The Cultural Other

  • historicizing Limbo: Limbo as conceived by medieval theologians versus Limbo as conceived by Dante ( Limbo as conceived by the contemporary Catholic church, which has moved to discard it)
  • Limbo for Dante is a space that he uses to honor virtuous pagans: the multicultural lists that record and preserve the “honor of their names”, like the catalogue of ships in Book 2 of the Iliad (an epic trope familiar to Dante through Vergil’s Aeneid)
  • virtuous pagans who lived before Christianity: these include great poets (e.g. Homer, Vergil, Horace, Ovid, Lucan) and philosophers (e.g. Aristotle, Socrates, Plato) and other figures of classical antiquity
  • some contemporary virtuous pagans: a Muslim general, Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn), and two Muslim philosophers, Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā) and Averroes (Ibn Rushd)
  • the question of the injustice of condemning those who could not know Christ through no fault of their own, linked to the issue of the transmission of texts and ideas; these themes are sutured into the Commedia by the presence of saved pagans, starting with Cato of Utica in Purgatorio 1 and culminating with Ripheus the Trojan in Paradiso 20

This canto is devoted to the first circle of Hell, which contains the space that theologians call “Limbo”. Literally the word Limbo means “edge” or “hem”, as in the hem of an article of clothing. Limbo was imagined by theologians to be a privileged zone of Hell where the only punishment is being deprived of God and of heaven. It is a place of no physical torment. This space was devised to house souls who did not sin, but whose historical circumstances prevent them from being saved.

Traditionally, theologians placed two groups of souls in Limbo:

  1.  the Biblical righteous, Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs. These souls died long before the life of Christ. They resided in Limbo after their deaths until Christ rescued them by descending into Hell, which happened after the Crucifixion and before the Resurrection (Latin: Descensus Christi ad Inferos; English: Harrowing of Hell);
  2.  unbaptized infants. Infants who died before receiving the sacrament of baptism, which washes away original sin.

Given that the Biblical righteous were liberated from Limbo by Christ, in 34 CE (this is the date that Dante supplies in Inferno 21), by the time of Dante’s journey in 1300 CE they were long removed from Hell and lodged in Paradise. In a theologically-attuned treatment of Limbo, therefore, in 1300 we can expect to find only unbaptized babes—no adults whatsoever.

As we shall see, Dante’s conception of Limbo diverges fundamentally from a theologically-attuned conception of Limbo.

In Dante’s language, the pain of Limbo is a “duol sanza martìri” (suffering without torments [Inf. 4.28]). Going further, he clarifies that the souls in Limbo know that they are deprived and desire that which they will never have, so that eternally thwarted desire is the true source of their suffering: “e sol di tanto offesi, / che sanza speme vivemo in disio” (we are punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing [Inf. 4.41-42]).

While the poet’s characterization of Limbo as a place without physical torment is theologically accurate, his choice of the inhabitants of his Limbo is far from orthodox, indeed it is exceptionally personal and idiosyncratic. Dante places in his Limbo the souls of great pagans who lived lives of extreme virtue and accomplishment.

Dante’s idiosyncratic handling of Limbo, his deviation from theological correctness, thus becomes an index by which we can measure his passionate reverence for humanistic achievement.

In Virgilio’s explanation, these are the souls of those who committed no sin but who were not baptized. Virgilio is very clear that the souls in Limbo did not sin: “ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi, / non basta, perché non ebber battesmo” (they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits, / that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism [Inf. 4.34-5]). According to this account, the failure of these souls to worship Christ is due simply and only to their having lived prior to Christ’s birth: “dinanzi al cristianesmo” (before Christianity [Inf. 4.37]).

Virgilio, who tells Dante that he himself belongs to this group (“e di questi cotai son io medesmo” and of such spirits I myself am one [Inf. 4.39]), restates categorically that the only “defects” of the souls of Limbo are the ones named above: “Per tai difetti, non per altro rio, / semo perduti” (For these defects, and for no other evil, / we now are lost [Inf. 4.40-1]). Their “defects” are thus that they were not baptized and failed to worship Christ. This failure occurred through no fault of their own, but because of the timing of their birth.

However, Virgilio’s clear, straightforward, and consoling explanation for his damnation will become less clear and consoling when we arrive in Purgatory and discover, in Purgatorio 1, that the realm of Christian purgation is governed by a saved pagan: Cato of Utica, the Roman statesman whom Dante had venerated as early as the Convivio.

In Purgatorio 1 we learn for the first time that Dante believes that virtuous pagans can be saved. Although we learn this uncomfortable fact for the first time in Purgatorio 1, it will not be the last time, for there will be yet more saved pagans in Dante’s poem after Cato—indeed the last one will be introduced only in the heaven of justice, in Paradiso 20.

If virtuous pagans can be saved, then belief in Christ is possible even for those born before Him, and Virgilio’s explanation of his own damnation rings somewhat hollow. At the very least, the clear and straightforward explanation that Virgilio offers in Inferno 4 is problematized by the unfolding of the Commedia and by the subsequent realization that pagans can be saved.

