Crossings and Commitments

  • the issue of justice: “Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore” (Inf. 3.4)
  • the theology of Hell, including the concept of eternity and the asymmetry of Hell and Paradise: the eternity of Hell is of a different order from the eternity of Paradise
  • a liminal space before we reach Hell itself: an Ante-Hell or vestibule of Hell
  • this liminal space contains the souls of the neither-good-nor-bad: the issue of moral neutrality (Martin Luther King)
  • the case of the moral failure of Celestine V, and the challenge issued to him by one Franciscan poet, Jacopone da Todi

This canto is liminal. It is about crossings: whether passing through the gate of Hell or passing over the River Acheron. It therefore begins with the gate of Hell: the limen (threshold) of hell that the pilgrim must pass through in order to enter the dark realm. It contains first things: the first description of Hell, the first group of souls in Hell, the first punishment and the first opportunity for the reader to consider the formula by which punishments are allocated (a principle that Dante will call, in Inferno 28.142, the “contrapasso”), the first infernal guardian (the boatman Charon who ferries Dante across the river), and the first opportunity to consider the way that the infernal guardians treat Dante.

Most important of these firsts, perhaps, is the first appearance of the word “justice”: “Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore” (Justice moved my high maker [Inf. 3.4]). These words are conspicuously written on the gate of Hell itself, issuing a challenge that we likely do not fully perceive upon first reading the Commedia. While on the one hand the sinners’ life-stories, as dramatized in the poetry of the Commedia, are frequently such as to elicit compassion from the reader, compassion is an inappropriate response if the sinner is in fact, as the gate declares, justly punished.

From a theological perspective, the concept of justice implies the concept of free will. If there were no free will, the allotment of Hell or Paradise would be deterministic rather than the result of giustizia. This is an unacceptable proposition, as Marco Lombardo explains to the pilgrim in Purgatorio 16.67-72. For the question of determinism, see the Appendix on Cecco d’Ascoli in the Introduction to Inferno 7 and the Introduction to Purgatorio 16.

From a narrative perspective, the word giustizia in verse 4 therefore initiates the conflictual process that is at the core of Dante’s artistry in Inferno: the conflict generated by the tension between the “justice” that governs the placement of souls in Hell and the pity for the damned that the poet skillfully manipulates his readers into feeling. And yet Hell is the place “where pity lives when it is truly dead”: “qui vive la pietà quand’è ben morta” (Inf. 20.28).

There are words engraved on the gate of Hell (they are written, “scritte” in verse 11): written by Someone, in terza rima. There are striking rhetorical features: for instance the anaphora of the first three verses (anaphora is the repetition of words at the beginning of two or more successive verses, in this case the ominously repeated “per me si va” [through me the way]). Also noteworthy is the word that is repeated most often throughout the inscription, namely the adjective “eternal” in various forms. This gate, we are told, will endure eternally: “e io etterno duro” (and I endure eternally [Inf. 3.8]). The message here regarding the eternity of Hell is a theological one—and it is forbidding.

The eternity of Hell was debated by early theologians before being “settled” by St. Augustine. Origen affirmed the medicinal and corrective value of a non-eternal system of punishment that would eventually restore all souls to God. However, Augustine vigorously and successfully defended the eternity of Hell, using Matthew 25 and arguing: ‘‘the sentence of the Lord could not be evacuated of meaning or deprived of its force; the sentence, I mean, that he, on his own prediction, was to pronounce in these words: ‘Out of my sight, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which is prepared for the Devil and his angels’’’ (Augustine, City of God, trans. Henry Bettenson [London: Penguin, 1972], pp. 21–23). I discuss the importance of Augustine in the context of the theology of Hell in “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell”, cited in Coordinated Readings. It is also worth noting that the eternity of Hell is still debated by some Christians today: see http://rethinkinghell.com/.

The symmetry of Hell and Paradise as eternal realms, much posited by Dante scholars, is not in fact accurate. As I clarify in The Undivine Comedy, the eternity of Hell is of a different order from the eternity of Paradise. The eternity of Hell is “sanza tempo”—“without time” (Inf. 3.29), as we learn in this canto. Whereas, the eternity of Paradise is “di tempo fore”: “outside of time” (Par. 20.16).

Eternity of Hell signifies duration, while eternity of Paradise signifies an eternal present:

Hell is defined as eternal, but in his representation of hell Dante never problematizes the concepts of space and time as he does in his representation of paradise; he never says (the very ludicrousness of the proposition is telling) that all the souls are really with Lucifer in Cocytus and only appear in various circles for the benefit of the pilgrim. Spatially, hell is treated as tangible and concrete, while temporally, the fact that it is eternal means only that it will last forever, that its torments are perpetual.

