Read The Portable Dante Online

Authors: Dante Alighieri

The Portable Dante (10 page)

5-6. Divine Omnipotence, Highest Wisdom, and Primal Love are, respectively, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Thus, the gate of Hell was created by the Trinity moved by Justice.

18. Souls who have lost sight of God.

tongues confused, a language strained in anguish with cadences of anger, shrill outcries and raucous groans that joined with sounds of hands,

27

raising a whirling storm that turns itself forever through that air of endless black, like grains of sand swirling when a whirlwind blows.

30

And I, in the midst of all this circling horror, began, “Teacher, what are these sounds I hear? What souls are these so overwhelmed by grief?”

33

And he to me: “This wretched state of being is the fate of those sad souls who lived a life but lived it with no blame and with no praise.

36

They are mixed with that repulsive choir of angels neither faithful nor unfaithful to their God, who undecided stood but for themselves.

39

Heaven, to keep its beauty, cast them out, but even Hell itself would not receive them, for fear the damned might glory over them. ”

42

And I. “Master, what torments do they suffer that force them to lament so bitterly?” He answered: “I will tell you in few words:

45

these wretches have no hope of truly dying, and this blind life they lead is so abject it makes them envy every other fate.

48

The world will not record their having been there; Heaven’s mercy and its justice turn from them. Let’s not discuss them; look and pass them by. ”

51

And so I looked and saw a kind of banner rushing ahead, whirling with aimless speed as though it would not ever take a stand;

54

52-69. In the
Inferno
divine retribution assumes the form of the
contrapasso,
i. e., the just punishment of sin, effected by a process either resembling or contrasting to the sin itself. In this canto the
contrapasso
opposes the sin of neutrality, or inactivity: The souls who in their early lives had no banner, no leader to follow, now run forever after one.

behind it an interminable train of souls pressed on, so many that I wondered how death could have undone so great a number.

57

When I had recognized a few of them, I saw the shade of the one who must have been the coward who had made the great refusal.

60

At once I understood, and I was sure this was that sect of evil souls who were hateful to God and to His enemies.

63

These wretches, who had never truly lived, went naked, and were stung and stung again by the hornets and the wasps that circled them

66

and made their faces run with blood in streaks; their blood, mixed with their tears, dripped to their feet, and disgusting maggots collected in the pus.

69

And when I looked beyond this crowd I saw a throng upon the shore of a wide river, which made me ask, “Master, I would like to know:

72

who are these people, and what law is this that makes those souls so eager for the crossing— as I can see, even in this dim light? ”

75

And he: “All this will be made plain to you as soon as we shall come to stop awhile upon the sorrowful shore of Acheron. ”

78

And I, with eyes cast down in shame, for fear that I perhaps had spoken out of turn, said nothing more until we reached the river.

81

And suddenly, coming toward us in a boat, a man of years whose ancient hair was white shouted at us, “Woe to you, perverted souls!

84

Give up all hope of ever seeing Heaven: I come to lead you to the other shore, into eternal darkness, ice, and fire.

87

60. The coward could be Pontius Pilate, who refused to pass sentence on Christ.

And you, the living soul, you over there, get away from all these people who are dead. ” But when he saw I did not move aside,

90

he said, “Another way, by other ports, not here, shall you pass to reach the other shore; a lighter skiff than this must carry you. ”

93

And my guide, “Charon, this is no time for anger! It is so willed, there where the power is for what is willed; that’s all you need to know. ”

96

These words brought silence to the woolly cheeks of the ancient steersman of the livid marsh, whose eyes were set in glowing wheels of fire.

99

But all those souls there, naked, in despair, changed color and their teeth began to chatter at the sound of his announcement of their doom.

102

They were cursing God, cursing their own parents, the human race, the time, the place, the seed of their beginning, and their day of birth.

105

Then all together, weeping bitterly, they packed themselves along the wicked shore that waits for every man who fears not God.

108

The devil, Charon, with eyes of glowing coals, summons them all together with a signal, and with an oar he strikes the laggard sinner.

111

As in autumn when the leaves begin to fall, one after the other (until the branch is witness to the spoils spread on the ground),

114

so did the evil seed of Adam’s Fall drop from that shore to the boat, one at a time, at the signal, like the falcon to its lure.

117

Away they go across the darkened waters, and before they reach the other side to land, a new throng starts collecting on this side.

120

“My son, ” the gentle master said to me, “all those who perish in the wrath of God assemble here from all parts of the earth;

123

they want to cross the river, they are eager; it is Divine Justice that spurs them on, turning the fear they have into desire.

126

A good soul never comes to make this crossing, so, if Charon grumbles at the sight of you, you see now what his words are really saying. ”

129

He finished speaking, and the grim terrain shook violently; and the fright it gave me even now in recollection makes me sweat.

132

Out of the tear-drenched land a wind arose which blasted forth into a reddish light, knocking my senses out of me completely,

135

and I fell as one falls tired into sleep.