The Roman poet is able to offer the testimony of his own personal experience, for he personally witnessed Christ’s Harrowing of Hell. He saw the arrival of the Beneficent Force that was able to liberate his fellow inmates: “Io era nuovo in questo stato, / quando ci vidi venire un possente” (I was new-entered on this state / when I beheld a Great Lord enter here [Inf. 4.52-3]). Dante here cleverly connects the dates of Vergil’s and Christ’s deaths: Vergil died in 19 BCE and Christ died and harrowed Hell in 34 CE. There was thus an interval of 53 years between Virgilio’s arrival in Limbo and Christ’s arrival in Limbo: 53 years are indeed but the blink of an eye from the perspective of eternity, thus accounting for Virgilio’s self-description as “nuovo in questo stato” (Inf. 4.52) at the time of the Harrowing of Hell.

By imagining Virgilio in Limbo, Dante has given himself the opportunity to imagine Virgilio as a eye-witness of Christ. This passage therefore offers as well some perspective on Virgilio’s melancholy and the pallor of his visage upon returning to Limbo. Virgilio witnessed the arrival of the Beneficent Force, but he himself was not saved by that power. He knows that it is possible to be saved, that salvation can happen, but it did not happen for him.

Christ’s Harrowing of Hell is the crucial punctuation in the eternity of Limbo: it is the event that fundamentally altered Limbo’s make-up, because Christ took away with Him all the Biblical worthies, the Hebrew patriarchs and matriarchs. In other words, according to the theological account, Christ removed all the adults housed in Limbo prior to His arrival. After Christ’s Harrowing of Hell, again according to the theological account, only unbaptized infants would be found in Limbo.

These are the infants whom Dante mentions only in one word in verse 30: “d’infanti e di femmine e di viri” (of infants and of women and of men). By having Virgilio refer explicitly to the Harrowing of Hell, and to the departure with Christ of the Biblical worthies, Dante makes his divergent account of the make-up of Limbo all the more notable: in Dante’s account there are still adults present in Limbo after Christ’s arrival and departure.

To posit, as Dante does, that adults reside in Limbo after the Harrowing of Hell and moreover that these adults are pagans—men and women who did not believe in Christianity—is anomalous within the history of the idea of Limbo.

Dante goes even further: within his already anomalous treatment of Limbo, he invents a special space for the great pagans of antiquity and selected Muslim moderns. Having already stipulated the darkness of the abyss (“Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa” [dark and deep and filled with mist Inf. 4.10]), Dante designates for the first circle of Hell a light that conquers the darkness: “io vidi un foco / ch’emisperio di tenebre vincia” (I beheld a fire / that carved out a hemisphere from the shadows [Inf. 4.68-9]). Moving towards this light, he finds a “noble castle” (Inf. 4.106), within which is a beautiful meadow where the honorable souls are assembled: a “loco aperto, luminoso e alto, / sì che veder si potien tutti quanti” (an open place both high and filled with light, / so we could see all those who were assembled [Inf. 4.116-17]).

This special status gives rise to the pilgrim’s query: ‘‘questi chi son c’hanno cotanta onranza, / che dal modo de li altri li diparte’’ (who are these souls whose dignity has kept / their way of being, separate from the rest? [Inf. 4.74-5]). The remarkable answer is that the honor these souls accrued while alive was such as to win them grace from heaven:

E quelli a me: “L’onrata nominanza, 
che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
grazia acquista in ciel che sì li avanza”.   
(Inf. 4.76-8)
And he to me: “The honor of their name
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them”.

We note the word “nominanza”, derived from “nome” (name): while the names of the cowardly souls in the previous canto are erased from memory, the names of the virtuous pagans live on, winning them glory on earth and even, says Dante—displaying his humanistic values—a special status in Hell.

Their names live on, because texts record them. Therefore, if the lists of names in Inferno 4 seem somewhat tedious to read, we can “enliven” them by considering that these names are the talismans of well-lived lives and of lives well recorded in books: each name summons much cultural history and cultural memory, for which the name stands as a synecdoche.

We can remember too that the “catalogue of ships” is an epic trope from the Iliad (a trope that Dante would have known from the Aeneid’s catalogues, modeled on Homer’s), and that for Homer, as for Dante, the lists of names testify to the responsibility of the epic poet to preserve a society and a culture, in names that thwart time and defy oblivion. Dante himself, who will be embraced by the great poets of antiquity as one of their group, “the sixth among such intellects”—“sesto tra cotanto senno” (Inf. 4.102)—will carry out this epic mission through the names recorded in the Commedia, most explicitly in “the Florentine phonebook” of Paradiso 16.

The word “nominanza” is an important one in the Commedia, as we see in Purgatorio 11. It harkens back always to its first use here in Inferno 4, and thus to the fame and worth of the virtuous pagans of antiquity.

Moreover, the lists of names in Inferno 4 are fascinating in their multiculturalism. There are the Hebrew names of the Biblical worthies rescued by Christ, the Roman names, the Greek names, and the Muslim names.

By reconfiguring Limbo as a space for his cultural heroes of all stripes, Dante shows his passionate commitment to humanism, to the great achievements of human intellect and reason. And he shows his commitment to justice: he is troubled by the idea that people of such virtue and intellect are denied salvation because of the circumstances of their birth.

The issue of the virtuous pagan, introduced with the arrival of Virgilio in Inferno 1, in Inferno 4 receives its contours as a massive theme in the Commedia: the theme of the cultural other.

