From “Inferno”

From “Inferno”
canto iv
A hard thunder broke my sleep.
As if roused by a god,
I stood straight up;
my rested eyes moved about,
seeking acquaintance
with place.
I found myself
on the edge of a chasm;
a sinkhole of anguish;
one that welcomes infinite grief.
So dark and deep,
so hazy that even my penetrating
vision couldn’t make out a thing.
                        We descend now
                        into this sightless world,
my guide, totally pale, said
and then continued:
                        I’ll go first;
                        you follow second.
I saw him
drain his color; I asked:
                  How can I go?
                  You’re afraid—
                  you who’ve comforted me
                  through all my doubts.
He replied,       It’s the pain
                        of the people down there that empties my face.
                        It’s pity
                        that you’ve mistaken for fear.
                        And it’s the long way
                        that pushes us now.
                        Let’s go.
He started, and me,
I followed
into that first circle
that surrounds the abyss.
It was dark
and so, by listening alone, I knew
it was not weeping but sighs
that tremored this unbounded air.
It was grief without martyrdom
that disturbed them,
this great and varied many
of infants, of girls, of mothers and men.
My teacher, to me:
                       Don’t you wish to know
                       the shades you see before you go ahead?
                       They’re not sinners.
                       Though even if mercy was given,
                       it wouldn’t be enough.
                       They were never baptized,
                       never could pass through the door
                       to the faith you want to believe.
                       Never able
                       to rightly adore God.
                       They came before.
                       And of these, I am the same.
                       It is only for this defect that
                       we are lost.
                       Without hope,
                       we live on in desire.
When I heard of those people,
in this limbo,
a leaden grief seized my heart.
                  Teacher, tell me.
                  Tell me, sir—
I began, with longing
to be sure of the faith
I thought
could win any error.
                  Are some left out
                  in thanks to their merit?
                  That is, were there some
                  that He blessed later?
And my teacher—
for whom I intended
my whispered speech—
                       I was newly in this state
                       when He came, that Profound One,
                       with the sign of victorious coronation.
                       He called up the shade of the first parent,
                       of Abel, his son; and that of Noah;
                       that of Moses, obedient lawgiver;
                       those of Abraham the patriarch
                       and David the King; Israel, too,
                       with his father and with his children;
                       that of Rachel, for whom he did so much;
                       and many others that He blessed.
                       Before them, no human soul had yet been saved.
We continued while he spoke,
passing through a forest—
one not of trees, I say,
but thick with longing shades.
Not far from where I once had slept,
I saw a fire
win a hemisphere of darkness.
We were far
but not so much that
I could not see:
honorable people
held this place.
                  My teacher, you who honor
                  both science and art,
                  how is it that these shades part
                  themselves in this manner?
And him to me,
                       The honor of their names,
                       sounding still in your life above,
                       grants them grace in heaven
                       that then distinguishes them here.
As he spoke,

a voice was heard:

Great poet—you who journeyed
now return!
It then fell still and quiet.
I saw four great shades—
not sad and not content—
coming toward us.
My teacher:
                       Note the one with sword in hand
                       who comes before the three as leader.
                       This is Homer the sovereign poet;
                       the other is Horace the satirist,
                       Ovid is third, and Lucan is last.
                       They are in accordance
                       in the name sounded
                       by that solo voice.                        (Great poet—)
                       Thus they honor me
                       and they do it well.
And so it was like this
that I saw assemble
that beautiful school,
that of the highest form:
the highest lord
who coasts
like the eagle flies
above all others.
They reasoned together
then turned to me
with a nod of greeting.
My teacher smiled.
Still, more honor did they grant me:
I was welcomed
as one of their array;
I was the sixth within so much wisdom.
And so we went
toward that hemisphere of light,
speaking about things on which, now,
it is far better to be silent.
We came upon the foot of a noble castle.
A stream defended its outskirts.
After that, a high wall
wrapped seven times around.
We walked the first barrier
as if it was hard earth.
We passed through
seven doors.
We reached a meadow,
verdant and crisp.
There were people there:
eyes slow, solemn.
They spoke rarely;
they did so with sweetness.
They had the semblance
of a great authority.
We took to one side,
to an open place, high and luminous,
such that below,
all the many could be seen.
There, upon the gleaming green,
I was shown the many great shades.
To see them was to encounter
my most exalted self.
I saw Elektra
with her many companions,
Hector and Aeneas; Caesar,
himself falcon-eyed and armed.
I saw Camilla and Penthesilea.
I saw King Latinus, who sat with his daughter.
I saw Brutus from whom Tarquin fled;
Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia;
I saw the Saladin,
alone, apart.
When I had lifted more my lids and lashes,
I saw the master of those who know
sitting among his family of philosophers.
All look to him. All honor to him.
Nearest to him, I saw Socrates and Plato.
I saw Democritus, who placed the world at chance,
Diogenes, Anaxagoras, and Thales,
Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Zeno;
I saw Dioscorides, collector of qualities;
I saw Orfeo; Cicero and Linus.
I saw moral Seneca; Euclid the geometrician,
and Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Avicenna, and Galen.
I saw Averroes, who made
the great margins.
I cannot recount all in full.
To say too much, too many times …
My theme is long.
The sextet cleaved, leaving two.
My wise teacher led me another way
out of this quiet into that trembling air.
I come to the place
where nothing shines, ever.


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