Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 4

by John Stamps

Today we stand at the brink of Hell, looking down into the Inferno. We’re technically still at the outskirts of Hell. We are in Limbo, from the Latin word limbus, the border that surrounds anything, an edge, rim, or fringe.

Of course Dante is terrified to descend into the infernal depths. He imagines his guide is afraid, too. But Virgil is not.

The anguish of the souls who dwell down here
has painted in my face
the pity you have taken to be fear.
We must be moving on.
The road is long.

Limbo is a strange place. No weeping and gnashing of teeth just yet. Just deep sighs. Limbo is the region of eternal sighs, whispers, and moans from men, women, and unbaptized children not damned to Hell but unworthy of Heaven. William Weaver, literature professor at Baylor, observes that the demographic composition of Limbo flatly contradicts Romans 3:23,1 a verse near and dear to us who grew up in evangelical churches.

They did not sin.
If they had merits, these were not enough—
baptism they did not have,
the one gate to the faith which you believe.

Virgil and Dante both adhere to that ancient dictum first articulated by St Cyprian of Carthage, “extra ecclesiam, nulla salus.” Outside of the walls of the church—intra-mural—there is no salvation. The 14th century church like Noah’s Ark might stink to high heaven. But no matter. Only in the Ark can humans be saved. So in the hellish geography of the Inferno, Limbo is where you go if you were a just human—even if you had never sinned—if you were extra-mural—outside of the walls of the church. Dante asks his guide:

Has anyone ever left here by his own
or by another’s merits, to be blessed?

Virgil replies, Yes. Hell . . . well, to be precise . . . Limbo was harrowed by “the coming One of power and might.” He doesn’t mention Jesus by name. But you and I both know who He’s talking about. The Mighty One rescued the shades of all the righteous figures of the Old Testament: Adam, Abel, Noah, Moses, and so on.

And I want you to know that, before these,
salvation came for not one human soul.

To be honest, I had expected “the harrowing of hell” to be much more earth-shaking and hell-shattering. As a cosmic event of salvation by Christus Victor, His raid on Virgil’s Hell is frankly underwhelming. That said, Limbo is not such a bad place to spend eternity. It could be much worse, as we’ll see when we enter into the realm of the damned in Canto 5. Dante has the good fortune to meet the five greatest poets of antiquity: Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and his guide Virgil. With exemplary modesty, Dante declares to us that he gets to join this exclusive club:

When they had talked together for a while
they turned to me, and beckoned me to come,
bringing a smile unto my Teacher’s lips,
and greeted me, and honored me so well
that they included among their band,
And made me sixth in that Academy.

The group came to a noble castle and went inside. It had seven lofty walls, surrounded by a lovely stream.2 There Dante met all the wise and noble dead from centuries before. Most of the names of the inhabitants of this wondrous city shouldn’t surprise us. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (aka “the master of those who know”), Zeno, Heraclitus, just to name a few. Dante also threw in a zinger to see if we were paying attention: “and sitting by himself, the Saladin.” If you’re not current on the history of the Middle Ages, Saladin (or Salah ad-Din, 1138-1193) was the righteous Muslim warrior-king who fought off the crusaders led by Richard the Lionhearted and eventually captured Jerusalem. Of course, none of them are particularly glad to be there: “Seldom they spoke, and they held their voices low.”

I began to ponder the presence of the “great pagans”—this is how Charles Williams described them—in Limbo. He makes a curious observation about why “the spirits of the great” ended up in Limbo and why they couldn’t possibly reside in Paradiso:

How could Plato, who in the famous close of the Symposium left all matter behind in his own plotted Way, be taken into the matter of the Christian Paradise? No; we could only save their personal souls by making nonsense of their personal work; this Dante refused to do. We have more tenderness for them, but Dante had more honour.

But we can do better than that. We Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth is the Logos incarnate. Before He was born in the Bethlehem manger during the reign of Augustus Caesar, He was, is, and ever shall be the Logos. He is reason, thought, principle, rationality, ratio, proportion. And wherever and whenever any human being seeks one of the transcendentals—Truth, Justice, Goodness, Beauty, indeed Being itself—they will instantly recognize the Logos incarnate when they finally meet Him. The Transcendentals, famously, are “convertible.” If you know one of them, you know them all. If you seek Truth, you will also find Goodness. If you hunger and thirst after Justice,3 you are also hungry for Beauty. The great pagans—and the lesser pagans—and we modern pagans too—might not have known the Logos by His personal Jewish name, Yeshua bar Yosef. But we will already have been long acquainted with Him as a good friend whom we have always known.