Not only does Dante reverence what the men and women of Inferno 4 accomplished while alive, he believes them to be perfectly good, sinful only in their culturally-induced failure to believe. Dante’s extreme sensitivity to the cultural barriers to belief in Christ is articulated in the heaven of justice, where the pilgrim asks how it can be just to exclude from heaven a perfectly just man who happens to be born on the banks of the river Indus:

ché tu dicevi: “Un uom nasce a la riva
de l’Indo, e quivi non è chi ragioni
di Cristo né chi legga né chi scriva;
  e tutti suoi voleri e atti buoni
sono, quanto ragione umana vede,
sanza peccato in vita o in sermoni.
  Muore non battezzato e sanza fede:
ov’è questa giustizia che ’l condanna?
ov’è la colpa sua, se ei non crede?” 
(Par. 19.70-78)
For you would say: “A man is born along
the shoreline of the Indus River; none
is there to speak or teach or write of Christ.
  And he, as far as human reason sees,
in all he seeks and all he does is good:
there is no sin within his life or speech.
  And that man dies unbaptized, without faith.
Where is this justice then that would condemn him?
Where is his sin if he does not believe?”

The souls whom Dante places in Limbo pose a challenge to justice similar to that of the “man born on the banks of the Indus” of Paradiso 19: how can it be just, the poet wonders in Paradiso 19, to condemn a person who lived with perfect virtue, but was denied the knowledge of Christianity?

Dante treats the issue of the cultural other as a temporal issue, with respect to virtuous people born before Christianity, and he also treats it as a geographical issue, with respect to virtuous people born in Christian times but in non-Christian lands. The presence of Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn), Avicenna (Ibn-Sīnā), and Averroes (Ibn Rushd) among the “great souls” (“li spiriti magni” [Inf. 4.118]) of Limbo leads directly to Paradiso 19 and to the accusation of injustice for excluding the “man born on the banks of the Indus” (Par. 19.70-1). See the Introduction to Paradiso 19 (“Injustice on the Banks of the Indus”) for more on this topic.

Also important is Dante’s attention to the issue of cultural and textual transmission: in Paradiso 19 he carefully creates the context of a perfectly virtuous man who lives in a place where there is “no one to speak or teach or write of Christ” (Par. 19.71-2). The man on the banks of the Indus requires knowledge of Christ, orally or textually transmitted, in order to be saved, but such knowledge is not available, adding to the injustice of his damnation. Similarly, in Purgatorio 22 Stazio explains that he was saved because of the knowledge of Christ he received from the texts of the Gospels and (with terrible irony) from Vergilian texts.

In Inferno 4 Aristotle is the “maestro di color che sanno” (master of those who know [Inf. 4.131]), but Dante makes it clear that he is able to benefit from Aristotle’s wisdom only because of the towering achievement of his Arabic commentator, Averroes: “Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo” (Averroes, who made the great Commentary [Inf. 4.144]). In Dante’s time Aristotle was available because the original Greek had been translated first into Arabic and then from Arabic into Latin.

In other words, the presence of Averroes in Inferno 4 is another way of stipulating that textual transmission is essential for knowledge. This truth gains in relevance and significance because of the further truth that—as Inferno 4, Purgatorio 22 and Paradiso 19 all testify—knowledge is necessary for salvation.

Dante could have ignored the issue of the virtuous pagan, not one of great interest to most theologians, but instead he confronts it dramatically in his re-imagining of Limbo and then keeps the issue front and center through the figure of his guide. Virgilio is constantly by Dante’s side from Inferno 1 to Purgatorio 30, and as long as Virgilio is present, so is the problem of his damnation. The more Dante comes to love Virgilio, not just as an iconic poet and sage on whom he models himself (as he says in Inferno 1), but as a father on whom he relies for support and guidance, the more Virgilio’s damnation is a source of pain and internal conflict.

The implicit questions that Dante is asking are: How can it be just for Virgilio and the other virtuous pagans to be damned when they are so good? And how can God be other than just? Rather than put these conflicts aside when he enters paradise, these questions are posed most frontally in the heaven of justice.

Dante in Inferno 4 certainly conjures the most imaginative and humanistic vision of Limbo ever known in the history of this Catholic idea. He imagines Limbo as a place that tries to bring some measure of justice to the great pagans denied baptism and denied knowledge of Christianity.

Because we have recently seen attitudes toward Limbo shift, we have been granted insight into Limbo’s historical function within the Catholic imaginary. The traditional idea of Limbo as a place to mitigate the pain of innocent babies born before baptism has become increasingly less acceptable in today’s world. We live in a world in which baptism occurs later in an infant’s life than it did traditionally. For instance, my father was born in Vicenza in 1910, and his baptismal clothes are suitable for an infant whose age is measured in weeks, not in months, as per the mothers seeking information on this site: http://community.babycenter.com/post/a36659761/timing_for_baptism_in_catholic_church. We also live in a world that has a different attitude toward abortion, despite the resistance of the Church. These changes in the attitudes of believers have placed greater pressure on the Church to explain how innocent infants can be sent to Limbo for eternity.

As a result the Catholic Church has recently moved to discard the idea of Limbo altogether. In the document “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die Without Being Baptized”, the International Theological Commission published its finding, in January 2007, that “without minimizing the importance of Baptism in any way, there is nonetheless hope of salvation for infants who die without benefit of that sacrament”. For the full document, see: https://www.catholicculture.org/culture/library/view.cfm?id=7529. For the change in the Church, see: http://www.reuters.com/article/2007/04/20/us-pope-limbo-idUSL2028721620070420#dEC4vvqboJLiJV4P.97.

