty."

18 . Aristotle says: "The good of the intellect is the highest beatitude"; and Dante in the Convito: "The True is the good of the intellect. " In other words, the knowledge of God is intellectual good. "It is a most just punishment," says St. Augustine, "that man should lose that freedom which man could not use, yet had power to keep, if he would, and that he who had knowledge to do what was right, and did not do it, should be deprived of the knowledge of what was right; and that he who would not do righteously, when he had the power, should lose the power to do it when he had the will. "

22. The description given of the Mouth of Hell by Frate Alberico, Visio, 9, is in the grotesque spirit of the Mediaeval Mysteries. "After all these things, I was led to the Tartarean Regions, and to the mouth of the Internal Pit, which seemed like unto a well; regions full of horrid darkness, of fetid exhalations, of shrieks and loud howlings. Near this Hell there was a Worm of immeasurable size, bound with a huge chain, one end of which seemed to be fastened in Hell. Before the mouth of this Hell there stood a great multitude of souls, which he absorbed at once, as if they were flies; so that, drawing in his breath, he swallowed them all together; then, breathing, exhaled them all on fire, like sparks."

36 . The reader will here be reminded of Bunyan's town of Fairspeech. "Christian. Pray who are you kindred there, if a man may be so bold." "By-ends. Almost the whole town; and in particular my Lord Turnabout, my Lord Timeserver, my Lord Fairspeech, from whose ancestors that town first took its name; also Mr. Smoothman, Mr. Facing-both-ways, Mr. Any-thing, --and the parson of our parish, Mr. Two-tongues, was my mother's own brother by father's side....

"There Christian stepped a little aside to his fellow Hopeful, saying, `It runs in my mind that this is one By-ends of Fair-speech; and if it be he, we have as very a knave in our company as dwelleth in all these parts.'"

42 . Many commentators and translators interpret alcuna in its usual signification of some: "For some glory the damned would have from them." This would be a reason why these pusillanimous ghosts should not be sent into the profounder abyss, but not reason why they should not be received there. This is strengthened by what comes afterwards, l. 63. These souls were "hateful to God, and to his enemies." They were not good enough for Heaven, nor bad enough for Hell. "So then, because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth." Revelation iii. 16. Macchiavelli represents this scorn of inefficient mediocrity in an epigram on Peter Soderini:--

"The night that Peter Soderini died
He was at the mouth of Hell himself presented.
`What, you come into Hell? poor ghost demented,
Go to the Babies' Limbo!' Pluto cried."

The same idea is intensified in the old ballad of Carle of Kelly- Burn Brees, Cromek, p. 37:--She's nae fit for heaven, an' she'll ruin a' hell."

52 . This restless flag is an emblem of the shifting and unstable minds of its followers.

59 . Generally supposed to be Pope Celestine V. whose great refusal, or abdication, of the papal office is thus described by Boccaccio in his Comento:-- Being a simple man of a holy life, living as a hermit in the mountains of Morrone in Abruzzo, above Selmona, he was elected Pope in Perugia after the death of Pope Niccola d'Ascoli; and his name being Peter, he was called Celestine. Considering his simplicity, Cardinal Messer Benedetto Gatano, a very cunning man, of great courage and desirous of being Pope, managing astutely, began to show him that he held this high office much to the prejudice of his own soul, inasmuch as he did not feel himself competent for it; -- others pretend that he contrived with some private servants of his to have voices heard in the chamber of the aforesaid Pope, which, as if they were voices of angels sent from heaven, said, `Resign, Celestine! Resign, Celestine!'--moved by which, and being an idiotic man, he took counsel with Messer Benedetto aforesaid, as to the best method of resigning." Celestine having relinquished the papal office, this "Messer Benedetto aforesaid" was elected Pope, under the title of Boniface VIII. His greatest misfortune was that he had Dante for an adversary. Gower gives this legend of Pope Celestine in his Confessio Amantis, Book II., as an example of "the vice of supplantacion." He says: --

"This clerk, when he hath herd the form,
How he the pope shuld enform,
Toke of the cardinal his leve
And goth him home, till it was eve.
And prively the trompe he hadde
Til that the pope was abedde.
And midnight when he knewe
The pope slepte, than he blewe
Within his trompe through the wall
And tolde in what manner he shall
His papacie leve, and take
His first estate."

Milman, Hist. Latin Christianity, VI. 194, speaks thus upon the subject:--

"The abdication of Celestine V. was an event unprecedented in the annals of the Church, and jarred harshly against some of the first principle of the Papal authority. It was a confession of common humanity, of weakness below the ordinary standard of men in him whom the Conclave, with more than usual certitude, as guided by the special interposition of the Holy Ghost, had raised to the spiritual throne of the world. The Conclave had been, as it seemed, either under an illusion as to this declared manifestation of the Holy Spirit, or had been permitted to deceive itself. Nor was there less incongruity in a Pope, whose office invested him in something at least approaching to infallibility, acknowledging before the world his utter incapacity, his undeniable fallibility. That idea, formed out of many conflicting conceptions, yet forcibly harmonized by long, traditionary reverence, of unerring wisdom, oracular truth, authority which it was sinful to question or limit, strangely disturbed and confused, not as before by too overweening ambition, or even awful yet still unacknowledged crime, but by avowed weakness, bordering on imbecility. His profound piety hardly reconciled the confusion. A saint after all made but a bad Pope. "It was viewed, in his own time, in a different light by different minds. The monkish writers held it up as the most noble example of monastic, of Christian perfection. Admirable as was his election, his abdication was even more to be admired. It was an example of humility stupendous to all, imitable by few. The divine approval was said to be shown by a miracle which followed directly on his resignation; but the scorn of man has been expressed by the undying verse of Dante, who condemned him who was guilty of the baseness of the `great refusal' to that circle of hell where are those disdained alike by mercy and justice, on whom the poet will not condescend to look. This sentence, so accordant with the stirring and passionate soul of the great Florentine, has been feebly counteracted, if counteracted, by the praise of Petrarch in his declamation on the beauty of a solitary life, for which the lyrist a somewhat hollow and poetic admiration. Assuredly there was no magnanimity contemptuous of the Papal greatness in the abdication of Celestine; it was the weariness, the conscious inefficiency, the regret of a man suddenly wrenched away from all his habits, pursuits, and avocations, and unnaturally compelled or tempted to assume an uncongenial dignity. It was the cry of passionate feebleness to be released from an insupportable burden. Compassion is the highest emotion of sympathy which it would have desired or could deserve."

75 . Spencer's "misty dampe of misconceyving night."

82 . Virgil, Aeneid, VI., Davidson's translation:--

"A grim ferryman guards these floods and rivers, Charon, of frightful slovenliness; on whose chin a load of gray hair neglected lies; his eyes are flame: his vestments hang from his shoulders by a knot, with filth overgrown. Himself thrusts on the barge with a pole, and tends the sails, and wafts over the bodies in his iron- colored boat, now in years: but the god is of fresh and green old age. Hither the whole tribe in swarms come pouring to the banks, matrons and men, the souls of magnanimous heroes who had gone through life, boys and unmarried maids, and young men who had been stretched on the funeral pile before the eyes of their parents; as numerous as withered leaves fall in the woods with the first cold of autumn, or as numerous as birds flock to the land from deep ocean, when the chilling year drives them beyond sea, and sends them to sunny climes. They stood praying to cross the flood the first, and were stretching forth their hands with fond desire to gain the further bank: but the sullen boatman admits sometimes these, sometimes those; while others to a great distance removed, he debars from the banks." And Shakespeare, Richard III., I. 4: --

"I passed, methought, the melancholy flood
With that grim ferryman which poets write of,
Unto the kingdom of perpetual night."

87 . Shakepeare, Measure for Measure, III. I:--

"This sensible warm motion to become A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside In thrilling regions of thick-ribbed ice; To be imprisoned in the viewless winds, And blown with restless violence round about The pendent world; or to be worse than worst Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts Imagine howling."

89 . Virgil Aeneid, VI.:"This is the region of Ghosts, of sleep and drowsy Night; to waft over the bodies of the living in my Stygian boat is not permitted."

93. The souls that were to be saved assembled at the mouth of the Tiber, where they were received by the celestial pilot, or ferryman, who transported them to the shores of Purgatory, as described in Purg. II.

94 . Many critics, and foremost among them Padre Pompeo Venturi, blame Dante for mingling together things Pagan and Christian. But they should remember how through all the Middle Ages human thought was wrestling with the old traditions; how many Pagan observances passed into Christianity in those early days; what reverence Dante had for Virgil and the classics; and how many Christian nations still preserve some traces of Paganism in the names of the stars, the months, and the days. Padre Pompeo should not have forgotten that he, though a Christian, bore a Pagan name, which perhaps is as evident a brutto miscuglio in a learned Jesuit, as any which he has pointed out in Dante. Upon him and other commentators of the Divine Poem, a very amusing chapter might be written. While the great Comedy is going on upon the scene above, with all its pomp and music, these critics in the pit keep up such a perpetual wrangling among themselves, as seriously to disturb the performance. Biaglioli is the most violent of all, particularly against Venturi, whom he calls an "infamous dirty dog," sozzo can vituperato, an epithet hardly permissible in the most heated literary controversy. Whereupon in return Zani de' Ferranti calls Biagioli "an inurbane grammarian," and a "most ungrateful ingrate."--quel grammatico inurbano...ingrato ingratissimo. Any one who is desirous of tracing out the presence of Paganism in Christianity will find the subject amply discussed by Middleton in his Letter from Rome.

109. Dryden's Aene,is, B. VI.:--

"His eyes like hollow furnaces on fire."

112 . Homer, Iliad, VI.:"As is the race of leaves, such is that of men; some leaves the wind scatters upon the ground, and others the budding wood produces, for they come again in the season of Spring. So is the race of men, one springs up and the other dies."
See also
Note 82 of the canto.
Mr. Ruskin, Modern Painters, III. 160, says:--

When Dante describes the spirits falling from the bank of Acheron `as dead leaves flutter from a bough,' he gives the most perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves: he makes no confusion of one with the other." Shelley in his Ode to the West Wind inverts this image, and compares the dead leaves to ghosts:--

"O wild West Wind! thou breath of Autumn's being! Thou from whose presence the leaves dead Are driven like ghosts, from an enchanter fleeing, Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red, Pestilence-stricken mulititudes."

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