Dante Alighieri (1265–1321). The Divine Comedy.
Vol. 20, pp. 13-20 of The Harvard Classics
Dante recorded the awful scenes of a journey through the pits of the underworld, and wrote in such a vivid, realistic way that men tremble at the terrors depicted.
ARGUMENT.—Dante, following Virgil, comes to the gate of Hell; where, after having read the dreadful words that are written thereon, they both enter. Here, as he understands from Virgil, those were punished who had passed their time (for living it could not be called) in a state of apathy and indifference both to good and evil. Then, pursuing their way, they arrive at the river Acheron; and there find the old ferryman Charon, who takes the spirits over to the opposite shore; which, as soon as Dante reaches, he is seized with terror, and falls into a trance.
“THROUGH me you pass into the city of woe:
Through me you pass into eternal pain:
Through me among the people lost for aye.
Justice the founder of my fabric moved:
To rear me was the task of Power divine,
Before me things create were none, save things
Eternal, and eternal I endure.
All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”
Such characters, in color dim, I mark’d
Over a portal’s lofty arch inscribed.
Whereat I thus: “Master, these words import
Hard meaning.” He as one prepared replied:
“Here thou must all distrust behind thee leave;
Here be vile fear extinguish’d. We are come
Where I have told thee we shall see the souls
To misery doom’d, who intellectual good
Have lost.” And when his hand he had stretch’d forth
To mine, with pleasant looks, whence I was cheer’d,
Into that secret place he led me on.
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering. Various tongues,
Horrible languages, outcries of woe,
Accents of anger, voices deep and hoarse,
With hands together smote that swell’d the sounds,
Made up a tumult, that forever whirls
Round through that air with solid darkness stain’d,
Like to the sand that in the whirlwind flies.
I then, with horror yet encompast, cried:
“O master! what is this I hear? what race
Are these, who seem so overcome with woe?”
He thus to me: “This miserable fate
Suffer the wretched souls of those, who lived
Without or praise or blame, with that ill band
Of angels mix’d, who nor rebellious proved,
Nor yet were true to God, but for themselves
Were only. From his bounds Heaven drove them forth
Not to impair his lustre; nor the depth
Of Hell receives them, lest the accursed tribe
Should glory thence with exultation vain.”
I then: “Master! what doth aggrieve them thus,
That they lament so loud?” He straight replied:
“That will I tell thee briefly. These of death
No hope may entertain: and their blind life
So meanly passes, that all other lots
They envy. Fame of them the world hath none,
Nor suffers; Mercy and Justice scorn them both.
Speak not of them, but look, and pass them by.”
And I, who straightway look’d, beheld a flag,
Which whirling ran around so rapidly,
That it no pause obtain’d: and following came
Such a long train of spirits, I should ne’er
Have thought that death so many had despoil’d.
When some of these I recognized, I saw
Yielding, abjured his high estate. Forthwith
I understood, for certain, this the tribe
Of those ill spirits both to God displeasing
And to His foes. These wretches, who ne’er lived,
Went on in nakedness, and sorely stung
By wasps and hornets, which bedew’d their cheeks
With blood, that, mix’d with tears, dropp’d to their feet,
And by disgustful worms was gather’d there.
Then looking further onwards, I beheld
A throng upon the shore of a great stream:
Whereat I thus: “Sir! grant me now to know
Whom here we view, and whence impell’d they seem
So eager to pass o’er, as I discern
Through the blear light?” He thus to me in few:
“This shalt thou know, soon as our steps arrive
Beside the woful tide of Acheron.”
Then with eyes downward cast, and fill’d with shame,
Fearing my words offensive to his ear,
Till we had reach’d the river, I from speech
Abstain’d. And lo! toward us in a bark
Comes on an old man, hoary white with eld,
Crying, “Woe to you, wicked spirits! hope not
Ever to see the sky again. I come
To take you to the other shore across,
Into eternal darkness, there to dwell
In fierce heat and in ice. And thou, who there
Standest, live spirit! get thee hence, and leave
These who are dead.” But soon as he beheld
I left them not, “By other way,” said he,
“By other haven shalt thou come to shore,
Not by this passage; thee a nimbler boat
Must carry.” Then to him thus spake my guide:
“Charon! thyself torment not: so ’tis will’d,
Where will and power are one: ask thou no more.”