In the context of the finding that “there is nonetheless hope of salvation for infants who die without benefit of that sacrament” Dante’s Limbo may not seem so radical. But in fact Dante’s Limbo remains as radical as it ever was, for Dante had little interest in the sympathy-inducing infants that have traditionally captured the attention of those concerned about the justice of Limbo. Dante’s attention is captured not by the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but by a completely different group.

Dante’s wholly original project is to imagine a Limbo that mitigates the suffering not of the unbaptized infants of Christian parents but of pagan adults. This passionate interest in those who belong to cultural dispensations different from his own is what makes Dante’s conception of Limbo stand out in his own time and still today.

Coordinated Reading

The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 2, “Infernal Incipits: The Poetics of the New,” pp. 38-40; “Dante’s Sympathy for the Other, or the Non-Stereotyping Imagination: Sexual and Racialized Others in the Commedia,” Critica del testo 14 (2011): 177-204.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 4: The Cultural Other.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017. https://digitaldante.columbia.edu/dante/divine-comedy/inferno/inferno-4/

About the Commento

1 Ruppemi l’alto sonno ne la testa
2 un greve truono, sì ch’io mi riscossi
3 come persona ch’è per forza desta;

4 e l’occhio riposato intorno mossi,
5 dritto levato, e fiso riguardai
6 per conoscer lo loco dov’ io fossi.

7 Vero è che ’n su la proda mi trovai
8 de la valle d’abisso dolorosa
9 che ’ntrono accoglie d’infiniti guai.

10 Oscura e profonda era e nebulosa
11 tanto che, per ficcar lo viso a fondo,
12 io non vi discernea alcuna cosa.

13 «Or discendiam qua giù nel cieco mondo»,
14 cominciò il poeta tutto smorto.
15 «Io sarò primo, e tu sarai secondo».

16 E io, che del color mi fui accorto,
17 dissi: «Come verrò, se tu paventi
18 che suoli al mio dubbiare esser conforto?».

19 Ed elli a me: «L’angoscia de le genti
20 che son qua giù, nel viso mi dipigne
21 quella pietà che tu per tema senti.

22 Andiam, ché la via lunga ne sospigne».
23 Così si mise e così mi fé intrare
24 nel primo cerchio che l’abisso cigne.

25 Quivi, secondo che per ascoltare,
26 non avea pianto mai che di sospiri,
27 che l’aura etterna facevan tremare;

28 ciò avvenia di duol senza martìri,
29 ch’avean le turbe, ch’eran molte e grandi,
30 d’infanti e di femmine e di viri.

31 Lo buon maestro a me: «Tu non dimandi
32 che spiriti son questi che tu vedi?
33 Or vo’ che sappi, innanzi che più andi,

34 ch’ei non peccaro; e s’elli hanno mercedi,
35 non basta, perché non ebber battesmo,
36 ch’è porta de la fede che tu credi;

37 e s’e’ furon dinanzi al cristianesmo,
38 non adorar debitamente a Dio:
39 e di questi cotai son io medesmo.

40 Per tai difetti, non per altro rio,
41 semo perduti, e sol di tanto offesi,
42 che sanza speme vivemo in disio».

43 Gran duol mi prese al cor quando lo ’ntesi,
44 però che gente di molto valore
45 conobbi che ’n quel limbo eran sospesi.

46 «Dimmi, maestro mio, dimmi, segnore»,
47 comincia’ io per voler esser certo
48 di quella fede che vince ogne errore:

49 «uscicci mai alcuno, o per suo merto
50 o per altrui, che poi fosse beato?».
51 E quei che ’ntese il mio parlar coverto,

52 rispuose: «Io era nuovo in questo stato,
53 quando ci vidi venire un possente,
54 con segno di vittoria coronato.

55 Trasseci l’ombra del primo parente,
56 d’Abèl suo figlio e quella di Noè,
57 di Moïsè legista e ubidente;

58 Abraàm patrïarca e Davìd re,
59 Israèl con lo padre e co’ suoi nati
60 e con Rachele, per cui tanto fé;

61 e altri molti, e feceli beati.
62 E vo’ che sappi che, dinanzi ad essi,
63 spiriti umani non eran salvati».

64 Non lasciavam l’andar perch’ ei dicessi,
65 ma passavam la selva tuttavia,
66 la selva, dico, di spiriti spessi.

67 Non era lunga ancor la nostra via
68 di qua dal sonno, quand’ io vidi un foco
69 ch’emisperio di tenebre vincia.

70 Di lungi n’eravamo ancora un poco,
71 ma non sì ch’io non discernessi in parte
72 ch’orrevol gente possedea quel loco.

73 «O tu ch’onori scïenzïa e arte,
74 questi chi son c’hanno cotanta onranza,
75 che dal modo de li altri li diparte?».

76 E quelli a me: «L’onrata nominanza
77 che di lor suona sù ne la tua vita,
78 grazïa acquista in ciel che sì li avanza».

79 Intanto voce fu per me udita:
80 «Onorate l’altissimo poeta;
81 l’ombra sua torna, ch’era dipartita».

82 Poi che la voce fu restata e queta,
83 vidi quattro grand’ ombre a noi venire:
84 sembianz’ avevan né trista né lieta.

85 Lo buon maestro cominciò a dire:
86 «Mira colui con quella spada in mano,
87 che vien dinanzi ai tre sì come sire:

88 quelli è Omero poeta sovrano;
89 l’altro è Orazio satiro che vene;
90 Ovidio è ’l terzo, e l’ultimo Lucano.

