Ian Brinton: Canto V of Inferno, plus Dante and Beckett

Canto V of Inferno

And so descending from first to second circle,
I was led to tighter confined space
where greater torment pricks the soul to wail.

Dreadful Minos stands there snarling
peering at the guilty in the gateway;
grasping himself he judges and dispatches.

I tell you that when a condemned soul
stands before him it confesses all;
and when that specialist in sin

Recognises a just destination in Inferno
he winds his tail about himself
to reveal the floor to which it must descend.

So many standing always before him,
each one facing sentence in his turn,
speaks, hears and then is hurled below.

When Minos glimpsed me there
he paused in his great work to say
‘O you, new arrival at this grief-struck home,

Be careful who you trust as you come in
and don’t be misled by the width of the gateway!’
But my guide faced him down with ‘What’s your grouse?

Don’t attempt to thwart his footsteps;
they are prompted by the place where power and will are one
so seek no further to disrupt his passage.’

Shrieks of anguish rose now through the air
lamentations reaching up to me
as wailing swept in waves against my ears.

I reached the place where all light shrank
and as at sea a hurling tempest tore and bellowed
beaten each way by the winds.

No pausing in this buffeting of Hell
as ravished spirits driven forward by the wind
are whirled and battered without relief.

As they arrive to face their violent ruin
each shrieks lamenting grief out loud
hurling curses in the face of divine virtue.

I recognised that in this place those
guilty of carnal sins faced their torment:
those who had permitted lust to stifle reason.

Like starlings whirling round in murmuration
flocking crowded through the broad cold air
these evil souls are swept along in gales.

Hither and thither, round and round they spin;
no comfort of any rest is ever offered,
no prospect of a moment’s ease of pain;

Like cranes that pass above with chanting lays,
beating in endless lines through air and
moving on with long-drawn cries. I saw

Those shadows borne aloft on a turmoil of winds
prompting me to speech: “Master who are these
whose flight is scourged in this black air?”

“The leader there,” my Master gave reply,
“whose story you would know
was empress of a range of lands and tongues.

So corrupted by her deep desire for vice
she licensed every lust by deed of law
sanctioning all the scandal she then spread.

She was Semiramis, who as legend tells us,
succeeded her husband Ninus to control
all those lands which now the Sultan rules.

That other is she who murdered herself for love
after betraying the ashes of Sichaeus
and there is Cleopatra steeped in luxury.

See there Helen who launched so many
years of strife and there great Achilles
whose final test was ensnared by love.

See Paris, Tristan”…thousands more shadows
were then displayed and each one named
whom love had cut clear from our life.

When I had heard my teacher utter names of all
those lords and ladies from an antique land
such pity caught me in the throat that I stood bewildered.

I called out: “Poet, I so wish to speak
with those two there who move together
weightless on the air.”

And he gave answer “All now shall be clear
as they approach close to us; beseech them
by what binds them and they will draw near.”

As the gale swept them down towards us
I called aloud “O souls in torment
share your tale if that is not forbidden.”

As doves compelled by their desire
to return with gliding wings to their shared home
downwards sweeping through the air

Those shades parted from the rank and file of Dido
to glide towards us through the filthy air,
drawn by the magnet of my earnest call.

“O living human, charming and benign,
who through this darkness of lost air
can visit us who stained the earth with gore,

if the ruler of Eternity were friends with us
we would offer prayers of peace for you
for the pity you have shown here for our fate.

To what you wish to ask and wish to know
we shall listen and give clear reply
sheltered from the blast as it is here.

The city of my birth rests on the shore-line
where all tributaries of the river Po
wind their channels downwards to the sea.

Love which kindles soon in tender heart
was swiftly roused in this man by my fair beauty,
ripped from me in a way that pains me still.

Love, releasing no loved one from loving,
seized me in return as captive to his charm
and as you see binds me yet close to him.

Love led us then to our death together:
Caina awaits the one who spilled our blood.”
These words were carried on the wind to us.

And as I listened to those tortured words
I stooped my head and held it bowed so long
that the poet called “What are your thoughts?”