CANTO IV

W
AKING FROM HIS SWOON
,
the Pilgrim is led by Virgil to the First Circle of Hell, known as Limbo, where the sad shades of the virtuous non-Christians dwell. The souls here, including Virgil, suffer no physical torment, but they must live, in desire, without hope of seeing God. Virgil tells about Christ’s descent into Hell and His salvation of several Old Testament figures. The poets see a light glowing
in the darkness, and as they proceed toward it, they are met by the four greatest (other than Virgil) pagan poets: Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who take the Pilgrim into their group. As they come closer to the light, the Pilgrim perceives a splendid castle, where the greatest non-Christian thinkers dwell together with other famous historical figures. Once within the castle, the Pilgrim sees, among others, Electra, Aeneas, Caesar, Saladin, Aristotle, Plato, Orpheus, Cicero, Avicenna, and Averroës. But soon they must leave; and the poets move from the radiance of the castle toward the fearful encompassing darkness.

124-126. It is perhaps a part of the punishment that the souls of all the damned are eager for their punishment to begin; those who were so willing to sin on earth, are in hell damned with a willingness to receive their just retribution.

A heavy clap of thunder! I awoke from the deep sleep that drugged my mind—startled, the way one is when shaken out of sleep.

3

I turned my rested eyes from side to side, already on my feet and, staring hard, I tried my best to find out where I was,

6

and this is what I saw: I found myself upon the brink of grief’s abysmal valley that collects the thunderings of endless cries.

9

So dark and deep and nebulous it was, try as I might to force my sight below, I could not see the shape of anything.

12

“Let us descend into the sightless world, ” began the poet (his face was deathly pale): “I will go first, and you will follow me. ”

15

And I, aware of his changed color, said: “But how can I go on if you are frightened? You are my constant strength when I lose heart. ”

18

And he to me: “The anguish of the souls that are down here paints my face with pity— which you have wrongly taken to be fear.

21

Let us go, the long road urges us. ” He entered then, leading the way for me down to the first circle of the abyss.

24

Down there, to judge only by what I heard, there were no wails but just the sounds of sighs rising and trembling through the timeless air,

27

the sounds of sighs of untormented grief burdening these groups, diverse and teeming, made up of men and women and of infants.

30

Then the good master said, “You do not ask what sort of souls are these you see around you. Now you should know before we go on farther,

33

they have not sinned. But their great worth alone was not enough, for they did not know Baptism, which is the gateway to the faith you follow,

36

and if they came before the birth of Christ, they did not worship God the way one should; I myself am a member of this group.

39

For this defect, and for no other guilt, we here are lost. In this alone we suffer: cut off from hope, we live on in desire. ”

42

The words I heard weighed heavy on my heart; to think that souls as virtuous as these were suspended in that limbo, and forever!

45

“Tell me, my teacher, tell me, O my master, ” I began (wishing to have confirmed by him the teachings of unerring Christian doctrine),

48

“did any ever leave here, through his merit or with another’s help, and go to bliss?” And he, who understood my hidden question,

51

answered: “I was a novice in this place when I saw a mighty lord descend to us who wore the sign of victory as his crown.

54

He took from us the shade of our first parent, of Abel, his good son, of Noah, too, and of obedient Moses, who made the laws;

57

Abram, the Patriarch, David the King, Israel with his father and his children, with Rachel, whom he worked so hard to win;

60

and many more he chose for blessedness; and you should know, before these souls were taken, no human soul had ever reached salvation. ”

63

We did not stop our journey while he spoke, but continued on our way along the woods— I say the woods, for souls were thick as trees.

66

We had not gone too far from where I woke when I made out a fire up ahead, a hemisphere of light that lit the dark.

69

We were still at some distance from that place, but close enough for me vaguely to see that honorable souls possessed that spot.

72

“O glory of the sciences and arts, who are these souls enjoying special honor, dwelling apart from all the others here? ”

75

And he to me: “The honored name they bear that still resounds above in your own world wins Heaven’s favor for them in this place. ”

78

And as he spoke I heard a voice announce: “Now let us honor our illustrious poet, his shade that left is now returned to us. ”

81

And when the voice was silent and all was quiet I saw four mighty shades approaching us, their faces showing neither joy nor sorrow.

84

69. The “hemisphere of light” emanates from a “splendid castle” (106), the dwelling place of the virtuous men of wisdom in Limbo. The light is the illumination of human intellect, which those who dwell in the castle had in such high measure on earth.

Then my good master started to explain: “Observe the one who comes with sword in hand, leading the three as if he were their master.

87

It is the shade of Homer, sovereign poet, and coming second, Horace, the satirist; Ovid is the third, and last comes Lucan.

90

Since they all share one name with me, the name you heard resounding in that single voice, they honor me and do well doing so. ”

93

So I saw gathered there the noble school of the master singer of sublimest verse, who soars above all others like the eagle.

96

And after they had talked awhile together, they turned and with a gesture welcomed me, and at that sign I saw my master smile.

99

Greater honor still they deigned to grant me: they welcomed me as one of their own group, so that I numbered sixth among such minds.

102

We walked together toward the shining light, discussing things that here are best kept silent, as there they were most fitting for discussion.

105

We reached the boundaries of a splendid castle that seven times was circled by high walls defended by a sweetly flowing stream.

108

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