Canto 4

BROKE the deep slumber in my brain a crash
Of heavy thunder, that I shook myself,
As one by main force rous'd.  Risen upright,
My rested eyes I mov'd around, and search'd
With fixed ken to know what place it was,
Wherein I stood.  For certain on the brink
I found me of the lamentable vale,
The dread abyss, that joins a thund'rous sound
Of plaints innumerable.  Dark and deep,
And thick with clouds o'erspread, mine eye in vain
Explor'd its bottom, nor could aught discern.

"Now let us to the blind world there beneath
Descend;" the bard began all pale of look:
"I go the first, and thou shalt follow next."

Then I his alter'd hue perceiving, thus:
"How may I speed, if thou yieldest to dread,
Who still art wont to comfort me in doubt?"

He then: "The anguish of that race below
With pity stains my cheek, which thou for fear
Mistakest.  Let us on.  Our length of way
Urges to haste."  Onward, this said, he mov'd;
And ent'ring led me with him on the bounds
Of the first circle, that surrounds th' abyss.
Here, as mine ear could note, no plaint was heard
Except of sighs, that made th' eternal air
Tremble, not caus'd by tortures, but from grief
Felt by those multitudes, many and vast,
Of men, women, and infants.  Then to me
The gentle guide: "Inquir'st thou not what spirits
Are these, which thou beholdest?  Ere thou pass
Farther, I would thou know, that these of sin
Were blameless; and if aught they merited,
It profits not, since baptism was not theirs,
The portal to thy faith.  If they before
The Gospel liv'd, they serv'd not God aright;
And among such am I. For these defects,
And for no other evil, we are lost;
"Only so far afflicted, that we live
Desiring without hope."  So grief assail'd
My heart at hearing this, for well I knew
Suspended in that Limbo many a soul
Of mighty worth.  "O tell me, sire rever'd!
Tell me, my master!"  I began through wish
Of full assurance in that holy faith,
Which vanquishes all error; "say, did e'er
Any, or through his own or other's merit,
Come forth from thence, whom afterward was blest?"

Piercing the secret purport of my speech,
He answer'd: "I was new to that estate,
When I beheld a puissant one arrive
Amongst us, with victorious trophy crown'd.
He forth the shade of our first parent drew,
Abel his child, and Noah righteous man,
Of Moses lawgiver for faith approv'd,
Of patriarch Abraham, and David king,
Israel with his sire and with his sons,
Nor without Rachel whom so hard he won,
And others many more, whom he to bliss
Exalted.  Before these, be thou assur'd,
No spirit of human kind was ever sav'd."

We, while he spake, ceas'd not our onward road,
Still passing through the wood; for so I name
Those spirits thick beset.  We were not far
On this side from the summit, when I kenn'd
A flame, that o'er the darken'd hemisphere
Prevailing shin'd.  Yet we a little space
Were distant, not so far but I in part
Discover'd, that a tribe in honour high
That place possess'd.  "O thou, who every art
And science valu'st! who are these, that boast
Such honour, separate from all the rest?"

He answer'd: "The renown of their great names
That echoes through your world above, acquires
Favour in heaven, which holds them thus advanc'd."
Meantime a voice I heard: "Honour the bard
Sublime! his shade returns that left us late!"
No sooner ceas'd the sound, than I beheld
Four mighty spirits toward us bend their steps,
Of semblance neither sorrowful nor glad.

When thus my master kind began: "Mark him,
Who in his right hand bears that falchion keen,
The other three preceding, as their lord.
This is that Homer, of all bards supreme:
Flaccus the next in satire's vein excelling;
The third is Naso; Lucan is the last.
Because they all that appellation own,
With which the voice singly accosted me,
Honouring they greet me thus, and well they judge."

So I beheld united the bright school
Of him the monarch of sublimest song,
That o'er the others like an eagle soars.
When they together short discourse had held,
They turn'd to me, with salutation kind
Beck'ning me; at the which my master smil'd:
Nor was this all; but greater honour still
They gave me, for they made me of their tribe;
And I was sixth amid so learn'd a band.

Far as the luminous beacon on we pass'd
Speaking of matters, then befitting well
To speak, now fitter left untold.  At foot
Of a magnificent castle we arriv'd,
Seven times with lofty walls begirt, and round
Defended by a pleasant stream.  O'er this
As o'er dry land we pass'd.  Next through seven gates
I with those sages enter'd, and we came
Into a mead with lively verdure fresh.

