READ STUDY GUIDE: Cantos III–IV
The further side of Acheron.—Virgil leads Dante into Limbo, the First Circle of Hell, containing the spirits of those who lived virtuously but without Christianity.—Greeting of Virgil by his fellow poets.—They enter a castle, where are the shades of ancient worthies.—Virgil and Dante depart.
A heavy thunder broke the deep sleep in my head, so that I started up like a person who by force is wakened. And risen erect, I moved my rested eye round about, and looked fixedly to distinguish the place where I was. True it is, that I found myself on the verge of the valley of the woeful abyss that gathers in thunder of infinite wailings. Dark, profound it was, and cloudy, so that though I fixed my sight on the bottom I did not discern anything there.
"Now we descend down here into the blind world," began the Poet all deadly pale, "I will be first, and thou shalt be second."
And I, who had observed his color, said, "How shall I come, if thou fearest, who art wont to be a comfort to my doubting?" And he to me, "The anguish of the folk who are down here depicts upon my face that pity which thou takest for fear. Let us go on, for the long way urges us."
So he set forth, and so he made me enter within the first circle that girds the abyss. Here, so far as could be heard, there was no plaint but that of sighs which made the eternal air to tremble: this came of the woe without torments felt by the crowds, which were many and great, of infants and of women and of men.
The good Master to me, "Thou dost not ask what spirits are these that thou seest. Now I would have thee know, before thou goest farther, that they sinned not; and if they have merits it sufficeth not, because they had not baptism, which is part of the faith that thou believest; and if they were before Christianity, they did not duly worship God: and of such as these am I myself. Through such defects, and not through other guilt, are we lost, and only so far harmed that without hope we live in desire."
Great woe seized me at my heart when I heard him, because I knew that people of much worth were suspended in that limbo. "Tell me, my Master, tell me, Lord," began I, with wish to be assured of that faith which vanquishes every error, "did ever any one who afterwards was blessed go out from here, either by his own or by another's merit?" And he, who understood my covert speech, answered, "I was new in this state when I saw a Mighty One come hither crowned with sign of victory. He drew out hence the shade of the first parent, of Abel his son, and that of Noah, of Moses the law-giver and obedient, Abraham the patriarch, and David the King, Israel with his father, and with his offspring, and with Rachel, for whom he did so much, and others many; and He made them blessed: and I would have thee know that before these, human spirits were not saved."
 Wishing especially to be assured in regard to the descent of Christ into Hell.
We ceased not going on because he spoke, but all the while were passing through the wood, the wood I mean of crowded spirits. Nor yet had our way been long from where I slept, when I saw a fire, that conquered a hemisphere of darkness. We were still a little distant from it, yet not so far that I could not partially discern that honorable folk possessed that place. "O thou that honorest both science and art, these, who are they, that have such honor that from the condition of the others it sets them apart?" And he to me, "The honorable fame of them which resounds above in thy life wins grace in heaven that so advances them." At this a voice was heard by me, "Honor the loftiest Poet! his shade returns that was departed." When the voice had ceased and was quiet, I saw four great shades coming to us: they had a semblance neither sad nor glad. The good Master began to say, "Look at him with that sword in hand who cometh before the three, even as lord. He is Homer, the sovereign poet; the next who comes is Horace, the satirist; Ovid is the third, and the last is Lucan. Since each shares with me the name that the single voice sounded, they do me honor, and in that do well"
Thus I saw assembled the fair school of that Lord of the loftiest song which above the others as an eagle flies. After they had discoursed somewhat together, they turned to me with sign of salutation; and my Master smiled thereat. And far more of honor yet they did me, for they made me of their band, so that I was the sixth amid so much wit. Thus we went on as far as the light, speaking things concerning which silence is becoming, even as was speech there where I was.
We came to the foot of a noble castle, seven times circled by high walls, defended round about by a fair streamlet. This we passed as if hard ground; through seven gates I entered with these sages; we came to a meadow of fresh verdure. People were there with eyes slow and grave, of great authority in their looks; they spake seldom, and with soft voices. Thus we drew apart, on one side, into a place open, luminous, and high, so that they all could be seen. There opposite upon the green enamel were shown to me the great spirits, whom to have seen I inwardly exalt myself.
I saw Electra with many companions, among whom I knew both Hector and Aeneas, Caesar in armor, with his gerfalcon eyes; I saw Camilla and Penthesilea on the other side, and I saw the King Latinus, who was seated with Lavinia his daughter. I saw that Brutus who drove out Tarquin; Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia; and alone, apart, I saw the Saladin. When I raised my brow a little more, I saw the Master of those who know, seated amid the philosophic family; all regard him, all do him honor. Here I saw both Socrates and Plato, who before the others stand nearest to him; Democritus, who ascribes the world to chance; Diogenes, Anaxagoras, and Thales, Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Zeno; and I saw the good collector of the qualities, Dioscorides, I mean; and I saw Orpheus, Tully, and Linus, and moral Seneca, Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemy, Hippocrates, Avicenna, Galen, and Averrhoes, who made the great comment. I cannot report of all in full, because the long theme so drives me that many times speech comes short of fact.
The company of six is reduced to two. By another way the wise guide leads me, out from the quiet, into the air that trembles, and I come into a region where is nothing that can give light.