Poetry: Dante Alighieri

Poetry: Dante Alighieri


Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) is the subject of this month’s poetry page and Circle 2 Canto V of Inferno, the first part of his greatest work The Divine Comedy. Here Dante explores the fine line that exists between love and the power of attraction and disastrous lustful desire. It is in this circle that the adulterers and carnal sinners are cast by Minos, where famous lovers such as Cleopatra, Dido, Paris, Helen, Tristan and Achilles are alluded too, and whose misguided desires had often led them and their lovers to death.


Circle 2, Canto V


From the first circle I descended thus

Down to the second, which, a lesser space

Embracing, so much more of grief contains,

Provoking bitter moans. There Minos stands,

Grinning with ghastly feature: he, of all

Who enter, strict examining the crimes,

Gives sentence, and dismisses them beneath,

According as he foldeth him around:

For when before him comes the ill – fated soul,

It all confesses; and that judge severe

Of sins, considering what place in Hell

Suits the transgression, with his tail so oft

Himself encircles, as degrees beneath

He dooms it to descend. Before him stand

Always a numerous throng; and in his turn

Each one to judgment passing, speaks, and hears

His fate, thence downward to his dwelling hurl’d.

“O thou! who to this residence of woe

Approachest!” when he saw me coming, cried

Minos, relinquishing his dread employ,

“Look how thou enter here; beware in whom

Thou place thy trust; let not the entrance broad

Deceive thee to thy harm.” To him my guide:

“Wherefore exclaimest? Hinder not his way

By destiny appointed; so ’tis will’d,

Where will and power are one. Ask thou no more.”


Now ‘gin the rueful wailings to be heard.

Now am I come where many a plaining voice

Smites on mine ear. Into a place I came

Where light was silent all. Bellowing there groan’d

A noise, as of a sea in tempest torn

By warring winds. The stormy blast of Hell

With restless fury drives the spirits on,

Whirl’d round and dash’d amain with sore annoy.

When they arrive before the ruinous sweep,

There shrieks are heard, there lamentations, moans,

And blasphemies ‘gainst the good Power in Heaven.

I understood, that to this torment sad

The carnal sinners are condemn’d, in whom

Reason by lust is sway’d. As, in large troops

And multitudinous, when winter reigns,

The starlings on their wings are borne abroad;

So bears the tyrannous gust those evil souls.

On this side and on that, above, below,

It drives them: hope of rest to solace them

Is none, nor e’en of milder pang. As cranes,

Chanting their dolorous notes, traverse the sky,

Stretch’d out in long array; so I beheld

Spirits, who came loud wailing, hurried on

By their dire doom. Then I: “Instructor! who

Are these, by the black air so scourged?” “The first

‘Mong those, of whom thou question’st,” he replied,

“O’er many tongues was empress. She in vice

Of luxury was so shameless, that she made

Liking be lawful by promulged decree,

To clear the blame she had herself incurr’d.

This is Semiramis, of whom ’tis writ,

That she succeeded Ninus her espoused;

And held the land, which now the Soldan rules.

The next in amorous fury slew herself,

And to Sichaeus’ ashes broke her faith:

Then follows Cleopatra, lustful queen.”


There mark’d I Helen, for whose sake so long

The time was fraught with evil; there the great

Achilles, who with love fought to the end.

Paris I saw, and Tristan; and beside,

A thousand more he show’d me, and by name

Pointed them out, whom love bereaved of life.


When I had heard my sage instructor name

Those dames and knights of antique days, o’erpower’d

By pity, well – nigh in amaze my mind

Was lost; and I began: “Bard! willingly

I would address those two together coming,

Which seem so light before the wind.” He thus:

“Note thou, when nearer they to us approach.

Then by that love which carries them along,

Entreat; and they will come.” Soon as the wind

Sway’d them towards us, I thus framed my speech:

“O wearied spirits! come, and hold discourse

With us, if by none else restrain’d. As doves

By fond desire invited, on wide wings

And firm, to their sweet nest returning home,

Cleave the air, wafted by their will along;

Thus issued, from that troop where Dido ranks,

They, through the ill air speeding: with such force

My cry prevail’d, by strong affection urged.


“O gracious creature and benign! who go’st

Visiting, through this element obscure,

Us, who the world with bloody stain imbrued;

If, for a friend, the King of all, we own’d,

Our prayer to him should for thy peace arise,

Since thou hast pity on our evil plight.

Of whatsoe’er to hear or to discourse

It pleases thee, that will we hear, of that

Freely with thee discourse, while e’er the wind,

As now, is mute. The land,[1] that gave me birth,

Is situate on the coast, where Po descends

To rest in ocean with his sequent streams.


“Love, that in gentle heart is quickly learnt,

Entangled him by that fair form, from me

Ta’en in such cruel sort, as grieves me still:

Love, that denial takes from none beloved,

Caught me with pleasing him so passing well,

That, as thou seest, he yet deserts me not.

Love brought us to one death: Caina[2] waits

The soul, who spilt our life.” Such were their words;

At hearing which, downward I bent my looks,

And held them there so long, that the bard cried:

“What art thou pondering?” I in answer thus:

“Alas! by what sweet thoughts, what fond desire

Must they at length to that ill pass have reach’d!”

Then turning, I to them my speech address’d,


And thus began: “Francesca![3] your sad fate

Even to tears my grief and pity moves.

But tell me; in the time of your sweet sighs,

By what, and how Love granted, that ye knew

Your yet uncertain wishes?” She replied:

“No greater grief than to remember days

Of joy, when misery is at hand. That kens

Thy learn’d instructor. Yet so eagerly

If thou art bent to know the primal root,

From whence our love gat being, I will do

As one, who weeps and tells his tale. One day,

For our delight we read of Lancelot,[4]

How him love thrall’d. Alone we were, and no

Suspicion near us. Oft – times by that reading

Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue

Fled from our alter’d cheek. But at one point

Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,

The wished smile so raptorously kiss’d

By one so deep in love, then he, who ne’er

From me shall separate, at once my lips

All trembling kiss’d. The book and writer both

Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day

We read no more.” While thus one spirit spake,

The other wail’d so sorely, that heart – struck

I, through compassion fainting, seem’d not far

From death, and like a corpse fell to the ground.