Eternity in the context of hell signifies duration; as Aquinas notes, “The fire of hell is called eternal only because it is unending” (ST 1a.10.3; Blackfriars 1964, 2:143). In conceptualizing paradise, on the other hand, Dante moves from an interminable duration to an eternal present, to that which is outside of time altogether: the divine mind exists “in sua etternità di tempo fore” (in his eternity outside of time [Par. 29.16]). Dante seems to have applied to his two realms Boethius’s distinction between perpetual endlessness and eternal timelessness: the air of hell is “without time”—“sanza tempo” (Inf. 3.29)—because it is starless and therefore endless, deprived of the measured time produced by the motion of the spheres, not because it is truly timeless and eternal, altogether outside of time, “in sua etternità di tempo fore”.  (The Undivine Comedy, p. 170)

***

In Inferno 3 the voyagers traverse the gate of Hell at the beginning, and the river Acheron at the end. The canto is essentially a protracted limen, a protracted threshold, entrance-hall, or portal. The souls they see here do not belong to the first circle of Hell, which we come to only in Inferno 4. Rather the souls featured in Inferno 3 are themselves liminal, like the space they inhabit. They are the souls of people “who lived without disgrace and without praise”: “che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo” (Inf. 3.36). In other words, these are the souls of the morally neutral.

These neutral souls are commingled with the angels who neither rebelled against God nor were faithful to God. While the rebellious angels were cast from the heavens and became devils, the angels of the vestibule were cast out of heaven but not received into “deep hell” (“profondo inferno” [Inf. 3.41]). Rather, they remained for eternity in this liminal space.

Dante thus imagines a group of souls who are morally in-between. They are “hateful to God” and they are hateful to “His enemies”: “a Dio spiacenti e a’ nemici sui” (Inf. 3.63). But, we note, these neither-good-nor-bad folks are absolutely not geographically in-between; they are not equidistant between Heaven and Hell. Rather, Dante locates them on the very threshold of Hell.

Dante has parted company with theology, which does not provide for sinners who are not evil enough to be received into Hell proper:

The place in canto 3 is transition incarnate. Its identity is conferred by what it is between: it is between the gate of hell and the river Acheron, which the pilgrim will cross at canto’s end. To reach that crossing, that point of commitment, that Rubicon at which transition is ratified, the pilgrim must transit the place of transitions in canto 3. It is also a place that tells us a great deal about the character and methods of our poet. Morally, this place serves as an index of engagement, dramatizing his commitment to commitment by creating a category for those who rejected both good and evil (but who are, we note, by no means positioned equally between the two). (The Undivine Comedy, p. 32)

As I wrote in The Undivine Comedy, this vestibule dramatizes Dante’s commitment to commitment. Dante here shows us his willingness to manipulate the theology of Hell in order to express what matters to him, which in Inferno 3 is his aversion to the state of ignominious non-commitment.

Dante disdains moral neutrality to such a degree that he conceives of a group that is neither good enough to be admitted to Heaven nor evil enough to be admitted to Hell. And he places this group liminally, on the very threshold of Hell. Martin Luther King captures the essence of Dante’s point in his speech “Why I Am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (April 30, 1967):

Now, I’ve chosen to preach about the war in Vietnam because I agree with Dante, that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal.

King does not get the technical part right: Dante does not place these souls in “the hottest places in hell” because—and this is the grandeur of Dante’s idea—his point is that they are so base that they are not even admitted to Hell. But King captures completely the key idea of moral neutrality as betrayal: “There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal”.

***

Neutrality that becomes betrayal is represented in Inferno 3 by the shade of the man “who made, through cowardice, the great refusal”: “colui / che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto” (Inf. 3.59-60).

Dante stipulates that the pilgrim recognizes this soul. The poet does not however give us his name, because in his view the fitting consequence of his moral cowardice is erasure from the rolls of both Heaven and Hell.

The consensus of scholars is that “colui che fece per viltà il gran rifiuto” is Pope Celestine V, but the verse necessarily remains controversial. To start with, Dante has devised a contrapasso that includes anonymity. As Virgilio instructs Dante: “non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa” (let us not talk of them, but look and pass on [Inf. 3.51]). Further, although most 14th century commentators concurred in believing that the verse refers to Celestine, his canonization in 1313 added to the challenges of the interpretation. There were those who argued that Dante would not so treat a canonized saint. I have never found the latter argument persuasive.

