Thursday, October 23, 2008

Inferno, Song V

The story thus far: Dante, a poet and town prior in Florence, finds himself on a dark road of the soul. Before his spirit can fall to its ruin, he encounters Virgil, the greatest poet of classical Rome. Virgil, at the behest of Beatrice, a woman who was Dante's inspiration in life, offers Dante a journey through the realms of the afterworld, through which Dante may find his soul's salvation. He shall travel through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, with Virgil as his guide through the first two. Dante accepts Virgil's offer, and they embark. After passing through the gates of Hell, they encounter the souls of the cowards who took no stand in conflicts between good and evil--Heaven doesn't want them, and Hell refuses to accept them into its realm proper. After crossing the river Acheron, they enter Limbo, the realm of the noble or innocent souls who were not baptized or otherwise not believers in the Christian faith. There, Dante meets Homer and the other great poets of antiquity, and they and Virgil recognize Dante as among their number before he and Virgil set off to explore the depths of Hell.

The souls of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini

So I descended from the first circle
Down into the second, which encircles less space
And so much more sorrow, spurring greater woe.

There was the horror of Minos standing there, snarling.
He examined one’s guilts at the entrance,
Judging those in his grip and sentencing them accordingly.

When, I tell you, the soul born evil
Comes before him, it confesses all.
And this expert judge of sin

Sees that place in Hell meant for it,
Encircling himself with his tail as many times
As levels down he wishes that soul put.

Many are always before him;
Each one in turn goes to judgment.
They speak and listen and are then sent down.

“O you who come to this inn of sorrows,
Said Minos when he saw me,
Interrupting the duties of his weighty office,

“Watch how you enter and in whom you trust.
Don’t be deceived because the gate is wide!”
And my master said to him, “Why do you also squawk?

Do not impede his destined journey.
This is so willed by where this can be
Because it is so willed. Ask no more.”

Now begin the notes of sorrow
Pressing upon me to hear. Now I have come to
The place where so much weeping flails upon me.

I came to a place absent of all light
That roared like the sea in a tempest,
As if from the battling of opposing winds.

The infernal storm, never resting,
Beats upon the spirits with its ravages;
Whirling and pummeling, it torments them.

When they arrive in front of the ruin,
There is the shrieking, the self-pity, the lament;
There they curse the Virtue Divine.

I understood that those tormented in this manner
The carnal sins had damned,
Those whose reason succumbed to their drives.

And like starlings carried by their wings
During cold weather into a large, full flock,
So were the sinful spirits blown about.

They are driven from here, from there, downward, upward.
No hope ever comforts them:
Not of being allowed down, nor of lesser sentence.

And like cranes that go forth singing their song,
Making a long line of themselves in the air,
So I saw coming, bringing forth lamentations,

Shades carried along by the aforementioned ordeal,
Leading me to say, “Master, who are these
People whom the black air punishes so?”

“The first of these, whose story
You wish to know,” he said to me of that particular group,
“Was empress of many tongues.

She had so given herself over to the vice of lust
That she sanctioned it in her law
In order to displace the guilt into which she had been led.

She is Semiramis, who, one reads,
Succeeded Ninus and was his wife.
She held the land the Sultan rules.

The other one is she who killed herself for love
And broke faith with the ashes of Sych├Žus.
And then there is lustful Cleopatra.

See Helen, around whom so many brutal
Seasons revolved. And see the great Achilles,
Who, at the end, battled with love.

See Paris, Tristan....” And more than a thousand
Shades he pointed out to me and named--
Those whom love had parted from our life.

After which, having listened to my teacher
Naming knights and the ladies of antiquity,
Pity befell me, and I was almost lost.

“Poet,” I began, “willingly
Would I speak to those two who go together
And appear so light upon the wind.”

He replied, “You will watch for when they are
Closer to us, and then call upon them
By that love that leads them. They will come.”

So, as soon as the wind yielded them to us,
I spoke up: “O weary souls,
Come speak to us if others do not forbid it!”

Like doves called by desire
To the sweet nest, with wings still and raised
Coming through the air, carried by yearning,

So did they depart from the group that includes Dido,
Coming to us through the noxious air,
So strong was my tender cry.

“O gracious and gentle creature,
Who, in his visit, goes through the dark and violet air,
We, who stained the world with blood,

If the King of the Universe were to be our friend,
We would pray to Him for your comfort,
For you took pity on our vile depravity.

Of that which pleases you to hear and speak,
We will, for you, hear and speak
While the wind, like it is now, is silent.

The land where I was born sits
Upon the coast where the Po descends
In order to make peace with its followers.

Love, which the gentle heart quickly finds within,
Obsessed him at my side with the fair persona
From which I was torn, in a manner that still brings me to anger.

Love, which spares no one loved from love,
Obsessed me so strongly with pleasing him at my side
That, as you see, I still am not abandoned.

Love led us to one death.
Caina awaits the one who took our lives.”
These words they conveyed to us.

When I understood these tormented souls,
I lowered my face and held it so low
That, finally, the Poet said, “What are you thinking?”

When I replied, I began, “Oh, alas,
How many sweet thoughts, how much desire,
Led these two to the way of sorrow?”

I then turned to them and spoke.
And I began, “Francesca, your agonies
Fill me with such sadness and pity that I am moved to tears.

But tell me: at the time of the sweet sighs,
With what and by how did Love grant
That you should know these treacherous desires?”

She replied: “There is no greater sorrow
Than to recall happy times
In misery—this your Teacher knows.

But, if knowing the beginning root
Of our love is that for which you have so great a longing,
I will tell of it, though as one who speaks through sobs.

One day, for pleasure, we were reading
Of Lancelot and how Love compelled him.
We were alone and suspected nothing.

Many times we breathed, our eyes coming together
While reading, and our faces paled.
But only one moment overwhelmed us.

When we read of the longing smile
Being kissed by a lover so loving at heart,
This one, who shall never be separated from me,

Kissed my mouth, trembling all over.
Galehaut was the book and he who wrote it:
That day we read no further.

While the one spirit said this,
The other wept. So much so that, out of pity,
I swooned as if I was dying.

And I fell like a dead body falls.

Continue to Song VI

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