Inferno -- Canto IV

Limbo, the Good Pagans



1 Dante wakes to find himself in Limbo, where virtuous non-Christians and unbaptized children go.
































53 Christ's harrowing of hell is referred to here. Old Testament patriarchs, beginning with Adam (l. 55), accompanied him in his return.



59 Israel is Jacob whose twelve sons were the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. His father was Isaac and his wife Rachel (see Genesis 29).





68 The fire is "the light of nature" (Romans 2:14) that emanates from the seven-walled castle which encloses the meadow where the good pagans dwell (ll. 106-111). The seven walls and gates may represent the seven liberal arts (grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) and/or the seven cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, fortitude, understanding, knowledge, wisdom), and the stream, eloquence.









88 Homer, poet of the Iliad, carries a sword; the others are well-known Roman poets.


















121 Electra, mother of Dardanus the founder of Troy, was a forbear of Hector and Aeneas.

124 Camilla was killed by the Trojans in Italy; Penthesilea, an Amazon queen, by Achilles at Troy.

125 Latinus, an Italian leader, supported Aeneas, and his daughter Lavinia married the Trojan hero.

127 Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Roman Republic, led the revolt in 510 B. C. against Tarquin, last of Rome's kings.

128 Lucretia (a suicide), Julia (Caesar's daughter), Marcia (Cato of Utica's wife), and Cornelia (Scipio Africanus' wife) are all types of virtuous women.

129 Saladin (d. 1193), a Muslim sultan, opposed Richard the Lion-Heart, but won the admiration of the Third Crusade for his generosity.

131 Aristotle, with Socrates and Plato, were Greek philosophers; Democritus and the others were pre-Socratic thinkers.

140 Dioscorides, a first-century A. D. scientist, is the father of pharmacy. Orpheus and Linus are mythical poets.

141 Cicero (106-43 B.C.) was a Roman statesman and author; Seneca (4 B.C.-65 A.D.) was a writer of tragedies.

142 Euclid, a fourth-century B.C. mathematician, wrote on geometry; Ptolemy, a second century A.D. astronomer, pictured the universe as earth-centered with nine orbiting spheres.

143 Hippocrates, in the fourth century B.C., began the study of medicine, practiced by Galen in the second century A.D. and the Persia philosopher Avicenna (980-1037).

