Inferno, Canto V

translated by Peter Levine (c), with a heavy debt to Robert Pinsky's Inferno (Ferrar Straus & Giroux, 1994) for the rhyme scheme.


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.

There’s 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:

don’t be fooled by the width of the entry!"

To this my guide replied, "Why roar?

Don’t try to block his irresistible journey;

it’s 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.

I’ve come to a place where all light’s 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 desire’s 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 you’d 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.

She’s 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 Sichaeus’s 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;

there’s 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 they’re 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 desire’s call

coast through the air, wings stiffly raised,

drawn to their nest by sheer force of will,

so these two from Dido’s 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 universe’s lord

we’d pray to him to grant you peace,

since you had pity on our bitter plight.

Whatever would please you to hear or express,

we’ll 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 who’re 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 I’d 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, "‘There’s no worse grief

than to recall happy times’ when one

feels sorrow: that’s your teacher’s plain belief.

But if you have so much desire to learn

the first root of our love, I’ll 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 I’d died, I swooned from pity

and crumpled like a falling corpse.