Celestine V (1215-1296), whose secular name was Pietro di Morrone, was pope for five months in 1294: he was elected pope 5 July 1294 and abdicated 13 December 1294. He became a Benedictine at age 17 and was a pious and solitary hermit:

His love of solitude led him first into the wilderness of Monte Morone in the Abruzzi, whence his surname, and later into the wilder recesses of Mt. Majella. He took for his model the Baptist. His hair-cloth was roughened with knots; a chain of iron encompassed his emaciated frame; he fasted every day except Sunday; each year he kept four Lents, passing three of them on bread and water; the entire day and a great part of the night he consecrated to prayer and labour. (Catholic Encyclopediahttp://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03479b.htm)

The Catholic Encyclopedia recounts the scene that led to Pietro di Morrone becoming pope, declaring it “unparalleled in ecclesiastical history”:

Three eminent dignitaries, accompanied by an immense multitude of monks and laymen, ascended the mountain, announced that Pietro had been chosen pope by unanimous vote of the Sacred College and humbly begged him to accept the honour. Two years and three months had elapsed since the death of Nicholas IV (4 Apr., 1292) without much prospect that the conclave at Perugia would unite upon a candidate. Of the twelve Cardinals who composed the Sacred College six were Romans, four Italians and two French. The factious spirit of Guelph and Ghibelline, which was then epidemic in Italy, divided the conclave, as well as the city of Rome, into two hostile parties of the Orsini and the Colonna, neither of which could outvote the other. A personal visit to Perugia, in the spring of 1294, of Charles II of Naples, who needed the papal authority in order to regain Sicily, only exasperated the affair, hot words being exchanged betrween the Angevin monarch and Cardinal Gaetani, at that time the intellectual leader of the Colonna, later, as Pope Boniface VIII, their bitter enemy. When the situation seemed hopeless, Cardinal Latino Orsini admonished the fathers that God had revealed to a saintly hermit that if the cardinals did not perform their duty within four months, He would visit the Church with severe chastisement. All knew that he referred to Pietro di Murrone. The proposition was seized upon by the exhausted conclave and the election was made unanimous. Pietro heard of his elevation with tears; but, after a brief prayer, obeyed what seemed the clear voice of God, commanding him to sacrifice his personal inclination on the altar of the public welfare. Flight was impossible, even if he contemplated it; for no sooner did the news of this extraordinary event spread abroad than multitudes (numbered at 200,000) flocked about him.  (Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03479b.htm)

Although Celestine V was not a Franciscan, he was viewed with great favor by the extreme wing of the Franciscan order known as spirituals, who advocated literal observance of Francis’ Rule: “His elevation was particularly welcome to the Spirituals, who saw in it the realization of current prophecies that the reign of the Holy Spirit ruling through the monks was at hand; and they proclaimed him the first legitimate pope since Constantine’s donation of wealth and worldly power to ‘the first rich father’ (Inferno, Canto XIX)” (Catholic Encyclopedia, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/03479b.htm).

One Franciscan, the poet Jacopone da Todi (1236-1306), challenges Pietro da Morrone to reform the Church:

Que farai, Pier da Morrone?
Èi venuto al paragone .  . . 
Guàrdate da baratteri, 
ch’el ner per bianco ’l fo vedere; 
se non te ’n sai bene scrimire, 
cantarai mala canzone. 
(Jacopone da Todi, Que farai, Pier da Morrone?)
What will you do, Pier da Morrone? 
You have come to the moment of truth . . . 
Look out for barattieri
who make you see black for white; 
if you do not know how to distinguish yourself clearly from them, 
you will sing a sad song.

The figure of Pope Celestine V is a very complicated one for Dante, because Dante shared many of Celestine’s views. Dante leaned toward the asceticism of the Franciscan spirituals and founded his politics on the principle that the church was corrupted by the Donation of Constantine and should have remained in its state of initial purity and poverty. Hence the reference to Inferno 19 in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry on Celestine V that we see in the above citation.

Many of Celestine’s positions regarding poverty and humility would have been deeply congenial to Dante. But, on the other hand, Celestine’s congenial views only make the consequences of his abdication harder to bear. For Dante, Celestine’s abdication of the papacy is an object lesson in the devastating consequences wrought by lack of commitment, by insufficient moral courage, for his abdication allowed Boniface VIII to become pope. On balance therefore I find the arguments identifying “colui che fece per viltà il gran rifiuto” with Celestine quite compelling.

That said, we must remember that the text deliberately “refuses” to record the name of “colui / che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto” (Inf. 3.59-60).

It is worth remembering that the “viltade” of this unnamed soul echoes the pilgrim’s own state in the previous canto, where Virgilio remarks that “l’anima tua è da viltade offesa” (your soul has been assailed by cowardice [Inf. 2.45]). In other words, Dante has just dramatized his own hesitation to accept the arduous responsibility that has been assigned to him. Supported by Beatrice and Virgilio, however, he was able to find the courage to soldier on: “a sostener la guerra / sì del cammino e sì de la pietate” (to undergo the battle / both of the journeying and of the pity [Inf. 2.4-5]).

The shades of the neither-good-nor-bad run behind a banner and are stung by horseflies and wasps. The afterlife enforces upon them, by a perverse discipline, the commitment that while they were alive they never embraced: they race after a banner in an infernal (per)version of embracing a cause. Now they are perforce committed, but they are committed to nothing of any value.

We can consider the behavior of these souls to model the first contrapasso of the Commedia. These souls’ futile chasing after a banner while being viciously stung is our first encounter with the application of the rule, common to vision literature, whereby (as Gilbert and Sullivan put it) the punishment fits the crime. For Dante’s use of the word contrapasso, see the Introduction to Inferno 28.

