Through me one goes into the town of woe,
through me one goes into eternal pain,
through me among the people that are lost.
Justice inspired my high exalted Maker;
I was created by the Might divine,
the highest Wisdom and the primal Love.
Before me there was naught created, save
eternal things, and I eternal last;
all hope abandon, ye that enter here!
These words of gloomy color I beheld
inscribed upon the summit of a gate;
whence I: “Their meaning, Teacher, troubles me.”
And he to me, like one aware, replied:
“All fearfulness must here be left behind;
all forms of cowardice must here be dead.
We 've reached the place where, as I said to thee,
thou 'lt see the sad folk who have lost the Good
which is the object of the intellect.”
Then, after he had placed his hand in mine
with cheerful face, whence I was comforted,
he led me in among the hidden things.
There sighs and wails and piercing cries of woe
reverberated through the starless air;
hence I, at first, shed tears of sympathy.
Strange languages, and frightful forms of speech,
words caused by pain, accents of anger, voices
both loud and faint, and smiting hands withal,
a mighty tumult made, which sweeps around
forever in that timelessly dark air,
as sand is wont, whene'er a whirlwind blows.
And I, whose head was girt about with horror,
said: “Teacher, what is this I hear? What folk
is this, that seems so overwhelmed with woe?”
And he to me: “This wretched kind of life
the miserable spirits lead of those
who lived with neither infamy nor praise.
Commingled are they with that worthless choir
of Angels who did not rebel, nor yet
were true to God, but sided with themselves.
The heavens, in order not to be less fair,
expelled them; nor doth nether Hell receive them,
because the bad would get some glory thence.”
And I: “What is it, Teacher, grieves them so,
it causes them so loudly to lament?”
“I 'll tell thee very briefly,” he replied.
“These have no hope of death, and so low down
is this unseeing life of theirs, that envious
they are of every other destiny.
The world allows no fame of them to live;
Mercy and Justice hold them in contempt.
Let us not talk of them; but look, and pass!”
And I, who gazed intently, saw a flag,
which, whirling, moved so swiftly that to me
contemptuous it appeared of all repose;
and after it there came so long a line
of people, that I never would have thought
that death so great a number had undone.
When some I 'd recognized, I saw and knew
the shade of him who through his cowardice
the great Refusal made. I understood
immediately, and was assured that this
the band of cowards was, who both to God
displeasing are, and to His enemies.
These wretched souls, who never were alive,
were naked, and were sorely spurred to action
by means of wasps and hornets that were there.
The latter streaked their faces with their blood,
which, after it had mingled with their tears,
was at their feet sucked up by loathsome worms.
When I had given myself to peering further,
people I saw upon a great stream's bank;
I therefore said: “Now, Teacher, grant to me
that I may know who these are, and what law
makes them appear so eager to cross over,
as in this dim light I perceive they are.”
And he to me: “These things will be made clear
to thee, as soon as on the dismal strand
of Acheron we shall have stayed our steps.”
Thereat, with shame-suffused and downcast eyes,
and fearing lest my talking might annoy him,
up to the river I abstained from speech.
Behold then, coming toward us in a boat,
an agèd man, all white with ancient hair,
who shouted: “Woe to you, ye souls depraved!
Give up all hope of ever seeing Heaven!
I come to take you to the other shore,
into eternal darkness, heat and cold.
And thou that yonder art, a living soul,
withdraw thee from those fellows that are dead.”
But when he saw that I did not withdraw,
he said: “By other roads and other ferries
shalt thou attain a shore to pass across,
not here; a lighter boat must carry thee.”
To him my Leader: “Charon, be not vexed;
thus is it yonder willed, where there is power
to do whate'er is willed; so ask no more!”
Thereat were quieted the woolly cheeks
of that old boatman of the murky swamp,
who round about his eyes had wheels of flame.
Those spirits, though, who nude and weary were,
their color changed, and gnashed their teeth together,
as soon as they had heard the cruel words.
They kept blaspheming God, and their own parents,
the human species, and the place, and time,
and seed of their conception and their birth.
Then each and all of them drew on together,
weeping aloud, to that accursèd shore
which waits for every man that fears not God.
Charon, the demon, with his ember eyes
makes beckoning signs to them, collects them all,
and with his oar beats whoso takes his ease.
Even as in autumn leaves detach themselves,
now one and now another, till their branch
sees all its stripped off clothing on the ground;
so, one by one, the evil seed of Adam
cast themselves down that river-bank at signals,
as doth a bird to its recalling lure.
Thus o'er the dusky waves they wend their way;
and ere they land upon the other side,
another crowd collects again on this.
“My son,” the courteous Teacher said to me,
“all those that perish in the wrath of God
from every country come together here;
and eager are to pass across the stream,
because Justice Divine so spurs them on,
that what was fear is turned into desire.
A good soul never goes across from hence;
if Charon, therefore, findeth fault with thee,
well canst thou now know what his words imply.”
The darkling plain, when this was ended, quaked
so greatly, that the memory of my terror
bathes me even now with sweat.
The tear-stained ground
gave forth a wind, whence flashed vermilion light
which in me overcame all consciousness;
and down I fell like one whom sleep o'ertakes.
1. Inscription on the Gate, describing Hell as being a spiritual state, (in the letter of the allegory, a place) eternally created by the Power, Wisdom, and even the Love of God, wherein Pain is the eternal concomitant of Disobedience of a Will inspired by perfect Justice.
14. Fearlessness the initial quality requisite of whoever would know Reality.
17. The vision of God the real goal of Man's life.
22. The stars, here as elsewhere, the symbols of the Hope, abandoned by whoever enters Hell.
34. Cowards, Neutrals, and the Lukewarm in moral and spiritual concerns, who, held in contempt by the universe, are rejected by Heaven and Hell alike. The Lower World's Vestibule, its largest circle, is devoted to these characterless souls, who form the great majority.
52. The restless Flag of Fashion followed by those whose deeds, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are not self-determined.
59. He "who through his cowardice the great Refusal made," most satisfactorily (though not generally) interpreted as Pilate, who through fear of the Jews washed his hands of responsibility for the fate of Jesus, whose innocence he had officially acknowledged. Most commentators take him to be Celestine V, who was induced to abdicate the Papacy through humility by the fraudulent intrigues of his successor, Boniface VIII.
64. Never spiritually alive, they act only under external compulsion, while their blood and tears serve only to feed lower forms of life.
71. The river Acheron, crossed by all who, in willing sin, will its equivalent and inseparable punishment.
82. Charon, the Ferryman of Acheron, who refuses to receive Dante, because he is not, as are the others, spiritually dead.
93. The boat that takes repentant souls to the Island of Purgatory.
95. The password which prevails in the realm of Incontinence, where Reason, though neglected, is respected.
117. One of several references to the art of Falconry.
126. Not fearing the sin, they do not fear its punishment.
130. Under the symbolism of earthquake, wind, and lightning Dante describes his mysterious birth by a flash of intuition, as it were, into a first appreciation of the truth which pervades the whole of his Inferno, that any state of Sin is one with its accompanying, or equivalent Pain. While unconscious, he passes across Acheron, to see with his mind's eye what nonobedience and disobedience of the laws of the spiritual or real world mean in terms of pain.