|NUMBER 1||FALL 1987|
As is not infrequent in the Comedy the author begins by a precise definition of the scene of the action. We have already covered the first circle of hell and are now entering the second. As we learn that it covers less space than the first, this casual detail serves to indicate the funnel like shape of the infernal realm. It may be observed that as far as the design is concerned we are indeed in the second circle yet in a sense Canto V reveals the first compartment of true hell: that is to say the residence of those whose sins have earned them eternal damnation. The great spirits of the first circle, Limbo, had nothing to repent though much to regret, their punishment was not harsh or cruel: indeed they were even permitted a certain comfort, with illumination and leisure. As for their predecessors in the vestibule, they were, it will be remembered, not in hell at all, that haughty state being too proud to receive them. So our innocent wayfarer, in the colloquial phrase «ain't seen nothing yet». Nor does he thoroughly understand what he is about to see, since Virgil's detailed survey of the infernal provinces will not be offered him until Canto Eleven. He does not know what to expect and must assuredly have received a shock from the first sight that meets his eyes: the pitiless judge of the lower world, borrowed from Virgil as was Charon, and apparently in a state of continuous exasperation:
This sharply etched if not especially endearing little portrait may, incidentally, serve to illustrate the rugged fibre of Dante's language: within the three lines we find no fewer than six verbs: they carry the narrative along at a brisk tempo: the passage contains no adjectives at all and only one __ but very strategically placed __ adverb orribilmente.
The verb avvinghia which I have somewhat loosely translated by «he girds himself», apparently, in the opinion of the author, needs a gloss, which he obligingly supplies in the following six lines:
Assuredly a grotesque and even a comic image. Quite a change from the austere and dignified judge of the classical tradition. And no doubt by design: throughout the Inferno the poet makes use of such classical figures, almost invariably stripping them of dignity. Their place of residence shows that they too are damned. We need not linger here to arbitrate between the interpretations of the judge's caudal gyrations: did he have a tail long enough to go around himself nine times in one frantic self-lashing, or does he arrive at the proper number by a series of one lashing at a time? The reader is free to choose. Whatever the method employed one cannot but feel a certain sympathy for the snarling but undeniably industrious monster: the next terzina, again singularly rich in verbs, shows that he gets very little rest from his exercise:
If the spectacle brings a smile to the face of the reader it is less likely to have the same effect on one who is standing before the infernal magistrate, even though not yet subject to his judgement, and his words addressed to our traveler are hardly reassuring.
Lines spoken in terms of the narrative in order to give the pilgrim second thoughts about his journey, but also, my friends, meant for you and me, reminding us that it is easy to fall into sin: the entrance to hell is spacious: the exit is another matter. And if the line echoes Virgil __ well so much the better. Dialog here is as swift paced as the action. Before the pilgrim has a chance to ponder the dire warning, Virgil, perhaps offended by the doubt cast upon his reliability, replies at once:
A ritualistic formula Virgil has already used to placate Charon. And once more effectively closing the argument. We shall hear no more from Minos but pass on to what Benvenuto da Imola described as the second division of the canto:
«Mute of all light» is an arresting figure but aside from its daring it touches on a point that has disturbed some literal minded readers. Darkness and the sound of lamentation are appropriate hellish accoutrements to be sure, but if hell is so dark as to be entirely without light, how can the traveler see anything? Hell is a vast cavern and if you have ever done any exploration of caves you will know that without your flashlight you cannot even see your companion. And neither our traveler nor his guide carries a torch. I am afraid that the only answer to this question has been given above. «Thus it is willed where will and power are one», in this case in the imagination of the writer __ and ask no more about it. In fact, Dante is immediately able to see the residents of this storm tossed region:
Incessantly buffeted by the hellish hurricane, even as in life they were wracked by gusts of passion, the sinners suffer through all eternity. The word «ruin», which I have translated literally, challenges interpretation. It may be said that the poet is a little unfair to his readers here «The ruin» with the definite article suggests that everyone knows what it is, that it has already been mentioned. In fact, it has not, and we are bound to ask what is its nature and its function. Probably a pile of rocks created by a landslide resulting from a fissure in the wall of hell. Much later on, 16 cantoes and five circles later in the narrative, the travelers will learn of a crack in the infernal structure caused by the earthquake that shook the world at the time of the crucifixion. It is not unlikely that here we have similar evidence of that significant event. If so, the sinners may well react with cries of anguish, as the sight must remind them of their abandoned savior and their loss of salvation. This seems the most likely interpretation, and it will explain, too, the readiness of these unhappy souls to curse the divine virtue of the second person of the trinity who will be their judge. Just what kind of sinners are they? Our pilgrim soon learns.
