Thursday, October 23, 2008

Inferno, Song IV

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, at the behest of Beatrice, a woman who was Dante's inspiration in life, 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. After passing through the gates of Hell, they encounter the souls of the cowards who took no stand in conflicts between good and evil--Heaven doesn't want them, and Hell refuses to accept them into its realm proper. Dante and Virgil then meet Charon, who rows the souls of the damned across the river Acheron into Hell proper to be judged. Charon obliquely informs Dante that he is not, nor will he be, among the damned, and Dante passes out before he and Virgil are taken across the river.

Dante and Virgil encounter Homer and the other classical poets in Limbo

The deep sleep within my head was broken by
A heavy thunderclap, so that I roused myself
Like one forcefully awakened,

Moving around my rested eyes.
Standing up straight, I fixed my gaze
In order to know the place wherein I was.

It is true: I found myself upon the edge
Of the valley of the abyss of sorrows
Which gathers the thunder of infinite woe.

It was dark and deep and murky.
So much so that, in focusing on its depths,
I could not discern anything there.

“Now let us descend down this way into the blind world,”
Began the poet, pale all over.
“I will be first, and you will be second.”

And I, alarmed by his color,
Said, “How can I come if you are afraid?
You, who are to be comfort to my doubts?”

He replied, “The anguish of those
Down here is depicted in my face as
Pity; you take it for fear.

Let us go, for the long road beckons.”
And so he commenced, and so compelled me to enter
The first circle bordering the abyss.

In that place, it seemed as if, from what I heard,
Sighs, rather than tears,
Made the eternal air tremble.

These came from sorrow without torment,
Borne by great scores
Of children and women and men.

The good master said to me, “You do not ask
Who these spirits you see are.
Now, I want you to know, before you go further,

That they did not sin. And if they had merit,
It is not enough, for they were not baptized,
Which is the door to the faith in which you believe.

Since they were before Christianity,
They were not properly loving to God;
Of these am I myself.

These failings, and not other crimes, are why
We are lost, and our only punishment, alone among the many, is
To live on, without hope, in yearning."

When I heard this, great sorrow took my heart,
For people of much worth
Were, I knew, suspended in that Limbo.

“Tell me, my master, tell me, sir,”
I began, wishing to be certain
Of that faith which conquers every error,

“Has anyone ever emerged from here, either by his own merit
Or another’s, who went on to be blesséd?”
And he, understanding the hidden meaning of my words,

Replied, “I was new to this state
When I saw a Mighty One come forth,
Crowned in the emblem of victory.

He took from here the shade of the first parent,
His son Abel, and that of Noah,
Of Moses, obedient lawgiver,

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

And many others, and made them blesséd.
And you--know this: Prior to these,
Human spirits were not saved.”

His words did not interrupt our walking;
We passed by the forest nevertheless.
That forest, I tell you, was thick with spirits.

Along our path, we still were not far
From where I had been sleeping, when I saw a fire
That overcame a hemisphere of darkness.

We still weren’t just a little far from there,
But not so much that I did not recognize
That people of honor occupied that place.

“O you who honor science and art,
Who are these people whose honor is so great
That they stand apart from the lot of the others?”

He replied, “The honored names
They hold sound up there in your life,
Gaining grace in Heaven, which grants them favor.

Meanwhile, I heard a voice:
“Honor the highest poet;
His shade, which had departed, returns.”

Then the voice abated and was quiet.
I saw four great spirits coming towards us,
Their demeanor neither sad nor joyful.

The good master began saying,
“See him with the sword in hand,
Who comes before the other three as if their sire.

That is Homer, sovereign poet;
The other coming is the satirist Horace.
Ovid is the third, and the final one Lucan.

Since each of them gathers around me
In that name which the lone voice sounded,
They do me honor, and, in that, do well.”

And so I saw assemble the school of beauty
Of that lord of the highest song,
Who stands above the others like an eagle soaring.

After some discussion amongst themselves,
They turned to me with gestures of salutation,
My master broadly smiling.

And they honored me still further:
Making me one of their number,
So that I was sixth among such genius.

Then we walked towards the light,
Speaking of things about which silence is golden.
Such were words in that place where I was.

We came to the foot of a noble castle,
Circled seven times by high walls,
Defended by a lovely stream around it.

This we crossed as if it were solid ground.
Through seven doors I went with these sages,
Arriving in a meadow of blossoming green.

People were there, their eyes deliberate and solemn
With great authority in their demeanor.
They spoke sparingly, with gentle voices.

And so we took ourselves to one side,
Into an open place, luminous and high,
In order to see their entire number.

There, directly ahead upon the green enamel,
The spirits embodying greatness were pointed out to me,
Those whom I feel myself exalted in seeing.

I saw Electra with many companions.
Among them I knew Hector and Aeneas,
And Cæsar, armored, with the eyes of a gyrfalcon.

I saw Camilla and Penthesilea,
And, on the other side, I saw the king Latinus,
Who was sitting with his daughter Lavinia.

I saw the Brutus who forced out Tarquin,
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia.
And, alone and apart, I saw the Saladin.

And then, looking up a bit,
I saw the master of those with knowledge,
Sitting among philosophy’s family.

All look to him; all do him honor.
There I saw Socrates and Plato,
Who were in front of the others and nearest to him.

There was Democritus, who attributes the world to chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoras and Thales,
Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Zeno.

And I saw the good collector of quality—
Dioscorides, I tell you. And I saw Orpheus,
Cicero, and Linus and Seneca the moralist,

Euclid the geometrician and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates, Avicenna and Galen,
Averroes, who produced the great commentary—

I cannot describe it all in full.
For my far-reaching theme so compels me
That, many times, words fall short of facts.

The company of six dwindles into two.
For my wise master leads me another way,
Out from the quiet and into the air that trembles.

And I come to a place where there is no light.

Continue to Song V

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