DANTE'S SUBLIME COMEDY: HELL, Chapter 5
Hell: Chapter 5
Descending to the second ledge of Hell,
a smaller circle of intenser pain,
I heard again the sound of sorrowing. 3
Here demon Minos with his dragon tail,
grins as he passes judgment on the dead
then sends them down to their due punishment. 6
Each ghost before him gibbers out it’s crimes.
The times he winds his tail around himself
show to which depths the evil ghost must go. 9
Hell has ten rings. The demon’s tail is long.
The throng of souls, ceaselessly pouring in,
are never slow in blurting out their sin, 12
then hurl themselves down through appalling space
onto the right ledge of the hellish pit
that is forever now their final place. 15
“YOU have no place here!” Minos bawled at me,
seeing we did not pause but walked straight through
not stopping to be judged, “Take care! Beware! 18
Hell’s open door is not kept wide for you!”
“Minos,” my guide replied, “forces too high
for you to know insist this man may go 21
unhurt through every door there is in Hell.
Our business is not yours, and so farewell.”
New sounds of lamentation reached my ear, 24
a rushing tumult mixed with howling yell.
We entered darkness – darkness bellowing
like ocean tempests combating together. 27
A hurricane of ghosts went wailing past
under the lofty cliff that was their coast.
I saw lost souls tossed, spinning in the blast 30
and buffeted again, again, again
against the granite wall that penned them in.
I knew this endless storm of sorry souls 33
must be the just and proper doom of all
who sin because their overwhelming lust
quelled reason’s light. A rockslide in the cliff 36
had formed the gap we came through. Seeing us
the storm of fleeing, yelling ghosts blasphemed
God louder, wheeling like flights of starlings, 39
screaming onward like cranes hopeless of rest
or lesser pains. “Master,” cried I, “name some
so mercilessly whipped by this dark air.” 42
He said, “There’s one whose history you know –
wife of a king who made her empress queen
of many lands now ruled by the Sultan. 45
Her sexual appetites were so obscene
she legalised all kinds of visciousness.
Her name is Semiramis :– Dido next 48
swore she would only wed one man. Him dead,
she took instead another mate and then
committed suicide when he escaped :– 51
Helen of Troy, so opportunely raped –
Cleopatra whose expertise in love
was legendary:– and of course the men, 54
Paris – Achilles – Tristan – Lancelot – ”
He pointed out so many souls condemned
for fleshly lust, it filled me with dismay 57
to see such noble people led astray
by love that ought to be our greatest joy.
“Poet,” I said, “let me talk with that pair 60
who seem more gently carried by the air.”
Said he, “If they come near enough to hear
Invite them by the love they clearly share.” 63
The wind tossing them close, “O harried souls,”
I cried, “if none forbid, please talk to me!”
Like homing doves they glided to my side. 66
One said, “Dear good and kindly living soul
who frees us briefly from our stormy fate,
if we could pray we’d pray that you find rest – 69
that blessed rest that cannot be our fate.
The only way to show our gratitude
for these few moments out of whirling Hell 72
is telling you all that you wish to know.
My birthplace was a town where river Po
enters the sea. I married lovelessly 75
a hard old man. His brother at my side
who I love still, had youth and gentleness.
As he enjoyed my body we were found 78
and slain. Our killer’s place in Hell will be
among the murderers who followed Cain.”
Sighing, I bowed my head. My guide enquired, 81
“What thought troubles you now?” “Sorrow for youth
and what befalls youth’s sweetness,” I replied,
“Francesca, please believe I pity you, 84
but tell me what occurred that led you to
the deed you knew was sin.” “Worst grief,” said she,
“is happiness recalled in misery. 87
Your master knows this well and if you need
to understand, I’ll tell as you command.
To pass an idle hour one afternoon 90
we chanced to read of how Sir Lancelot
was overcome by love of Guinevere.
This youth who never shall depart from me 93
trembling all over, dared to kiss my mouth.
That book seduced us. There’s no more to say
except, of course, we read no more that day.” 96
She wept. The other spirit wept – me too.
The three of us shed tears without restraint.
Because I could not give them any help 99
I clutched my head and fell down in a faint.