__ a crisp definition of the nature of immoderate passion though it might apply equally well to gluttony and anger as to lust. The poet's word intesi which can be rendered «I learned» or «I heard» as well as «I understood» is a little teasing: he may have learned it from Virgil, as most commentators think, or he may have understood it intuitionally as it were, since, as we have noted, the punishment is so obviously suggestive of the sin.
To illustrate the nature of his vision, the poet provides two felicitous bird images:
Starlings and cranes: winged creatures both, and so suited to receive the buffetings of the internal wind. But the poet makes a distinction between his flocks. The starlings are very numerous and fly in a vast undisciplined mass. They will also remain anonymous. The cranes are a different breed. Probably, as we shall see, of a higher social class, and their flight in a straight line makes it possible to identify them. They have also another and unhappy distinction as will be disclosed at the end of Virgil's presentation.
All of our cranes then are lovers of the highest order, lovers who have died for love. And all are of high social standing. Dante is very fond of categories. Indeed, the whole Comedy, under one aspect, is a massive exercise in pigeon-holing. Or taxonomy, if you like big words. And he has an all but obsessive sense of hierarchy. Although the commentators I am familiar with say nothing about it, this little parade is very carefully organized, giving precedence to age, rank and sex. We may note that the ladies are named first, as is appropriate to the ambient of courtly love. But chronology is respected too: the very ancient Semiramis is followed by two grandes damesi from the classical world, so too, very properly, Achilles and Paris precede the medieval Tristram. (I am assuming that the poet had in mind the son of Priam rather than the hero of a medieval romance also called Paris, for the latter did not die of love.) In any event, one could not ask for a more glittering company __ and we are told there are many more __ «more than a thousand» need not be taken literally but it certainly suggests a considerable number of the same glamorous resonance. It is not surprising that our traveler is moved, as he readily admits:
I cannot pass by the middle line of the terzina __ «Nomar le donne antiche e i cavalieri» __ without remarking on its evocative magic: one seems not only to recall the lost world of legendary lovers but to feel it. And all in one line. Longfellow, a poet too, quotes as a kind of parallel, Shakespeare's haunting quatrain:
How can one fail to feel pity for such resplendent souls, flawed though they be...? However, our traveler is not so bewildered by his compassionate awe that he fails to use his eyes, and looking at the air-borne flock, his attention is drawn to a special pair:
From which we may deduce that the Italian couple is the only pair in the group, possibly because they died together: as to why they seem especially light in the wind it may be because their love has a special buoyance. Illustrators commonly picture the lovers in an embrace but it may be simply that they are hand in hand or even merely close to each other __ while the other souls fly without mates. In any event they are still love's servants, as Virgil's reply indicates:
And Dante follows his master's counsel:
This anonymous «other» is of course God or Divine Providence, not named in these inappropriate surroundings. As Virgil had promised, the sinners comply immediately with Dante's request even though he does not in fact mention their love. And their compliance is recorded in one of the poet's most famous similes.
Aside from the charming vignette made by the love borne doves, birds traditionally associated with Venus, we may observe that these tender creatures augment the avian population of the canto, already inhabited by starlings and cranes. One of the summoned pair speaks beautifully and to the point, contributing what is probably the best known passage in the Comedy.
