Canto IV

Resounding thunder broke the slumber deep
That drowsed my senses, and myself I shook
Like one by force awakened out of sleep.
Then rising up I cast a steady look,
With eyes refreshed, on all that lay around,
And cognisance of where I found me took.
In sooth, me on the valley's brink I found
Of the dolorous abyss, where infinite
Despairing cries converge with thundering sound.[220]
Cloudy it was, and deep, and dark as night;
So dark that, peering eagerly to find
What its depths held, no object met my sight.

'Descend we now into this region blind,'
Began the Poet with a face all pale;
'I will go first, and do thou come behind.'
Marking the wanness on his cheek prevail,
I asked, 'How can I, seeing thou hast dread,
My wonted comforter when doubts assail?'
'The anguish of the people,' then he said,
'Who are below, has painted on my face
Pity,[221] by thee for fear interpreted.
Come! The long journey bids us move apace.'
Then entered he and made me enter too
The topmost circle girding the abyss.
Therein, as far as I by listening knew,
There was no lamentation save of sighs,
Whence throbbed the air eternal through and through.
This, sorrow without suffering made arise
From infants and from women and from men,
Gathered in great and many companies.

And the good Master: 'Wouldst thou[222] nothing then
Of who those spirits are have me relate?
Yet know, ere passing further, although when
On earth they sinned not, worth however great
Availed them not, they being unbaptized--
Part[223] of the faith thou holdest. If their fate
Was to be born ere man was Christianised,
God, as behoved, they never could adore:
And I myself am with this folk comprised.
For such defects--our guilt is nothing more--
We are thus lost, suffering from this alone
That, hopeless, we our want of bliss deplore.'
Greatly I sorrowed when he made this known,
Because I knew that some who did excel
In worthiness were to that limbo[224] gone.
'Tell me, O Sir,' I prayed him, 'Master,[225] tell,'
--That I of the belief might surety win,
Victorious every error to dispel--
'Did ever any hence to bliss attain
By merit of another or his own?'
And he, to whom my hidden drift[226] was plain:
'I to this place but lately[227] had come down,
When I beheld one hither make descent;
A Potentate[228] who wore a victor's crown.
The shade of our first sire forth with him went,
And his son Abel's, Noah's forth he drew,
Moses' who gave the laws, the obedient
Patriarch Abram's, and King David's too;
And, with his sire and children, Israel,
And Rachel, winning whom such toils he knew;
And many more, in blessedness to dwell.

And I would have thee know, earlier than these
No human soul was ever saved from Hell.'
While thus he spake our progress did not cease,
But we continued through the wood to stray;
The wood, I mean, with crowded ghosts for trees.
Ere from the summit far upon our way
We yet had gone, I saw a flame which glowed,
Holding a hemisphere[229] of dark at bay.
'Twas still a little further on our road,
Yet not so far but that in part I guessed
That honourable people there abode.
'Of art and science Ornament confessed!
Who are these honoured in such high degree,
And in their lot distinguished from the rest?'
He said: 'For them their glorious memory,
Still in thy world the subject of renown,
Wins grace[230] by Heaven distinguished thus to be.'
Meanwhile I heard a voice: 'Be honour shown
To the illustrious poet,[231] for his shade
Is now returning which a while was gone.'
When the voice paused nor further utterance made,
Four mighty shades drew near with one accord,
In aspect neither sorrowful nor glad.

'Consider that one, armèd with a sword,'[232]
Began my worthy Master in my ear,
'Before the three advancing like their lord;
For he is Homer, poet with no peer:
Horace the satirist is next in line,
Ovid comes third, and Lucan in the rear.
And 'tis because their claim agrees with mine
Upon the name they with one voice did cry,
They to their honour[233] in my praise combine.'
Thus I beheld their goodly company--
The lords[234] of song in that exalted style
Which o'er all others, eagle-like, soars high.
Having conferred among themselves a while
They turned toward me and salutation made,
And, this beholding, did my Master smile.[235]
And honour higher still to me was paid,
For of their company they made me one;
So I the sixth part 'mong such genius played.
Thus journeyed we to where the brightness shone,
Holding discourse which now 'tis well to hide,
As, where I was, to hold it was well done.