91 Però che ciascun meco si convene
92 nel nome che sonò la voce sola,
93 fannomi onore, e di ciò fanno bene».

94 Così vid’ i’ adunar la bella scola
95 di quel segnor de l’altissimo canto
96 che sovra li altri com’ aquila vola.

97 Da ch’ebber ragionato insieme alquanto,
98 volsersi a me con salutevol cenno,
99 e ’l mio maestro sorrise di tanto;

100 e più d’onore ancora assai mi fenno,
101 ch’e’ sì mi fecer de la loro schiera,
102 sì ch’io fui sesto tra cotanto senno.

103 Così andammo infino a la lumera,
104 parlando cose che ’l tacere è bello,
105 sì com’ era ’l parlar colà dov’ era.

106 Venimmo al piè d’un nobile castello,
107 sette volte cerchiato d’alte mura,
108 difeso intorno d’un bel fiumicello.

109 Questo passammo come terra dura;
110 per sette porte intrai con questi savi:
111 giugnemmo in prato di fresca verdura.

112 Genti v’eran con occhi tardi e gravi,
113 di grande autorità ne’ lor sembianti:
114 parlavan rado, con voci soavi.

115 Traemmoci così da l’un de’ canti,
116 in loco aperto, luminoso e alto,
117 sì che veder si potien tutti quanti.

118 Colà diritto, sovra ’l verde smalto,
119 mi fuor mostrati li spiriti magni,
120 che del vedere in me stesso m’essalto.

121 I’ vidi Eletra con molti compagni,
122 tra ’ quai conobbi Ettòr ed Enea,
123 Cesare armato con li occhi grifagni.

124 Vidi Cammilla e la Pantasilea;
125 da l’altra parte vidi ’l re Latino
126 che con Lavina sua figlia sedea.

127 Vidi quel Bruto che cacciò Tarquino,
128 Lucrezia, Iulia, Marzïa e Corniglia;
129 e solo, in parte, vidi ’l Saladino.

130 Poi ch’innalzai un poco più le ciglia,
131 vidi ’l maestro di color che sanno
132 seder tra filosofica famiglia.

133 Tutti lo miran, tutti onor li fanno:
134 quivi vid’ ïo Socrate e Platone,
135 che ’nnanzi a li altri più presso li stanno;

136 Democrito, che ’l mondo a caso pone,
137 Dïogenès, Anassagora e Tale,
138 Empedoclès, Eraclito e Zenone;

139 e vidi il buono accoglitor del quale,
140 Dïascoride dico; e vidi Orfeo,
141 Tulïo e Lino e Seneca morale;

142 Euclide geomètra e Tolomeo,
143 Ipocràte, Avicenna e Galïeno,
144 Averoìs, che ’l gran comento feo.

145 Io non posso ritrar di tutti a pieno,
146 però che sì mi caccia il lungo tema,
147 che molte volte al fatto il dir vien meno.

148 La sesta compagnia in due si scema:
149 per altra via mi mena il savio duca,
150 fuor de la queta, ne l’ aura che trema.

151 E vegno in parte ove non è che luca.

The heavy sleep within my head was smashed
by an enormous thunderclap, so that
I started up as one whom force awakens;

I stood erect and turned my rested eyes
from side to side, and I stared steadily
to learn what place it was surrounding me.

In truth I found myself upon the brink
of an abyss, the melancholy valley
containing thundering, unending wailings.

That valley, dark and deep and filled with mist,
is such that, though I gazed into its pit,
I was unable to discern a thing.

“Let us descend into the blind world now,”
the poet, who was deathly pale, began;
“I shall go first and you will follow me.”

But I, who’d seen the change in his complexion,
said: “How shall I go on if you are frightened,
you who have always helped dispel my doubts?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
whose place is here below, has touched my face
with the compassion you mistake for fear.

Let us go on, the way that waits is long.”
So he set out, and so he had me enter
on that first circle girdling the abyss.

Here, for as much as hearing could discover,
there was no outcry louder than the sighs
that caused the everlasting air to tremble.

The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds—the many multitudes—
of infants and of women and of men.

The kindly master said: “Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,

they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.

And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.

For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”

Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
for I had seen some estimable men
among the souls suspended in that limbo.

“Tell me, my master, tell me, lord.” I then
began because I wanted to be certain
of that belief which vanquishes all errors,

“did any ever go—by his own merit
or others’—from this place toward blessedness?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

replied: “I was new—entered on this state
when I beheld a Great Lord enter here;
the crown he wore, a sign of victory.

He carried off the shade of our first father,
of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
of Moses, the obedient legislator,

of father Abraham, David the king,
of Israel, his father, and his sons,
and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,

and many others—and He made them blessed;
and I should have you know that, before them,
there were no human souls that had been saved.”

We did not stay our steps although he spoke;
we still continued onward through the wood—
the wood, I say, where many spirits thronged.

Our path had not gone far beyond the point
where I had slept, when I beheld a fire
win out against a hemisphere of shadows.

We still were at a little distance from it,
but not so far I could not see in part
that honorable men possessed that place.

“O you who honor art and science both,
who are these souls whose dignity has kept
their way of being, separate from the rest?”

And he to me: “The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them.”

Meanwhile there was a voice that I could hear:
“Pay honor to the estimable poet;
his shadow, which had left us, now returns.”

After that voice was done, when there was silence,
I saw four giant shades approaching us;
in aspect, they were neither sad nor joyous.

