Dante Alighieri, Inferno, V, ll. 73-142

"Paola and Francesca da Rimini"

The situation: Dante describes a spiritual crisis in allegorical terms as an attempted ascent of a mountain which is blocked by dangerous beasts.  He retreats, taking the downward path through Hell, itself, guided by the spirit of the Roman poet (and his "father" in epic poetry), Virgil.  Hell is arranged in concentric circles, through which Dante must pass, from the anti-room in which the "futile" vainly chase banners in the mist, through Limbo (lost souls neither damned nor saved), the Lustful, the Gluttonous, the Hoarders and Spendthrifts, the Wrathful, the Violent Against God, Art and Nature, Violent Against the Self, the Violent Against their Neighbors, the Traitors to Their Kindred, the Traitors to their Country, the Traitors to Their Guests, and the Traitors to Their Lords.   (In the next two parts of the trilogy, after he passes through Hell, he ascends the mountain through Purgatory, and enters Heaven guided by the spirit of his dead beloved, Beatrice.)

        In circle II, the Lustful, he sees pairs of souls blown about by storm winds for eternity.  They have died while their souls were trapped in an unconfessed sin of lust.  Among them all, he sees two he knows and asks to speak to him.  Francesca da Rimini was a Florentine known to the young Dante, and because of family politics, she was married to a proud, but deformed man,  Gianciotto da Verrucchio, son of the lord of Rimini.  She fell in love with his handsome younger brother, Paola, and they slowly drew closer together while reading Arthurian romances until they became lovers.  Her husband found them and stabbed them to death, ensuring their damnation (and his own, though he is not yet dead at this point in the epic's chronology).  Here is their conversation:

And then I turned to them: "Thy dreadful fate,

        Francesca, makes me weep, it so inspires

        Pity," said I, "and grief compassionate.

Tell me—in what time of sighing-sweet desires,

        How, and by what, did love his power disclose

        And grant you knowledge of your hidden fires?"

Then she to me: "The bitterest of woes

        Is to remember in our wretchedness

        Old happy times; and this thy Doctor [Virgil] knows;

Yet, if so dear desire thy heart possess

        To know that root of love which wrought our fall,

        I’ll be as those who weep and who confess.

One day we read for pastime how in thrall

        Lord Lancelot lay to love, who loved the Queen;

        We were alone—we thought no harm at all.

As we read on, our eyes met now and then,

        And to our cheeks the changing color started,

        But just one moment overcame us—when

We read of the smile, desired of lips long-thwarted,

        Such smile, by such a lover kissed away,

        He that may never more from me be parted [i.e., Paola]

Trembling all over, kissed my mouth. I say

        That book was Galleot, Galleot the complying     [Sir Galleot brought Lancelot and Guenivere together]

        Ribald who wrote; we read no more that day."        [i.e., the book, and its author, were "Galleots"]

While the one spirit thus spoke, the other’s crying

        Wailed on me with a sound so lamentable,

        I swooned for pity like as I were dying.

And, as a dead man falling, down I fell.

[Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers, N.Y.: Penguin, 1949, rpt. 67]