Straightway in silence fell the shaggy cheeks
Of him, the boatman o’er the livid lake,
Around whose eyes glared wheeling flames. Meanwhile
Those spirits, faint and naked, color changed,
And gnash’d their teeth, soon as the cruel words
They heard. God and their parents they blasphemed,
The human kind, the place, the time, and seed,
That did engender them and give them birth,
Then all together sorely wailing drew
To the curst strand, that every man must pass
Who fears not God. Charon, demoniac form,
With eyes of burning coal, collects them all,
Beckoning, and each, that lingers, with his oar
Strikes. As fall off the light autumnal leaves
One still another following, till the bough
Strews all its honours on the earth beneath;
E’en in like manner Adam’s evil brood
Cast themselves, one by one, down from the shore,
Thus go they over through the umber’d wave;
And ever they on the opposing bank
Be landed, on this side another throng
Still gathers. “Son,” thus spake the courteous guide,
“Those who die subject to the wrath of God
All here together come from every clime
And to o’erpass the river are not loth:
For so Heaven’s justice goads them on, that fear
Is turn’d into desire. Hence ne’er hath past
Good spirit. If of thee Charon complain,
Now mayst thou know the import of his words.”
This said, the gloomy region trembling shook
So terribly, that yet with clammy dews
Fear chills my brow. The sad earth gave a blast,
That, lightening, shot forth a vermilion flame,
Which all my senses conquer’d quite, and I
Down dropp’d, as one with sudden slumber seized.
Note 1. “Power,” Wisdom,” “Love,” the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity.
Note 2. This is commonly understood of Celestine V, who abdicated the papal power in 1249. Venturi mentions a work written by Innocenzio Barcellini, of the Celestine order, and printed at Milan in 1701, in which an attempt is made to put a different interpretation on this passage. Lombardi would apply it to some one of Dante’s fellow-citizens, who, refusing, through avarice or want of spirit, to support the party of the Bianchi at Florence, had been the main occasion of the miseries that befell them. But the testimony of Fazio degli Uberti, who lived so near the time of our author, seems almost decisive on this point. He expressly speaks of the Pope Celestine as being in Hell.
Note 3. “As a falcon at his call.” This is Vellutello’s explanation, and seems preferable to that commonly given: “as a bird that is enticed to the cage by the call of another.”
ARGUMENT.—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 slumber in my brain a crash
Of heavy thunder, that I shook myself,
As one by main force roused. Risen upright,
My rested eyes I moved around, and search’d
With fixed ken, to know what place it was
Wherein I stood. For certain, on the brink
I found me of the lamentable vale,
The dread abyss, that joins a thunderous sound
Of plaints innumerable. Dark and deep,
And thick with clouds o’erspread, mine eye in vain
Explored its bottom, nor could aught discern.
“Now let us to the blind world there beneath
Descend,” the bard began, all pale of look:
“I go the first, and thou shalt follow next.”
Then I, his alter’d hue perceiving, thus:
“How may I speed, if thou yieldest to dread,
Who still art wont to comfort me in doubt?”
He then: “The anguish of that race below
With pity stains my cheek, which thou for fear
Mistakest. Let us on. Our length of way
Urges to haste.” Onward, this said, he moved;
And entering led me with him, on the bounds
Of the first circle that surrounds the abyss.
Here, as mine ear could note, no plaint was heard
Except of sighs, that made the eternal air
Tremble, not caused by tortures, but from grief
Felt by those multitudes, many and vast,
Of men, women, and infants. Then to me
The gentle guide: “Inquirest thou not what spirits
Are these which thou beholdest? Ere thou pass
Farther, I would thou know, that these of sin
Were blameless; and if aught they merited,
If profits not, since baptism was not heirs,
The Gospel lived, they served not God aright;
And among such am I. For these defects,
And for no other evil, we are lost;
Only so far afflicted, that we live
Desiring without hope.” Sore grief assail’d
My heart at hearing this, for well I knew
Suspended in that Limbo many a soul
Of mighty worth. “O tell me, sire revered!
Tell me, my master!” I began, through wish
Of full assurance in that holy faith
Which vanquishes all error; “say, did e’er
Any, or through his own or other’s merit,
Come forth from thence, who afterward was blest?”
He answer’d: “I was new to that estate
Amongst us, with victorious trophy crown’d.
