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.
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