Dante’s methodology in constructing his contrapasso is to literalize metaphors: Hell is the place where the metaphor that applies to your sinful inclination is turned into literal (and eternal) reality. In the case of the neither-good-nor-bad the contrapasso works by contrariness: the souls now perform what they did not do in life, its contrary. Most often, in Inferno, Dante will apply contrapasso by analogy: thus, for instance, the lustful souls are buffeted by an infernal windstorm that is analogous to the passions that they permitted to buffet them during their lives on earth.

The second half of Inferno 3 is devoted to the crossing of the river Acheron; as in many myths and much history (for instance, Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon), the crossing of the river marks the completion of the transition and the arrival into a new state. In marked contrast to the neither-good-nor-bad souls, who never wanted anything with vigor and commitment, the damned souls whom Dante sees as they cross the first infernal river are ready and willing to cross:

e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio,
ché la divina giustizia li sprona,
sì che la tema si volve in disio. 
(Inf. 3.124-26)
and they are eager for the river crossing
because celestial justice spurs them on,
so that their fear is turned into desire.

Part of justice is the mechanism that causes evil souls to desire their eternal torment. Their “fear is turned into desire” (Inf. 3.126): this mysterious “disio” seems to echo the free will with which—according to the theology of Hell as a non-deterministic and freely chosen state—these souls embraced evil while alive.

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits,” pp. 31-37, 170-71; “Medieval Multiculturalism and Dante’s Theology of Hell,” 2000, rpt. Dante and the Origins of Italian Literary Culture, pp. 102-21.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 3: Crossings and Commitments.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-3/

About the Commento

1‘Per me si va ne la città dolente,
2per me si va ne l’etterno dolore,
3per me si va tra la perduta gente.

4Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
5fecemi la divina podestate,
6la somma sapïenza e ’l primo amore.

7Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
8se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
9Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate’.

10Queste parole di colore oscuro
11vid’ ïo scritte al sommo d’una porta;
12per ch’io: «Maestro, il senso lor m’è duro».

13Ed elli a me, come persona accorta:
14«Qui si convien lasciare ogne sospetto;
15ogne viltà convien che qui sia morta.

16Noi siam venuti al loco ov’ i’ t’ho detto
17che tu vedrai le genti dolorose
18c’hanno perduto il ben de l’intelletto».

19E poi che la sua mano a la mia puose
20con lieto volto, ond’ io mi confortai,
21mi mise dentro a le segrete cose.

22Quivi sospiri, pianti e alti guai
23risonavan per l’aere sanza stelle,
24per ch’io al cominciar ne lagrimai.

25Diverse lingue, orribili favelle,
26parole di dolore, accenti d’ira,
27voci alte e fioche, e suon di man con elle

28facevano un tumulto, il qual s’aggira
29sempre in quell’ aura sanza tempo tinta,
30come la rena quando turbo spira.

31E io ch’avea d’error la testa cinta,
32dissi: «Maestro, che è quel ch’i’ odo?
33e che gent’ è che par nel duol sì vinta?».

34Ed elli a me: «Questo misero modo
35tegnon l’anime triste di coloro
36che visser sanza ’nfamia e sanza lodo.

37Mischiate sono a quel cattivo coro
38de li angeli che non furon ribelli
39né fur fedeli a Dio, ma per sé fuoro.

40Caccianli i ciel per non esser men belli,
41né lo profondo inferno li riceve,
42ch’alcuna gloria i rei avrebber d’elli».

43E io: «Maestro, che è tanto greve
44a lor che lamentar li fa sì forte?».
45Rispuose: «Dicerolti molto breve.

46Questi non hanno speranza di morte,
47e la lor cieca vita è tanto bassa,
48che ’nvidïosi son d’ogne altra sorte.

49Fama di loro il mondo esser non lassa;
50misericordia e giustizia li sdegna:
51non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa».

52E io, che riguardai, vidi una ’nsegna
53che girando correva tanto ratta,
54che d’ogne posa mi parea indegna;

55e dietro le venìa sì lunga tratta
56di gente, ch’i’ non averei creduto
57che morte tanta n’avesse disfatta.

58Poscia ch’io v’ebbi alcun riconosciuto,
59vidi e conobbi l’ombra di colui
60che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.

61Incontanente intesi e certo fui
62che questa era la setta d’i cattivi,
63a Dio spiacenti e a’ nemici sui.

64Questi sciaurati, che mai non fur vivi,
65erano ignudi e stimolati molto
66da mosconi e da vespe ch’eran ivi.

67Elle rigavan lor di sangue il volto,
68che, mischiato di lagrime, a’ lor piedi
69da fastidiosi vermi era ricolto.

70E poi ch’a riguardar oltre mi diedi,
71vidi genti a la riva d’un gran fiume;
72per ch’io dissi: «Maestro, or mi concedi

73ch’i’ sappia quali sono, e qual costume
74le fa di trapassar parer sì pronte,
75com’ i’ discerno per lo fioco lume».

