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Dante in Siena: Inferno 5-9

Dante's Inferno:
Canto 5 | Canto 6 | Canto 7
Canto 8 | Canto 9

Quando leggemmo il disiato riso
esser basciato da cotanto amante,
questi, che mai da me non fia diviso,

la bocca mi basciò tutto tremante.
Galeotto fu 'l libro e chi lo scrisse:
quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante.

When we read that the yearned-for smile
was kissed by so great a lover,
he who will never be separated from me

kissed me on the mouth, all trembling.
Galeotto was the book and he who wrote
it: that day we read it no further.

Featured Dante Link:
Gustave Doré, Dante Engravings
Of course, we spent a long time discussing Canto 5, in which Dante sees Paolo and Francesca in the second circle. Lust is the least grave of the seven deadly sins considered in Dante's conception of hell, but this encounter is one of the most vivid in the Commedia. It is Francesca da Rimini who does all of the talking, while her lover (and brother-in-law), Paolo Malatesta, merely hangs at her side, weeping. Her nephew was Dante's final patron, Guido Novello da Polenta, who sheltered the poet in Ravenna during his last years. In the loathsome marital brokering of the time, she was betrothed to a son of the ruling family of Rimini but reportedly fell in love with her husband's younger brother, Paolo. When her husband found them together, he murdered them both.

The shades of the carnal sinners (i peccator carnali), those "who subject their reason to lust," are likened in the second circle to flocks of birds driven ceaselessly through the air by a whirlwind. Most of them are truly thoughtless and inconstant, like starlings pushed by the air di qua, di là, di giù, di sù (line 43 – here, there, down, up). Others, whose love was worthy of literary fame like Dido, Helen, Achilles, Cleopatra, Paris, and Tristan, are like cranes that fly in more orderly lines, almost above the whirlwind's force. It is from those exalted flocks that Paolo and Francesca descend, like doves called by their desire (quali colombe dal disio chiamate).

On one level Dante sympathizes with Paolo and Francesca, feeling pity so profound that he passes out ("and I fell as a dead body falls"). That they loved steadfastly in the face of social opposition and death is what made them heroes to the Romantics in the 19th century. Dante the poet, however, is as usual up to something much more complicated. On another level, this story is about the danger of bad reading, as Francesca blames the affair on the fact that they were reading an old medieval Romance, the Book of Lancelot du Lac, when they first kissed. This is a stance common to the sinners in Inferno, who are quick to blame their punishment on anything except their own sinfulness. One of the "cranes" is Semiramis, the Babylonian queen who changed her own laws so that she would not be blamed for her carnal sins, which Dante relates with the phrase che libito fé licito in sua legge, showing with a change of one letter that she made what was libidinous licit. As Francesca tells it, We were just reading one day, and the two characters kissed: we looked at each other over the book, and then sex happened.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Paolo and Francesca (detail)
One of our leaders described Canto 5 with the term "textual gratification," because the Lancelot romance is only one of many texts referenced in this passage. If Paolo and Francesca had read any of these books (Ovid's tale of Pyramus and Thisbe, the story of Dido and Aeneas, the love poetry of Guinizelli and Dante in La vita nuova [in English translation], and so on), carefully and completely, Dante seems to be saying, the danger of their situation would have been clear. No, they stopped reading, just as, it was pointed out, Augustine stopped reading after he read Paul's warning against fornication (described in Confessions). This brings us to the matter of the contrapasso, the device by which Dante shows how the punishment in Hell fits the crime, or rather, how the crime is the punishment. Paolo and Francesca wanted only one another in that rush of excited passion, and they are joined together for eternity in their deception (one of a series of li altri pianti vani, or so many empty tears, as Dante writes in Canto 21). In spite of their example, Don Quixote still went crazy reading the same old courtly romances.

Dante passes quickly through the sins of gluttony in the third circle (Canto 6), avarice and prodigality in the fourth (Canto 7), anger in the fifth (Canto 7), until he and Virgil arrive at the walls of Dis, the entrance into lower hell (Cantos 8 and 9). There, Virgil suffers his first failure, by which symbolically Dante seems to be showing us that the intellect, which Virgil embodies, is not enough to understand the truth of the journey. Virgil easily masters Phlegyas, the boatman who patrols the Styx (again, a figure of his own classical world). When the devils turn him away at the gate of Dis, a messenger must be sent from heaven to open the way for the travelers.

Happy Independence Day to my fellow statunitensi!

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