My kindly master then began by saying:
“Look well at him who holds that sword in hand
who moves before the other three as lord.

That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
the other one is Horace, satirist;
the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because each of these spirits shares with me
the name called out before by the lone voice,
they welcome me—and, doing that, do well.”

And so I saw that splendid school assembled
led by the lord of song incomparable,
who like an eagle soars above the rest.

Soon after they had talked a while together,
they turned to me, saluting cordially;
and having witnessed this, my master smiled;

and even greater honor then was mine,
for they invited me to join their ranks—
I was the sixth among such intellects.

So did we move along and toward the light,
talking of things about which silence here
is just as seemly as our speech was there.

We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.

We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.

The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.

We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.

Facing me there, on the enameled green,
great—hearted souls were shown to me and I
still glory in my having witnessed them.

I saw Electra with her many comrades,
among whom I knew Hector and Aeneas,
and Caesar, in his armor, falcon-eyed.

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
and, on the other side, saw King Latinus,
who sat beside Lavinia, his daughter.

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin out,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
and, solitary, set apart, Saladin.

When I had raised my eyes a little higher,
I saw the master of the men who know
seated in philosophic family.

There all look up to him, all do him honor:
there I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
closest to him, in front of all the rest;

Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Empedocles, and Zeno,
and Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus;

I saw the good collector of medicinals,
I mean Dioscorides; and I saw Orpheus,
and Tully, Linus, moral Seneca;

and Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna,
Averroes, of the great Commentary.

I cannot here describe them all in full;
my ample theme impels me onward so:
what’s told is often less than the event.

The company of six divides in two;
my knowing guide leads me another way,
beyond the quiet, into trembling air.

And I have reached a part where no thing gleams.

BROKE the deep lethargy within my head
A heavy thunder, so that I upstarted,
Like to a person who by force is wakened;

And round about I moved my rested eyes,
Uprisen erect, and steadfastly I gazed,
To recognise the place wherein I was.

True is it, that upon the verge I found me
Of the abysmal valley dolorous,
That gathers thunder of infinite ululations.

Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous,
So that by fixing on its depths my sight
Nothing whatever I discerned therein.

“Let us descend now into the blind world,”
Began the Poet, pallid utterly;
“I will be first, and thou shalt second be.”

And I, who of his colour was aware,
Said: “How shall I come, if thou art afraid,
Who’rt wont to be a comfort to my fears ?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
Who are below here in my face depicts
That pity which for terror thou hast taken.

Let us go on, for the long way impels us.”
Thus he went in, and thus he made me enter
The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss.

There, as it seemed to me from listening,
Were lamentations none, but only sighs,
That tremble made the everlasting air.

And this arose from sorrow without torment,
Which the crowds had, that many were and great
Of infants and of women and of men.

To me the Master good: “Thou dost not ask
What spirits these, which thou beholdest, are ?
Now will I have thee know, ere thou go farther,

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
‘Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself

For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire.”

Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard,
Because some people of much worthiness
I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.

“Tell me, my Master, tell me, thou my Lord,”
Began I, with desire of being certain
Of that Faith which o’ercometh every error,

“Came any one by his own merit hence,
Or by another’s, who was blessed thereafter ?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

Replied: “I was a novice in this state,
When I saw hither come a Mighty One,
With sign of victory incoronate.

Hence he drew forth the shade of the First Parent,
And that of his son Abel, and of Noah,
Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient

Abraham, patriarch, and David, king,
Israel with his father and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much,

And others many, and he made them blessed;
And thou must know, that earlier than these
Never were any human spirits saved.”

We ceased not to advance because he spake,
But still were passing onward through the forest
The forest, say I, of thick—crowded ghosts.

Not very far as yet our way had gone
This side the summit, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We were a little distant from it still,
But not so far that I in part discerned not
That honourable people held that place.

“O thou who honourest every art and science,
Who may these be, which such great honour have,
That from the fashion of the rest it parts them ?”

And he to me: “The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them.”

In the mean time a voice was heard by me:
“All honour be to the pre—eminent Poet;
His shade returns again, that was departed.”

After the voice had ceased and quiet was,
Four mighty shades I saw approaching us;
Semblance had they nor sorrowful nor glad.

To say to me began my gracious Master:
“Him with that falchion in his hand behold,
Who comes before the three, even as their lord.

That one is Homer, Poet sovereign;
He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because to each of these with me applies
The name that solitary voice proclaimed,
They do me honour, and in that do well.”

Thus I beheld assemble the fair school
Of that lord of the song pre—eminent,
Who o’er the others like an eagle soars.

When they together had discoursed somewhat,
They turned to me with signs of salutation,
And on beholding this, my Master smiled;

And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band
So that the sixth was I, ‘mid so much wit.

Thus we went on as far as to the light,
Things saying ’tis becoming to keep silent,
As was the saying of them where I was.

We came unto a noble castle’s foot,
Seven times encompassed with lofty walls,
Defended round by a fair rivulet;

This we passed over even as firm ground;
Through portals seven I entered with these sages
We came into a meadow of fresh verdure.

People were there with solemn eyes and slow,
Of great authority in their countenance;
They spake but seldom, and with gentle voices.

Thus we withdrew ourselves upon one side
Into an opening luminous and lofty,
So that they all of them were visible.

There opposite, upon the green enamel,
Were pointed out to me the mighty spirits,
Whom to have seen I feel myself exalted.