There dwelt a race, who slow their eyes around
Majestically mov'd, and in their port
Bore eminent authority; they spake
Seldom, but all their words were tuneful sweet.

We to one side retir'd, into a place
Open and bright and lofty, whence each one
Stood manifest to view.  Incontinent
There on the green enamel of the plain
Were shown me the great spirits, by whose sight
I am exalted in my own esteem.

Electra there I saw accompanied
By many, among whom Hector I knew,
Anchises' pious son, and with hawk's eye
Caesar all arm'd, and by Camilla there
Penthesilea.  On the other side
Old King Latinus, seated by his child
Lavinia, and that Brutus I beheld,
Who Tarquin chas'd, Lucretia, Cato's wife
Marcia, with Julia and Cornelia there;
And sole apart retir'd, the Soldan fierce.

Then when a little more I rais'd my brow,
I spied the master of the sapient throng,
Seated amid the philosophic train.
Him all admire, all pay him rev'rence due.
There Socrates and Plato both I mark'd,
Nearest to him in rank; Democritus,
Who sets the world at chance, Diogenes,
With Heraclitus, and Empedocles,
And Anaxagoras, and Thales sage,
Zeno, and Dioscorides well read
In nature's secret lore.  Orpheus I mark'd
And Linus, Tully and moral Seneca,
Euclid and Ptolemy, Hippocrates,
Galenus, Avicen, and him who made
That commentary vast, Averroes.

Of all to speak at full were vain attempt;
For my wide theme so urges, that ofttimes
My words fall short of what bechanc'd.  In two
The six associates part.  Another way
My sage guide leads me, from that air serene,
Into a climate ever vex'd with storms:
And to a part I come where no light shines.


  1. Virgil explains that, like himself, the people damned to spend eternity in Limbo were not baptized—they either lived before the Gospel or died before their baptisms could take place. None of the people in Limbo are particularly evil; however, they did not achieve the redemption required to enter heaven.

    — Sarah, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Virgil refers to Christ's Harrowing of Hell, an episode following Christ's crucifixion when he descended into Hell and "rescued" several biblical figures, including Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Jacob and his twelve sons, Isaac, and Rachel.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. In traditional Roman Catholic doctrine, an infant who is not baptized and who dies, cannot go the Heaven because he or she is still considered to bear original sin. Baptism is the minimum means of entrance into Heaven (Paradiso).

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. When Dante awakes from his fainting spell, he and Virgil are in the First Circle of Inferno, known as Limbo, where worthy pagans and infants who died before being baptized are kept.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. Lucretia, wife of Tarquinius Collatinus, was raped by Sextus, son of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. After revealing this shame, she committed suicide.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. In other words, Dante is honored just to be in their company, to the extent that his own sense of self-worth rises due to the illustriousness of his context.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. The first group Virgil and Dante encounter in the castle-girded meadow encompasses important civil and military figures from Trojan and Roman history.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. The seven gates of the castle allude to the seven moral virtues of traditional Christian doctrine: chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility.

    — Stephen Holliday
  9. The seven walls of the castle are often read as an allusion to the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, astronomy, arithmetic, and music.

    — Stephen Holliday
  10. Limbo, although not an unpleasant place, is a kind of neutral zone in which no one is punished or rewarded.  From Virgil's perspective, its inhabitants are lost because they have no place to live other than this "holding tank."

    — Stephen Holliday
  11. Virgil and Dante are in Limbo, and Virgil pities the inhabitants because they are pagans and pre-Christian people who led nobles lives as well as the souls of unbaptized infants. Virgil himself is in this category.

    — Stephen Holliday
  12. Avicen—often known as Avicenna—was an Arabic philosopher and author of a medical textbook. Averroes was a Spanish Islamic philosopher who wrote a well-known commentary on Aristotle. Scholars have argued that Dante's inclusion of these Islamists (as well as Saladin) is evidence of Dante's hostility towards Islam. There are mosques in the Dis (Canto 8) and Mohammad is found among the damned (Canto 28).  

