Canto 5

FROM the first circle I descended thus
Down to the second, which, a lesser space
Embracing, so much more of grief contains
Provoking bitter moans.  There, Minos stands
Grinning with ghastly feature: he, of all
Who enter, strict examining the crimes,
Gives sentence, and dismisses them beneath,
According as he foldeth him around:
For when before him comes th' ill fated soul,
It all confesses; and that judge severe
Of sins, considering what place in hell
Suits the transgression, with his tail so oft
Himself encircles, as degrees beneath
He dooms it to descend.  Before him stand
Always a num'rous throng; and in his turn
Each one to judgment passing, speaks, and hears
His fate, thence downward to his dwelling hurl'd.

"O thou! who to this residence of woe
Approachest?"  when he saw me coming, cried
Minos, relinquishing his dread employ,
"Look how thou enter here; beware in whom
Thou place thy trust; let not the entrance broad
Deceive thee to thy harm."  To him my guide:
"Wherefore exclaimest?  Hinder not his way
By destiny appointed; so 'tis will'd
Where will and power are one.  Ask thou no more."

Now 'gin the rueful wailings to be heard.
Now am I come where many a plaining voice
Smites on mine ear.  Into a place I came
Where light was silent all.  Bellowing there groan'd
A noise as of a sea in tempest torn
By warring winds.  The stormy blast of hell
With restless fury drives the spirits on
Whirl'd round and dash'd amain with sore annoy.
When they arrive before the ruinous sweep,
There shrieks are heard, there lamentations, moans,
And blasphemies 'gainst the good Power in heaven.

I understood that to this torment sad
The carnal sinners are condemn'd, in whom
Reason by lust is sway'd.  As in large troops
And multitudinous, when winter reigns,
The starlings on their wings are borne abroad;
So bears the tyrannous gust those evil souls.
On this side and on that, above, below,
It drives them: hope of rest to solace them
Is none, nor e'en of milder pang.  As cranes,
Chanting their dol'rous notes, traverse the sky,
Stretch'd out in long array: so I beheld
Spirits, who came loud wailing, hurried on
By their dire doom.  Then I: "Instructor! who
Are these, by the black air so scourg'd?"—"The first
'Mong those, of whom thou question'st," he replied,
"O'er many tongues was empress.  She in vice
Of luxury was so shameless, that she made
Liking be lawful by promulg'd decree,
To clear the blame she had herself incurr'd.
This is Semiramis, of whom 'tis writ,
That she succeeded Ninus her espous'd;
And held the land, which now the Soldan rules.
The next in amorous fury slew herself,
And to Sicheus' ashes broke her faith:
Then follows Cleopatra, lustful queen."

There mark'd I Helen, for whose sake so long
The time was fraught with evil; there the great
Achilles, who with love fought to the end.
Paris I saw, and Tristan; and beside
A thousand more he show'd me, and by name
Pointed them out, whom love bereav'd of life.

When I had heard my sage instructor name
Those dames and knights of antique days, o'erpower'd
By pity, well-nigh in amaze my mind
Was lost; and I began: "Bard! willingly
I would address those two together coming,
Which seem so light before the wind."  He thus:
"Note thou, when nearer they to us approach.
"Then by that love which carries them along,
Entreat; and they will come."  Soon as the wind
Sway'd them toward us, I thus fram'd my speech:
"O wearied spirits! come, and hold discourse
With us, if by none else restrain'd."  As doves
By fond desire invited, on wide wings
And firm, to their sweet nest returning home,
Cleave the air, wafted by their will along;
Thus issu'd from that troop, where Dido ranks,
They through the ill air speeding; with such force
My cry prevail'd by strong affection urg'd.

"O gracious creature and benign! who go'st
Visiting, through this element obscure,
Us, who the world with bloody stain imbru'd;
If for a friend the King of all we own'd,
Our pray'r to him should for thy peace arise,
Since thou hast pity on our evil plight.
()f whatsoe'er to hear or to discourse
It pleases thee, that will we hear, of that
Freely with thee discourse, while e'er the wind,
As now, is mute.  The land, that gave me birth,
Is situate on the coast, where Po descends
To rest in ocean with his sequent streams.

"Love, that in gentle heart is quickly learnt,
Entangled him by that fair form, from me
Ta'en in such cruel sort, as grieves me still:
Love, that denial takes from none belov'd,
Caught me with pleasing him so passing well,
That, as thou see'st, he yet deserts me not.
"Love brought us to one death: Caina waits
The soul, who spilt our life."  Such were their words;
At hearing which downward I bent my looks,
And held them there so long, that the bard cried:
"What art thou pond'ring?"  I in answer thus:
"Alas! by what sweet thoughts, what fond desire
Must they at length to that ill pass have reach'd!"