It is almost an act of desecration to translate this melodious and moving passage into bleak and colorless English prose. For if the substance of Francesca's account is graphic and persuasive, the music that conveys it is no less compelling. The incantatory effect of the repetition of the word amore, the subtle assonances and alliterations that impress the message on our minds and memories, and the cadences of the lines, these are more than ornaments. They seduce the ear as the narrative stirs the heart. What can one say of such a line as «Amor che a nullo amato amar perdona» which will haunt us forever in grace of its union of seductive sound and aphoristic authority?
Alas, for the purposes of our commentary, we must pedantically if piously present an English translation, keeping it as literal as possible: Francesca says:
(Caina is the zone of the lowest circle of hell, reserved for betrayers of kinsmen.) Francesca does not give her name but the mention of her home town and the story of her tragic love would readily identify her to any of the poet's first readers. She was the daughter of the older Guido da Polenta of Ravenna and incidentally the aunt of the second Guido who would befriend the poet in his last years. Some time in the middle of the eighth decade of the thirteenth century, Francesca was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, Lord of Rimini, a crude and some say a deformed man. According to some accounts, the bride was wooed and wed by Gianciotto's proxy, his handsome younger brother, Paolo. With or without this justification, Francesca and Paolo became lovers __ and were slain by the offended and jealous husband.
Glossing the Comedy half a century later, Boccaccio gives a lively account of the event (I quote from Singleton's translation):
When Gianciotto went off to some nearby town as Podestà the two lovers became intimate. But a servant of Gianciotto found them out and went to his master, and told him all he knew and promised to give him clear proof, should he desire it. Gianciotto, in a rage, returned secretly to Rimini. When the servant saw Paolo entering Francesca's room, he went at once to Gianciotto and brought him to the door of the room. Since he could not enter as the door was bolted on the inside, he shouted to Francesca and began to push on the door. Paolo and Francesca both knew who it was and Paolo thought that if he escaped quickly through a trapdoor leading to the room below, he might be able to conceal his misdeed. Telling Francesca to open the door, he ran to the trapdoor. But as he climbed down through it, a fold of his jacket caught on a piece of iron projecting from the wood. Francesca had already opened the door. Gianciotto, entering immediately, saw his brother, caught by the fold in his jacket. Sword in hand, he ran toward him, bound to kill him. Francesca quickly ran between them, trying to prevent the act, but Gianciottto had already raised his sword which he now brought down with all his weight in the thrust. And so happened the thing he would not have willed, for before reaching Paolo, the sword went through Francesca's breast. Gianciotto, utterly distraught by this accident __ for he loved the woman more than himself __ withdrew the blade, thrust again at Paolo and killed him. Leaving them both dead, he returned to his duties.Not being contemporaries of Dante, we who read the story today may be grateful for the information supplied by early commentators (there are no strictly contemporary accounts of the affair). But we would know at once that it is a true lady who speaks to our traveler. First, in the worldly sense, for she introduces herself, as patricians do, by identifying her family origins, and secondly, in the natural sense, because like all true ladies, her first thought is not for herself but to make her visitor welcome __ in this case, by thanking him for his attention and indicating a desire, to pray God, were it possible, for his well-being __ specifically for his peace, which by association with the peaceful end of her home town's river, recalls the peace that she too once knew and will not know again. She then, without wasting time, proceeds to a disquisition on the nature and power of love which is also in part an argument for her defense. If love is a sin it is at least a noble sin, for true love can dwell only in noble hearts. She has good authority for this statement; her words «Amor ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende» are almost a direct quotation from Guido Guinizelli, Dante's revered master, who had affirmed in a famous canzone that «foco d'amor in gentil cor s'apprende». (Fire of love kindles in a noble heart.) That Paolo should have loved her was therefore almost inevitable since his was a noble heart. Her own response too was in conformity with another law of love, laid down by theoreticians in the field; Andrew the Chaplain, codifier of amorous matters, had declared that no one beloved can refrain from loving in return. This dictum is not only an axiom of the courtly love cult but a psychological truth; it is hard, in every day life, to dislike someone who likes you. Unfortunately that is not quite the last word on the subject. In the twenty-second canto of the Purgatorio, Virgil will reaffirm Francesca's dictum on the obligational reciprocity of love but with a crucial revisionary codicil. «Love», he tells Statius, «when kindled by virtue, has always kindled other love, once its name is made manifest». But Francesca's love was not kindled by virtue but rather by «piacer», the charm and grace of Paolo, sufficient for the courts of love on earth but not for the high court of heaven.
