Canto 4 Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 712

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The Blameless but Unbaptized and Those Who Lived Before the Age of Christendom: Souls in limbo from the First Circle

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Dante awakens to find that he is on the brink of Hell. When Dante looks into the pit, he cannot see its bottom. Virgil tells him that they must travel into the pit. Dante says that Virgil’s pallor frightens him, but Virgil says it is the anguish within the pit and not the journey that causes his pallor.

From the First Circle come not the wails of anguish but the sounds of sighing. The souls which are sighing are those who are blameless but unbaptized and those who lived good lives before the time of Christendom. Dante asks if anyone had ever come from this circle and Virgil tells him that those who left were the first father (Adam), Abel (son of Adam), Noah (patriarch saved during the flood by heeding God’s command to build an ark) Moses (leader who received the Ten Commandments), King David (King of Israel) Abraham (the father of Isaac), Israel (Jacob) with his father and generation, Rachel (mother of Joseph), and others. The one with a crown of victory removed these from the First Circle.

Virgil and Dante see four shadows: Homer (ancient Greek poet and author of The Iliad and The Odyssey), Horace (ancient Latin poet who lived in Rome) Ovid (ancient Roman poet who wrote of creation until the time of Caesar), and Lucan (ancient Roman poet who wrote of Caesar).

The two pay honor to Virgil and ask Dante to join their ranks. Dante also sees Electra (daughter of Atlas and mother of Dardanus, the founder of Troy), Caesar (dictator of Rome 100–44 B.C.), Camilla (maiden-warrior dedicated to the service of Diana, the goddess of the hunt), Penthesilea (queen of the Amazons and killed by Achilles), Latinus (king of Latium where Aeneas lands), Lavinia (daughter of Latinus and wife of Aeneas), Brutus (aroused the Romans to overthrow Tarquinius Superbus, who had a son that had angered Lucretia), Marcia (Cato’s wife, who was given to a friend, and returned to Cato of Utica), Cornelia (wife of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and mother of two famous Tribunes; celebrated by people of Rome), Julia (daughter of Julius Caesar), Lucrece (woman outraged by son of Tarquinius Superbus), Saladin (Sultan of Egypt model of chivalry, and hero of the Third Crusade in the twelfth century) Aristotle (the master of the men who know) Socrates (philosopher of Athens) Plato (philosopher of Athens and student of Socrates), Diogenes (Greek philosopher), Thales (Ionic philosopher and one of the seven wise men of Greece), Zeno (Greek philosopher), Democritus (philosopher), Empedocles (Greek philosopher who established idea of four elements—earth, water, air, fire), Anaxagoras (Ionic philosopher), Heraclitus (Greek philosopher), Dioscorides (Greek physician), Tully (Roman orator and author), Orpheus (one of Jason’s Argonauts and mythical Greek poet), Linus (mythical poet of Greece), Seneca (a moralist, tutor to Nero, and Roman philosopher), Euclid (mathematician who lived in Alexandria), Ptolemy (mathematician, geographer, and astronomer at Alexandria), Galen (Greek physician), Hippocrates (physician on the island of Cos and author of the Hippocratic oath), Avicen (Arabian physician), Averrhoes (a Spanish Moor who lived in the twelfth century, scholar and philosopher, translator of Aristotle), and others.

Eventually the original band of six—Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, Virgil, and Dante—dwindles to Virgil and Dante. The descent to Hell begins.

Discussion and Analysis
Dante knows not how he got to the edges of the pit of Hell; earlier he knew not how he got to the woods. Dante is, evidently, still lost and must count on others for guidance. Recognition of this dependence on God is necessary for salvation so the helplessness is significant.

The paleness of Virgil is a contrast to the black pit of Hell; the blackness of Hell symbolizes the sin contained within. From the pit comes the sounds of those in anguish; these sounds are as much a shock to Dante as are the sights he sees.

When Dante asks if anyone has ever left this First Circle, Virgil tells him that one with a crown (Jesus) came and freed some; it is significant that while Virgil and Dante are in the pit, the name of Jesus is not spoken aloud.

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