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Canto 4

Course Hero's video study guide provides in-depth summary and analysis of Canto 4 of Dante Alighieri's epic poem Inferno.

Inferno | Canto 4 | Summary

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Summary

Dante awakens suddenly to the sound of loud thunder. He sees that he is at the edge of a deep, dark valley, or abyss, from which he hears the sounds of wailing and thunder. Dante accompanies Virgil as they descend into "the blind world" and enter the first circle of Hell, Limbo, where a multitude of people sigh sorrowfully but are not tormented. Virgil explains that those in this circle did not sin but they were not baptized, so they cannot enter Heaven and must "live in longing." Some of these are people who lived before Christianity, including Virgil himself, but Limbo also includes Saladin, a 12th-century Egyptian sultan famed for his wisdom and gentility who adhered to a false religion. Dante is moved to pity. Virgil tells him that a "Great Lord" came to Limbo soon after Virgil's arrival, wearing a crown, and took to Heaven Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Rachel, and many others.

Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, all poets, welcome Virgil back to Limbo, and Dante is honored to meet them. He describes himself as the sixth among these great thinkers. Walking together, the six poets enter a castle grounds encircled by seven walls and with seven portals. Inside, reaching a great meadow, Dante sees many "great-hearted souls"—scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, leaders, heroes, and others. Dante then follows Virgil out of the castle grounds and into the darkness.

Analysis

Until now, Virgil has seemed far more unemotional than Dante, who has been buffeted by his conflicting emotions of fear, pity, curiosity, and hope. Canto 4, however, shows a more human side of Virgil, who feels such compassion for those in this first circle of Hell that he turns "deathly pale" (perhaps because this is the circle he belongs to and he feels its punishment more profoundly). He seems intent on explaining that those here did not sin but simply lived before Christian baptism was available and, therefore, "did not worship God in fitting ways." "For no other evil," he says, "we have no hope and yet we live in longing."

After this explanation, Dante asks Virgil to confirm a point of Church doctrine, which said that after his death Christ went into Hell and took some of those there to Heaven. The people Virgil names—Noah, Abraham, David, Rachel, and the rest—are the faithful of the Old Testament. Dante seems hesitant to ask about this issue, as if he doesn't want anyone to think he doubts Church teaching.

Limbo is an interesting circle of Hell because those who exist there are not really punished, other than being separated from God with no hope of ever entering into His presence. There are many there who enjoy lasting honor in the land of the living—dignified persons who, even in Limbo, live in a castle surrounded by a meadow that is "filled with light," and who speak with "gentle voices." In calling himself the sixth among the great poets, Dante associates himself with them, and thus with the classical literary tradition, suggesting that he carries on their tradition. Since he is a Christian poet and can be saved, he may actually have the potential to be an even greater poet.

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