Canto III

Through me to the city dolorous lies the way,
Who pass through me shall pains eternal prove,
Through me are reached the people lost for aye.
'Twas Justice did my Glorious Maker move;
I was created by the Power Divine,[203]
The Highest Wisdom, and the Primal Love.
No thing's creation earlier was than mine,
If not eternal;[204] I for aye endure:
Ye who make entrance, every hope resign!
These words beheld I writ in hue obscure
On summit of a gateway; wherefore I:
'Hard[205] is their meaning, Master.' Like one sure
Beforehand of my thought, he made reply:
'Here it behoves to leave all fears behind;
All cowardice behoveth here to die.

For now the place I told thee of we find,
Where thou the miserable folk shouldst see
Who the true good[206] of reason have resigned.'
Then, with a glance of glad serenity,
He took my hand in his, which made me bold,
And brought me in where secret things there be.
There sighs and plaints and wailings uncontrolled
The dim and starless air resounded through;
Nor at the first could I from tears withhold.
The various languages and words of woe,
The uncouth accents,[207] mixed with angry cries
And smiting palms and voices loud and low,
Composed a tumult which doth circling rise
For ever in that air obscured for aye;
As when the sand upon the whirlwind flies.
And, horror-stricken,[208] I began to say:
'Master, what sound can this be that I hear,
And who the folk thus whelmed in misery?'
And he replied: 'In this condition drear
Are held the souls of that inglorious crew
Who lived unhonoured, but from guilt kept clear.

Mingled they are with caitiff angels, who,
Though from avowed rebellion they refrained,
Disloyal to God, did selfish ends pursue.
Heaven hurled them forth, lest they her beauty stained;
Received they are not by the nether hell,
Else triumph[209] thence were by the guilty gained.'
And I: 'What bear they, Master, to compel
Their lamentations in such grievous tone?'
He answered: 'In few words I will thee tell.
No hope of death is to the wretches known;
So dim the life and abject where they sigh
They count all sufferings easier than their own.
Of them the world endures no memory;
Mercy and justice them alike disdain.

Speak we not of them: glance, and pass them by.'
I saw a banner[210] when I looked again,
Which, always whirling round, advanced in haste
As if despising steadfast to remain.
And after it so many people chased
In long procession, I should not have said
That death[211] had ever wrought such countless waste.
Some first I recognised, and then the shade
I saw and knew of him, the search to close,
Whose dastard soul the great refusal[212] made.
Straightway I knew and was assured that those
Were of the tribe of caitiffs,[213] even the race
Despised of God and hated of His foes.

The wretches, who when living showed no trace
Of life, went naked, and were fiercely stung
By wasps and hornets swarming in that place.
Blood drawn by these out of their faces sprung
And, mingled with their tears, was at their feet
Sucked up by loathsome worms it fell among.
Casting mine eyes beyond, of these replete,
People I saw beside an ample stream,
Whereon I said: 'O Master, I entreat,
Tell who these are, and by what law they seem
Impatient till across the river gone;
As I distinguish by this feeble gleam.'
And he: 'These things shall unto thee be known
What time our footsteps shall at rest be found
Upon the woful shores of Acheron.'
Then with ashamèd eyes cast on the ground,
Fearing my words were irksome in his ear,
Until we reached the stream I made no sound.
And toward us, lo, within a bark drew near
A veteran[214] who with ancient hair was white,
Shouting: 'Ye souls depraved, be filled with fear.

Hope never more of Heaven to win the sight;
I come to take you to the other strand,
To frost and fire and everlasting night.
And thou, O living soul, who there dost stand,
From 'mong the dead withdraw thee.' Then, aware
That not at all I stirred at his command,
'By other ways,[215] from other ports thou'lt fare;
But they will lead thee to another shore,
And 'tis a skiff more buoyant must thee bear.'
And then my leader: 'Charon, be not sore,
For thus it has been willed where power ne'er came
Short of the will; thou therefore ask no more.'
And hereupon his shaggy cheeks grew tame
Who is the pilot of the livid pool,
And round about whose eyes glowed wheels of flame.
But all the shades, naked and spent with dool,
Stood chattering with their teeth, and changing hue
Soon as they heard the words unmerciful.
God they blasphemed, and families whence they grew;
Mankind, the time, place, seed in which began
Their lives, and seed whence they were born. Then drew
They crowding all together, as they ran,
Bitterly weeping, to the accursed shore
Predestinate for every godless man.

The demon Charon, with eyes evermore
Aglow, makes signals, gathering them all;
And whoso lingers smiteth with his oar.
And as the faded leaves of autumn fall
One after the other, till at last the bough
Sees on the ground spread all its coronal;
With Adam's evil seed so haps it now:
At signs each falls in turn from off the coast,
As fowls[216] into the ambush fluttering go.
The gloomy waters thus by them are crossed,
And ere upon the further side they land,
On this, anew, is gathering a host.
'Son,' said the courteous Master,[217] 'understand,
All such as in the wrath of God expire,
From every country muster on this strand.

To cross the river they are all on fire;
Their wills by Heavenly justice goaded on
Until their terror merges in desire.
This way no righteous soul has ever gone;
Wherefore[218] of thee if Charon should complain,
Now art thou sure what by his words is shown.'
When he had uttered this the dismal plain
Trembled[219] so violently, my terror past
Recalling now, I'm bathed in sweat again.
Out of the tearful ground there moaned a blast
Whence lightning flashed forth red and terrible,
Which vanquished all my senses; and, as cast
In sudden slumber, to the ground I fell.


