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CLOSE / Parnassiad


Peace and Other Stories


Fragments of a Formerly Active Sex Life



The Divine Comedy, Canto 5
by Dante Alighieri  /  poetry  /  5 Jan 2008

ARGUMENT:  The Second Circle:  sinners of the flesh, those who died for love.  Minos.  Classical souls (Helen, Paris, Achilles, Tristan, Cleopatra).  Francesca da Rimini (and the dangers of Lancelot).

      From the first circle, I descended
      down to the second – which, while smaller,
      contains so much more grief, provoking bitter moans.

      There stands horrible Minos, gnashing his teeth,
5     who examines the sins of all who enter, encircling
      them with his tail as he sentences and sends them below.

      I mean that when the spirit, born to evil,
      comes before him, it confesses everything,
      and he, the connoisseur of sin,

10   determines the appropriate depth of Hell                              
      and wraps his tail as many times around himself                   
      as grades he wishes the sinning soul hurled down.                

      There's always a throng standing before him,                       
      and each one in turn advances towards his judgment;            
15   they speak, hear their fate, and then are cast below.             

      "You, approaching this hostel of woe!"
      Minos shouted when he saw me coming,
      arresting the practice of his extraordinary office.

      "Be careful how you enter, whom you trust!                        
20   The gate may well be broad, but don't be deceived."            
      To him, my guide:  "Why are you shouting?                          

      Don't even try to hinder this many's fated way:
      it is willed where power exists
      for all that is willed.  Ask nothing else."

25   Now, the desperate, rueful notes begin                                 
      to overwhelm my hearing; now, I come                                
      where a chorus of laments strikes upon me.                         

      I entered a place where all light is muted,                             
      which bellows like the sea in a tempest,                               
30   when it is battered by opposing, warring winds.                    

      The hellish hurricane that never rests
      whips the spirits onward with a violent fury,
      whirling them around, dashing them, harassing them.

      When they arrive before the ruinous precipice,
35   then there are shrieks and wails and laments,
      there they curse the power of the divine.

      I understood that those condemned to such a torment
      were the carnal sinners, sinners of the flesh,
      who subject their reason to their lusty appetites.

40   As the starlings' wings bear them aloft,
      when winter comes, in multitudes of crowded ranks,
      so does that gust bear on those guilty souls,

      driving them here, there, this way, that, up, down;
      they have to comfort them no hope
45   of ever resting, nor even of some lesser pain.

      As cranes traverse the sky, chanting their lays,
      stretched out in long array,
      so did those souls I saw approaching,

      caught in that assailing wind, wail loudly and moan.
50   At this, I asked him, "Master, who are those
      who suffer so, scourged by the black air?"

      "The first of those whose history
      you ask about," my master told me,
      "once was empress over many languages.

55   So great was her abandonment to sensual vice
      that she promulgated laws to legalize such license
      and thus to clear the blame that she incurred.

      She is Semiramis, of whom we read
      that she succeeded Ninus, her spouse,
60   and held the land the Sultan now rules.

      The next one there killed herself for love
      and broke her faith to Sychaeus' ashes.
      The wanton Cleopatra follows next.

      There's Helen, for whose sake
65   so many evil seasons had to pass, and great
      Achilles, who in the end fought with love.

      There's Paris, and there Tristan."  He pointed out
      and named more than a thousand of these shades,
      departed from our life because of love.

70   As I listened to my teacher name
      all those dames and knights of antique days,
      pity overpowered me, and I felt lost, like a man astray.

      I began:  "Poet, I would willingly speak
      with those two there, who go together
75   and seem so lightly carried by the wind."

      He said to me:  "When they come closer to us,
      call out to them; appeal by the love
      that leads them, and they will come."

      As soon as the wind swayed them toward us,
80   I urged on my voice:  "You weary souls!
      Come talk to us, if no one forbids it."

      As doves, following their desire,
      cleave the air with unfurled and steady wings,
      returning home to their sweet nest,

85   those spirits issued from the band where Dido wails,
      approaching us through the malignant air,
      so forceful had been my loving appeals.

      "O living creature, gracious and benign,
      who comes, through this dark and obscure air,
90   to visit us, who stained the world with blood,

      if that king of all the universe counts us a friend,
      then we should pray to him to grant you peace,
      since you have pitied our perverse plight.

      Whatever it pleases you to hear or speak of,
95   that is what we wish to hear and speak with you,
      while the wind stays silent, like it is now and here.

      I was born in the city on the coast
      where the Po descends, with the waters that feed it,
      into the ocean and rests in peace.

100  Love, that quickly seizes up the gentle heart,
      netted him because of the fair body that was taken
      from me – how that was done still wounds me.

      Love, that brooks no denial from one beloved,
      took hold of me so tightly through this man's beauty
105  that, as you can see, it has not yet deserted me.

      Love conducted the two of us unto a single death.
      Caina waits for the soul that took our life!"
      These words were borne aloft from them to us.

      When I had listened to those tormented souls,
110  I hung my head and held it low until
      the poet asked of me:  "What are you thinking?"

      When I made my answer, I began:  "Alas!
      What sweet thoughts, how deep a longing,
      led them to reach that agaonizing pass!"

115  Then I turned back to them, and I began
      to speak:  "Francesca, your agonies
      move me to tears of sorrow and of pity.

      But tell me, at the time of those sweet sighs,
      how is it that Love let you know
120  your desires, when they were still uncertain?"

      And she to me:  "There is no greater sorrow
      than to remember happy days
      when misery is at hand. Your teacher knows that well.

      But if you long so much to know
125  the primal root of our love, then I will tell you
      my tale like one who weeps as he speaks.

      One day, just to pass the time, we read with delight
      of Lancelot, how Love enthralled him.
      We were alone and innocent, without suspicion.

130  But time and time again, our reading led
      our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale.
      But it was one point alone that defeated us.

      When we read of that smile, long wished for,
      was kissed by someone so deep in love,
135  this one, who never shall me parted from me,

      kissed me on my trembling lips –
      Galeotto was the book and writer both.
      That day we read no further."

      And while one spirit said these words to me,
140  the other, wordless, wept.  Such terrible pity
      overwhelmed me that I fainted, as if I had met my death,

      and fell, even as a dead body falls.

Text by Julian Darius in consultation with multiple translations, including H. F. Cary's and H. W. Longfellow's.  Blue text indicates Dante's speech; red text indicates Virgil's; green here inicates that of Minos or Francesca.  Illustrations by Gustave Doré from the 1892 Cary edition.  Argument based on the 1891 Charles Eliot Norton edition.

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The Divine Comedy:
The Divine Comedy, Canto 1
The Divine Comedy, Canto 2
The Divine Comedy, Canto 5
More Coming