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Recapping Dante: Canto 4, or the Halloween Special

October 28, 2013 | by


Full disclosure: canto 4, despite the ominous nature of canto 3’s ending and the fact that 4 is meant to open in hell, is not that scary. There is a distinct shortage of zombie/ghost-chase/door-gag montage scenes in this segment, and almost no haunted houses. So, we are probably meant to assume that Dante decided to take this holiday episode in a slightly more cerebral direction—he’s skipped right over the cheap scares, and has decided to hit us with a sort of theological horror show. Indeed, as Dante awakens from his spell, and walks beside Virgil, he notices that his guide’s face is stricken with a fearful pallor. When Dante inquires, Virgil informs him that it is not fear, but pity, that has altered his expression; the pair are entering limbo, where those who might have been able to enter paradise, had they lived in the time of Christ, are instead forever confined. Which is to say, no matter how saintly you are, if you had the misfortune of being born during one of the richest cultural eras in human history (like Virgil himself), you’re still out of luck, if not in hell proper.

Dante asks Virgil if anyone has ever made it out, and in the slightly embittered tone of someone who has watched countless coworkers get promoted above him, Virgil tells Dante of Moses, Noah, and a few others who were “plucked” from limbo and taken upward by some mysterious stranger. (Jesus, obviously, but how could Virgil know that?)

At this point, Dante and Virgil come across a band of poets—Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. The poets join our travelers to help them solve the mystery of how two unvaccinated poets are going to make it safely through hell. The poets also make Dante part of their poets club. It’s probably no coincidence that seeing these great writers animated lends them a sense of immortality (both in body and in their work), and that anyone who should join them may also be graced with a similar literary significance; after all, Dante writes that “their honorable fame … echoes” in his life on earth. It’s also difficult to tell whether Dante is nerding out and imagining what it would be like to hang out with his heroes, or if he’s pulling some sort of lyrical power move and trying to assert himself as one of the greatest poets of history (again, only time will tell).

Dante briefly describes their conversation by saying that they spoke “of things that here are best unsaid, just as there it was fitting to express them.” This can be interpreted more or less as “We were talking about poet stuff … you wouldn’t probably get it.”

As the band of six approaches a haunted castle (ruh roh) with a giant river, they walk across the water without difficulty. A clue! It looks like the river is meant to keep the less than great or those who aren’t poets or philosophers or the out of this beautiful pastoral scene in Limbo. Time to investigate.

Dante names the shades he sees inside—Socrates, Plato,  Diogenes, Cicero, Seneca, and, roaming all alone, Saladin. (Hollander points out that the moderns in limbo, though Dante considered them infidels, are “representatives of … Islamic culture”). But there’s one shade that Dante does not call by a name, and refers to only as the “master.” It’s old man Aristotle!

But Dante and Virgil, having come this far escorted by the four poets, must go on alone. Dante writes “The company of six falls off to two,” which we all know really just means he’s really just saying “Let’s split up, gang!” Poet stuff.

This fall, we’re recapping the Inferno. Read along!

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.




  1. K. P. Van Anglen | October 28, 2013 at 12:05 pm

    Just a footnote that,of course, even the Roman Catholic Church has itself abandoned this theology (see Pope Francis on the subject) and since Vatican II has held that a moral, virtuous life lived by someone who is of another faith tradition or of no faith tradition at all, but who is committed to doing good will be saved. It has abandoned the belief in Limbo. Indeed, it says that since God means all to be saved, that we do not know if anyone at all is in Hell. Theology has evolved since Dante’s day.

  2. marcos | October 28, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    so this means it’s time to another thrip to hell! men, these poets must be suffering there, with no decent libraries or annotated editions ou even new books. i seriously wonder: with dante’s help which living poet of course could walk though hell today?

  3. Gigi | October 28, 2013 at 3:21 pm

    Why on earth (or should I say Hell) did you choose the picture from Canto 13 for Canto 4? This is the Wood of Suicides.

  4. Drew | October 28, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    It is difficult, in some respects, to read the English translation of the Inferno, despite its “mathematical accuracy” ( the precise concepts within the lines of the poem.) English translations do little justice to the meter, rhyme, timing and poetic form, and in some respects, even some nuance of meaning and beauty of Dante’s style, which the Italian and the Spanish translations come close to doing in a faithful translation.

    What’s more, even the German translations of “Die Gottliche Komodie” (umalut marks ommitted here) maintain a semblance of rhyme and rhythm:

    Canto IV

    Ruppemi l’alto sonno ne la testa
    un greve truono, si chi’io mi ricossi
    come persona ch’e per forza desta;
    e l’occhio resposto intorno mossi,
    dritto levato, e fiso riguardsi
    per conoscer lo loco dov’ io fossi.
    Vero e che ‘n su la proda mi provai
    de la valle d’abisso dolorosa
    che ‘ntrono accoglie d’initi guai.

    Canto Cuarto

    Rompio mi sueño un trueno estrepitoso,
    que sacudio con fuerza mi cabeza,
    y desperte, mi cuerpo tembloroso;
    ye el ojo reposado con sorpresa,
    me levante, mire en contorno mio,
    por conocer el sition con fijeza;
    y vi, que staba en el viril sombrio,
    del valle del abismo doloroso,
    y ayes sin fin surgian del bajio.

    Vierter Gesang

    Mir brach den Schlaf im Haupt ein Donnerkrachen,
    So schwer, daß ich zusammenfuhr dabei,
    Wie einer, den Gewalt zwingt, zu erwachen.
    Ich warf umher das Auge wach und frei,
    Emporgerichtet spähend, daß ich sähe
    Und unterschied’, an welchem Ort ich sei.
    So fand ich mich am Talrand, in der Nähe
    Des qualenvollen Abgrunds, dessen Kluft
    Zum Donnerhall vereint unendlich Wehe.


  5. Michael Thompson | November 20, 2013 at 9:05 pm


    I’m finding the Clive James translation to be quite lyrical

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