. . One day, for pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:
Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.
Dante and Virgil now descend into the Second Circle of Hell, smaller in size than the First Circle but greater in punishment. They see the monster Minos, who stands at the front of an endless line of sinners, assigning them to their torments. The sinners confess their sins to Minos, who then wraps his great tail around himself a certain number of times, indicating the number of the circle to which the soul must go. Like Charon, Minos recognizes Dante as a living soul and warns him not to enter; it is Virgil’s word that again allows them to pass unmolested.
Dante and Virgil pass into a dark place in which torrential rains fall ceaselessly and gales of wind tear through the air. The souls of the damned in this circle swirl about in the wind, swept helplessly through the stormy air. These are the Lustful—those who committed sins of the flesh.
Dante asks Virgil to identify some of the individual souls to him; they include many of great renown, including Helen, for whose sake the Trojan War was fought, and Cleopatra. Dante immediately feels sympathy for these souls, for essentially they are damned by love. With Virgil’s permission, he calls out to the souls to see if they will speak to him and tell him their story. One woman, Francesca, recognizes Dante as a living soul and answers him. She relates to him how love was her undoing: bound in marriage to an old and deformed man, she eventually fell in love with Paolo da Rimini, her husband’s younger brother.
One day, as she and Paolo sat reading an Arthurian legend about the love of Lancelot and Guinevere, each began to feel that the story spoke to their own secret love. When they came to a particularly romantic moment in the story, they could not resist kissing. Francesca’s husband quickly discovered their transgression and had the young lovers killed. Now Paolo and Francesca are doomed to spend eternity in the Second Circle of Hell. Overcome with pity, Dante faints again.
When Dante wakes, he finds that he has been moved to the Third Circle of Hell, where the rains still fall. Now, however, the drops consist of filth and excrement, and a horrific stench fills the air. A three-headed dog, Cerberus, tries to stop Virgil and Dante’s progress, but Virgil satisfies the beast by throwing it a chunk of earth. Dante and Virgil then advance into the circle of the Gluttonous, who must lie on the ground as the sewage rains down upon them.
One of the Gluttonous sits up when he sees Virgil and Dante, and asks if Dante recognizes him. When Dante replies that he does not, the shade announces himself as Ciacco, saying that he spent his earthly life in Florence. At Dante’s request, he voices his predictions for Florence’s political future, which he anticipates will be filled with strife. Dante then asks about figures from Florence’s political past, naming individuals he believes to have been well intentioned. Ciacco replies that they reside in a much deeper circle of Hell. Before lying back down, he asks Dante to remember his name when he returns to the world above.
As they leave the Third Circle, Dante asks Virgil how the punishments of the souls will change after the Last Judgment. Virgil replies that since that day will bring the perfection of all creation, their punishments will be perfected as well.
Dante draws the character of Minos both from the Aeneid and from ancient mythology, just as he takes the three-headed dog Cerberus from Greek stories of the afterlife. By placing pagan gods and monsters in an otherwise Christian model of the afterlife, Dante once again demonstrates his tendency to mix vastly different religious and mythological traditions. This tendency speaks to two main aspects underlying the poem. First, it indicates the extent to which mythological and literary sources share space in Dante’s imagination with religious and theological sources; Dante intends his work as a partly cultural and partly spiritual project. But this tendency also reflects Dante’s intentions within the spiritual half of his project: he attempts to show Christianity as a supreme moral order. By subsuming pagan gods into the Christian conception of Hell, he privileges Christian thought as the authoritative system.
Like the punishments administered in the prior circles, the punishments here correspond in grotesque aptness to the sins themselves. Thus, the Lustful, those who were obsessed with the stimulation of the flesh in life, now have their nerves unceasingly stimulated by the storm. Also, they lie prone and in the dark—the conditions in which acts of lust generally take place. Finally, because they failed to restrain the internal tempests of their emotions, external tempests now bludgeon their bodies. The punishment of the Gluttonous, whose sins also involved an obsession with bodily pleasure, is similarly appropriate. Those who excessively pursued pleasure in life now lie in an overabundance of that which disgusts. The excrement that douses them constitutes both the literal and figurative product of their greedy and wasteful consumption.
Although Dante the poet remorselessly assigns illicit lovers to Hell, one senses that he may join his character Dante in pitying them their fates. Dante the poet intends to assert the existence of an objectively just moral universe; yet he also imbues Paolo and Francesca with great human feeling, and the sensual language and romantic style with which he tells their story has made this canto one of the most famous in the poem. Moreover, we know that the poet Dante’s own life was marked by a deep love, his love for Beatrice, which he so beautifully expresses in his earlier poem Vita Nuova. Still, his damnation of the lovers suggests a moral repudiation of his own biographical and poetic past; in a certain sense, The Divine Comedy as a whole can be read as Dante’s attempt to transpose his earthly love for Beatrice onto a spiritual, Christian, morally perfect plane. Part of this process involves renouncing earthly romance, however appealing it might seem, in favor of the saintly perfections of Heaven.
While Dante’s sympathy for Paolo and Francesca remains only implicit, this sympathy translates into occasional breaks with the moral order he asserts, making Dante more lenient in the punishments he assigns. Dido, for example, was a mythological queen who committed suicide because of her unrequited love for Aeneas. Most souls that have committed suicide end up far deeper in Hell, as we see later, but Dante chooses to punish Dido in accordance only with her lesser sin—that of loving too much. Dante’s favoritism emerges even more clearly later in the poem, when we witness his treatment of other souls similarly guilty of multiple sins: to these he assigns punishments in accordance with their gravest crimes.
Canto VI offers the poem’s first extensive discussion of Italian politics, a subject that figures in many of its allegorical as well as its most literal passages. In this case, Dante largely discards allegory to write openly of the political situation in Florence. Because Dante wrote his poem circa 1310–1314, several years after the year in which its plot takes place (1300), he can “predict,” as it were, through the mouth of Ciacco, the political events of the next few years. Ciacco’s depiction of Florence as a city divided refers to the struggle for control between the Black and White Guelphs at the turn of the century. Ciacco describes a bloody fight between the two factions that occurred on May 1, 1300, and which resulted in the Whites gaining power, though only for a few years. The Blacks subsequently returned to power and exiled hundreds of Whites, including Dante, who never forgave the people of Florence for his banishment from his beloved city. He allegedly titled his work “The Comedy of Dante Alighieri, a Florentine by birth but not in character”—a clear indication of his disgust with the infighting that plagued Florence.
This canto also provides further insight into the material characteristics of Dante’s Hell. As Virgil notes, the dead do not have their earthly bodies at the time of Dante’s journey; in fact, the two poets physically tread upon shades as they cross the Third Circle of Hell. Virgil points out that each soul will regain its flesh at the Last Judgment. But this statement raises the question of how these souls without bodies can nonetheless suffer physical torment. We must assume that they possess some sort of solid form; otherwise, Dante would not be able to see them.