At length we reached a noble castle's[236] side
Which lofty sevenfold walls encompassed round,
And it was moated by a sparkling tide.
This we traversed as if it were dry ground;
I through seven gates did with those sages go;
Then in a verdant mead people we found
Whose glances were deliberate and slow.
Authority was stamped on every face;
Seldom they spake, in tuneful voices low.
We drew apart to a high open space
Upon one side which, luminously serene,
Did of them all a perfect view embrace.

Thence, opposite, on the enamel green
Were shown me mighty spirits; with delight
I still am stirred them only to have seen.
With many more, Electra was in sight;
'Mong them I Hector and Æneas spied,
Cæsar in arms,[237] his eyes, like falcon's, bright.
And, opposite, Camilla I descried;
Penthesilea too; the Latian King
Sat with his child Lavinia by his side.
Brutus[238] I saw, who Tarquin forth did fling;
Cornelia, Marcia,[239] Julia, and Lucrece.
Saladin[240] sat alone. Considering
What lay beyond with somewhat lifted eyes,
The Master[241] I beheld of those that know,
'Mong such as in philosophy were wise.

All gazed on him as if toward him to show
Becoming honour; Plato in advance
With Socrates: the others stood below.
Democritus[242] who set the world on chance;
Thales, Diogenes, Empedocles,
Zeno, and Anaxagoras met my glance;
Heraclitus, and Dioscorides,
Wise judge of nature. Tully, Orpheus, were
With ethic Seneca and Linus.[243] These,
And Ptolemy,[244] too, and Euclid, geometer,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicen,[245]
Averroes,[246] the same who did prepare
The Comment, saw I; nor can tell again
The names of all I saw; the subject wide
So urgent is, time often fails me. Then
Into two bands the six of us divide;
Me by another way my Leader wise
Doth from the calm to air which trembles, guide.
I reach a part[247] which all benighted lies.


[220] _Thundering sound_: In a state of unconsciousness, Dante, he knows
not how, has been conveyed across Acheron, and is awakened by what seems
like the thunder-peal following the lightning-flash which made him
insensible. He now stands on the brink of Inferno, where the sounds
peculiar to each region of it converge and are reverberated from its
rim. These sounds are not again to be heard by him except in their
proper localities. No sooner does he actually pass into the First Circle
than he hears only sighs.--As regards the topography of Inferno, it is
enough, as yet, to note that it consists of a cavity extending from the
surface to the centre of the earth; narrowing to its base, and with many
circular ledges or terraces, of great width in the case of the upper
ones, running round its wall--that is, round the sides of the pit. Each
terrace or circle is thus less in circumference than the one above it.

From one circle to the next there slopes a bank of more or less height
and steepness. Down the bank which falls to the comparatively flat
ground of the First Circle they are now about to pass.--To put it
otherwise, the Inferno is an inverted hollow cone.

[221] _Pity_: The pity felt by Virgil has reference only to those in the
circle they are about to enter, which is his own. See also _Purg._ iii.

[222] _Wouldst thou, etc._: He will not have Dante form a false opinion
of the character of those condemned to the circle which is his own.

[223] _Part_: _parte_, altered by some editors into _porta_; but though
baptism is technically described as the gate of the sacraments, it never
is as the gate of the faith. A tenet of Dante's faith was that all the
unbaptized are lost. He had no choice in the matter.

[224] _Limbo_: Border, or borderland. Dante makes the First Circle
consist of the two limbos of Thomas Aquinas: that of unbaptized infants,
_limbus puerorum_, and that of the fathers of the old covenant, _limbus
sanctorum patrum_. But the second he finds is now inhabited only by the
virtuous heathen.

[225] _Sir_--_Master_: As a delicate means of expressing sympathy, Dante
redoubles his courtesy to Virgil.

[226] _Hidden drift_: to find out, at first hand as it were, if the
article in the creed is true which relates to the Descent into Hell;
and, perhaps, to learn if when Christ descended He delivered none of the
virtuous heathen.

[227] _Lately_: Virgil died about half a century before the crucifixion.

[228] _A Potentate_: The name of Christ is not mentioned in the

[229] _A hemisphere, etc._: An elaborate way of saying that part of the
limbo was clearly lit. The flame is symbolical of the light of genius,
or of virtue; both in Dante's eyes being modes of worth.

