So I descended from the first circle
to the second, which rings a smaller space
but so much pain that it prompts a howl.
There stands awful Minos, gauging sins,
proclaiming verdicts at the portal,
and condemning by the way he winds.
I mean that when each ill-begotten soul
comes before him, it confesses all,
and this connoisseur of sin must rule
What place is fit for it in hell:
he wraps himself once with his tail
for every tier he makes it fall.
Theres never a pause at his tribunal;
one by one they join the assembly;
they speak, listen, and he makes them tumble.
"O you who come to this grim infirmary,"
said Minos when he saw me appear
(pausing the exercise of his official duty),
"Watch how you enter and whom you trust here:
dont be fooled by the width of the entry!"
To this my guide replied, "Why roar?
Dont try to block his irresistible journey;
its been willed in that place where
any wish can be. So drop your query."
Now the mournful notes begin to blare,
striving to make their weeping heard,
pounding me with a doleful clamor.
Ive come to a place where all lights suppressed,
which bellows just as the sea is ripped
in a storm as opposite winds contest.
The hellish tempest that has never stopped
whips the spirits in its passion:
a twisting, hounding, mad assault.
When they come before Minos ruin,
they shriek and sorrow and lament;
there they curse the power of heaven.
I understood that this was the torment
of the damned whose sin was carnal:
those who made reason desires servant.
As in cold weather their wings propel
starlings in full and ample flocks, so
in hell strong breaths of wind compel
wicked spirits up and down, to and fro.
No hope will ever comfort them. No lesser
sentence, no pause is granted: this they know.
And as cranes will move, chanting lays in the air,
ordering themselves into one long file,
so I saw coming with a woeful clamor
shades that were borne by the stress of the squall.
"Master," I said, "who are those people
scourged like that by the purple gale?"
"The first whose story youd have me tell,"
he said, "was empress of many tongues.
The vice of lust so broke her will
that she wrote her desires into the laws,
legalizing her tastes so as to erase
the censure that such conduct merits.
Shes Semiramis; she succeeded Ninus
(or so we read) and was his wife. She possessed
the land where today the Sultan rules.
One who killed herself for love is next,
breaking faith with Sichaeuss ashes,
and after her Cleopatra, the oversexed.
See Helen, hub of such wicked times,
and great Achilles whose last opponent
was invulnerable Love. See Paris;
theres Tristan," and a myriad
shades he showed me with his finger.
Those whom Love split from Life he named.
After I had listened to my teacher
identify the ancient knights and ladies
pity fastened on me and I neared despair.
I began, "Poet, gladly would I converse
with that pair who go together and seem
to move so buoyantly in the winds."
And he to me: "You will see them
when theyre closer; then you must entreat
them by the love that drives them. They will come."
The next time the wind blew them past
I sent forth my voice: "Battered souls, will
you come and talk, if Another permits it?"
Just as doves, at desires call
coast through the air, wings stiffly raised,
drawn to their nest by sheer force of will,
so these two from Didos flock departed,
And came toward us through the noxious air,
so strongly and affectionately had I shouted.
"O gracious and benevolent creature,
moving through mulberry air to visit
us, who dyed the world a bloody color,
if we had a friend in the universes lord
wed pray to him to grant you peace,
since you had pity on our bitter plight.
Whatever would please you to hear or express,
well listen and speak to you, so long as the winds
still themselves as they do now for us.
"The territory where I was born sits
where the Po runs to the sea at last
to make a peace with its tributaries.
Love soon takes hold in the gentle heart.
It seized this man for my graceful being,
the body whose loss I still resent.
Love excuses none whore loved from loving.
It seized me for his charm and as you see
it will always be my only feeling.
Love steered us to a common death. He
is meant for Caina who extinguished our blazing."
These words were carried from them to me.
Once Id understood the spirits grieving,
I lowered my face and looked so gloomy
that the poet said, "What are you thinking?"
When I could answer, I cried, "How many
sweet thoughts, alas, and how much passion
conducted these two to their destiny!"
Then back I turned in their direction
and spoke, starting: "Francesca, your sufferings
make me weep from sadness and compassion.
But tell me, at the time of your sweet sighings,
how and in what way did Love give leave
for you to know your suspect longings?"
And she to me, "Theres no worse grief
than to recall happy times when one
feels sorrow: thats your teachers plain belief.
But if you have so much desire to learn
the first root of our love, Ill relate it
as one who weeps while she spins her yarn.
"It was our pleasure one day to read
of Lancelot, by Love abducted.
we were alone and had no urge or portent.
Breathing as one, we felt our eyes attracted
by the reading, and our faces paled;
but a definite point was our sure defeat.
When we read that the desired
smile then was kissed by the ardent lover,
he who can never be torn away kissed
me, all atremble. A Gallehaut was the author
of that book, and seductive was his fancy.
On that day, we read no farther."
While one soul told its story
the other wept, and I collapsed.
As if Id died, I swooned from pity
and crumpled like a falling corpse.