We begin this canto with a solidly rooted image of Minos, snarling, ugly, whipping his wicked tale around and around himself to show each sinner which level of Hell is their destiny. We end this canto with wind-whipped beauty that is constantly in motion. Yet the stolid solidity of Minos forces truth from the sinners; they can no longer lie to themselves or him but must confess and hear the consequence of their actions:
15 They tell, they hear, and then are hurled down.
And the two lovers, clinging to one another at the end of the canto are the ones who continue to lie and make excuses, blaming poets, books, sighs, society, anything they can for their own misplaced actions. Dante knew Augustine of Hippo’s expectation that reason, true Christian reason, is not simply stating logical syllogisms but rather right choices that reflect true community. Reason that focuses merely on MY needs and MY desires and MY happiness alone is self-referent to the extreme. We find this reflected in remarkable ways in this, the most famous of all the cantos in the Commedia.
We find Dante’s art reflected here in remarkable ways. From Minos planted at the beginning with only the movement of his tale we then find ourselves in the circle where people have allowed their desires, emotions and lusts to move them whichever way they want. Hence, the moral landscape is that of tempest tossed starlings or birds following one another. There is the symbolism of only following the crowd, of moving from here to there willy-nilly. The images begin with great sweeping movements that quickly focus in on certain ones that whiz by: Semiramis, Cleopatra, Helen of Troy, Achilles, Paris, Tristan, etc. The movement is remarkably cinematic. We finally focus in on one couple, and we can see and hear them clearly. No more mass movements with a hand-held camera, but a close-up instead, on one person and her story: Francesca da Rimini. This was an actual occurrence of adultery discovered during Dante’s time and was well known in his day. The husband murdered his brother and his wife in the act of adultery. It is she who speaks:
88 'O living creature, gracious and kind,
"O animal grazïoso e benigno
89 that come through somber air to visit us
che visitando vai per l'aere perso
She makes immediate assumptions and her words reflect that which is most important to her. Common courtesy would require that she ask who they are, why they are there and what was their reason for calling her over to them. Instead, she does not even acknowledge their humanity, but instead, calls them “animal” albeit gracious and kind animals. Of course the only thing that makes them gracious and kind in her eyes is that they apparently have come all this way into Hell… just to visit her! “that come through somber air to visit us.” I thought immediately of the tragedy of pornography, where human beings, women almost totally, are treated as animals, as receptacles for another’s lust and need. Even here, at the beginning, the most important thing in Francesca’s world is her own satisfaction and desires. You’ve come to see ME!
In point of fact, Dante is there because he is in the middle of a Dark Night of the Soul. He lost his way and has admitted to himself and others that he is not the center of his universe. He knows that left to his own devices, even if outwardly he has been successful, he loses his way. He is being guided and is following another. Yet Francesca assumes she is the reason he is there. Amazing. And this will happen in other ways as he continues through Hell. Each person is the center of their own little universe. It is all about ME.
It is good to read and reread this canto. Find the places where one should question Francesca. Dante the Poet shows great insight and art in representing her.
91 'if the King of the universe were our friend
se fosse amico il re de l'universo,
92 we would pray that He might give you peace,
noi pregheremmo lui de la tua pace,
She is in Hell and tosses off a remark about the King of the Universe… “oh, if He were our friend…” she doesn't say that she would then repent, for as we soon see, it is not her fault she is there. The Lord is not their friend, hence they get tossed into Hell. And so she begins to tell her tale and much is wrong here. Read through this fascinating monologue line by line. For instance, she has personified “Love” and it is all “Love’s” fault!
Love SEIZED this man. [line 101]
Love ABSOLVES no one [line 103]
Love SEIZED me [line 104]
Love BROUGHT us to death [line 106]
As I said before, she takes no responsibility! I know of two professors who teach the Divine Comedy in prisons. Often the prisoners will identify with this canto and Francesca in particular saying: “That’s me! It was always someone else’s fault for my problems! I am always trying to convince others that the only reason I’m here is because someone had it in for me.”
And of course, what kind of “Love” is this? Let’s be clear here… she is using the Medieval literary language of “love” in the same way Petrarch and Dante used to. Dante had written as a young man, gushing love poems for Beatrice and they had just this form and tone! Hopefully you can read this through several times and make the necessary discoveries. Do realize, however, that Dante the Poet is also having a go at himself, and when he faints in the poem, Dante the Pilgrim is still far from understanding how truly sinful and selfish Francesca is. Dante the Pilgrim has much to learn, as we shall see. [Dante is in the circle of lust, and wants to hear every detail of their affair and then swoons afterwards…. Hmmmmm, is there a problem with that?]