The Divine Comedy | Inferno | Canto 5

Who is in charge of deciding where the souls of the damned should rest (sorry) for eternity? At the start of the fifth canto we discover that it is actually Minos, the legendary king of Crete. He stands, Dante says, ‘on the threshold’ (l.5) of the second circle checking souls’ ‘degrees of guilt’ (ibid) before judging and dispatching them ‘with his twirling tail’ (l.6).

Circle Two
If silence was the dominant feature of the first circle of hell, the wind dominates the second.

It drags these spirits onwards in its force.
It chafes them – rolling, clashing – grievously
(Lines 32-33)

But that is not all; the second circle ‘bounds a lesser space’ (l.2). Why? All the more to increase the damned’s suffering, of course.

In what way? And what of them? Who must spend eternity in close proximity to others while being flung hither and thither by the wind? It can  only be one people – those ‘condemned for carnal sin’ (l.38).

I think the lack of space is a form of poetic justice as in life, the souls came too close, as it were, to the bodies of others while the wind refers to the way they ‘made reason bow to their instinctual bent’ (l.39).

In the first circle, Dante met a number of people from Greek and Roman legend and history. Following on from Minos’ appearance, we meet some more here. There is Semiramis, who committed incest with her son, and a woman who

… slew herself and broke
her vow of faith to Sichaeus’s ashes.
(Lines 61-62)

The notes tell me that this is a reference to Dido who killed herself after her lover, Aeneas, left her to continue his journey that would eventually lead to the foundation of Rome. Then, there is Cleopatra VII, described with Roman predictability as ‘lascivious’ (l.63); Helen of Troy wanders by, too, as does Achilles, Paris and Tristan.

I can understand why Dante has placed some of these people in hell. Unless you are a pharaoh, incest is always going to be controversial, and Helen and Paris really should have thought twice about taking flight to Troy. But Achilles? I never imagined carnality being a decisive factor in his character. If he is there, though, where is Patroclus? And poor old Cleopatra. I should like to know what Dante might have done had he had his brother trying to kill him and an empire breathing down his neck.

Lines 73-142, the entire second half of the canto, are given over to one couple in particular. Dante finds them ‘conjoined’ (l.74) but only speaks to one of them (or only one of them speaks to him). She is a woman named Francesca, and she describes how she and the unnamed man joined to her read the tale of Lancelot. It was a stirring experience.

Time after time, the words we read would lift
our eyes and drain all colour from our faces.
(Lines 130-31)

In a way, this is something delightful to hear – a book having a deep impact on people, not just being read and put away. Unfortunately for Francesca and the man it lead to a dangerous turn of events.

A single point… vanquished us.
For when at last we read the longed-for smile
of Guinevere – at last her lover kissed –
he, who from me will never now depart,
touched his kiss, trembling to my open mouth.
(Lines 132-136)

An affair began. Francesca’s lover was named Paolo. His brother was her husband, Gianciotto. When he found out what was going on, he murdered Francesca and Paolo. For him, Francesca hopes, ‘Cain’s ice awaits’ (l.107).

Canto 5 could have been one of the most difficult for the modern mind to relate to. It’s easy to understand why Dante placed Semiramis, perhaps even Francesca and Paolo as well (although they are not described in harsh terms by Dante, perhaps suggesting a certain sympathy with them), but what if he said ‘such and such is there’ and their only offence had been to sleep to someone to whom they were not married? Perhaps Dante has included such a person and I have missed it, or will find it later on. If so – gulp on behalf of modernity and its enlightened values.

  • I am using the Penguin Classics edition of Inferno (2006 translated by Robin Kirkpatrick) for this series
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