Inferno -- Canto V

Carnal Lovers, Francesca




4 Minos judges the dead in the Aeneid (VI, 432).














27 The poet arrives at the second circle of the lustful.













58 Semiramis is a legendary queen of Assyria.

61 Dido, widow of Sychaeus, was queen of Carthage and fell in love with Aeneas.

63 Cleopatra and those that follow — even Achilles — were famed as lovers.

64 Helen, whose kidnapping by Paris led to the Trojan war.

67 Paris and Tristan stand for the ancient and the contemporary worlds.


74 The two are Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta her brother-in-law. They became lovers and were slain by Francesca’s husband, Gianciotto.

          So I descended from the first circle
          Into the second, encompassing less space
          But sharper pain which spurs the wailing on.
          There Minos stands, hideous and growling,
5         Examining the sins of each newcomer:
          With coiling tail he judges and dispatches.
          I mean that, when the ill-begotten spirit
          Comes before him, that soul confesses all
And then this master-mind of sinfulness
10       Sees what place in hell has been assigned:
          The times he winds his tail around himself
          Reveal the level to which the soul is sent.
          Always in front of him a new mob stands.
          Each, taking a turn, proceeds to judgment:
15       Each owns up, listens, and is pitched below.
          "You who approach this dwelling-place of pain,"
          Cried Minos when he laid his eyes on me —
          Forsaking the performance of his office —
          "Watch out how you enter and whom you trust!
20       Do not let the wide-open gateway fool you!"
          My guide said to him, "Why do you cry out?
          "Do not obstruct his own predestined way:
          This deed has so been willed where One can do
          Whatever He wills — and ask no more questions."
25       Now the notes of suffering begin
          To reach my hearing; now I am arrived
          At where the widespread wailing hammers me.
          I come to a place where all light is muted,
          Which rumbles like the sea beneath a storm
30       When waves are buffeted by warring squalls.
          The windblast out of hell, forever restless,
          Thrusts the spirits onward with its force,
          Swirling and mauling and harassing them.
          When they alight upon this scene of wreckage,
35       Screams, reproaches, and bemoanings rise
          As souls call down their curses on God's power.
          I learned that to this unending torment
          Have been condemned the sinners of the flesh,
          Those who surrender reason to self-will.
40       And as the starlings are lifted on their wings
          In icy weather to wide and serried flocks,
          So does the gale lift up the wicked spirits,
          Flinging them here and there and down and up:
          No hope whatever can ever comfort them,
45       Neither of rest nor of less punishment.
          And as the cranes fly over, chanting lays,
          Forming one long line across the sky,
          So I saw come, uttering their cries,
          Shades wafted onward by these winds of strife,
50       To make me ask him, "Master, who are those
          People whom the blackened air so punishes?"
          "The first among those souls whose chronicle
          You want to know," he then replied to me,
          "Was empress over lands of many tongues.
55       "Her appetite for lust became so flagrant
          That she made lewdness licit with her laws
          To free her from the blame her vice incurred.
          "She is Semiramis, whose story reads
          That, as his wife, she succeeded Ninus,
60       Controlling the country now ruled by the sultan.
          "The other, Dido, killed herself for love
          And broke faith with the ashes of Sychaeus;
          Next comes the lust-enamored Cleopatra.
          "See Helen, for whom many years of woe
65       Rolled on, and see the great Achilles
          Who in his final battle came to love.
          "See Paris, Tristan" — and then of a thousand
          Shades, he pointed out and named for me
          All those whom love had cut off from our life.
70       After I had listened to my instructor
          Name the knights and ladies of the past,
          Pity gripped me, and I lost my bearing.
          I began, "Poet, I would most willingly
          Address those two who pass together there
75       And appear to be so light upon the wind,"
          And he told me, "You will see when they draw
          Closer to us that, if you petition them
          By the love that propels them, they will come."
          As soon as the gust curved them near to us,
80       I raised my voice to them, "O wind-worn souls,
          Come speak to us if it is not forbidden."
          Just as the doves when homing instinct calls them
          To their sweet nest, on steadily lifted wings
          Glide through the air, guided by their longing,
85       So those souls left the covey where Dido lies,
          Moving toward us through the malignant air,
          So strong was the loving-kindness in my cry.
          "O mortal man, gracious and tenderhearted,
          Who through the somber air come to visit
90       The two of us who stained the earth with blood,
          "If the King of the universe were our friend,
          We would then pray to him to bring you peace,
          Since you show pity for our wretched plight.
          "Whatever you please to hear and speak about
95       We will hear and speak about with you
          While the wind, as it is now, is silent.
          "The country of my birth lies on that coast
          Where the river Po with its tributaries
          Flows downhill to its place of final rest.
100      "Love which takes quick hold in a gentle heart
          Seized this man for the beauty of the body
          Snatched from me — how it happened galls me!
          "Love which pardons no one loved from loving
          Seized me so strongly with my pleasure in him
105      That, as you see, it still does not leave me.
          "Love led the two of us to a single death:
          Caina awaits him who snuffed out our lives."
          These were the words conveyed from them to us.
          When I had heard those grief-stricken souls,
110      I bowed my head and held it bowed down low
          Until the poet asked, "What are you thinking?"
          When I replied, I ventured, "O misery,
          How many the sweet thoughts, how much yearning
          Has led these two to this heartbroken pass!"
115     Then I turned round again to speak to them,
          And I began, "Francesca, your sufferings
          Move my heart to tears of grief and pity.
          "But tell me, in the season of sweet sighs,
          By what signs did love grant to you the favor
120      Of recognizing your mistrustful longings?"
          And she told me, "Nothing is more painful
          Than to recall the time of happiness
          In wretchedness: this truth your teacher knows.
          "If, however, to learn the initial root
125      Of our own love is now your deep desire,
          I will speak here as one who weeps in speaking.
          "One day for our own pleasure we were reading
          Of Lancelot and how love pinioned him.
          We were alone and innocent of suspicion.
130      "Several times that reading forced our eyes
          To meet and took the color from our faces.
          But one solitary moment conquered us.
          "When we read there of how the longed-for smile
          Was being kissed by that heroic lover,
135      This man, who never shall be severed from me,
          "Trembling all over, kissed me on the mouth.
          That book — and its author — was a pander!
          In it that day we did no further reading."
          While the one spirit spoke these words, the other
140      Wept so sadly that pity swept over me
          And I fainted as if face to face with death,
          And I fell just as a dead body falls.
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