Stories from Dante Told to the Children - Mary Macgregor

The Green Meadow

Limbo was well known to the ancient Roman poet, for it was there that he himself abode.

The Inferno was a great gulf or pit, and round this pit were many different circles in which different sins were punished.

Now Limbo was the first circle, but in it dwelt, not those who were being punished, but those who had lived before Christ came to earth, those whom we often call heathen. Thus, as you may imagine, many great and noble men, whose names you have often heard, were there.

As Dante gazed into the dark abyss he shuddered, then turning to Virgil he asked him if any who entered Limbo were ever delivered from its gloom.

"Once," answered Virgil, "a powerful One entered Limbo, a powerful One wearing a crown as sign of victory." He had drawn with Him many out of the circle of Limbo. Adam, Eve, Abel, Noah, Moses, Abraham, King David, and many another whose names you have often heard, did Christ (for it was He who in His great might entered the Inferno) take with Him out of the shades into the light of God.

"And now will we pass into this gloomy circle," said Virgil. "Follow close after me as I lead the way."

As he spoke Dante, glancing at his Master, saw that he had grown pale.

"If thou, my Master, art afraid, how dare I go further!" he cried.

"Not fear but pity made my cheeks grow pale," said the poet, and he pressed on into the first ledge that circled the abyss.

Here there broke no sound of weeping on the pilgrim's ear, only the air seemed to tremble with the sighs of many souls.

As they pushed their way through the dimness, Dante saw in the distance a bright flame burning. The flame lit up one part of the gloomy region.

"What favoured ones dwell in this brighter domain?" he wondered.

As though in answer to his thought, Virgil told Dante that here dwelt those who on earth had won great fame by their work.

Even as his Master spoke, Dante saw four mighty spirits turn their steps toward them.

As they drew near, one of them saluted Dante's guide, crying, "Honour to the bard who returns to us again."

Now in his dream Dante's heart leaped with gladness, for he knew that he was in the presence of those who had been great on earth.

Then as Virgil told his follower the names of the four who had come to welcome him, Dante bowed his head in all humility. He was standing before four of the world's greatest poets.

He who had greeted Virgil came forward first, holding a keen sword in his right hand. This was Homer, the Greek poet, who had written about the Siege of Troy in a book so full of adventures that some day you will wish to read it. Moreover Homer has been called the sovereign poet, the "Lord of Highest Song," and such a one you would certainly wish to know.

Following Homer were Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, three Latin poets. They talked eagerly with Virgil, and when they heard that his follower was a poet, even as was each of them, they beckoned to him to join them.

As he approached the group they greeted him courteously, and he shared in the converse of these famous spirits. That he should, even for a short time, be admitted to this group and be made as he tells us "the sixth amid so learned a band," was joy enough to console Dante for all the terrors through which he had passed.

Still talking, the six poets turned and walked toward the lighted region of Limbo.

We wonder of what these strange companions would speak, but Dante, when he comes to write his great poem does not tell us. He has not forgotten, but he tells us only that silence is fitting. It may be that he thought that those who read his poem would scarce value as they should the thoughts of these great men.

Onward still the six poets moved, until they reached the foot of a magnificent castle. The castle was surrounded by seven high walls and a stream, clear and sparkling.

The little company crossed over the stream as though they were walking on dry land. Then, passing through the seven gates, Dante saw before him a fair meadow. Never, not even in his own beautiful Florence, had Dante seen grass so green, flowers so rare, as he now saw waving in the light.

Seated on the green grass were many more of the world's great men. The pilgrim saw that they all bore upon them the sign of their nobility. When they moved they moved without haste and with an air of authority; when they spoke, which was but seldom, Dante heard that, "all their words were tuneful sweet."

If I were to tell you the names of all the famous men and women whom Dante saw that day in the beautiful meadow, the list would be a long one.

Some there were who had gained their great renown on the battlefield, as Hector and Aeneas, who both fought in the Siege of Troy, and also Brutus, who was a Roman patriot. There was, too, Saladin, the Sultan of the Turks, who had been the terror of all good Christians when he lived on earth.

Dante, as he looked at Saladin, remembered that it was told of him, that when he lay dying, he bade his people bury him with no worldly honours. Only his shirt was to be fastened as a flag to the point of a lance and to be carried thus before him as a standard. A priest, with plain vestments, was to go before the standard crying aloud that all might hear, "Saladin, conqueror of the East, of all the greatness and riches he had in his life, carrieth not with him anything more than his shirt."

But not alone those who had won fame by the strength of their own right arm sat in the peaceful meadowland.

Those too were there whose pen had been to them a weapon dearer than any sword, however keen, could be.

Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, with grave eyes and lofty brows, were there, happy in the companionship which they had never enjoyed on earth.

Cornelia, the Roman matron, was there, she who is better known as the "Mother of the Gracchi," because of her great love for her two sons, Tiberius and Caius Gracchus.

When they were still little boys a lady one day came to see Cornelia their mother.

The lady was rich and very proud of her rings, her necklaces and all her other ornaments. She had shown these to Cornelia as they sat and talked together, and then suddenly she said, "Show me now thine ornaments."

Tiberius and Caius had just come into the room, and Cornelia, putting her arms around them, answered her rich friend quietly. "These are my jewels," she said.

But I must not stay to tell you more stories of the great men and women Dante saw in this portion of Limbo.

The poet himself was not allowed to linger long in the beautiful meadow, for before him was still a long, long journey.

Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan now joined the other spirits, while Virgil lead Dante away, where the air was no longer quiet, away from light into darkness.