When we meet the Logos face-to-face, we will exclaim, “I know you!”
And the God-Word-became-Flesh will respond, “Yes, I know you too!”

In the next canto we actually step into the second circle of the Inferno. What happens when you let your passions overrule your reason in directing the will? We’ll soon find out.



[1] “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” To be fair though, our favorite verse was, is, and always will be John 3:16.
[2] Why seven walls? This great city represents the seven branches of ancient learning—the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). The Anthony Esolen translation has great endnotes.
[3] “Beati, qui esuriunt, et sitiunt iustitiam: quoniam ipsi saturabuntur” (Matthew 5:6). “Justice” of course is a legal word while “righteousness” is a religious word. Jesus of course meant both justice and righteousness. Iustitia or δικαιοσύνη or tsedaqah (צְדָקָה) is a hard concept for us moderns to grasp. We separate what God intended to be held together.

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16 Responses to Journeying Through the Inferno: Canto 4

  1. JBG says:

    I feel that “limbo” and hell” are here and now, at least for most. There are people that have experienced such profound suffering in life that they are, for all intents and purposes, in hell. To think that they will be plunged into further depths of suffering post-mortem (for such dire offenses as being unbaptized, for example) is just a bridge too far. I simply cannot take that seriously at all.

    I think many (most?) people are already in some circle of hell. And since suffering very rarely refines a person, I would deeply question the value of going to an even worse place after death. Trying to secure a change in a person via pain and suffering is how lowly humans operate. I suspect that God must have a better way of stimulating a regenerative metanoia after this life has ended.

    Liked by 1 person

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      I just bought Mark Vernon’s latest book on Dante. He reads The Divine Comedy as a profound metaphor for our own spiritual journey that you and I are taking here and now.


      • JBG says:

        Thanks John. That sounds great. Yes I take “hell” to be a powerful metaphor for the horrifying aspects of our spiritual journey in this very moment, not a world to come. I know I am in the minority here, but I do not believe in a literal post-mortem hell.

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          You and I are so far away from the end of The Divine Comedy. But we can sneak a peek here, just to keep the goal in sight. God is the love that moves the sun and the other stars: “l’amor che move ‘l sole e l’altre stelle.” (Paradiso 33.145)
          God is the Love Who moves our destinies.


  2. Jonathan Geltner says:

    I happened to read this canto today. I hope we’ll get more posts on the Comedy.

    I think the Poem is best read as allegory, as it was intended, and not as theology or metaphysics. And what it allegorizes is the spiritual path we tread in this life—the life common to us all that Dante references in the very first line. One can also—if this is not saying the same thing, which actually I think it is—read it as what Dante pretty much explicitly calls the Comedy, a fantasy. “High fantasy” in fact, is his term. Anyhow Dante works in images (per Charles Williams) and figures (per Auerbach, his greatest critic), and not in propositions, though in many places in the poem it can seem that he is very didactic and “Scholastic.” Still it is a poem and true in the way poems are true, not necessarily true in other ways.

    As for the the pathos of the virtuous pagans, I think it’s only to be got at by bearing in mind who is Dante’s guide through almost 2/3 of the Comedy, and what Dante says about him and to him:

    “Tu se’l mio maestro e’l mio autore
    Tu se solo colui da cu’ io tolsi
    Lo bello stilo che m’ha fatto onore”

    “You are my master and my author,
    You alone are he from whom I took
    The beautiful style that has brought me honor.”

    That’s a man Dante puts in Limbo. But the greatest poignancy, I think, comes when Vergil hands Dante off to Beatrice at the edge of the terrestrial paradise. There Dante turns to Vergil and, speaking of Beatrice who now stands before him, says “conosco i segni de l’antica fiamma.” This is a clear homage and direct translation of Dido’s line in the Aeneid, “Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae.” Both lines mean “I recognize the sign of the ancient flame.” (For all I know this could be where our expression “an old flame” comes from!) But Vergil is already gone, cannot receive this tribute from the man who, as Dante goes on to declare (but now in the voice of the poet speaking to the reader, not as a speaking character), is his “dolcissimo patre, / Vergilio a cui per mia salute die’mi” — “sweetest father, / Vergil to whom for my salvation I gave myself.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • brian says:

      I tend to not dissociate metaphysics, theology, and poetics, Jonathan. I think one always carries at least an implicit metaphysics and it normally affects the quality of one’s poetics. Still, it is perhaps helpful to concentrate on the allegorical/spiritual path dimension of Dante’s great poem. The whole notion of “high fantasy” is important and also almost endlessly provocative. How does imagination relate to metaphysics? What kind of cognative value does one attribute to images? Is there an iconic as well as an idolatrous imagination? If so, how does one discern the difference? What is the reality behind fictional characters and worlds that often impress far more then the ordinary folks and quotidian sleepiness that typically attend our daily lives? I still wrestle with these questions, though I think the inquiry gestures towards an ultimacy most people would not grant to the products of imagination.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan Geltner says:

        Well you know those are questions that preoccupy me. I don’t dissociate poetics and metaphysics either, in the sense that like you I think we are always doing metaphysics—including in the poems and other artifacts we make. But in terms of *reading* a poem, the Comedy in this case specifically, I’m after some way of getting into it that doesn’t feel like “rehabilitating” it. And if I boil it down into a propositional paraphrase, some sort of theology argued by other means, I’m going to be in trouble, because then I can’t “agree” with Dante everywhere, and the whole thing will lose its charm and even turn a bit ugly. But I do agree with the Comedy (as opposed to all its ideas), as completely as possible. So what does this mean? I’m not totally sure, but I suspect many others are in a similar boat. Why does this poem, whose ideas virtually no one today could fully espouse (not even faithful Catholics… unless maybe they’re Anthony Esolen), continue to speak to us and maybe even strike us as perfect in a way? Dante’s cosmos is not our own, and ours will never again be like his. And yet.

        Liked by 2 people

    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Jonathan, my plan inshallah is to blog all the cantos of the Divine Comedy. I’m armed with the 100 Days of Dante videos, my trusty copy of Tony Esolen’s translation of the Inferno, and Mark Vernon’s spiritual guide. One thing that Mark Vernon has stressed thus far is how Dante avoids crude conceptions of Hell. In itself, that’s a relief. And as you point out, Dante is writing poetry and we need to read it and hear it as such. It might not be a bad thing for me to start “listening” to Dante and not just read him silently, per my usual practice. I just discovered that John Cleese of Monty Python fame created an audiobook version of the Inferno. I loved what he did with The Screwtape Letters. This might be a fairly fruitful way to listen to the Inferno.
      Or not.


      • Jonathan Geltner says:

        Oh wow, John Cleese… fruitful or not, that sounds like something not to be missed. I think absolutely the Comedy should be heard.

        I like Esolen’s translation a lot. And his commentary, which is… spirited, let’s say.

        I will look forward to more Comedy blogging! I’m rereading it myself, and it’s only been a few years since I last read it, so it’s still reasonably fresh and I even sort of meditated and drew upon it to write part of a novel, yet I still get so much new out of it with each new reading. And a lot of that has to do with the sound of it.

        Liked by 1 person

        • johnstamps2020 says:

          I like Tony Esolen’s “spirited” notes. It helps me get a serious traditional Thomist perspective on The Inferno.


          • Jonathan Geltner says:

            I really do like his edition as well. I have great respect for him as a translator (first encountered Esolen’s work via Lucretius). His approach to the Comedy stands out and is unique in the way he rhymes only sporadically. I think his translation flows as well if not better than any other in verse. And I value his comments too. I suppose I’m not all that far off from him in terms of “intellectual assent.” There are just places where he’s unnecessarily combative and provocative, in my view, and in recent years I’ve become quite allergic to that sort of thing—in the larger cultural context it feels to me like an own goal.

