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The Divine Comedy: Inferno

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












































The Poet, being roused by a clap of thunder and following his guide, onward, descends into Limbo, which is the first circle of Hell, where he finds the souls of those, who although they have lived virtuously and have not to suffer for great sins, nevertheless, through lack of baptism, merit not the bliss of Paradise. Hence he is led on by Virgil to descend into the second circle.

BROKE the deep lethargy within my head 1
A heavy thunder, so that I upstarted,
Like to a person who by force is wakened;

And round about I moved my rested eyes,
Uprisen erect, and steadfastly I gazed,
To recognise the place wherein I was.

True is it, that upon the verge I found me
Of the abysmal valley dolorous,
That gathers thunder of infinite ululations.

Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous, 10
So that by fixing on its depths my sight
Nothing whatever I discerned therein.

"Let us descend now into the blind world,"
Began the Poet, pallid utterly;
"I will be first, and thou shalt second be."

And I, who of his colour was aware,
Said:"How shall I come, if thou art afraid,
Who'rt wont to be a comfort to my fears?"

And he to me:"The anguish of the people
Who are below here in my face depicts
That pity which for terror thou hast taken.

Let us go on, for the long way impels us."
Thus he went in, and thus he made me enter
The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss.

There, as it seemed to me from listening,
Were lamentations none, but only sighs,
That tremble made the everlasting air.

And this arose from sorrow without torment, 28
Which the crowds had, that many were and great
Of infants and of women and of men. 30

To me the Master good: "Thou dost not ask
What spirits these, which thou beholdest, are?
Now will I have thee know, ere thou go farther,

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
'Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself

For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire."

Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard,
Because some people of much worthiness
I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.

"Tell me, my Master, tell me, thou my Lord,"
Began I, with desire of being certain
Of that Faith which o'ercometh every error,

"Came any one by his own merit hence,
Or by another s, who was blessed thereafter?"
And he, who understood my covert speech,

Replied:"I was a novice in this state,
When I saw hither come a Mighty One, 53
With sign of victory incoronate.

Hence he drew forth the shade of the First
And that of his son Abel, and of Noah,
Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient

Abraham, patriarch, and David, king,
Israel with his father and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much,

And others many, and he made them blessed;
And thou must know, that earlier than these
Never were any human spirits saved."

We ceased not to advance because he spake,
But still were passing onward through the forest
The forest, say I, of thick-crowded ghosts.

Not very far as yet our way had gone
This side the summit, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We were a little distant from it still,
But not so far that I in part discerned not
That honourable people held that place. 72

"O thou who honourest every art and science,
Who may these be, which such great honour have,
That from the fashion of the rest it parts them?"

And he to me:"The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them."

In the mean time a voice was heard by me:
"All honour be to the pre-eminent Poet;
His shade returns again, that was departed."

After the voice had ceased and quiet was,
Four mighty shades I saw approaching us;
Semblance had they nor sorrowful nor glad.

To say to me began my gracious Master:
"Him with that falchion in his hand behold, 86
Who comes before the three, even as their lord.

That one is Homer, Poet sovereign;
He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because to each of these with me applies
The name that solitary voice proclaimed,
They do me honour, and in that do well." 93

Thus I beheld assemble the fair school
Of that lord of the song pre-eminent,
Who o'er the others like an eagle soars.

When they together had discoursed somewhat,
They turned to me with signs of salutation,
And on beholding this, my Master smiled;

And more of honour still, much more, they did me, 100
In that they made me one of their own ban
So that the sixth was I, 'mid so much wit.

Thus we went on as far as to the light,
Things saying 'tis becoming to keep silent,
As was the saying of them where I was.

We came unto a noble castle's foot, 106
Seven times encompassed with lofty walls,
Defended round by a fair rivulet;

This we passed over even as firm ground;
Through portals seven I entered with these
We came into a meadow of fresh verdure.

People were there with solemn eyes and slow,
Of great authority in their countenance;
They spake but seldom, and with gentle voices.

Thus we withdrew ourselves upon one side
Into an opening luminous and lofty,
So that they all of them were visible.

There opposite, upon the green enamel, 118
Were pointed out to me the mighty spirits,
Whom to have seen I feel myself exalted.

I saw Electra with companions many,
'Mongst whom I knew both Hector and Aenas,
Caesar in armour with gerfalcon eyes;

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
On the other side, and saw the King Latinus,
Who with Lavinia his daughter sat;

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia, 128
And saw alone, apart, the Saladin. 129

When I had lifted up my brows a little,
The Master I beheld of those who know,
Sit with his philosophic family.