I saw Electra with companions many,
‘Mongst whom I knew both Hector and Aenas,
Caesar in armour with gerfalcon eyes;

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
On the other side, and saw the King Latinus,
Who with Lavinia his daughter sat;

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
And saw alone, apart, the Saladin.

When I had lifted up my brows a little,
The Master I beheld of those who know,
Sit with his philosophic family.

All gaze upon him, and all do him honour.
There I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
Who nearer him before the others stand;

Democritus, who puts the world on chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoros, and Thales,
Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus;

Of qualities I saw the good collector,
Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,

Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna,
Averroes, who the great Comment made.

I cannot all of them pourtray in full,
Because so drives me onward the long theme,
That many times the word comes short of fact.

The sixfold company in two divides;
Another way my sapient Guide conducts me
Forth from the quiet to the air that trembles;

And to a place I come where nothing shines.

The heavy sleep within my head was smashed
by an enormous thunderclap, so that
I started up as one whom force awakens;

I stood erect and turned my rested eyes
from side to side, and I stared steadily
to learn what place it was surrounding me.

In truth I found myself upon the brink
of an abyss, the melancholy valley
containing thundering, unending wailings.

That valley, dark and deep and filled with mist,
is such that, though I gazed into its pit,
I was unable to discern a thing.

“Let us descend into the blind world now,”
the poet, who was deathly pale, began;
“I shall go first and you will follow me.”

But I, who’d seen the change in his complexion,
said: “How shall I go on if you are frightened,
you who have always helped dispel my doubts?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
whose place is here below, has touched my face
with the compassion you mistake for fear.

Let us go on, the way that waits is long.”
So he set out, and so he had me enter
on that first circle girdling the abyss.

Here, for as much as hearing could discover,
there was no outcry louder than the sighs
that caused the everlasting air to tremble.

The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds—the many multitudes—
of infants and of women and of men.

The kindly master said: “Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,

they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith that you embrace.

And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.

For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished just with this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing.”

Great sorrow seized my heart on hearing him,
for I had seen some estimable men
among the souls suspended in that limbo.

“Tell me, my master, tell me, lord.” I then
began because I wanted to be certain
of that belief which vanquishes all errors,

“did any ever go—by his own merit
or others’—from this place toward blessedness?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

replied: “I was new—entered on this state
when I beheld a Great Lord enter here;
the crown he wore, a sign of victory.

He carried off the shade of our first father,
of his son Abel, and the shade of Noah,
of Moses, the obedient legislator,

of father Abraham, David the king,
of Israel, his father, and his sons,
and Rachel, she for whom he worked so long,

and many others—and He made them blessed;
and I should have you know that, before them,
there were no human souls that had been saved.”

We did not stay our steps although he spoke;
we still continued onward through the wood—
the wood, I say, where many spirits thronged.

Our path had not gone far beyond the point
where I had slept, when I beheld a fire
win out against a hemisphere of shadows.

We still were at a little distance from it,
but not so far I could not see in part
that honorable men possessed that place.

“O you who honor art and science both,
who are these souls whose dignity has kept
their way of being, separate from the rest?”

And he to me: “The honor of their name,
which echoes up above within your life,
gains Heaven’s grace, and that advances them.”

Meanwhile there was a voice that I could hear:
“Pay honor to the estimable poet;
his shadow, which had left us, now returns.”

After that voice was done, when there was silence,
I saw four giant shades approaching us;
in aspect, they were neither sad nor joyous.

My kindly master then began by saying:
“Look well at him who holds that sword in hand
who moves before the other three as lord.

That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
the other one is Horace, satirist;
the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because each of these spirits shares with me
the name called out before by the lone voice,
they welcome me—and, doing that, do well.”

And so I saw that splendid school assembled
led by the lord of song incomparable,
who like an eagle soars above the rest.

Soon after they had talked a while together,
they turned to me, saluting cordially;
and having witnessed this, my master smiled;

and even greater honor then was mine,
for they invited me to join their ranks—
I was the sixth among such intellects.

So did we move along and toward the light,
talking of things about which silence here
is just as seemly as our speech was there.

We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.

We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.

The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.

We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.

Facing me there, on the enameled green,
great—hearted souls were shown to me and I
still glory in my having witnessed them.

I saw Electra with her many comrades,
among whom I knew Hector and Aeneas,
and Caesar, in his armor, falcon-eyed.

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
and, on the other side, saw King Latinus,
who sat beside Lavinia, his daughter.

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin out,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
and, solitary, set apart, Saladin.

When I had raised my eyes a little higher,
I saw the master of the men who know
seated in philosophic family.

There all look up to him, all do him honor:
there I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
closest to him, in front of all the rest;

Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Empedocles, and Zeno,
and Thales, Anaxagoras, Heraclitus;

I saw the good collector of medicinals,
I mean Dioscorides; and I saw Orpheus,
and Tully, Linus, moral Seneca;

and Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates and Galen, Avicenna,
Averroes, of the great Commentary.

I cannot here describe them all in full;
my ample theme impels me onward so:
what’s told is often less than the event.

The company of six divides in two;
my knowing guide leads me another way,
beyond the quiet, into trembling air.

And I have reached a part where no thing gleams.

BROKE the deep lethargy within my head
A heavy thunder, so that I upstarted,
Like to a person who by force is wakened;

And round about I moved my rested eyes,
Uprisen erect, and steadfastly I gazed,
To recognise the place wherein I was.