Two other lines of Francesca's highly charged discourse provide nourishment for commentators. «Love», she says, «seized Paolo for the fair body that was taken from me, and the way of it still distresses me». Does «modo» __ «the way of it» __ refer to the taking away of her fair body, or the intensity of Paolo's love? Over the years most commentators link the «way» to the «taken from» immediately preceding it. So read, two interpretations are possible.
She may mean nothing more than that the brutal violence of Gianciotto's act so shocked her that it still leaves a resentful mark on her memory. Or, as most authorities take it, slain with no time for repentance, she is in hell, now and forever injured by the manner of her undoing. Some thirty years ago the critic Antonino Pagliaro, taking up an older notion of Landino, argued that «the way still offends me» refers to the strength of Paolo's passion which even in hell still holds her subject. «Offende» as Pagliaro demonstrates, can carry that meaning. This interpretation has won considerable approval: Sapegno and Bosco accept it. Yet it does seem a little strained. Armed with the benediction of Chimenz, Momigliano, and Charles Singleton, I opt for the traditional interpretation: «The style of my death, leaving me no time for an act of contrition, was responsible for my damnation».
On the line «Caina awaits him who took our lives», I should like to linger for a while. Every commentator that I know of, from the oldest to the most recent, gives the line to Francesca. I believe it was spoken by Paolo. I wish I could claim that I had come to this conclusion independently, but, in truth, I am simply accepting the interpretation of a courageous and all but forgotten scholar of more than 100 years ago. In 1875, to be precise, Emilio Roncaglia published in the Cronaca del Regio Liceo di Bologna an article maintaining in the teeth of all earlier scholars that the line should be attributed to Paolo. Roncaglia had, in defense of his thesis, two arguments. The first was of a purely grammatical nature. The poet says very clearly that «these words were borne to us from them». And in the very next line he says, «when I had heard those tormented souls». Two successive uses of the plural certainly suggest more than one speaker. All commentators brush aside this grammatical fact and tell us that only Francesca speaks, or that Francesca speaks for both, or some such gloss. But, in fact, that is not what the poet says, and if he had meant to give the whole speech to Francesca, one would think he would have found it possible to make his meaning clear. Further, to anticipate a little and to supplement Roncaglia's argument in the next speech, which is indeed all Francesca's, the text makes this very clear in the line, «While one spirit spoke, the other wept».
Roncaglia's second point, with which I am also in accord, is that a line vindictively gloating, as it were, over the fate destined to overtake her murderous spouse, is simply out of character for the gentle Francesca. While, on the other hand, as Roncaglia asserts, such a resentful and bitter tone would very properly serve to characterize Paolo __ a man of arms and warfare.
Admittedly, we are here in the zone of subjective, intuitional criticism. It is possible to argue that under all her sweetness there is a vindictive strain in Francesca: Dorothy Sayers thought so and made much of this line in her assault on the luckless heroine. And such a notion adds a dimension of ambiguity to the personality of the lady: our times love such contrasting threads in un aesthetic fabric. A hundred years ago ambiguity and complexity were less highly esteemed. But who is to say our grandfathers were wrong? In any event, giving the line to Francesca, if it adds a certain spice to her persona, also robs Paolo of any characterization at all __ and it flies in the face of the poet's grammar.
Thinking about that courageous dantista of over a century ago, and pondering his emancipated audacity, I am wondering whether we should not assign to Paolo also the preceding line, «Love led us to one death». This would give him, as it were, a part in the love duet. Francesca would sing of love's rapture and its irresistible contagion, leaving to her partner the sad disclosure of its unhappy consequence. Armed with this preconception, I think I can detect in the line «ancor non m'abbandona» __ «it does not yet abandon me» __ a kind of triumphal cadence of finality. Poetically it would be a good place for her to stop.