All gaze upon him, and all do him honour.
There I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
Who nearer him before the others stand;

Democritus, who puts the world on chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoros, and Thales,
Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus;

Of qualities I saw the good collector,
Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,

Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna, 143
Averroes, who the great Comment made. 144

I cannot all of them pourtray in full,
Because so drives me onward the long theme,
That many times the word comes short of fact.

The sixfold company in two divides;
Another way my sapient Guide conducts me
Forth from the quiet to the air that trembles;

And to a place I come where nothing shines.

Footnotes 4

Canto 4

1. Dante is borne across the river Acheron in his sleep, he does not tell us how, and awakes on the brink of "the dolorous valley of the abyss." He now enters the First Circle of the Inferno; the Limbo of the Unbaptized, the border land, as the name denotes. Frate Alberico in {paragraph} 2 of his Vision says, that the divine punishments are tempered to extreme youth and old age. "Man is first a little child, then grows and reaches adolescence, and attains to youthful vigor; and, little by little growing weaker, declines into old age; and at every step of life the sum of his sins increases. So likewise the little children are punished least, and more and more the adolescents and the youths; until, their sins decreasing with the long-continued torments, punishment also begins to decrease, as if by a kind of old age ("veluti quadam senectute ")."

10 . Frate Alberico, in {paragraph} 9: "The darkness was so dense and impenetrable that it was impossible to see anything there."

28 . Mental, not physical pain; what the French theologians call " la peine du dam", the privation of the sight of God.

30. Virgil, "Aeneid", VI.: "Forthwith are heard voices, loud wailings, and weeping ghosts of infants, in the first opening of the gate; whom, bereaved of sweet life out of the course of nature, and snatched from the breast, a black day cut off, and buried in an untimely grave."

53. The descent of Christ into Limbo. Neither here nor elsewhere in the Inferno does Dante mention the name of Christ.

72. The reader will not fail to observe how Dante makes the word "honor", in its various forms, ring and reverberate through these lines, -- " orrevol, onori, orranza, onrata, onorata"!

86. Dante puts the sword into the hand of Homer as a symbol of his warlike epic, which is a Song of the Sword.

93. Upon this line Boccaccio, "Comento", says: "A proper thing it is to honor every man, but especially those who are of one and the same profession, as these were with Virgil. "

100. Another assertion of Dante's consciousness of his own power as a poet.

106. This is the Noble Castle of human wit and learning, encircled with its seven scholastic walls, the " Trivium", Logic, Grammar, Rhetoric, and the "Quadrivium ", Arithmetic, Astronomy, Geometry, Music. The fair rivulet is Eloquence, which Dante does not seem to consider a very profound matter, as he and Virgil pass over it as if it were dry ground.

118 . Of this word "enamel" Mr. Ruskin, "Modern Painters", III. 227, remarks:

"The first instance I know of its right use, though very probably it had been so employed before, is in Dante. The righteous spirits of the pre-Christian ages are seen by him, though in the Inferno, yet in a place open, luminous and high, walking upon the `green enamel.' "I am very sure that Dante did not use this phrase as we use it. He knew well what enamel was; and his readers, in order to understand him thoroughly, must remember what it is,--a vitreous paste, dissolved in water, mixed with metallic oxides, to give it the opacity and the color required, spread in a moist state on metal, and afterwards hardened by fire, so as never to change. And Dante means, in using this metaphor of the grass of the Inferno, to mark that it is laid as a tempering and cooling substance over the dark, metallic, gloomy ground; but yet so hardened by the fire, that it is not any more fresh or living grass, but a smooth, silent, lifeless bed of eternal green. And we know how " hard" Dante's idea of it was; because afterwards, in what is perhaps the most awful passage of the whole Inferno, when the three furies rise at the top of the burning tower, and, catching sight of Dante, and not being able to get at him, shriek wildly for the Gorgon to come up, too, that they may turn him into stone, the word " stone" is not hard enough for them. Stone might crumble away after it was made, or something with life might grow upon it; no, it shall not be stone; they will make enamel of him; nothing can grow out of that; it is dead forever."

And yet just before, line 111, Dante speaks of this meadow as a "meadow of fresh verdure."
Compare Brunetto's "Tesoretto", XIII.

