Canto IV

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Deep bursts of thunder broke the heavy sleep
which reigned within my head, and I recoiled
the way one does when roughly jerked awake.
On getting to my feet I looked around,
my eyes now rested, focusing my sight
to work out where it was I'd landed up.
And where in truth I found myself to be
was on the brink of griefs abysmal bowl
that holds in all the roar of endless pain;
a place so dark and deep and lost in fog
that though I stared to penetrate its depth
I couldn't make out anything at all.
'Let's now descend, to visit this blind world,'
the poet, who'd grown very pale, announced;
'I'll go on first and you come after me.'
And I, observing his complexion, said,
'How can I move if you, who've been my strength
whenever I've had doubts, are terrified.'
And he to me, 'The people's anguish, here
below us, paints compassion on my face
in colours you've attributed to fear.
Let's go now; for the long way calls us on.'
He went ahead, and made me enter too
the first ring that encircles the abyss.
Within that place, as far as ear could tell,
no tortured groans rose up but only sighs,
that set the air forever quivering,
and issued from a grief, devoid of pain,
that thronging crowds endured, a multitude
of children and of women and of men.
'These spirits that you see, you've not yet asked
what sort they are,' the kindly master said.
'You'd better know, before we carry on,
that though these did not sin, their worthiness
could not suffice, since they were not baptised,
which gives admission to that faith you hold.
If they preceded Christianity
they had no fitting way to worship God,
and I myself am classed as one of these.
For this sole fault and for no other crime
we're lost, but suffer only in this way,
that, living without hope, we yet desire.'
Grief moved my heart as now I realised
on hearing this that people of great worth
inhabited that limbo in suspense.
'Now tell me master, tell me lord,' I said,
desiring confirmation of that faith
which vanquishes all error that there is,
'did any spirit ever leave this place
by his own merit or another's worth,
and afterwards arrive at blessedness?'
He understood my cryptic speech, and said,
'When I was newly come into this state
I saw arrive a figure of great power, whose head
was crowned with victory's insignia.
He carried off our primal father's shade
and his son Abel's ghost and Noah's too,
obedient Moses, giver of the laws,
the Patriarch Abraham, and David, King,
and Israel, with his father and his sons,
and Rachel too, for whom he'd served so long,
and many others, and he made them blessed.
Before these souls I mentioned, you should know
no human spirit ever had been saved.'
Our pace had not once faltered while he talked
but all this while we travelled through the wood
(I mean the densely crowded wood of souls).
Then, not much further on along the path
from where I'd slept, I saw a blaze which forced
a hemisphere of darkness to retreat.
We still were some way off, but not too far
for me to apprehend, in some degree,
that honoured people occupied that place.
'Oh you who grace the sciences and arts,
say who these are whose honour stands so high,
their treatment is quite different from the rest?'
And he to me, 'The honour of their names
which in your life above resound with fame
gains grace in heaven and advances them.'
Then suddenly I heard a voice exclaim,
'Greatest of poets! Let us honour him.
His ghost that went away has now returned.'
The voice paused. In the silence that ensued
I saw four awesome shades approaching us
appearing neither sorrowful nor glad.
The kindly master then began to speak,
'Observe him specially who sword in hand
precedes the other three in lordly state;
for he is Homer, prince of poetry.
Then Horace follows him, the satirist,
with Ovid third, and Lucan in the rear.
Since each of them with me deserves that name
the solitary voice just now announced,
they honour me, and dignify themselves.'
So there I saw assembled that bright school
united round the lord of highest song
who like an eagle soars above the rest.
When they'd conversed together for a time
they turned to me with gestures of goodwill
which caused my master as he watched to smile.
And then they showed me greater honour yet,
admitting me within their company
to make me sixth among such intellects.
We carried on toward the shining light
and talked of things it would be out of place
to mention here, though there quite suitable;
then came beneath a stately castle tower
encircled seven times with soaring walls,
in turn ringed by a sweet protective stream
which we traversed as if on solid ground.
Together with those men of genius
I entered, passing in through seven gates.
We came upon a meadow, fresh and green.
The people there, with calm and serious eyes,
imposing in their great authority,
spoke sparingly and kept their voices low.
And then, withdrawing to the side, we gained
an open, high and well-lit vantage point
affording us a view of all of them.
There straight ahead on that enamelled lawn
the spirits of the great were shown to me,
a sight my soul rejoices to have seen.
I saw Electra in fine company
among whom Hector and Aeneas both
I knew, and Caesar, armed and falcon-eyed.
Camilla, Penthesilea too I saw;
and also, seated on the other side,
the Latian king, with him Lavinia
his daughter; and I saw that Brutus too
who drove out Tarquin, then Lucretia
with Julia, Marcia and Cornelia,
and, on his own apart, the Saladin.
Then looking somewhat higher up I saw
the lord of those who understand, who sat
amidst his philosophic family.
All honour him and gaze at him in awe.
Then, nearest him, in front of all the rest,
were Socrates and Plato. Next I saw
Democritus who ascribed the world to chance,
Diogenes and Anaxagoras
and Thales and Empedocles as well
and Heraclitus, yes, and Zeno too
and that good man who classified the plants,
I mean Dioscorides; then Orpheus,
Tully and Linus, moral Seneca,
Euclid the geometer and Ptolemy,
Hippocrates and Avicenna. Next
I noticed Galen, and Averroes
the maker of the famous commentary.
I can't give full description of them all;
my long theme drives me on so urgently
that words must often fail to match the facts.
The group of six has dwindled now to two.
My wise guide leads me by a different road
from this serenity to throbbing air.
I come into a part where no light shines.