[230] _Wins grace, etc._: The thirst for fame was one keenly felt and
openly confessed by Dante. See, _e.g._ _De Monarchia_, i. 1. In this he
anticipated the humanists of the following century. Here we find that to
be famous on earth helps the case of disembodied souls.

[231] _Poet_: Throughout the _Comedy_, with the exception of _Parad._ i.
29, and xxv. 8, the term 'poet' is confined to those who wrote in Greek
and Latin. In _Purg._ xxi. 85 the name of poet is said to be that 'which
is most enduring and honourable.'

[232] _A sword_: Because Homer sings of battles. Dante's acquaintance
with his works can have been but slight, as they were not then
translated into Latin, and Dante knew little or no Greek.

[233] _To their honour_: 'And in that they do well:' perhaps as showing
themselves free from jealousy. But the remark of Benvenuto of Imola is:
'Poets love and honour one another, and are never envious and
quarrelsome like those who cultivate the other arts and sciences.'--I
quote with misgiving from Tamburini's untrustworthy Italian translation.
Benvenuto lectured on the _Comedy_ in Bologna for some years about 1370.
It is greatly to be wished that his commentary, lively and full of
side-lights as it is, should be printed in full from the original Latin.

[234] _The lords, etc._: Not the company of him--Homer or Virgil--who is
lord of the great song, and soars above all others; but the company of
the great masters, whose verse, etc.

[235] _Did my Master smile_: To see Dante made free of the guild of
great poets; or, it may be, to think they are about to discover in him a
fellow poet.

[236] _A noble castle_: Where the light burns, and in which, as their
peculiar seat, the shades of the heathen distinguished for virtue and
genius reside. The seven walls are in their number symbolical of the
perfect strength of the castle; or, to take it more pedantically, may
mean the four moral virtues and the three speculative. The gates will
then stand for the seven liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, etc. The
moat may be eloquence, set outside the castle to signify that only as
reflected in the eloquent words of inspired men can the outside world
get to know wisdom. Over the stream Dante passes easily, as being an
adept in learned speech. The castle encloses a spacious mead enamelled
with eternal green.

[237] _Cæsar in arms, etc._: Suetonius says of Cæsar that he was of
fair complexion, but had black and piercing eyes. Brunetto Latini,
Dante's teacher, says in his _Tesoro_ (v. 11), of the hawk here
mentioned--the _grifagno_--that its eyes 'flame like fire.'

[238] _Brutus_: Introduced here that he may not be confounded with the
later Brutus, for whom is reserved the lowest place of all in Inferno.

[239] _Marcia_: Wife of Cato; mentioned also in _Purg._ i. _Julia_:
daughter of Cæsar and wife of Pompey.

[240] _Saladin_: Died 1193. To the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries
he supplied the ideal of a just Mohammedan ruler. Here are no other
such. 'He sits apart, because not of gentle birth,' says Boccaccio;
which shows what even a man of genius risks when he becomes a

[241] _The Master_: Aristotle, often spoken of by Dante as the
Philosopher, and reverenced by him as the genius to whom the secrets of
nature lay most open.

[242] _Democritus, etc._: According to whom the world owes its form to a
chance arrangement of atoms.

[243] _Linus_: Not Livy, into which some have changed it. Linus is
mentioned by Virgil along with Orpheus, _Egl._ iv.

[244] _Ptolemy_: Greek geographer of the beginning of the second
century, and author of the system of the world believed in by Dante, and
freely used by him throughout the poem.

[245] _Avicenna_: A physician, born in Bokhara, and died at Ispahan,
1037. His _Medical Canon_ was for centuries used as a text-book in

[246] _Averroes_: A Mohammedan philosopher of Cordova, died 1198. In his
great Commentary on Aristotle he gives and explains every sentence of
that philosopher's works. He was himself ignorant of Greek, and made use
of Arabic versions. Out of his Arabic the Commentary was translated into
Hebrew, and thence into Latin. The presence of the three Mohammedans in
this honourable place greatly puzzles the early commentators.

[247] _A part, etc._: He passes into the darkness of the Limbo out of
the brightly-lit, fortified enclosure. It is worth remarking, as one
reads, how vividly he describes his first impression of a new scene,
while when he comes to leave it a word is all he speaks.