Inferno: Paolo and Francesca

Dante devotes the most attention to Francesca, a woman from Rimini ("Francesca da Rimini") who betrayed her husband and had a love affair with Paolo, who was her husband's younger brother; her husband stabbed the two lovers to death when he learned of their affair. You can read more about the infamous incident at Wikipedia.

[Notes by LKG]

This story is part of the Dante's Inferno unit. Story source: Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Tony Kline (2002).

(illustration by della Quercia)

Canto 5: Paolo and Francesca

The Second Circle: Minos - The Carnal Sinners

So I descended from the first circle to the second that encloses a smaller space, and so much more pain it provokes, howling. There Minos stands, grinning horribly, examines the crimes on entrance, judges, and sends the guilty down as far as is signified by his coils: I mean that when the evil-born spirit comes before him, it confesses everything, and that knower of sins decides the proper place in hell for it and makes as many coils with his tail, as the circles he will force it descend. A multitude always stand before him and go in turn to be judged, speak and hear, and then are whirled downwards.

When Minos saw me, passing by the actions of his great office, he said: 'O you, who come to the house of pain, take care how you enter and in whom you trust; do not let the width of the entrance deceive you.'

And my guide replied: 'Why do you cry out? Do not obstruct his destined journey: so it is willed where what is willed is done; demand no more.' Now the mournful notes begin to reach me; now I come where much sorrowing hurts me.

I came to a place devoid of light that moans like a tempestuous sea when it is buffeted by warring winds. The hellish storm that never ceases drives the spirits with its force, and, whirling and striking, it molests them. When they come to the ruins there are shouts, moaning and crying, where they blaspheme against divine power. I learnt that the carnal sinners are condemned to these torments, they who subject their reason to their lust.

And, as their wings carry the starlings, in a vast, crowded flock in the cold season, so that wind carries the wicked spirits and leads them here and there, and up and down. No hope of rest, or even lesser torment, comforts them. And as the cranes go, making their sounds, forming a long flight of themselves in the air, so I saw the shadows come, moaning, carried by that war of winds, at which I said: 'Master, who are these people, that the black air chastises so?'

Virgil names the sinners

He replied: 'The first of those you wish to know of was Empress of many languages, so corrupted by the vice of luxury, that she made licence lawful in her code, to clear away the guilt she had incurred. She is Semiramis, of whom we read, that she succeeded Ninus, and was his wife: she held the countries that the Sultan rules.

'The next is Dido who killed herself for love and broke faith with Sichaeus's ashes; then comes licentious Cleopatra. See Helen, for whom, so long, the mills of war revolved, and see the great Achilles, who fought in the end with love, of Polyxena. See Paris, Tristan' — and he pointed out more than a thousand shadows with his finger, naming, for me, those whom love had severed from life.

(illustration by William Blake)

Paolo and Francesca

After I had heard my teacher name the ancient knights and ladies, pity overcame me, and I was as if dazed. I began: 'Poet, I would speak, willingly, to those two who go together, and seem so light upon the wind.'

And he to me: 'You will see when they are nearer to us; you can beg them, then, by the love that leads them, and they will come.'

As soon as the wind brought them to us, I raised my voice: 'O weary souls, come and talk with us, if no one prevents it.'

As doves, claimed by desire, fly steadily with raised wings through the air to their sweet nest carried by the wind, so the spirits flew from the crowd where Dido is, coming towards us through malignant air; such was the power of my affecting call.

'O gracious and benign living creature that comes to visit us through the dark air! If the universe's king were our friend, we, who tainted the earth with blood, would beg him to give you peace, since you take pity on our sad misfortune. While the wind, as now, is silent, we will hear you and speak to you, of what you are pleased to listen to and talk of.

'The place where I was born is by the shore where the River Po runs down to rest at peace with his attendant streams. Love, that is quickly caught in the gentle heart, filled him with my fair form, now lost to me, and the nature of that love still afflicts me. Love, that allows no loved one to be excused from loving, seized me so fiercely with desire for him, it still will not leave me, as you can see. Love led us to one death. Caïna, in the ninth circle waits, for him who quenched our life.'

These words carried to us from them. After I had heard those troubled spirits, I bowed my head, and kept it bowed, until the poet said: 'What are you thinking?'

When I replied, I began: 'O, alas, what sweet thoughts, what longing, brought them to this sorrowful state?'

Then I turned to them again, and I spoke and said: 'Francesca, your torment makes me weep with grief and pity. But tell me, in that time of sweet sighs, how did love allow you to know these dubious desires?'

And she to me: 'There is no greater pain than to remember happy times in misery, and this your teacher knows. But if you have so great a yearning to understand the first root of our love, I will be like one who weeps and tells. We read, one day, to our delight, of Lancelot and how love constrained him: we were alone and without suspicion. Often those words urged our eyes to meet and coloured our cheeks, but it was a single moment that undid us. When we read how that lover kissed the beloved smile, he who will never be separated from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. That book was a Galeotto, a pandar, and he who wrote it: that day we read no more.'

While the one spirit spoke, the other wept, so that I fainted out of pity, and, as if I were dying, fell, as a dead body falls.

(1100 words)

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