READ STUDY GUIDE: Cantos III–IV
"Through me is the way into the woeful city; through me is the way into eternal woe; through me is the way among the lost people. Justice moved my lofty maker: the divine Power, the supreme Wisdom and the primal Love made me. Before me were no things created, unless eternal, and I eternal last. Leave every hope, ye who enter!"
These words of color obscure I saw written at the top of a gate; whereat I, "Master, their meaning is dire to me."
And he to me, like one who knew, "Here it behoves to leave every fear; it behoves that all cowardice should here be dead. We have come to the place where I have told thee that thou shalt see the woeful people, who have lost the good of the understanding."
And when he had put his hand on mine, with a glad countenance, wherefrom I took courage, he brought me within the secret things. Here sighs, laments, and deep wailings were resounding though the starless air; wherefore at first I wept thereat. Strange tongues, horrible cries, words of woe, accents of anger, voices high and hoarse, and sounds of hands with them, were making a tumult which whirls forever in that air dark without change, like the sand when the whirlwind breathes.
And I, who had my head girt with horror, said, "Master, what is it that I hear? and what folk are they who seem in woe so vanquished?"
And he to me, "This miserable measure the wretched souls maintain of those who lived without infamy and without praise. Mingled are they with that caitiff choir of the angels, who were not rebels, nor were faithful to God, but were for themselves. The heavens chased them out in order to be not less beautiful, nor doth the depth of Hell receive them, because the damned would have some glory from them."
And I, "Master, what is so grievous to them, that makes them lament so bitterly?"
He answered, "I will tell thee very briefly. These have no hope of death; and their blind life is so debased, that they are envious of every other lot. Fame of them the world permitteth not to be; mercy and justice disdain them. Let us not speak of them, but do thou look and pass on."
And I, who was gazing, saw a banner, that whirling ran so swiftly that it seemed to me to scorn all repose, and behind it came so long a train of folk, that I could never have believed death had undone so many. After I had distinguished some among them, I saw and knew the shade of him who made, through cowardice, the great refusal.  At once I understood and was certain, that this was the sect of the caitiffs displeasing unto God, and unto his enemies. These wretches, who never were alive, were naked, and much stung by gad-flies and by wasps that were there. These streaked their faces with blood, which, mingled with tears, was harvested at their feet by loathsome worms.
 Who is intended by these words is uncertain.
And when I gave myself to looking onward, I saw people on the bank of a great river; wherefore I said, "Master, now grant to me that I may know who these are, and what rule makes them appear so ready to pass over, as I discern through the faint light." And he to me, "The things will be clear to thee, when we shall set our steps on the sad marge of Acheron." Then with eyes bashful and cast down, fearing lest my speech had been irksome to him, far as to the river I refrained from speaking.
And lo! coming toward us in a boat, an old man, white with ancient hair, crying, "Woe to you, wicked souls! hope not ever to see Heaven! I come to carry you to the other bank, into eternal darkness, to heat and frost. And thou who art there, living soul, depart from these that are dead." But when he saw that I did not depart, he said, "By another way, by other ports thou shalt come to the shore, not here, for passage; it behoves that a lighter bark bear thee."
 The boat that bears the souls to Purgatory. Charon recognizes that Dante is not among the damned.
And my Leader to him, "Charon, vex not thyself, it is thus willed there where is power to do that which is willed; and farther ask not." Then the fleecy cheeks were quiet of the pilot of the livid marsh, who round about his eyes had wheels of flame.
But those souls, who were weary and naked, changed color, and gnashed their teeth soon as they heard his cruel words. They blasphemed God and their parents, the human race, the place, the time and the seed of their sowing and of their birth. Then, bitterly weeping, they drew back all of them together to the evil bank, that waits for every man who fears not God. Charon the demon, with eyes of glowing coal, beckoning them, collects them all; he beats with his oar whoever lingers.
As in autumn the leaves fall off one after the other, till the bough sees all its spoils upon the earth, in like wise the evil seed of Adam throw themselves from that shore one by one at signals, as the bird at his call. Thus they go over the dusky wave, and before they have landed on the farther side, already on this a new throng is gathered.
"My son," said the courteous Master, "those who die in the wrath of God, all meet together here from every land. And they are eager to pass over the stream, for the divine justice spurs them, so that fear is turned to desire. This way a good soul never passes; and therefore if Charon snarleth at thee, thou now mayest well know what his speech signifies." This ended, the dark plain trembled so mightily, that the memory of the terror even now bathes me with sweat. The tearful land gave forth a wind that flashed a vermilion light which vanquished every sense of mine, and I fell as a man whom slumber seizes.