True is it, that upon the verge I found me
Of the abysmal valley dolorous,
That gathers thunder of infinite ululations.

Obscure, profound it was, and nebulous,
So that by fixing on its depths my sight
Nothing whatever I discerned therein.

“Let us descend now into the blind world,”
Began the Poet, pallid utterly;
“I will be first, and thou shalt second be.”

And I, who of his colour was aware,
Said: “How shall I come, if thou art afraid,
Who’rt wont to be a comfort to my fears ?”

And he to me: “The anguish of the people
Who are below here in my face depicts
That pity which for terror thou hast taken.

Let us go on, for the long way impels us.”
Thus he went in, and thus he made me enter
The foremost circle that surrounds the abyss.

There, as it seemed to me from listening,
Were lamentations none, but only sighs,
That tremble made the everlasting air.

And this arose from sorrow without torment,
Which the crowds had, that many were and great
Of infants and of women and of men.

To me the Master good: “Thou dost not ask
What spirits these, which thou beholdest, are ?
Now will I have thee know, ere thou go farther,

That they sinned not; and if they merit had,
‘Tis not enough, because they had not baptism
Which is the portal of the Faith thou holdest;

And if they were before Christianity,
In the right manner they adored not God;
And among such as these am I myself

For such defects, and not for other guilt,
Lost are we and are only so far punished,
That without hope we live on in desire.”

Great grief seized on my heart when this I heard,
Because some people of much worthiness
I knew, who in that Limbo were suspended.

“Tell me, my Master, tell me, thou my Lord,”
Began I, with desire of being certain
Of that Faith which o’ercometh every error,

“Came any one by his own merit hence,
Or by another’s, who was blessed thereafter ?”
And he, who understood my covert speech,

Replied: “I was a novice in this state,
When I saw hither come a Mighty One,
With sign of victory incoronate.

Hence he drew forth the shade of the First Parent,
And that of his son Abel, and of Noah,
Of Moses the lawgiver, and the obedient

Abraham, patriarch, and David, king,
Israel with his father and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake he did so much,

And others many, and he made them blessed;
And thou must know, that earlier than these
Never were any human spirits saved.”

We ceased not to advance because he spake,
But still were passing onward through the forest
The forest, say I, of thick—crowded ghosts.

Not very far as yet our way had gone
This side the summit, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We were a little distant from it still,
But not so far that I in part discerned not
That honourable people held that place.

“O thou who honourest every art and science,
Who may these be, which such great honour have,
That from the fashion of the rest it parts them ?”

And he to me: “The honourable name,
That sounds of them above there in thy life,
Wins grace in Heaven, that so advances them.”

In the mean time a voice was heard by me:
“All honour be to the pre—eminent Poet;
His shade returns again, that was departed.”

After the voice had ceased and quiet was,
Four mighty shades I saw approaching us;
Semblance had they nor sorrowful nor glad.

To say to me began my gracious Master:
“Him with that falchion in his hand behold,
Who comes before the three, even as their lord.

That one is Homer, Poet sovereign;
He who comes next is Horace, the satirist;
The third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Because to each of these with me applies
The name that solitary voice proclaimed,
They do me honour, and in that do well.”

Thus I beheld assemble the fair school
Of that lord of the song pre—eminent,
Who o’er the others like an eagle soars.

When they together had discoursed somewhat,
They turned to me with signs of salutation,
And on beholding this, my Master smiled;

And more of honour still, much more, they did me,
In that they made me one of their own band
So that the sixth was I, ‘mid so much wit.

Thus we went on as far as to the light,
Things saying ’tis becoming to keep silent,
As was the saying of them where I was.

We came unto a noble castle’s foot,
Seven times encompassed with lofty walls,
Defended round by a fair rivulet;

This we passed over even as firm ground;
Through portals seven I entered with these sages
We came into a meadow of fresh verdure.

People were there with solemn eyes and slow,
Of great authority in their countenance;
They spake but seldom, and with gentle voices.

Thus we withdrew ourselves upon one side
Into an opening luminous and lofty,
So that they all of them were visible.

There opposite, upon the green enamel,
Were pointed out to me the mighty spirits,
Whom to have seen I feel myself exalted.

I saw Electra with companions many,
‘Mongst whom I knew both Hector and Aenas,
Caesar in armour with gerfalcon eyes;

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea
On the other side, and saw the King Latinus,
Who with Lavinia his daughter sat;

I saw that Brutus who drove Tarquin forth,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia,
And saw alone, apart, the Saladin.

When I had lifted up my brows a little,
The Master I beheld of those who know,
Sit with his philosophic family.

All gaze upon him, and all do him honour.
There I beheld both Socrates and Plato,
Who nearer him before the others stand;

Democritus, who puts the world on chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoros, and Thales,
Zeno, Empedocles, and Heraclitus;

Of qualities I saw the good collector,
Hight Dioscorides; and Orpheus saw I,
Tully and Livy, and moral Seneca,

Euclid, geometrician, and Ptolemy,
Galen, Hippocrates, and Avicenna,
Averroes, who the great Comment made.

I cannot all of them pourtray in full,
Because so drives me onward the long theme,
That many times the word comes short of fact.

The sixfold company in two divides;
Another way my sapient Guide conducts me
Forth from the quiet to the air that trembles;

And to a place I come where nothing shines.

Reading by Francesco Bausi: Inferno 4

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