The story thus far: Dante, a poet and town prior in Florence, finds himself on a dark road of the soul. Before his spirit can fall to its ruin, he encounters Virgil, the greatest poet of classical Rome. Virgil offers Dante a journey through the realms of the afterworld, through which Dante may find his soul's salvation. He shall travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, with Virgil as his guide through the first two. Dante accepts Virgil's offer, and they embark. However, before they begin, Dante expresses doubts about being chosen for such a journey. To bolster his confidence, Virgil tells of Beatrice, a woman who was Dante's inspiration in life, descending from Heaven to Limbo to ask Virgil to help save Dante. Dante regains his confidence, and they continue.
“Through me one enters the City of Sorrow,
Through me one enters the Eternity of Pain,
Through me one goes among those that are lost.
Justice moved my High Maker;
I was created by Divine Power,
The Highest Wisdom and Primordial Love.
Before me, there was nothing created
That was not eternal, and eternally I stand.
Leave all hope behind, you who enter.”
These words, in a dark color,
I saw written above a gateway,
Prompting me to say, “Master, their meaning, for me, is difficult.”
He knowingly replied:
“Here, one should leave behind all suspicion.
All cowardice, here, should be dead.
We are coming to the place where I’ve told you
That you will see the suffering ones
Who have lost the benefit of reason.”
And then, placing his hand in mine
With a pleasant face, comforting me,
He led me inside to secret things.
There sighs, tears, and shrieks
Resounded through the starless air,
Such that I began weeping.
Various languages, horrible dialects,
Words of sorrow, accents of rage,
Voices high and faint, and the sound of their hands
Creating a tumult—one which goes round
Forever in that air lacking the colors of the days we know,
Like sand when a whirlwind blows.
And I, my head surrounded by horror,
Said: “Master, what is this I hear?
And what people are these, so overwhelmed by pain?”
He replied: “This way of misery
Holds the sad souls of those
Who lived with neither infamy nor honor.
Also among them is that cowardly chorus
Of angels who were neither rebellious
Nor faithful to God, but stood apart.
Heaven drove them out in order to preserve Its beauty,
But they are not received in the depths of Hell,
Where the damned would gain prestige from them.
And I said, “Master, what is so grievous
To them that they mourn with such intensity?”
He answered, “I will tell you most briefly.
They have no hope of death,
And their blind life is so ignoble
That they are envious of every other plight.
They are not to be granted fame in the world;
Mercy and justice spurn them.
Let’s not discuss them; just look and move on.
And I, looking again, saw a banner
That, in its turning, moved so quickly
That it appeared to disdain all pause.
And from behind came so long a train
Of people that I would not have believed
That death had undone so many.
After recognizing some of them,
I saw and knew the shade of the one
Who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.
I understood immediately and with certainty
That these were the slavish ones,
Abhorrent to both God and His enemies.
These wretches, who never were alive,
Were naked and stung often
By the gadflies and wasps there.
This streamed their faces with blood,
Which, mixed with tears, ran to their feet
To be gathered by repulsive worms.
And then, feeling compelled to look again, and further,
I saw people at the bank of a great river,
Leading me to say, “Master, now grant me
Knowledge of who they are, and what custom
Has them appear so ready to cross over,
As I discern by the fiery light.”
He replied, “These things will be known to you
When we stop in our walk
Along the glum banks of Acheron.”
Then, with eyes ashamed and lowered,
Fearing my words had made him taciturn,
I held back from speaking until we reached the river.
And then, coming towards us in a boat, was
An old man, hair whitened by age,
Shouting, “Woe to you all, depraved souls!
Do not hope to see Heaven:
I come to lead you to the other shore,
Into eternal darkness, into heat, and into frost.
And you there at the shore—the living soul—
Get away from those that are dead.”
But then, when he saw that I wasn’t leaving,
He said, “By another way, through other ports,
Shall you come to the shore by which to cross. Not here.
Lighter craft is more appropriate to your crossing.”
And my master said to him, “Charon, don’t vex yourself.
This is so willed by where this can be
Because it is so willed. Ask no more.”
This quieted the woolly jowls
Of the ferryman of that marsh akin to a bruise,
Who had wheels of flame around his eyes.
But those souls, who were weary and naked,
Changed color and gnashed their teeth
Upon hearing the harsh words.
They cursed God and their parents,
The human race, and the place, time, and seed
Of their fostering and birth.
And then, all together, they drew back,
Intense in their weeping, at the evil shore
That awaits those who do not fear God.
The demon Charon, with eyes of burning coal
Beckoning them, gathered them all,
Beating with his oar those that dawdled.
As in autumn when the leaves fall
One after the other, until the branch
Sees all that grows upon it on the ground,
The evil seed of Adam, similarly,
Throws itself from this bank one by one
At this signal, like a bird to its lure.
It is in this way that they cross over through the dark waves.
And, on the other side, before they disembark,
A new crowd has gathered on this one.
“My son,” the gracious master said,
“Those that die in God’s wrath
All gather here from every nation
And they are ready to cross the river,
For Divine Justice spurs them
So that fear becomes desire.
A good soul never passes this way.
And, therefore, if Charon complains about you,
It is good if you now know the meaning of what he says.
This finished, the dark countryside
Shook so violently that, of the fear,
The memory of it still bathes me with sweat.
Wind arose from this land of tears
In a flash of vermilion light,
Overcoming each of my senses.
And I fell like one whom sleep has taken.