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No righteous spirit ever passeth here;
With that the dismal land beneath my feet 130
Shook with such violence, that yet again
A gust of wind swept thro' the tear-sown glen;
I fell, as one oppress'd by sudden sleep.
The Poets descend into the first circle of Hell, or Limbo, wherein are placed the spirits of those, who, not having sinned in the theological sense, have yet, owing to their want of baptism, come short of salvation; and also of those, who, having lived in pre-Christian times, neglected the dictates of natural religion. Emerging from the dense crowd of souls in the direction of a light shining in the darkness, they meet the shades of Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, by whom they are accompanied into the separate abode of the great spirits of antiquity.
The sleep that bound my head was broken by
A thunder peal so loud that I sprung up,
As one that is awaken'd forcibly. Uplifted on my feet I moved around
My rested eyes, and looked with eagerness, 5
To ascertain the place wherein I was.
Tis true—upon the margin of the Abyss
Innumerable. It was so dark, profound, 10
And nebulous, that we on bending down
'Descend we now to the blind world below ;'
Who had remark'd his pallid hue, forthwith
And he return'd; 'The anguish of the souls
That are down here pourtrays upon my face 20
That sympathy, which thou mistak'st for fear.
Hasten we on, for the long way doth press.'
Within, far as the listening ear could hear, 25
No wailing sound arose, save that of sighs
Of sorrow born, without tormenting pain—
Sorrow, that held the crowds thick-banded there
Of infants, and of women, and of men. 30 Said the good Master then; 'Dost thou forbear
To ask what spirits are these that here thou seest?
Yet would I have thee know, ere thou draw near, These have not sinn'd: 1 and, if they have their merits,
'Tis not enough, for, being unbaptised, 35
They enter'd not the portal of thy Faith: And, if they lived before the birth of Christ,
They render'd not due worship unto God.
And these are they with whom my lot is cast. For these defects—these only—we are lost, 40
Guiltless besides : yet only in this afflicted,
That without hope in vain desire unblest
Soon as I heard, because I knew that souls
Of highest worth were in that Limbo placed. 45
And 'Tell me, O my lord—O Master, tell;'
Thus I began, that I might of that Faith
Be assured, which every error doth excel; , 'Went any forth from hence by his own merit,
Or by Another's aid, who from on high 50
AppearM ?' He saw my hidden drift, and made
1 Sin is 'the transgression of the law,' or 'the rejection of divine grace.' The heathen, having had no divine law, and the unbaptized, lacking divine grace, had not ' sinned ' in the technical theological sense of the term. This, I presume, is the meaning of the Poet.
Response, and said; 'New in this state was I,
When lo! to us there came One full of might,
And on His brow the wreath of victory. He took from us the shade of our first parent, 55
With that of Abel, and his who 'scaped the flood,
Moses the lawgiver obedient,
Israel, with his father, and his children,
And Rachel, for whose sake so long he labour'd, 60
And many more; and led them up to heaven:
And thou must know that earlier than these
No human spirit e'er attain'd salvation.' Not for his speaking slacken'd we our pace,
Still thro' that dismal forest onward moving— 65
The forest, I mean, form'd by the surging mass Of souls. We were at no great distance from
The highest elevation, when I saw
A light that shone amid the encircling gloom.2 Onward a little farther yet in haste 70
We went, until I could perceive in part
That honourable people held that place.
2 The light of the wisdom of the ancients shining amid the darkness of the heathen world.