However, let us return to our muttons, or to the second installment of the love story.
This interpretation of the narrative provides a certain relief from tension before action is resumed in the second part of the story. It also shows our traveler in the role of roving reporter, anxious to get all the details even if his questions may seem to some readers a little indiscreet. After all, what business is it of his? But such will be his style throughout the immortal journey and if he is a little «nosy», well it doesn't seem to trouble Francesca and the reader may well be grateful for it, since it calls forth her lyric reply. There is some ambiguity in the phrase «dubbiosi disiri» __ does «dubbiosi» mean «hesitant» or «timid» (since the lovers are not yet sure of their love) or does it carry the meaning of «dangerous, risky», even possibly «morally questionable»? We may remark too in this rather prosaic passage the skillful use of repetition to create an erotic climate: «Dolci» appears twice and «disio» and «disiri» are essentially the same word.
Without reluctance __ even, one might say, eagerly, __ Francesca answers the pilgrim's question concerning the when and how of her sweet surrender.
Who was it who said the hardest thing is recalling happy days when one is in misery? I cannot resist quoting Porena's perceptive note on the line. He observes that statements similar to that of Francesea have been cited from Boethius, St. Augustine and Saint Thomas. But how would Francesca know anything about Dante's studies and learning? More likely, he believes, she is thinking of Virgil whom she can see is serving as Dante's guide, and who, moreover, sang of another love-wounded woman who, like herself, had cause to remember happy days in time of grief. To be sure, just how Francesca recognizes Virgil is a little puzzling, but, as Porena sagely remarks, some questions are better not asked. Impertinent critics have noted that the promise, «I shall do as one who tells and weeps», is not kept: she does the telling and Paolo the weeping. It is not necessary to assume that our poet is suggesting that it is always the woman who talks, though such a suspicion may cross our minds. In any case, her answer is clear, circumstantial __ and moving.
This confession, beautifully and economically phrased, calls I think, for a translation in verse. I have chosen Lawrence Binyon's version, at once the most literal and the most musical that I can find:
It is a pity to use critical drills and probes on a story so eloquently told, but a few lines call for comment. Some readers may need to be reminded that in the tale of Launcelot and Guinevere, Galahalt was the go-between. For Paolo and Francesca, that function was performed by the book and its author. Does this mean our poet is cautioning us about the dangers of reading inflammatory literature? If he is not doing so, at least Francesca is, and incidentally, as unfriendly readers have noted, shifting the blame for her fall from her own weakness to a book and its subversive author. The line, «We were alone and without any suspicion», could mean «We didn't think Paolo was anywhere near us» (a vulgar interpretation, perhaps, but not implausible) or «with no premonition of the strength of our love, not yet made manifest», which is a more appealing notion. But it is the line, «This one who never will be parted from me again», that contains the ultimate and fascinating ambiguity of the canto and of the poet's verdict on the lovers and their fate. Is the line spoken with proud satisfaction or deep regret? Is theeternal togetherness of the pair a joy or a punishment? In one sense, love triumphs over all __ even eternal damnation. Yet Paolo weeps through the story and Francesca reproaches the author whose pages inflamed their hearts. I think the comment of De Sanctis is much to the point: with an ardor that seems to match Francesca's, he writes as follows:
What is this? Is it joy? Is it grief? It is the world and it is hell. It is the bitterness of love that brings hell in its train. It is the passion of hell that has love as its dwelling. It is a complex emotion for which there is no word. It is contradiction. It is the heart in its mysteries. It is life in its contrasts. It is paradise and hell, angel and demon. It is man.I suspect, dear readers, that your interpretation of the line will depend on whether you are a romantic or a moralist, and I think that the moralist has the last word __ after all, the lovers are in hell __ but there is no denying that at the conclusion of Francesca's words the pilgrim is sympathetic.
