Through Me Pass into the Painful City,
Through Me Pass into Eternal Grief,
Through Me Pass among the Lost People.
Justice Moved My Master-Builder:
Heavenly Power First Fashioned Me
With Highest Wisdom and with Primal Love.
Before Me Nothing Was Created That
Was Not Eternal, and I Last Eternally.
All Hope Abandon, You Who Enter Here.
These words in dim color I beheld
Inscribed on the lintel of an archway.
"Master," I said, "this saying's hard for me."
And he — as someone who understands — told me:
"Here you must give up all irresolution;
All cowardice must here be put to death.
"We are come to the place I spoke to you about
Where you shall see the sorrow-laden people,
Those who have lost the Good of the intellect."
(Inf. III, 1-18)
Thus Dante and Virgil enter hell. In the third and fourth cantos, we see two very different examples of those who are lost without hope.
Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements,
accents of anger, words of suffering,
and voices shrill and faint, and beating hands-
all went to make a tumult that will whirl
forever through that turbid, timeless air,
like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.
And I-my head oppressed by horror-said:
"Master, what is it that I hear? Who are
those people so defeated by their pain?"
And he to me: "This miserable way
is taken by the sorry souls of those
who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels,
the company of those who were not rebels
nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
The heavens, that their beauty not be lessened,
have cast them out, nor will deep Hell receive them-
even the wicked cannot glory in them."
(Inf. III, 25-42)
Dante recognizes several of the people in the crowd (we're not told precisely who they are) and realizes that this crowd consists of moral cowards: those who have been denied heaven because of their sins of omission. These are people (like the angels described in the quote above, who valued themselves above their loyalty to either God or satan) who in seeking to save themselves (and valued themselves above all other things, including their duties to God and fellow man) have lost themselves. Now, these souls who were blown about by the winds of expedience during life endlessly chase a meaningless standard through the vestibule of hell.
Moving on, Dante and Virgil meet the boatman Charon, who at first refuses them passage because Dante is a living man but then is silenced by Virgil, who invokes those who have commanded this journey.
Having thus crossed the river Acheron (there are several rivers in Dante's hell, all of them drawn from classical mythology) Dante and Virgil reach the first circle of hell, which is Limbo.
My gracious teacher said, "Do you not question
Who these spirits are whom you observe?
Before you go on, I would have you know
"They did not sin: yet even their just merits
Were not enough, for they lacked baptism,
The gateway of the faith that you profess.
"And, if they lived before the Christian era,
They did not worship God in the right way:
And I myself am one of those poor souls.
"For this failure and for no other fault
Here we are lost, and our sole punishment
Is without hope to live on in desire."
Deep sorrow crushed my heart when I heard him,
Because both men and women of great worth
I knew to be suspended here in limbo.
(Inf. IV, 31-45)
Dante then meets many of the great men of antiquity, including the luminaries of poetry with whom Virgil is accustomed to sit: Homer, Horace, Ovid and Lucan. Having first been walking through a forest, they come in site of a great city:
We reached the base of an exalted castle,
encircled seven times by towering walls,
defended all around by a fair stream.
We forded this as if upon hard ground;
I entered seven portals with these sages;
we reached a meadow of green flowering plants.
The people here had eyes both grave and slow;
their features carried great authority;
they spoke infrequently, with gentle voices.
We drew aside to one part of the meadow,
an open place both high and filled with light,
and we could see all those who were assembled.
(Inf. IV, 106-117)
However, read the above in contrast to the visits to the underworld in Aeneid Book VI and even more so Odyssey Book XI, where Odysseus lures the shades of the underworld by pouring the fresh blood of two slaughtered sheep into a trench dug in the ground (a treat that the shades can hardly resist) and Odysseus must ward away dead friends and relatives with his sword, until the ghost he has come to see approaches and is allowed to first lap the blood from the trench, tasting some semblance of the life which he has lost forever.
Compared to these dark images of the afterlife, the classical souls of Dante's limbo have retained a humanity and dignity which classical authors did not imagine in the underworld. From any classical pagan perspective, they are fortunate indeed. And indeed, the seven walled and seven gated city may be taken as a symbol of the seven liberal arts. Dante conceives of limbo as a symbol of all that ancient humanism had to offer: learning, fame, and conversation with great minds beneath the trees.
And yet, these souls now know that there is much more to the world than they imagined in their lives. And in that sense, even though they have achieved what, in life, would have seemed an unimaginable paradise (compared to their expectations for the afterlife) there is an underlying sadness to their world.
This brings us to the second thing I think is important to note about the passage describing limbo, and what makes it important in Dante's path towards conversion and virtue. Dante is a poet of the budding renaissance, and as such he has been deeply absorbed in all things classical. In this portrayal of limbo as beautiful yet at root empty, I think Dante seeks to show that for all the virtues and beauties of classical humanism, it is a lost, uprooted thing if not directed toward the divine. The inhabitants of limbo certainly did not show the moral cowardice of the lost souls in the vestibule of hell, but they are lost in the sense that for all the greatness of their thought and art, they do not understand the underlying purpose and order of the world.
As such, even though theologically limbo is the resting place of those who were virtuous in their lives but were unbaptised, in the moral message of the Commedia it stands as a reminder that art, philosophy and humanism must not be pursued to the exclusion of acknowledging and worshipping God.
The translation and notes of James Finn Cotter
The translation, original text, and notes provided by Allen Mandelbaum
And most especially the translation and extensive commentary by Dorothy Sayers, which Penguin keeps appearing to drop, but never quite has.