    — Jamie Wheeler
  13. Euclid was a Greek geometer who wrote the Elements of Geometry in the third century BCE. Ptolemy was an Egyptian astronomer who in the second century CE devised the geocentric model of the universe which prevailed until the scientific revolution of the 16th century. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  14. By placing the mythical figures Orpheus and Linus together with the historical figures Tully and Seneca, Dante seems to be suggesting that poetry and values, as well as fiction and fact, exist side-by-side. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  15. Both Hippocrates (for whom the "Hippocratic Oath is named) and Galenus were Greek physicians. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  16. Pedanius Dioscorides was a first-century Greek scienitist and physician. He was the author of De materia media, a volume that cataloged the uses of medicinal plants. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  17. Aristotle (384–322 BCE) is the unnamed "master of the sapient throng" to whom Dante refers. When Aristotle's works were translated into Latin, they were disseminated through Christendom through the efforts of the Italian friar and philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225–1275 CE). The other philosophers mentioned here are known as the pre-Socratic philosophers, the Greek thinkers who preceded Socrates (470–399 BCE) and Plato (428–348 BCE)—the two primary founders of the Western philosophical tradition.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  18. Marcia was married to Cato the Younger, the Roman statesman. Julia was Caesar's daughter and Pompey's wife. Cornelia was the daughter of Scipio Africanus and the mother of the tribunes, Caius and Tiberius, together known as the "Gracchi." 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  19. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus was the last of the great Roman kings. Superbus's son, Sextus Tarquinius, raped Lucretia, an event which led to the king's banishment, ordered by Lucius Junius Brutus. Brutus was the brother of Lucretia and the nephew of Tarquin. Note: this is not the same Brutus as Julius Caesar's assassin, Marcus Junius Brutus. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  20. Soldan—usually referred to as "Saladin"—was the sultan of Egypt in 1174. He scored a number of wins against the European Crusaders but was eventually defeated by Richard the Lionhearted at the Battle of Arsuf in 1191. Saladin was held in great esteem in medieval Europe. Despite his resistance to Christianity, he was acknowledged for his piety and noble nature.   

    — Jamie Wheeler
  21. In Roman mythology Latinus was the king of Latium, the region of central Italy in which Rome was founded. Lavinia was his daughter.  

    — Jamie Wheeler
  22. Camilla was the daughter of Metabus, king of the Volscians. Metabus and Turns, king of the Rutulians, were the leaders of indigenous Italians who resisted invasions by the Trojans. Penthesilea was the queen of the Amazons, a race of women warriors. She was killed by Aeneas as she fought to save Troy. These events, which are described in The Aeneid, are so old as to be more mythical than historical in nature.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  23. "Electra" here is not a reference to the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, the Electra made famous by Sophocles and Euripides. Rather, it is a reference to the daughter of Atlas and the mother of Dardanus, founder of Troy. Her descendants include Aeneas and Hector. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  24. In this scene Dante includes himself among the "band" of poets he considers the six greatest in history. While this inclusion may seem hubristic, Dante would have considered his talent a gift from God, not something he achieved on his own. In the poem, Dante is chastising those who have wasted God's gifts; he can at least claim that he is not doing so with his own. In Paradise Lost, Milton makes the same argument but even more forcefully. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  25. "Naso" is Publius Ovidius Naso, the Roman poet best known as Ovid (43 BCE – 18 CE). Ovid's most influential poem was the epic Metamorphoses, which Dante references heavily. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  26. "Lucan" is the Roman poet and historian Marcus Annus Lucanus (39–65 BCE). Lucan is the author of Pharsalia, an epic bout the conflict between Caesar and Pompey.  

    — Jamie Wheeler
  27. "Flaccus" is Quintas Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BCE), a Roman poet. In the Middle Ages he was known mostly for his satires, though he also wrote odes. Flaccus describes himself as a satirist in *Ars Poetica. *

    — Jamie Wheeler
  28. Here, Virgil is paying his respect and indebtedness to Homer, from whose works (The Odyssey and The Iliad) Virgil heavily borrowed. Dante himself could not read Greek and thus his knowledge of the works was only indirect. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  29. In the Bible, Jacob's name was changed to "Israel" (Hebrew for "struggles with God") after he wrestled with an angel. Jacob's father was Isaac, the son of Abraham. Jacob married Rachel and had twelve sons who became the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel.

    — Jamie Wheeler