[203] _Power Divine, etc._: The Persons of the Trinity, described by
their attributes.

[204] _If not eternal_: Only the angels and the heavenly spheres were
created before Inferno. The creation of man came later. But from _Inf._
xxxiv. 124 it appears that Inferno was hollowed out of the earth; and at
_Parad._ vii. 124 the earth is declared to be 'corruptible and enduring
short while;' therefore not eternal.

[205] _Hard, etc._: The injunction to leave all hope behind makes Dante
hesitate to enter. Virgil anticipates the objection before it is fully
expressed, and reminds him that the passage through Inferno is to be
only one stage of his journey. Not by this gate will he seek to quit it.

[206] _True good, etc._: Truth in its highest form--the contemplation of

[207] _Uncouth accents_: 'Like German,' says Boccaccio.

[208] _Horror-stricken_: 'My head enveloped in horror.' Some texts have
'error,' and this yields a better meaning--that Dante is amazed to have
come full into the crowd of suffering shades before he has even crossed
Acheron. If with the best texts 'horror' be read, the meaning seems to
be that he is so overwhelmed by fear as to lose his presence of mind.
They are not yet in the true Inferno, but only in the vestibule or
forecourt of it--the flat rim which runs round the edge of the pit.

[209] _Else triumph, etc._: The satisfaction of the rebel angels at
finding that they endured no worse punishment than that of such as
remained neutral.

[210] _A banner_: Emblem of the instability of those who would never
take a side.

[211] _That death, etc._: The touch is very characteristic of Dante. He
feigns astonishment at finding that such a proportion of mankind can
preserve so pitiful a middle course between good and evil, and spend
lives that are only 'a kind of--as it were.'

[212] _The great refusal_: Dante recognises him, and so he who made the
great refusal must have been a contemporary. Almost beyond doubt
Celestine V. is meant, who was in 1294 elected Pope against his will,
and resigned the tiara after wearing it a few months; the only Pope who
ever resigned it, unless we count Clement I. As he was not canonized
till 1326, Dante was free to form his own judgment of his conduct. It
has been objected that Dante would not treat with contumely a man so
devout as Celestine. But what specially fits him to be the
representative caitiff is just that, being himself virtuous, he
pusillanimously threw away the greatest opportunity of doing good. By
his resignation Boniface VIII. became Pope, to whose meddling in
Florentine affairs it was that Dante owed his banishment. Indirectly,
therefore, he owed it to the resignation of Celestine; so that here we
have the first of many private scores to be paid off in the course of
the _Comedy_. Celestine's resignation is referred to (_Inf._ xxvii.
104).--Esau and the rich young man in the Gospel have both been
suggested in place of Celestine. To either of them there lies the
objection that Dante could not have recognised him. And, besides,
Dante's contemporaries appear at once to have discovered Celestine in
him who made the great refusal. In Paradise the poet is told by his
ancestor Cacciaguida that his rebuke is to be like the wind, which
strikes most fiercely on the loftiest summits (_Parad._ xvii. 133); and
it agrees well with such a profession, that the first stroke he deals in
the _Comedy_ is at a Pope.

[213] _Caitiffs_: To one who had suffered like Dante for the frank part
he took in affairs, neutrality may well have seemed the unpardonable sin
in politics; and no doubt but that his thoughts were set on the trimmers
in Florence when he wrote, 'Let us not speak of them!'

[214] _A veteran_: Charon. In all this description of the passage of the
river by the shades, Dante borrows freely from Virgil. It has been
already remarked on _Inf._ ii. 28 that he draws illustrations from Pagan
sources. More than that, as we begin to find, he boldly introduces
legendary and mythological characters among the persons of his drama.

With Milton in mind, it surprises, on a first acquaintance with the
_Comedy_, to discover how nearly independent of angels is the economy
invented by Dante for the other world.

[215] _Other ways, etc._: The souls bound from earth to Purgatory gather
at the mouth of the Tiber, whence they are wafted on an angel's skiff to
their destination (_Purg._ ii. 100). It may be here noted that never
does Dante hint a fear of one day becoming a denizen of Inferno. It is
only the pains of Purgatory that oppress his soul by anticipation. So
here Charon is made to see at a glance that the pilgrim is not of those
'who make descent to Acheron.'

[216] _As fowls, etc._: 'As a bird to its lure'--generally interpreted
of the falcon when called back. But a witness of the sport of netting
thrushes in Tuscany describes them as 'flying into the vocal ambush in a
hurried, half-reluctant, and very remarkable manner.'

[217] _Courteous Master_: Virgil here gives the answer promised at line
76; and Dante by the epithet he uses removes any impression that his
guide had been wanting in courtesy when he bade him wait.

[218] _Wherefore_: Charon's displeasure only proves that he feels he has
no hold on Dante.

[219] _Trembled, etc._: Symbolical of the increase of woe in Inferno
when the doomed souls have landed on the thither side of Acheron. Hell
opens to receive them. Conversely, when any purified soul is released
from Purgatory the mountain of purification trembles to its base with
joy (_Purg._ xxi. 58).