Week 8: Dante's Inferno

Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Canto 4: Poets and Philosophers

Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 700 words.

Among the pagan souls in limbo are the souls of four great poets: the Greek poet Homer, and the Roman poets Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. Dante also sees the souls of many famous heroes and heroines from antiquity. Dante also sees Saladin there (1137-1193 CE), the Kurdish founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty of Egypt. Although Saladin fought the Crusaders defeating the Christians and taking Jerusalem in 1187, he was a symbol of nobility and chivalry for Dante. As a Muslim, however, he was not baptized so finds himself in limbo here, standing apart from the others. Dante also sees Muslims among the philosophers, such as Avicenna (979-1037 CE) and Averrhoës (1128-1198 CE) .

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; 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 Averrhoës, 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.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • who are some of the unbaptized poets that Dante sees?
  • who are some of the heroes and heroines?
  • who are some of the philosophers?

Source: Dante's Inferno, translated by A.S. Kline (2000). Website: Dante and Others.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM