Canto V

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From that initial circle I went down
descending to the second, which contains,
enclosing as it does a lesser space,
a harsher pain to sting them till they shriek.
There horrifying Minos stands and snarls
upon the threshold, scrutinising sins:
he judges and despatches with his coils,
by which I mean that when the hapless soul
appears before him, it confesses all,
and this great connoisseur of sinfulness
decides on its allotted place in hell;
the times he twines his tail determining
how many levels down the soul must fall.
Before him always stands a crowd, and each
comes forward for the verdict in his turn.
They speak, they hear and then are hurled below.
'Oh you who come to pain's own residence,'
said Minos when he saw me, and left off
performance of his high official rites,
'be careful how you enter; whom you trust;
and don't be fooled by this wide entranceway.'
And then my guide to him, 'Why shout like that?
Do not obstruct his destined way ahead,
for this is willed where will and power are one;
all further questions are superfluous.'
From now I start to hear the tones of grief,
and come where frequent wailing strikes my ears.
I came into a place where light was dumb,
which bellowed like the tempest-beaten sea
when warring winds assault it from all sides.
The hellish hurricane unresting sweeps
the swirling souls in its rapacious wake
and thrashes and torments them as they whirl.
With devastation now they're face to face,
a scene of weeping, howling and lament
where they revile divine omnipotence.
It dawned on me that those who undergo  ■
such torture must be carnal sinners, who
submit all reason to their appetite.
And just as starlings when cold weather comes
are lofted by their wings in huge dense flocks,
so back and forth and up and down are swept
the wicked spirits in that blast of wind;
nor are they comforted at all by hope
of any rest, much less relief from pain.
And just as cranes strung out in stretching lines
chant dirges as they travel through the air,
I watched the moaning shades go passing by
suspended in the maelstrom I described;
which made me ask, 'Oh master, who are they,
the beings whom the black air scourges so?'
And straight away he said, 'The first of them
whose history you'd want me to relate
was Empress over many different tongues
and so abandoned to luxurious vice
she legalised her own licentiousness
and thus forestalled the censure she deserved.
She is Semiramis, who as we read
was wife to Ninos and succeeded him:
she held the land where now the Sultan rules.
Next, faithless to Sichaeus' ashes, comes
the one who killed herself possessed by love.
Luxurious Cleopatra follows her:
see Helen now, round whom revolved an age
of tragedy: see great Achilles too
who fought his final battle against love.
See Paris, Tristan . . . and a thousand shades
or more he singled out to show and name
whom love had severed from this life of ours.
Then, having heard my mentor name these Knights
and Ladiesof times past, my pity grew,
and I was lost in my bewilderment.
'Oh poet,' I began, 'I'd like to speak
with those that fly together as a pair
and seem to be so weightless on the wind.'
And he, 'You'll see, when they draw nearer us,
if you request them by that love of theirs,
the force that drives them on, that they will come.'
The wind steered them towards us, and at once
I raised my voice. 'Oh wearied souls, unless
Another One forbids it, come and speak.'
Like doves with wings held high and motionless
that drift on air supported by their will
when drawn by longing for their pleasant nest,
these separated now from Dido's flock
and came towards us through the sickly air,
such was the tender force of my appeal.
'Oh living creatures, gracious and benign
that brave the purple darkness of the air
to visit us who stained the world blood red;
were He our friend, the Universal King,
we'd pray to Him to grant you peace, since you
have pity on our sad calamity.
Whatever you would like to speak about
or hear, we'll hear and speak about with you
within the present respite of the wind.
My birthplace hugs that shore, where, making peace
with its attendant streams, the Po descends.
Love that so quickly fires the gentle heart
ensnared this man through that fair body's form
I now am stripped of (it still grieves me how).
Love that releases none, if loved, from love
ensnared me with such strong delight in him
it still won't let me go, as you can see.
Love led us on towards a single death.
Caina's depth greets him who quenched our lives.'
Such were the words that floated down from them.
And when I'd listened to these injured souls
I bowed my head and held it low so long
the Poet asked at last, 'What's on your mind?'
And then I answered him and said, Alas
how many sweet reflections and desires
have led them on to this distressing state.'
Then turning back to speak to them, I said,
'Francesca, how your torment makes me weep
for sadness and for sympathy; but say,
by what, in your delightful time of sighs,
and how, did love announce itself, and bring
the stirrings of those dubious desires?'
And she to me, 'There is no greater grief
than when in wretchedness one calls to mind
one's happy times: your mentor knows this too.
But if you've such a keen desire to know
the story of our love, how it took root,
I'll talk of it as one who speaks and weeps.
One day for our amusement we began
to read the tale of Lancelot, how love
had made him prisoner. We were alone,
without the least suspicion in our minds:
but more and more our eyes were forced to meet,
our faces to turn pale by what we read.
One passage in particular became
the source of our defeat: when we read how
the infatuated lover saw the smile
he'd longed to see and kissed it, this man here
who never shall be parted from my side,
all trembling as he did it, kissed my mouth.
The book was Gallehault, a go-between
and he who wrote it played that role for us.
That day we read no further word of it.'
As this first spirit spoke the other wept.
For pity like a dying man, I swooned
and fell as bodies fall that fall down dead.