While our sympathetic traveler is recovering from his swoon, which incidentally permits his author to move him to the next circle without telling the reader how it is done, I should like to make one or two observations on aspects of canto V not commonly touched on by critics and commentators, who, it may be, think such matters too obvious for comment. First of all, it seems to me worth noting that Francesca is the only female in hell who has a speaking part. Indeed, there arc only sixteen females even mentioned in the course of the subterranean journey: nine are briefly catalogued in Limbo and of the remaining seven, five have their residence in Francesca's circle. Feminine representation in the higher realms is likewise scanty. If we except Beatrice __ and I think we may since she is something more than a woman __ who, admittedly, is almost excessively loquacious once we meet her in the earthly paradise, there are only three women with speaking parts in the Purgatorio and only two in the Paradiso. Throughout the Comedy, Dante seems to think of women almost exclusively in some kind of love connection. In the Purgatorio, the gentle Pia is a victim of love, and in Heaven we meet Francesca's celestial counterpart, Cunizza da Romano, serenely lodged in the appropriate sphere of Venus. A wanton in her youth as she readily and cheerfully confesses, her place among the saints dramatically illustrates a central point of doctrine: the fate of a soul in after life is determined by the condition of that soul at the moment of death. Francesca sinned only once but died in sin. Cunizza, after years of scandalous behavior, was granted further years in which to acknowledge her faults and make her peace with God. Dura lex sed lex.
I would like to comment on another obvious but, it seems to me, significant feature of our canto V. It is the first canto of the true hell, as we have remarked earlier. As such, it has a special importance for the reader and perhaps even more for the writer. Like the first slice of a pâté or a salame __ if I may use a vulgar figure __ it tells us what the whole confection is going to taste like. And I am sure that Dante, being at heart a missionary, had that in mind. Canto V has been for centuries a favorite canto, if not indeed the most popular canto of them all. One is bound to think that, to use another vulgar figure, the poet, like a baseball pitcher, wanted to make his first pitch a strike. And in truth, the canto has, in notable degree, all the components that characterize the great poem: effective mise en scène, sharp characterization, skillful manipulation of dialog, and a story of irresistible attraction. And thereto of course moral and theological indoctrination and suggestive classical allusions. Given such a tempting first slice, appetite for the confection is assuredly stimulated.
Finally, and perhaps most notably, the choice of Francesca exemplifies an underlying intention of the Comedy and a purpose one might call aesthetic or cultural and which, persistently pursued, gives the poem a place of unique importance in the history of letters. Francesca, we are told, comes forth from the group «where Dido is». And so is Cleopatra __ and both are figures of the classical world. The mention of Tristram and the allusion to Galehalt indicate that Yseult and Guinevere, of legendary renown similar to that of their sisters of antiquity, are also in that company. Yet it is none of those figures of hallowed tradition that Dante chooses to move to center stage: it is a contemporary of his own. By his choice he is in effect exalting his own time and his own culture to archetypal status. (This intent is, to be sure, adumbrated as early as canto I where, in denying that he is Aeneas, he is really, rather daringly, asserting that he is. And the intention is evident too in canto IV where Saladino finds his place among classical warriors and where Dante brazenly notes that he was sixth in a group otherwise composed of great poets of antiquity.) And in the course of raising his own world to a new dignity, he also, by the same token, brings the great figures of the past closer to the living present. Under the influence of this kinship, the mists of mythology and legend dissolve and we can see the figures of the ancient world no longer as remote and somehow alien but rather as our own kin. This is the essence of humanism and it runs through the Comedy __ even in high heaven, where the Florentine, Cacciaguida, and not Trajan or Charlemagne or Constantine, has the central role. This vision, or call it perception, is all but revolutionary and one may well feel that it is in large part responsible for the enduring vitality of the Comedy. And the first functional and dramatic affirmation of it is in the exaltation of Francesca.*
*Lectura Dantis delivered in Jefferson's Rotunda at the University of Virginia on September 29, 1986.