144 Averroes (d. 1198), Persian-born Arab philosopher Avicenna wrote a commentary on Aristotle.

         A loud thunderclap shattered the deep
         Sleep in my head, so that I started up
         Like someone shaken forcibly awake.
         Then, looking all around with rested eyes,
5        I stood straight up with a steady stare,
         Attempting to discover where I was.
         The truth is I found myself upon the edge
         Of the chasm of the valley of salt tears
         Which stores the clamor of unending crying.
10       Dark and deep and foggy was the valley:
         So, when I strained my eyes to see the bottom,
         I was not able to discern a thing.
         "Now let us descend to the blind world
         Below," the poet, pale as death, began:
15      "I will be first, and you shall follow me."
         And I, observing the change in his color,
         Asked, "How can I come if you are frightened,
         You who strengthen me when I have doubts?"
         And he told me, "The anguish of the people
20      Who are down here blanches my complexion
         With the pity that you mistake for fear.
         "Let us go on: the long road makes it urgent."
         So he went down, and so he had me enter
         The first circle ringing the abyss.
25      Here, as far as listening could tell,
         The only lamentations were the sighs
         That caused the everlasting air to tremble.
         Suffering without torments drew these sighs
         From crowds, multitudinous and vast,
30      Of babies and of women and of men.
         My gracious teacher said, "Do you not question
         Who these spirits are whom you observe?
         Before you go on, I would have you know
         "They did not sin: yet even their just merits
35       Were not enough, for they lacked baptism,
         The gateway of the faith that you profess.
         "And, if they lived before the Christian era,
         They did not worship God in the right way:
         And I myself am one of those poor souls.
40      "For this failure and for no other fault
         Here we are lost, and our sole punishment
         Is without hope to live on in desire."
         Deep sorrow crushed my heart when I heard him,
         Because both men and women of great worth
45      I knew to be suspended here in limbo.
         "Tell me, my master, tell me, my good lord,"
         I then began, wishing to be assured
         Of that belief which conquers every error,
         "Have any left here, either through their merits
50      Or someone else's, to be blessed later on?"
         And he, grasping my unexpressed appeal,
         Responded, "I was newly in this place
         When I saw come down here a mighty One
         Crowned with the symbol of his victory.
55      "He snatched away the shade of our first parent,
         Of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
         Of Moses, the obedient lawgiver,
         "Of Abraham the patriarch, King David,
         Israel with his father, with his children,
60      And with Rachel for whom he worked so hard,
         "And many others, and he made them blessed.
         But I would have you know, before these souls
         No human being ever had been saved."
         We did not keep from walking while he talked,
65      But all along we journeyed through the forest —
         I mean the forest that was dense with spirits.
         Our path had not yet led us far away
         From where I'd slept, when I descried a fire
         That overcame a hemisphere of shadows.
70      We were still a little distance from it
         But close enough for me to dimly see
         That honored people tenanted that place.
          "O you, glory of the arts and sciences,
         Who are these souls who here have the high honor
75      Of being kept distinct from all the rest?"
         And he told me, "Their distinguished names
         Which yet re-echo in your world above
         Win for them heaven's grace which furthers them."
          Meanwhile I could hear a voice that called,
80       "Honor to the most illustrious poet!
          His shade that had departed now returns."
         After the voice had ceased and all was still,
          I saw four lofty shades approaching us,
          In their appearance neither sad nor joyful.
85      My worthy teacher now began by saying,
         "Notice there the one with sword in hand,
         Coming before the three others like a lord:
          "That is Homer, the majestic poet.
          The next who comes is Horace, the satirist;
90       Ovid is third, and Lucan last of all.
         "Since each one shares with me the name of poet,
         The name you heard the single voice call out,
         They honor me, and they do well to do so."
         So I saw that brilliant schola meeting
95      Under the master of sublimest song
         Who above all others soars like an eagle.
         After conversing for some time together,
         They turned to me with a cordial greeting:
         With that, my master broke into a smile.
100     And then they showed me a still greater honor,
          For they included me within their group,
          So that I was the sixth among those minds.
          This way we walked together toward the light,
          Speaking of things as well unmentioned here
105     As there it was as well to speak of them.
          We came up to the base of a royal castle,
          Seven times encircled by high walls,
          Moated all about by a beautiful stream.
          This we crossed as if it were firm ground;
110      Through seven gates I entered with these sages
          Until we reached a meadow of fresh grass.
          People were here with slow and serious eyes,
          Of great authority by their appearance.
          They hardly spoke, with their gentle voices.
115     We moved along then over to one side,
          Into an open clearing, bright and high up,
          In order to view all the persons there.
          Straight before me on the enameled green
          Such eminent spirits were presented to me
120      That I exult in having witnessed them.
         I saw Electra, with many companions,
         Among whom I noted Hector and Aeneas,
         And Caesar, in armor, with his falcon eyes.
         I saw Camilla and Penthesilea,
125    And on the other side I saw King Latinus
         Who sat with his daughter Lavinia.
          I saw that Brutus who banished the Tarquin,
          Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
          And by himself, I noticed Saladin.
130    When I lifted up my eyes a little higher,
         I saw Aristotle, the master-knower,
         Seated with the family of philosophers.
         All look up to him, all do him honor;
         There also I saw Socrates and Plato,
         Nearest to him, in front of all the rest;
135     Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
         Diogenes, Thales, Anaxagoras,
         Empedocles, Zeno, and Heraclitus.
         I saw the worthy categorizer of herbs,
140     Dioscorides, I mean; and I saw Orpheus,
         Tully, Linus, Seneca the moralist,
         Euclid the geometer, Ptolemy,
         Hippocrates, Galen, Avicenna,
         And Averroes, who wrote the Commentary.
145     I cannot here describe them all in full,
         For my lengthy theme so presses me forward
         That often words fall short of the occasion.
         The company of six drops down to two.
         My knowing guide leads me another way,
150     Out of the quiet, into the quavering air,
         And I come to a scene where nothing shines.
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