He forth the shade of our first parent drew,
Abel, his child, and Noah righteous man,
Of Moses lawgiver for faith approved,
Of patriarch Abraham, and David king,
Israel with his sire and with his sons,
Nor without Rachel whom so hard he won,
And others many more, whom He to bliss
Exalted. Before these, be thou assured,
No spirit of human kind was ever saved.”
We, while he spake, ceased not our onward road,
Still passing through the wood; for so I name
Those spirits thick beset. We were not far
On this side from the summit, when I kenn’d
A flame, that o’er the darken’d hemisphere
Prevailing shined. Yet we a little space
Were distant, not so far but I in part
Discover’d that a tribe in honour high
That placed possess’d. “O thou, who every art
And science valuest! who are these, that boast
Such honor, separate from all the rest?”
He answer’d: “The renown of their great names,
That echoes through your world above, acquires
Favor in Heaven, which holds them thus advanced.”
Meantime a voice I heard: “Honor the bard
Sublime! his shade returns, that left us late!”
No sooner ceased the sound, that I beheld
Four mighty spirits toward us bend their steps,
Of semblance neither sorrowful nor glad.
When thus my master kind began: “Mark him,
Who in his right hand bears that falchion keen,
The other three preceding, as their lord.
This is that Homer, of all bards supreme:
Flaccus the next, in satire’s vein excelling;
The third is Naso; Lucan is the last.
Because they all that appellation own,
With which the voice singly accosted me,
Honouring they greet me thus, and well they judge.”
So I beheld united the bright school
That o’er the others like an eagle soars.
When they together short discourse had held,
They turn’d to me, with salutation kind
Beckoning me; at the which my master smiled:
Nor was this all; but greater honour still
They gave me, for they made me of their tribe;
And I was sixth amid so learn’d a band.
Far as the luminous beacon on we pass’d,
Speaking of matters, then befitting well
To speak, now fitter left untold. At foot
Of a magnificent castle we arrived,
Seven times with lofty walls begirt, and around
Defended by a pleasant stream. O’er this
As o’er dry land we pass’d. Next, through seven gates,
I with those sages enter’d, and we came
Into a mead with lively verdure fresh.
There dwelt a race, who slow their eyes around
Majestically moved, and in their port
Bore eminent authority: they spake
Seldom, but all their words were tuneful sweet.
We to one side retired, into a place
Open and bright and lofty, whence each one
Stood manifest to view. Incontinent,
There on the green enamel of the plain
Were shown me the great spirits, by whose sight
I am exalted in my own esteem.
By many, among whom Hector I knew,
Anchises’ pious son, and with hawk’s eye
Cæsar all arm’d, and by Camilla there
Penthesilea. On the other side,
Old King Latinus seated by his child
Lavinia, and that Brutus I beheld
Who Tarquin chased, Lucretia, Cato’s wife
Then when a little more I raised my brow,
Seated amid the philosophic train.
Him all admire, all pay him reverence due.
There Socrates and Plato both I mark’d
Nearest to him in rank, Democritus,
With Heraclitus, and Empedocles,
And Anaxagoras, and Thales sage,
Zeno, and Dioscorides well read
In nature’s secret lore. Orpheus I mark’d
And Linus, Tully and moral Seneca,
Euclid and Ptolemy, Hippocrates,
Galenus, Avicen, and him who made
Of all to speak at full were vain attempt;
For my wide theme so urges, that oft-times
My words fall short of what bechanced. In two
The six associates part. Another way
My sage guide leads me, from that air serene,
Into a climate ever vex’d with storms:
And to a part I come, where no light shines.
Note 1. “Portal.” “Porta della fede.” This was an alteration made in the text by the Academicians della Crusca, on the authority, as it would appear, of only two manuscripts. The other reading is, “parte della fede,” “part of the faith.”
Note 2. “Secret purport.” Lombardi well observes that Dante seems to have been restrained by awe and reverence from uttering the name of Christ in this place of torment; and that for the same cause, probably, it does not occur once throughout the whole of this first part of the poem.
Note 9. “Who sets the world at chance.” Democritus, who maintained the world to have been formed by the fortuitous concourse of atoms.
Note 10. Averroes, called by the Arabians Ibn Roschd, translated and commented on the works of Aristotle.