Inferno: Poets and Philosophers, Heroes and Heroines

As a poet, Dante naturally emphasizes the famous classical poets in Limbo, along with the philosophers of Greece and Rome. The poets and philosophers are historical figures (except for Orpheus), but Dante also meets characters in Limbo whom we would call legendary or mythological characters such as the Trojan heroes Hector and Aeneas. Note also that he sees a hero of the Muslim world here in Limbo: Saladin, the 12th-century Sultan who rules over Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and North Africa. You can read more about Saladin at Wikipedia, and you will also find Saladin making an appearance in Boccaccio's Decameron.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Dante's Inferno unit. Story source: Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Tony Kline (2002).

(painting by Consoni)

Canto 4: Poets and Philosophers

The Great Poets

We did not cease moving, though he was speaking, but passed the wood meanwhile, the wood, I say, of crowded spirits. We had not gone far from where I slept when I saw a flame that overcame a hemisphere of shadows. We were still some way from it, but not so far that I failed to discern in part what noble people occupied that place. 'O you, who value every science and art, who are these, who have such honour that they stand apart from all the rest?'

And he to me: 'Their fame that sounds out for them, honoured in that life of yours, brings them heaven's grace that advances them.'

Meanwhile I heard a voice: 'Honour the great poet: his departed shade returns.'

After the voice had paused and was quiet, I saw four great shadows come towards us, with faces that were neither sad nor happy. The good Master began to speak: 'Take note of him, with a sword in hand, who comes in front of the other three, as if he were their lord: that is Homer, the sovereign poet; next, Horace the satirist; Ovid is the third; and last is Lucan. Because each is worthy, with me, of that name the one voice sounded, they do me honour and, in doing so, do good.'

So I saw gathered together the noble school, of the lord of highest song, who soars, like an eagle, above the rest. After they had talked for a while amongst themselves, they turned towards me with a sign of greeting, at which my Master smiled. And they honoured me further still, since they made me one of their company, so that I made a sixth among the wise.

So we went onwards to the light, speaking of things about which it is best to be silent, just as it was best to speak of them where I was.

The Heroes and Heroines

We came to the base of a noble castle, surrounded seven times by a high wall, and defended by a beautiful, encircling stream. This we crossed as if it were solid earth; I entered through seven gates, with the wise; we reached a meadow of fresh turf. The people there were of great authority in appearance, with calm, and serious looks, speaking seldom, and then with soft voices. We moved to one side, into an open space, bright and high, so that every one of them all could be seen. There, on the green enamel, the great spirits were pointed out to me, directly, so that I feel exalted, inside me, at having seen them.

I saw Electra with many others, amongst whom I knew Hector, Aeneas and Caesar, armed, with his eagle eye. I saw Camilla and Penthesilea, on the other side, and the King of Latium, Latinus, with Lavinia his daughter. I saw that Brutus who expelled Tarquin, Lucretia, Julia, Marcia, and Cornelia, and I saw Saladin, by himself, apart.

The Philosophers and other great spirits

When I lifted my eyes a little higher, I saw the Master of those who know, Aristotle, sitting amongst the company of philosophers. All gaze at him: all show him honour. There I saw Socrates, and Plato, who stand nearest to him of all of them; Democritus, Anaxagoras, and Thales; Empedocles, Heraclitus, and Zeno; and I saw the good collector of the qualities of plants, I mean Dioscorides, and saw Orpheus, Cicero, Linus, and Seneca the moralist; Euclid the geometer, and Ptolemaeus; Hippocrates, Avicenna, and Galen; and Averrhoƫs, who wrote the vast commentary.

I cannot speak of them all in full because the great theme drives me on, so that the word falls, many times, short of the fact. The six companions reduce to two: the wise guide leads me, by another path, out of the quiet, into the trembling air, and I come to a region where nothing shines.

(700 words)

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