Then turning, I to them my speech address'd.
And thus began: "Francesca! your sad fate
Even to tears my grief and pity moves.
But tell me; in the time of your sweet sighs,
By what, and how love granted, that ye knew
Your yet uncertain wishes?"  She replied:
"No greater grief than to remember days
Of joy, when mis'ry is at hand! That kens
Thy learn'd instructor.  Yet so eagerly
If thou art bent to know the primal root,
From whence our love gat being, I will do,
As one, who weeps and tells his tale.  One day
For our delight we read of Lancelot,
How him love thrall'd.  Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us.  Ofttimes by that reading
Our eyes were drawn together, and the hue
Fled from our alter'd cheek.  But at one point
Alone we fell.  When of that smile we read,
The wished smile, rapturously kiss'd
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne'er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kiss'd.  The book and writer both
Were love's purveyors.  In its leaves that day
We read no more."  While thus one spirit spake,
The other wail'd so sorely, that heartstruck
I through compassion fainting, seem'd not far
From death, and like a corpse fell to the ground.


  1. The lustful sinners are punished by being constantly buffeted by strong winds, which metaphorically represent the emotions that rage within them and overpower their reason or intellect.

    — Stephen Holliday
  2. This is an interesting line because light cannot, in a literal sense, be silent. This is an example of synesthesia, a technique by which two or more senses are combined or blended. Dante most likely means that the light is muted or low.

    — Stephen Holliday
  3. As Dante enters the second circle, King Minos tells him that even though the gate is wide, he is still in danger. Presumably, the danger arises from the sinners themselves.

    — Stephen Holliday
  4. Dante and Virgil move to the Second Circle, an area in which those who are consumed by the sin of lust are punished.

    — Stephen Holliday
  5. Dante refers to Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, lovers who died while trying to escape from Francesca da Rimini's enraged husband and Paolo's brother, Gianciotto.

    — Stephen Holliday
  6. Minos, the judge, has a tail that wraps around the sinner the number of times that represents the sinner's circle of hell.  In this context, Minos is most likely a conflation of two King Minoses—the first, a decent king; and the second, his grandson, a Cretan king of the same name, who was a cruel tyrant and who was responsible for requiring the Athenians to supply young men and women each year to be sacrificed to the Minotaur at the Minoan Labyrinth.

    — Stephen Holliday
  7. Dante makes it clear that, as he descends into the lower levels of the underworld, spaces become increasingly small, a metaphor for one of the greatest punishments of all—the lack of freedom.  The more serious one's sins, the less freedom one has to escape punishment. Dante and Virgil have reached the second circle, the place of those guilty of lust.

    — Stephen Holliday
  8. This is an allusion to Gallahad (or "Gallahault") who acted as go-between for his friend Lancelot in his illicit affair with King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. Because of his assistance in the betrayal, Gallahad's name became synonymous with "panderer." 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  9. In the French story Lancelot du Lac, Lancelot, one of the Knight of Arthur's Round Table, falls in love with King Arthur's wife, Guinevere. When he has an affair with her, Lancelot loses his purity and thus becomes incapable of finding the Holy Grail. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  10. Caina is the first section of Cocytus, the ninth and final circle of Hell. A full description of Caina can be found in Canto 32. It is named after the first human murderer, Cain, whose story is told in the biblical Book of Genesis. In this section of the circle, those who betray their families are punished. Caina "waits" because Gianciotto has not yet died 1300, when Inferno takes place. Gianciotto died in 1304, early enough for Dante to have been aware of his death during his composition of the poem.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  11. Dante was born in Ravenna, a city in Northern Italy. In midlife, he was exiled to Ravenna, where he composed The Divine Comedy and eventually died. Ravenna is also the birthplace of Francesca da Rimini, mentioned a few lines later in this canto. Francesca was forced into an arranged marriage in 1275 with the physically deformed Gianciottoa Malatesta (according to Boccacio, the poet and humanist). Francesca was allegedly tricked into the union, having ostensibly been promised Gianciotta's younger brother, the dashing young Paolo. When Gianciotta discovered his wife and his brother had been having an affair, he murdered them both. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  12. Here Dante refers to the tale of Tristan and Iseult (also, Isolde). Tristan, King Mark of Cornwall's nephew, falls in love with Iseult, King Mark's fiancee, after they accidentally drink a love potion originally intended for King Mark and Iseult. In a rage, King Mark shoots Tristan with a poisoned arrow, and Tristan, who happens to be embracing Iseult when struck, goes into muscle spasms and inadvertently chokes Iseult as he dies of the poison. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  13. Helen was the wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. She was kidnapped by Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy. Helen's departure to Troy sparked the Trojan War.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  14. Cleopatra (69–30 BCE) was a queen of Egypt. She is referred to here as "lustful queen" for her affairs with the Roman statesmen Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. 

    — Jamie Wheeler
  15. This is a reference to Dido, the queen of Tyra, and later, queen of Carthage. She broke her vow to remain faithful to her husband after his death when she had an affair with Aeneas. When he abandoned her, she killed herself. See Book IV of the Aeneid for the full story.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  16. Semiramis was a legendary queen of Assyria, infamous for legalizing incest so that she could have sexual relations with her son. Semiramis is based on the historical Shammuramat, a queen who reigned in the 9th century BCE.

    — Jamie Wheeler
  17. In greek mythology, Minos was the king of Crete and the son of Zeus and Europa. In the Aeneid, Virgil depicts Minos and his brother, Rhadamanthus, as judges in the underworld. 

    — Jamie Wheeler