After pausing I gave reply “Alas,
the weight of such sweet thoughts and such desire
has led these people to this world of pain!”

Turning then to face them I began to speak:
“Francesca, what you now suffer brings tears
of grief and pity to my eyes.

But tell me, on the breath of your sweet sighs,
how love led you to acknowledge and then
act upon your guilty desires.”

And she in turn replied: “No pain can be more great
than from this place of loss to recall
such fleeting happiness and that your teacher knows.

But if you wish so ardently to glimpse
the first stirring of our love I shall reveal it to you
though weeping through my tale:

One day for our delight we read of Lancelot
and how he had become entangled in love’s web;
we were alone and expected no intrusion.

With moment chasing moment we exchanged glances
as the colour slowly drained from our faces
until the point arrived when we must yield;

It was when that much-sought smile beckoned down
a kiss from such a lover that he
who never more can part from me

Trembling kissed my mouth.
A Galeotto was both writer and his book
and we read in it no further on that day.”

Whilst the one spirit was speaking these words
the other wept and pity struck me down,
swooning as if I’d died;

My body sank in seeming lifelessness.


Dante and Beckett.

Samuel Beckett’s interest in Dante’s Commedia is clear from his choosing the name Belacqua for the protagonist of the early short stories More Pricks Than Kicks and it is sustained in the near-immobility of many of his characters as they speak from dust-bins, mounds, urns and desolately empty landscapes. Many of them are compelled to pour forth accounts of their anguish in a ‘hellish half-light’ (Play, 1964). The landscape within which Beckett’s characters are dwarfed is not only taken from Inferno but also from his close understanding of the visual arts and his love of Flemish emptiness. Salomon Ruysdael’s enormous skies weigh down on the diminished activity of figures who beetle about their own business in the lowest section of his paintings and as he wrote in a letter to his friend Tom MacGreevy in 1934 in Ruysdael’s Entrance to the Forest ‘there is no entrance anymore nor any commerce with the forest, its dimensions are its secret and it has no communications to make’.
In the world of Beckett we travel through the mud of How It Is (1964) to glimpse a recognisable memory or yearning and in Not I (1972) we meet the floating earless face, the ‘Boca’ or ‘Mouth’ of Dante’s Canto XXXII. However, it is that ‘hellish half-light’ of Play, dominated by Canto V’s circle of the lustful, that has haunted me over the years: a world of compulsion and concision. A little similar to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner Dante’s figures speak to command our attention and the urgency of their presentation is compelled by their awareness that as lost souls they may never again have an opportunity to express themselves in language different from that which they now use. As Erich Auerbach put it in Mimesis this is an aspect of the situation which ‘impels many to express themselves with the utmost intensity’ bringing into the changelessness of their eternal fate ‘a moment of dramatic historicity.’
In Play the three protagonists in the adulterous affair are revealed sitting in ‘identical grey urns about one yard high’ and from each ‘a head protrudes, the neck held fast in the urn’s mouth’. They offer no verbal awareness of the existence of each other and as the one spotlight is turned on them each in irregular turn so they speak. When the spotlight returns to them they continue their despairingly vivid account of sordid betrayal as though they had never been interrupted. In Dante’s Canto V Francesca feels the need to recount the particular moment of her passionate adultery and her words are linked to the intensity of pain felt in present grief as she is confronted with the memory of past happiness. It is the haunting lyricism of her expression that is echoed in Beckett’s Man who recalls

A little dinghy, on the river, I resting on my oars, they lolling
on air-pillows in the stern…sheets. Drifting. Such fantasies.



Ian Brinton’s most recent publications include Islands of Voices, selected poems of Douglas Oliver (Shearsman Books, 2020). His translation of Paul Valéry’s selected poems, with a Preface by Michael Heller, appeared in early 2021 from Muscaliet Press and Paris Scenes, a translation of Baudelaire’s ‘Tableaux Parisiens’ has just appeared from Two Rivers Press. He reviews for The London Magazine, PN Review, Long Poem Magazine, Golden Handcuffs Review and co-edits the magazine SNOW. Alongside J.H. Prynne he assists in running the Modern Poetry Archive at Cambridge University Library.


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