Dante's Inferno Canto 4: Summary & Quotes

Instructor: Karen Wolak

Karen has taught 4-8th grade English/Language Arts and has worked closely with adult learners for several years. M.Ed. in Adult Education.

Canto IV of Dante's ''Inferno'' describes the first circle of Hell. It is a place of confinement for unbaptized souls and the souls of virtuous individuals who lived before the time of Christ. Let's review this canto and some insightful quotes.

The First Circle of Hell

At the end of Canto III of Dante's Inferno, Dante experiences a terrifying earthquake that causes him to faint. At the beginning of Canto IV, Dante is awakened by a loud noise that sounds like thunder. He finds himself with Virgil at the top of a high mountain that overlooks a vast, clouded valley - the first circle of Hell. While he cannot make out the details of the valley from his height, he does hear the loud cries coming from below. Virgil tells him that they are going to descend the mountain, but Dante can tell that Virgil seems scared. Dante is unsettled by this, but Virgil advises him that he is not afraid. Rather, Virgil is sad and pities the inhabitants of the valley.

Each circle of Hell progresses lower into the Earth
A Visual Overview of the Nine Circles of Hell

Stuck in Limbo

Virgil and Dante descend the mountain into the first circle of Hell. At the bottom, Dante sees an immeasurable crowd of men, women, children, and babies. He realizes that it is not cries of torment that he has heard, but sighs of sadness. Virgil advises him that that these are good souls who are denied entrance into Heaven because they either were not baptized, or they lived before the time of Christ. Virgil also shares that he himself resides in this circle of Hell.

Virgil goes on to say, 'For such defects, and not for other guilt, / Lost are we and are only so far punished, / That without hope we live on in desire.' In other words, these people are not willful sinners like the rest of the population in Hell. They are condemned to Hell for circumstances outside of their control, and they are not punished in the same way as others. Their punishment is simply eternal separation from God in Heaven. This aligns with the Catholic tradition of Limbo. It was a long-standing belief that souls could not enter Heaven without being baptized. However, medieval theologians later suggested that while these souls were in Hell, they were not tormented in any way aside from being separated from Paradise.

The Harrowing of Hell

Christ redeemed those in Limbo during the Harrowing of Hell
Harrowing of Hell

Dante is troubled to hear that these souls are trapped in Limbo, and he asks if anyone from Limbo has been allowed to enter Heaven. Virgil replies, 'I was a novice in this state, / When I saw hither come a Mighty One, / With sign of victory incoronate.' The 'Mighty One' he is referring to is Jesus Christ, who was crucified about 50 years after Virgil's death. Virgil says that Christ took with him several souls, many of them notable figures from the Old Testament. However, that was the only time souls in Limbo had been redeemed and allowed entrance to Paradise. Christian tradition says that Christ victoriously descended into Hell after his crucifixion to save those unjustly condemned there. This is commonly known as the 'Harrowing of Hell.'

The Inhabitants of Limbo

Further into the valley, they see a bonfire with more souls around it. Virgil explains that these are famous masters of their crafts, and their distinction on Earth has granted them a place of honor in Limbo. A group of these people approach and welcome Virgil back. Virgil introduces the members of the group as the great poets Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan. They are familiar with each other, and they invite the narrator into their group. Dante describes feeling honored at this invitation: 'And more of honour still, much more, they did me, / In that they made me one of their own band; / So that the sixth was I, 'mid so much wit.' For Dante to put himself on equal footing with these great poets also suggests that he has a high opinion of himself as a poet.

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