Sunday, February 17, 2013

DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 4


Hell: Chapter 4 
      
 A thunderclap jerked me at last awake
                   and upright, as if lifted by strong arms.
                   I found myself on a tremendous height                      3

  above so vast a slope of falling ground
                   it vanished under clouds beneath my sight.
       I knew this pit must be the last abode                         6
           
      of every sinner cast away by God.
                   My guide, reading my thought, said “It is so.
       There we must now descend, so let us go.”                9
           
      His face was deathly pale. I cried aloud
                  “Master, I dare not! Surely you must see
        I cannot follow where you fear to tread.”             12
           
      “Not fear but pity blanches me,” he said,
                  “pity for those beneath. We’ve far to go
        so forward, come!” He led me straight ahead        15
           
       on to the widest ledge circling the pit
                   where twilit air is tremulous with sighs –           
       no other sounds of suffering were there.                  18
           
My sadly smiling guide asked, “Do you know
            who dwell within this painless part of Hell?
This is my place, with those who did not sin               21                     
           
born before Jesus, therfore not baptized.
            Limbo is where all sinless pagans dwell
            outside the radiance of gospel’s grace.        24                     

Lacking baptism, perhaps we did no wrong,
            but cannot truly love the Trinity
            and give to it the praise that is it’s due.                27          

This is the only cause of our distress.”
            That noble souls are thus condemned to pain,
            forever, and condemned to it in vain                      30          

depressed me for a while, and so I said,
            “Now tell me sir, please tell me master dear…”
            (for now I needed utter certainty                       33          

about our faith which strikes all error dead)
            “has nobody ever got out of here
            by their own virtue, or by virtue lent?”                    36

My guide immediately knew what I meant.
            “Soon after I came to this zone of Hell,”
            he said, “a hero crowned with victory                       39

passed through and down to pull out of the pit
            Adam and Eve and all His ancestry –
            Abel their first born son of righteous mind,                  42

Noah the just whose ark preserved mankind,
            Abraham patriarch of everyone,
            Rachel who Heaven put such cares upon                      45

and wife of that Jacob renamed Israel,
            law giver Moses, psalmist David too,
            and many more than I could tell or see                           48

he raised to Heaven where I will never be.”
            We passed as he was speaking through a crowd –
            men, women, infants who forlornly stood                     51

like rustling trees within a twilit wood,
            but gradually between them there appeared
a light that grew much brighter as we neared,                54

until I saw it was a dome of light
            with such fine folk inside I asked my guide,
            “Why are these brightly lit and set apart?”                  57

Said he, “Heaven ratifies the glory
given to us by art.” Then an almighty shout
            rang out: “The prince of poetry is home,                    60

returned to us from distant wandering!”
            Four solemn figures came toward us then
            with neither joy nor sorrow in their looks.                 63

My guide explained, “Their leader with the sword
            first sang of warfare – also was the first
            to have his verse immortalised in books.                   67

His name is Homer. Horace close behind
            brought wit and satire into poetry;
            next, Ovid who sang about love’s mysteries           70

and those transformed by angry deities;
            and lastly Lucan, singer of civil strife
            who knew that One in Heaven is lord of life.         73 

These four are reigning kings of poetry
            yet think (for it is true) I am the best
            so I must humour them, which is their due.”             76

The band of poets gathered round my guide,
            conferred a while and then at his request
            made me the sixth in that small company                   79

of eagle-winged souls whose poetry
            outsoars the rest, at which my master smiled.
            We walked together these wise men and me                82

slowly upon our way to better light,
talking of things profound and good to say
to kindred souls down there (but not up here)           85

until a splendid city came in sight,
            a stream of pure clear water flowing round.
            We walked on it as though it were dry ground           88

then faced a gateway in a lofty wall
            with seven towers. Passing between two
            I found a lovely space of smooth green lawn             91

where noble people, moving gracefully,
            spoke to each other very quietly.
            I asked my guide, “Master of every art,                     94

what privileges these majestic folk,
            apart from obvious nobility?”
            He said, “Their names still famously resound            97

on earth, and Heavenly powers respect them too,
            holding that privileges are their due.”
            So now we walked a little way apart                        100

up a small hill. Good light allowed a view
            of these great ghosts. Nothing so thrils my heart
            as thinking of these spirits I have seen                     103

Electra, with heroes bred from her close by,  
brave Hector, Aeneas ancestor of Rome,  
Caesar in armour with his hawk-like eye,                106

huntress Camilla, Amazon warior
Penthesilia, first Latin king Longinus,
his daughter Lavinia, Brutus who                            109  

expelled Rome’s last king Tarquin, Julia –
Lucretia – Cornelia – Marcia –
standing apart, the mighty Saladin.                         112

Raising my eyes I saw the kings of mind:
Aristotle master of those who know,
Socrates nearest him, also Plato,                             115

Democritus who said atoms and chance
made everything, cynic Diogenes,
            Anaxagoras, the herbal healer                                 118

Dioscorides, Thales, Orpheus,
Tully, Livy, moralist Seneca,
geometer Euclid, geographical                                121

astronomer Ptolemy, the doctors
Galen and Hippocrates, and the best
of great Aristotle’s expositors                                 124

Avecenna and Averroes. O!
I cannot tell you all I saw because
            too many times my words demean my thought.      127

My company was growing very small.
            Our group of six had dwindled into two.
My bold wise guide and I at last withdrew              130

into a place where nothing shines all.             

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