Two of literature’s best known lovers can be found being tossed by tempestuous winds for all eternity in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno. I first read Dante in my survey World Lit class in college. I loved the whole, magnificent poem, but the story of Paolo and Francesca really resonated with me. Maybe the fact that Paolo and Francesca were reading as they were overcome with passion is one reason I was drawn to it. As sad as this story is, it highlights the power of literature to inspire. Indeed, these two ill-fated lovers have inspired paintings, such as Feuerbach’s from 1864, seen above, sculpture and operas over the centuries. Here, from Robert Pinsky’s 1994 translation, is their most famous interpretation.
‘…One day, for pleasure,
We read of Lancelot, by love constrained:
Alone, suspecting nothing, at our leisure.
Sometimes at what we read our glances joined,
Looking from the book each to the other’s eyes,
And then the color in our faces drained.
But one particular moment alone it was
Defeated us: the longed-for smile, it said,
Was kissed by that most noble lover: at this,
This one, who now will never leave my side,
Kissed my mouth, trembling. A Galeotto, that book!
And so was he who wrote it; that day we read
No further.’ All the while the one shade spoke,
The other at her side was weeping; my pity
Overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack:
Swooning as in death, I fell like a dying body.
Canto V, 112-127