76Ed elli a me: «Le cose ti fier conte
77quando noi fermerem li nostri passi
78su la trista riviera d’Acheronte».

79Allor con li occhi vergognosi e bassi,
80temendo no ’l mio dir li fosse grave,
81infino al fiume del parlar mi trassi.

82Ed ecco verso noi venir per nave
83un vecchio, bianco per antico pelo,
84gridando: «Guai a voi, anime prave!

85Non isperate mai veder lo cielo:
86i’ vegno per menarvi a l’altra riva
87ne le tenebre etterne, in caldo e ’n gelo.

88E tu che se’ costì, anima viva,
89pàrtiti da cotesti che son morti».
90Ma poi che vide ch’io non mi partiva,

91disse: «Per altra via, per altri porti
92verrai a piaggia, non qui, per passare:
93più lieve legno convien che ti porti».

94E ’l duca lui: «Caron, non ti crucciare:
95vuolsi così colà dove si puote
96ciò che si vuole, e più non dimandare».

97Quinci fuor quete le lanose gote
98al nocchier de la livida palude,
99che ’ntorno a li occhi avea di fiamme rote.

100Ma quell’ anime, ch’eran lasse e nude,
101cangiar colore e dibattero i denti,
102ratto che ’nteser le parole crude.

103Bestemmiavano Dio e lor parenti,
104l’umana spezie e ’l loco e ’l tempo e ’l seme
105di lor semenza e di lor nascimenti.

106Poi si ritrasser tutte quante insieme,
107forte piangendo, a la riva malvagia
108ch’attende ciascun uom che Dio non teme.

109Caron dimonio, con occhi di bragia
110loro accennando, tutte le raccoglie;
111batte col remo qualunque s’adagia.

112Come d’autunno si levan le foglie
113l’una appresso de l’altra, fin che ’l ramo
114vede a la terra tutte le sue spoglie,

115similemente il mal seme d’Adamo
116gittansi di quel lito ad una ad una,
117per cenni come augel per suo richiamo.

118Così sen vanno su per l’onda bruna,
119e avanti che sien di là discese,
120anche di qua nuova schiera s’auna.

121«Figliuol mio», disse ’l maestro cortese,
122«quelli che muoion ne l’ira di Dio
123tutti convegnon qui d’ogne paese;

124e pronti sono a trapassar lo rio,
125ché la divina giustizia li sprona,
126sì che la tema si volve in disio.

127Quinci non passa mai anima buona;
128e però, se Caron di te si lagna,
129ben puoi sapere omai che ’l suo dir suona».

130Finito questo, la buia campagna
131tremò sì forte, che de lo spavento
132la mente di sudore ancor mi bagna.

133La terra lagrimosa diede vento,
134che balenò una luce vermiglia
135la qual mi vinse ciascun sentimento;

136e caddi come l’uom cui sonno piglia.

THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.

JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.

BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.

These words—their aspect was obscure—I read
inscribed above a gateway, and I said:
“Master, their meaning is difficult for me.”

And he to me, as one who comprehends:
“Here one must leave behind all hesitation;
here every cowardice must meet its death.

For we have reached the place of which I spoke,
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect.”

And when, with gladness in his face, he placed
his hand upon my own, to comfort me,
he drew me in among the hidden things.

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands—

all went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

And I—my head oppressed by horror—said:
“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”

And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them—
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”

And I: “What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?”
He answered: “I shall tell you in few words.

Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.

The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”

And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on—so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.

Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people—I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.

After I had identified a few,
I saw and recognized the shade of him
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

At once I understood with certainty:
this company contained the cowardly,
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretched ones, who never were alive,
went naked and were stung again, again
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.

The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.

And then, looking beyond them, I could see
a crowd along the bank of a great river;
at which I said: “Allow me now to know

who are these people—master—and what law
has made them seem so eager for the crossing,
as I can see despite the feeble light.”

And he to me: “When we have stopped along
the melancholy shore of Acheron,
then all these matters will be plain to you.”

At that, with eyes ashamed, downcast, and fearing
that what I said had given him offense,
I did not speak until we reached the river.

And here, advancing toward us, in a boat,
an aged man—his hair was white with years —
was shouting: “Woe to you, corrupted souls!

Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven:
I come to lead you to the other shore,
to the eternal dark, to fire and frost.

And you approaching there, you living soul,
keep well away from these—they are the dead.”
But when he saw I made no move to go,

he said: “Another way and other harbors—
not here—will bring you passage to your shore:
a lighter craft will have to carry you.”

My guide then: “Charon, don’t torment yourself:
our passage has been willed above, where One
can do what He has willed; and ask no more.”

Now silence fell upon the wooly cheeks
of Charon, pilot of the livid marsh,
whose eyes were ringed about with wheels of flame.