"Ora va mastro Brunetto
Per lo cammino stretto,
Cercando di vedere,
E toccare, e sapere
Cio, che gli e destinato.
E non fui guari andato,
Ch' i' fui nella diserta,
Dov' i' non trovai certa
Ne strada, ne sentiero.
Deh che paese fero
Trovai in quelle parti!
Che s' io sapessi d'arti
Quivi mi bisognava,
Che quanto piu mirava,
Piu mi parea selvaggio.
Quivi non ha viaggio,
Quivi non ha persone,
Quivi non ha magione,
Non bestia, non uccello,
Non fiume, non ruscello,
Non formica, ne mosca,
Ne cosa, ch' i' conosca.
E io pensando forte,
Dottai ben della morte.
E non e maraviglia;
Che ben trecento miglia
Girava d'ogni lato
Quel paese snagiato.
Ma si m' assicurai
Quando mi ricordai
De sicuro segnale,
Che contra tutto malev
Mi da securamento:
E io presi ardimento,
Quasi per avventura
Per una valle scura,
Tanto, ch' al terzo giorno
I' mi trovai d'intorno
Un grande pian giocondo,
Lo piu gaio del mondo,
E lo piu dilettoso.
Ma ricontar non oso
Cio, ch'io trovai, e vidi,
Se Dio mi guardi, e guidi.
Io non sarei creduto
Di cio, ch' i' ho veduto;
Ch'i' vidi Imperadori,
E Re, e gran signori,
E mastri di scienze,
Che dittavan sentenze;
E vidi tante cose,
Che gia 'n rime, ne 'n prose
Non le poria ritrare.

128. In the "Convito", IV. 28, Dante makes Marcia, Cato's wife, a symbol of the noble soul: " Per la quale Marzias' intende la nobile anima. "

129. The Saladin of the Crusades. See Gibbon, Chap. LIX. Dante also makes mention of him, as worthy of affectionate remembrance, in the " Convito", IV. 2. Mr. Cary quotes the following passage from Knolle's " History of the Turks", page 57:--

"About this time (1193) died the great Sultan Saladin, the greatest terror of the Christians, who, mindful of man's fragility and the vanity of worldly honors, commanded at the time of his death no solemnity to be used at his burial, but only his shirt, in manner of an ensign, made fast unto the point of a lance, to be carried before his dead body as an ensign, a plain priest going before, and crying aloud unto the people in this sort, `Saladin' Conqueror of the East, of all the greatness and riches he had in his life, carrieth not with him anything more than his shirt. ' A sight worthy so great a king, as wanted nothing to his eternal commendation more than the true knowledge of his salvation in Christ Jesus. He reigned about sixteen years with great honor. " The following story of Saladin is from the "Cento Novelle Antiche. "
Roscoe's "Italian Novelists", I. 18:--

"On another occasion the great Saladin, in the career of victory, proclaimed a truce between the Christian armies and his own. During this interval he visited the camp and the cities belonging to his enemies, with the design, should he approve of the customs and manners of the people, of embracing the Christian faith. He observed their tables spread with the finest damask coverings ready prepared for the feast, and he praised their magnificence. On entering the tents of the king of France during a festival, he was much pleased with the order and ceremony with which everything was conducted, and the courteous manner in which he feasted his nobles; but when he approached the residence of the poorer class, and perceived them devouring their miserable pittance upon the ground, he blamed the want of gratitude which permitted so many faithful followers of their chief to fare so much worse than the rest of their Christian brethren.

"Afterwards, several of the Christian leaders returned with the Sultan to observe the manners of the Saracens. They appeared much shocked on seeing all ranks of people take their meals sitting upon the ground. The Sultan led them into a grand pavilion where he feasted his court, surrounded with the most beautiful tapestries, and rich foot-cloths, on which were wrought large embroidered figures of the cross. The Christian chiefs trampled them under their feet with the utmost indifference, and even rubbed their boots, and spat upon them. "On perceiving this, the Sultan turned towards them in the greatest anger, exclaiming: `And do you who pretend to preach the cross treat it thus ignominiously? Gentlemen, I am shocked at your conduct. Am I to suppose from this that the worship of your Deity consists only in words, not in actions? Neither your manners nor your conduct please me.' And on this he dismissed them, breaking off the truce and commencing hostilities more warmly than before."

143. Avicenna, an Arabian physician of Ispahan in the eleventh century. Born 980, died 1036.

144. Avverrhoes, an Arabian scholar of the twelfth century, who translated the works of Aristotle, and wrote a commentary upon them. He was born in Cordova in 1149, and died in Morocco, about 1200. He was the head of the Western School of philosophy, as Avicenna was of the Eastern.

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