            But the great thing about Esolen’s commentary is that he takes the poem seriously. It’s a live moral force for him, something that just might actually edify a reader. I respect that. I remember once I was in a graduate seminar reading Spenser’s Faërie Queene, and someone said, as if shocked to realize it for the first time, “This whole thing is about virtue!” (or something to that effect). And that remark lit up something for me, because it was a realization for me as well: some of these old guys were serious and sincere, they undertook the vocation of poet solemnly, however much they also strive for beauty and delight, and genuinely intended that their art might improve readers. When Dante says he gave himself to Vergil for his salvation, I don’t think he’s trying to demonstrate his own erroneous reverence and dedication. For him, Vergil and the vocation he opened for Dante as a poet, was the beginning of a hard but blessed path. Dante, in his masterpiece at least, meant to move his readers if only a little toward “la dirrita via,” the straight or right way—even though through hell first. But actually what better place to start that process than hell? Because there one can hone the instincts of sympathy. It amazes me on this rereading how much Dante suffers in seeing those he encounters in hell.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. brian says:

    I’ll add rather adventitiously that while C.S. Lewis in his Preface to Paradise Lost discounts the impact of Milton’s Arian proclivities in the poem, they are actually significant. When I read Eva Brann’s interesting reflections on Paradise Lost, several aspects are evident. 1) I think Brann is correct that there are significant aspects of pagan antiquity that recur in modernity that are mitigated or resisted in a culture open to Christian revelation. 2) The Arian reading is invested with Milton’s modern sensibility regarding democracy, his interpretation of freedom, his somewhat sly, blustering patriarchal god. 3) Thus, though Brann is an honest inquirer who identifies herself as a quasi-Jewish, post-Christian pagan, her interpretation consistently misses the unique logic of a trinitarian ontology. As a result, she does not adequately recognize Milton’s poeisis as compromised in robust integrity as witness to Christian imagination. Both Dante and Milton hearken to antiquity, but I suggest Dante’s poetic imagination much more fully incorporates “pagan” nature into the realm of grace (the poignant sadness of Vergil and the limits of his eschatology notwithstanding.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jonathan Geltner says:

      This is fascinating, Brian. Do you know Auerbach’s book on Dante, The Invention of the Secular World? It has a lot to do with what you’re talking about here, incorporating “pagan nature into the realm of grace.”

      Liked by 2 people

  4. brian says:

    Ahh, no reply link under your comment to John. I want to affirm my own fellow feeling regarding the piety if you will of the vocation of poet. I’m still working through the things you and I are probably always contemplating, the whole question of the images. Old Testament prohibitions — and obvious allowance in liturgical contexts — the Incarnation and its implications, including for me what may be more fecund than generally thought for human poesis as a whole, the consent of the Virgin as initiating the rebirth of images situated differently than difference or the Other as conceived by Plato in the Sophist for instance, the otherness ultimately rooted in the difference of Triune relation and not simply as a function of “not-being.” Yet me onic being remains a concept of difference that can readily attach itself particularly to poetic creations. What is going on with the poet? It doesn’t persuasively reduce to some sort of sublimated Darwinian efficacy as modern rationalists might prefer.

    When Odysseus returns from his journey in the Underworld, the result is the fantastic narrative that pleases the Phaeacians, though their kindness to the poet invokes hostility from Poseidon, the protean, elemental realm of water, so amenable to images casts those heretofore near to the gods into exile, far from human community; and then the wily king returns to Ithaca and slaughters Penelope’s suitors. Odysseus retells his story privately to his wife, expurgated, he leaves out the charming Nausicaa, though whatever healing power his words enact, they have limited scope. Dante’s journey does appear to engender greater empathy, though its not clear to me that Vergil approves of compassion for infernal shades. Some critics think part of Dante’s pedagogy is to learn to dismiss his natural tears for irremediable sorrows. Certainly, Dante’s poetic vision remains reconciled with hell as a permanent figure. A far lesser work, MacDonald’s Lilith yet aims at a retrieval of frozen idols, the death of bad images as release into flourishing life.

    I’ve no doubt that descent is necessary prelude to ascent. The image must die in the aniconic just as the scapegoat in Leviticus drives off the sins of the people into an abyssal nowhere land (this is a ritual of ascesis, the dying of images derivative of idols,) but that is only half the story of Yom Kippur. The other is ascent, the sacrifice of transfiguration whereby the earth and celestial archetypes join in delirius, nuptial union. And somewhere in all that, I think memory and poetic transformation plays a role. The vitality of fictional creations is in, but not of the world in mystifying ways. Bulgakov points to the angelic realm as constitutive of human art in Jacob’s Ladder. Henry Corbin give a NeoPlatonic retrieval of the Arabic world of the imagination (with hermetic bricolage). There’s something there, and something in Balthasar’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit as the artist of novelty, the surprise of eternal, ever innovating life hidden in the kenosis of Holy Saturday which remains the existential time of the cosmos so long as death prevails in any soul.

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