Inferno -- Canto III

The Gate of Hell, The Apathetic, Charon

























34 At the threshold of hell are stranded the apathetic; having chosen neither good nor evil, they have no place to go, but race in circles.














60 The first soul Dante recognizes is not identified for us. The great refusal may be Celestine V's abdication from the papacy in 1294, or Pontius Pilate's failure to free Jesus at his trial.













83 Charon appears here as a wild old salt, the boatman in charge of carrying souls across the river Acheron.



          Through Me Pass into the Painful City,
          Through Me Pass into Eternal Grief,
          Through Me Pass among the Lost People.
          Justice Moved My Master-Builder:
5         Heavenly Power First Fashioned Me
          With Highest Wisdom and with Primal Love.
          Before Me Nothing Was Created That 
          Was Not Eternal, and I Last Eternally.
          All Hope Abandon, You Who Enter Here.
10       These words in dim color I beheld
          Inscribed on the lintel of an archway.
          "Master," I said, "this saying's hard for me."
          And he — as someone who understands — told me:
          "Here you must give up all irresolution;
15       All cowardice must here be put to death.
          "We are come to the place I spoke to you about
          Where you shall see the sorrow-laden people,
          Those who have lost the Good of the intellect."
          And with that, putting his own hand on mine,
20       With smiling face, just to encourage me,
          He led me to things hidden from the world.
          Here heartsick sighs and groanings and shrill cries
          Re-echoed through the air devoid of stars,
          So that, but started, I broke down in tears.
25       Babbling tongues, terrible palaver,
          Words of grief, inflections of deep anger,
          Strident and muffled speech, and clapping hands,
          All made a tumult that whipped round and round
          Forever in that colorless and timeless air,
30       Like clouds of sand caught up in a whirlwind.
          And I, my head enwreathed with wayward doubts,
          Asked, "Master, what is this that I am hearing?
          Who are these people overwhelmed by pain?"
          And he told me: "This way of wretchedness
35       Belongs to the unhappy souls of those
          Who lived without being blamed or applauded.
          "They are now scrambled with that craven crew
          Of angels who elected neither rebellion
          Nor loyalty to God, but kept apart.
40       "Not to mar its beauty, heaven expelled them,
          Nor will the depths of hell take them in there,
          Lest the damned have any glory over them."
          And I: "Master, what is so burdensome
          To them that they should wail so dismally?"
45       He answered, "Very briefly, I will tell you.
          "These people have no hope of again dying,
          And so deformed has their blind life become
          That they must envy every other fate.
50       "The world will not allow a word about them;
          Mercy and justice hold them in disdain.
          Let us not discuss them. Look and pass on."
          And I, looking again, observed a banner
          Which, as it circled, raced on with such speed
          It did not seem ever to want to stop.
55       And there, behind it, marched so long a file
          Of people, I would never have believed
          That death could have undone so many souls.
          After I had recognized some there,
          I saw and then identified the shade
60       Of that coward who made the great refusal.
          Immediately I understood for certain
          That this troop was the sect of evil souls
          Displeasing both to God and to his enemy.
          These wretches, who had never been alive,
65       Went naked and repeatedly were bitten
          By wasps and hornets swarming everywhere.
          The bites made blood streak down upon their faces;
          Blood mixed with tears ran coursing to their feet,
          And there repulsive worms sucked the blood back.
70       Then, looking again a little farther on,
          I saw people at the shore of a vast river.
          At that I said, "Master, permit me now
          "To know who these souls are and what law
          Makes them appear so eager to cross over,
75       As, even in this weak light, I can discern."
          And he: "These things will become clear to you
          After the two of us come to a halt
          Upon the gloomy banks of the Acheron."
          Then, with eyes downcast, deeply abashed,
80       In fear that what I said offended him,
          I spoke no more until we reached the river.
          And look! coming toward us in a boat,
          An old man, his hair hoary with age, rose
          Yelling, "Woe to you, you wicked souls!
85       "Have no hope of ever seeing heaven!
          I come to take you to the other shore,
          To endless darkness, to fire, and to ice.
          "And you over there, the living soul,
          Get away from those who are already dead!"
90       But when he saw that I had not moved off,
          He said, "By other routes, by other harbors,
          Not here -- you shall cross over to this shore.
          A lighter skiff will have to transport you!"
          And my guide: "Charon, do not rack yourself!
95       This deed has so been willed where One can do
          Whatever He wills — and ask no more questions."
          With these words he silenced the wooly cheeks
          Of the old ferryman of the livid marshes
          Who had two rings of flame around his eyes.
100      Those souls, however, who were weak and naked
          Began to lose color and grind their teeth
          When they heard the ferryman's cruel words.
          They called down curses on God and their parents,
          The human race, the place, the time, the seed
105      Of their conception and of their birth.
          At that they massed all the closer together,
          Weeping loudly on the malicious strand
          Which waits for those who have no fear of God.
          The demon Charon, with burning-ember eyes,
110      Gave a signal and gathered all on board,
          Smacking lagging stragglers with his oar.
          As in the autumn the leaves peel away,
          One following another, until the bough
          Sees all its treasures spread upon the ground,
115      In the same manner that evil seed of Adam
          Drifted from that shoreline one by one
          To a signal — like a falcon to its call.
          So they departed over the dark water,
          And even before they landed on that side
120      Already over here a new crowd mustered.
          "My son," my kindly master said to me,
          "Those who have perished by the wrath of God
          Are all assembled here from every land,
          "And they are quick to pass across the river
125      Because divine justice goads them on,
          Turning their timidity to zeal.
          "No good soul ever crossed by this way.
          If Charon, therefore, has complained about you,
          You now know clearly what he meant to say."
130      Just as he finished, the blackened landscape
          Violently shuddered — with the fright of it
          My memory once more bathes me in sweat.
          The harsh tear-laden earth exhaled a wind
          That hurtled forth a bright-red flash of light
135      That knocked me right out of all my senses,
          And I fell as a man drops off to sleep.
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