But all those spirits, naked and exhausted,
had lost their color, and they gnashed their teeth
as soon as they heard Charon’s cruel words;

they execrated God and their own parents
and humankind, and then the place and time
of their conception’s seed and of their birth.

Then they forgathered, huddled in one throng,
weeping aloud along that wretched shore
which waits for all who have no fear of God.

The demon Charon, with his eyes like embers,
by signaling to them, has all embark;
his oar strikes anyone who stretches out.

As, in the autumn, leaves detach themselves,
first one and then the other, till the bough
sees all its fallen garments on the ground,

similarly, the evil seed of Adam
descended from the shoreline one by one,
when signaled, as a falcon—called—will come.

So do they move across the darkened waters;
even before they reach the farther shore,
new ranks already gather on this bank.

“My son,” the gracious master said to me,
“those who have died beneath the wrath of God,
all these assemble here from every country;

and they are eager for the river crossing
because celestial justice spurs them on,
so that their fear is turned into desire.

No good soul ever takes its passage here;
therefore, if Charon has complained of you,
by now you can be sure what his words mean.”

And after this was said, the darkened plain
quaked so tremendously—the memory
of terror then, bathes me in sweat again.

A whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth,
a wind that crackled with a bloodred light,
a light that overcame all of my senses;

and like a man whom sleep has seized, I fell.

THROUGH me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,’03
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in !”

These words in sombre colour I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: “Their sense is, Master, hard to me!”

And he to me, as one experienced:
“Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.

We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect.”

And after he had laid his hand on mine
With joyful mien, whence I was comforted,
He led me in among the secret things.

There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,

Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
For ever in that air for ever black,
Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.

And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said: “Master, what is this which now I hear ?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished ?”

And he to me: “This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise.

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them.”

And I: “O Master, what so grievous is
To these, that maketh them lament so sore ?”
He answered: “I will tell thee very briefly.

These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.

No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass.”

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,
Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;

And after it there came so long a train
Of people, that I ne’er would have believed
That ever Death so many had undone.

When some among them I had recognised.
I looked, and I beheld the shade of him
Who made through cowardice the great refusal.

Forthwith I comprehended, and was certain,
That this the sect was of the caitiff wretches
Hateful to God and to his enemies.

These miscreants, who never were alive,
Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
By gadflies and by hornets that were there.

These did their faces irrigate with blood,
Which, with their tears commingled, at their feet
By the disgusting worms was gathered up.

And when to gazing farther I betook me.
People I saw on a great river’s bank;
Whence said I: “Master, now vouchsafe to me,

That I may know who these are, and what law
Makes them appear so ready to pass over,
As I discern athwart the dusky light.”

And he to me: “These things shall all be known
To thee, as soon as we our footsteps stay
Upon the dismal shore of Acheron.”

Then with mine eyes ashamed and downward cast,
Fearing my words might irksome be to him,
From speech refrained I till we reached the river.

And lo ! towards us coming in a boat
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved

Hope nevermore to look upon the heavens;
I come to lead you to the other shore,
To the eternal shades in heat and frost.

And thou, that yonder standest, living soul,
Withdraw thee from these people, who are dead!
But when he saw that I did not withdraw,

He said: “By other ways, by other ports
Thou to the shore shalt come, not here, for passage;
A lighter vessel needs must carry thee.”

And unto him the Guide: “Vex thee not, Charon;
It is so willed there where is power to do
That which is willed; and farther question not.”

Thereat were quieted the fleecy cheeks
Of him the ferryman of the livid fen,
Who round about his eyes had wheels of flame.

But all those souls who weary were and naked
Their colour changed and gnashed their teeth together,
As soon as they had heard those cruel words.

God they blasphemed and their progenitors,
The human race, the place, the time, the seed
Of their engendering and of their birth !

Thereafter all together they drew back,
Bitterly weeping, to the accursed shore,
Which waiteth every man who fears not God.

Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede,
Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
Beats with his oar whoever lags behind.

As in the autumn—time the leaves fall off,
First one and then another, till the branch
Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils;

In similar wise the evil seed of Adam
Throw themselves from that margin one by one,
At signals, as a bird unto its lure.

So they depart across the dusky wave,
And ere upon the other side they land,
Again on this side a new troop assembles.

“My son,” the courteous Master said to me,
“All those who perish in the wrath of God
Here meet together out of every land;

And ready are they to pass o’er the river,
Because celestial Justice spurs them on,
So that their fear is turned into desire.

This way there never passes a good soul;
And hence if Charon doth complain of thee,
Well mayst thou know now what his speech imports.”

This being finished, all the dusk champaign
Trembled so violently, that of that terror
The recollection bathes me still with sweat.

The land of tears gave forth a blast of wind,
And fulminated a vermilion light,
Which overmastered in me every sense,

And as a man whom sleep hath seized I fell.

THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE SUFFERING CITY,
THROUGH ME THE WAY TO THE ETERNAL PAIN,
THROUGH ME THE WAY THAT RUNS AMONG THE LOST.

JUSTICE URGED ON MY HIGH ARTIFICER;
MY MAKER WAS DIVINE AUTHORITY,
THE HIGHEST WISDOM, AND THE PRIMAL LOVE.

BEFORE ME NOTHING BUT ETERNAL THINGS
WERE MADE, AND I ENDURE ETERNALLY.
ABANDON EVERY HOPE, WHO ENTER HERE.

These words—their aspect was obscure—I read
inscribed above a gateway, and I said:
“Master, their meaning is difficult for me.”

And he to me, as one who comprehends:
“Here one must leave behind all hesitation;
here every cowardice must meet its death.

For we have reached the place of which I spoke,
where you will see the miserable people,
those who have lost the good of the intellect.”

And when, with gladness in his face, he placed
his hand upon my own, to comfort me,
he drew me in among the hidden things.

Here sighs and lamentations and loud cries
were echoing across the starless air,
so that, as soon as I set out, I wept.

Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands—

all went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.

And I—my head oppressed by horror—said:
“Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?”

And he to me: “This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.

The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them—
even the wicked cannot glory in them.”

And I: “What is it, master, that oppresses
these souls, compelling them to wail so loud?”
He answered: “I shall tell you in few words.

Those who are here can place no hope in death,
and their blind life is so abject that they
are envious of every other fate.

The world will let no fame of theirs endure;
both justice and compassion must disdain them;
let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”

And I, looking more closely, saw a banner
that, as it wheeled about, raced on—so quick
that any respite seemed unsuited to it.

Behind that banner trailed so long a file
of people—I should never have believed
that death could have unmade so many souls.

After I had identified a few,
I saw and recognized the shade of him
who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.

At once I understood with certainty:
this company contained the cowardly,
hateful to God and to His enemies.

These wretched ones, who never were alive,
went naked and were stung again, again
by horseflies and by wasps that circled them.

The insects streaked their faces with their blood,
which, mingled with their tears, fell at their feet,
where it was gathered up by sickening worms.

And then, looking beyond them, I could see
a crowd along the bank of a great river;
at which I said: “Allow me now to know

who are these people—master—and what law
has made them seem so eager for the crossing,
as I can see despite the feeble light.”

And he to me: “When we have stopped along
the melancholy shore of Acheron,
then all these matters will be plain to you.”

At that, with eyes ashamed, downcast, and fearing
that what I said had given him offense,
I did not speak until we reached the river.

And here, advancing toward us, in a boat,
an aged man—his hair was white with years —
was shouting: “Woe to you, corrupted souls!

Forget your hope of ever seeing Heaven:
I come to lead you to the other shore,
to the eternal dark, to fire and frost.

And you approaching there, you living soul,
keep well away from these—they are the dead.”
But when he saw I made no move to go,

he said: “Another way and other harbors—
not here—will bring you passage to your shore:
a lighter craft will have to carry you.”

My guide then: “Charon, don’t torment yourself:
our passage has been willed above, where One
can do what He has willed; and ask no more.”

Now silence fell upon the wooly cheeks
of Charon, pilot of the livid marsh,
whose eyes were ringed about with wheels of flame.

But all those spirits, naked and exhausted,
had lost their color, and they gnashed their teeth
as soon as they heard Charon’s cruel words;

they execrated God and their own parents
and humankind, and then the place and time
of their conception’s seed and of their birth.

Then they forgathered, huddled in one throng,
weeping aloud along that wretched shore
which waits for all who have no fear of God.

The demon Charon, with his eyes like embers,
by signaling to them, has all embark;
his oar strikes anyone who stretches out.

As, in the autumn, leaves detach themselves,
first one and then the other, till the bough
sees all its fallen garments on the ground,

similarly, the evil seed of Adam
descended from the shoreline one by one,
when signaled, as a falcon—called—will come.

So do they move across the darkened waters;
even before they reach the farther shore,
new ranks already gather on this bank.

“My son,” the gracious master said to me,
“those who have died beneath the wrath of God,
all these assemble here from every country;

and they are eager for the river crossing
because celestial justice spurs them on,
so that their fear is turned into desire.

No good soul ever takes its passage here;
therefore, if Charon has complained of you,
by now you can be sure what his words mean.”

And after this was said, the darkened plain
quaked so tremendously—the memory
of terror then, bathes me in sweat again.

A whirlwind burst out of the tear-drenched earth,
a wind that crackled with a bloodred light,
a light that overcame all of my senses;

and like a man whom sleep has seized, I fell.

THROUGH me the way is to the city dolent;
Through me the way is to eternal dole;
Through me the way among the people lost.

Justice incited my sublime Creator;
Created me divine Omnipotence,
The highest Wisdom and the primal Love.

Before me there were no created things,’03
Only eterne, and I eternal last.
All hope abandon, ye who enter in !”

These words in sombre colour I beheld
Written upon the summit of a gate;
Whence I: “Their sense is, Master, hard to me!”

And he to me, as one experienced:
“Here all suspicion needs must be abandoned,
All cowardice must needs be here extinct.

We to the place have come, where I have told thee
Thou shalt behold the people dolorous
Who have foregone the good of intellect.”

And after he had laid his hand on mine
With joyful mien, whence I was comforted,
He led me in among the secret things.

There sighs, complaints, and ululations loud
Resounded through the air without a star,
Whence I, at the beginning, wept thereat.

Languages diverse, horrible dialects,
Accents of anger, words of agony,
And voices high and hoarse, with sound of hands,

Made up a tumult that goes whirling on
For ever in that air for ever black,
Even as the sand doth, when the whirlwind breathes.

And I, who had my head with horror bound,
Said: “Master, what is this which now I hear ?
What folk is this, which seems by pain so vanquished ?”

And he to me: “This miserable mode
Maintain the melancholy souls of those
Who lived withouten infamy or praise.

Commingled are they with that caitiff choir
Of Angels, who have not rebellious been,
Nor faithful were to God, but were for self.

The heavens expelled them, not to be less fair;
Nor them the nethermore abyss receives,
For glory none the damned would have from them.”

And I: “O Master, what so grievous is
To these, that maketh them lament so sore ?”
He answered: “I will tell thee very briefly.

These have no longer any hope of death;
And this blind life of theirs is so debased,
They envious are of every other fate.

No fame of them the world permits to be;
Misericord and Justice both disdain them.
Let us not speak of them, but look, and pass.”

And I, who looked again, beheld a banner,
Which, whirling round, ran on so rapidly,
That of all pause it seemed to me indignant;

And after it there came so long a train
Of people, that I ne’er would have believed
That ever Death so many had undone.

When some among them I had recognised.
I looked, and I beheld the shade of him
Who made through cowardice the great refusal.

Forthwith I comprehended, and was certain,
That this the sect was of the caitiff wretches
Hateful to God and to his enemies.

These miscreants, who never were alive,
Were naked, and were stung exceedingly
By gadflies and by hornets that were there.

These did their faces irrigate with blood,
Which, with their tears commingled, at their feet
By the disgusting worms was gathered up.

And when to gazing farther I betook me.
People I saw on a great river’s bank;
Whence said I: “Master, now vouchsafe to me,

That I may know who these are, and what law
Makes them appear so ready to pass over,
As I discern athwart the dusky light.”

And he to me: “These things shall all be known
To thee, as soon as we our footsteps stay
Upon the dismal shore of Acheron.”

Then with mine eyes ashamed and downward cast,
Fearing my words might irksome be to him,
From speech refrained I till we reached the river.

And lo ! towards us coming in a boat
An old man, hoary with the hair of eld,
Crying: “Woe unto you, ye souls depraved

Hope nevermore to look upon the heavens;
I come to lead you to the other shore,
To the eternal shades in heat and frost.

And thou, that yonder standest, living soul,
Withdraw thee from these people, who are dead!
But when he saw that I did not withdraw,

He said: “By other ways, by other ports
Thou to the shore shalt come, not here, for passage;
A lighter vessel needs must carry thee.”

And unto him the Guide: “Vex thee not, Charon;
It is so willed there where is power to do
That which is willed; and farther question not.”

Thereat were quieted the fleecy cheeks
Of him the ferryman of the livid fen,
Who round about his eyes had wheels of flame.

But all those souls who weary were and naked
Their colour changed and gnashed their teeth together,
As soon as they had heard those cruel words.

God they blasphemed and their progenitors,
The human race, the place, the time, the seed
Of their engendering and of their birth !

Thereafter all together they drew back,
Bitterly weeping, to the accursed shore,
Which waiteth every man who fears not God.

Charon the demon, with the eyes of glede,
Beckoning to them, collects them all together,
Beats with his oar whoever lags behind.

As in the autumn—time the leaves fall off,
First one and then another, till the branch
Unto the earth surrenders all its spoils;

In similar wise the evil seed of Adam
Throw themselves from that margin one by one,
At signals, as a bird unto its lure.

So they depart across the dusky wave,
And ere upon the other side they land,
Again on this side a new troop assembles.

“My son,” the courteous Master said to me,
“All those who perish in the wrath of God
Here meet together out of every land;

And ready are they to pass o’er the river,
Because celestial Justice spurs them on,
So that their fear is turned into desire.

This way there never passes a good soul;
And hence if Charon doth complain of thee,
Well mayst thou know now what his speech imports.”

This being finished, all the dusk champaign
Trembled so violently, that of that terror
The recollection bathes me still with sweat.

The land of tears gave forth a blast of wind,
And fulminated a vermilion light,
Which overmastered in me every sense,

And as a man whom sleep hath seized I fell.

Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 3

For more readings by Francesco Bausi, see the Bausi Readings page.