One of my favorite poems is The Divine Comedy by Dante. It contains three sections, Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradisio. They chronicle the tale of someone closely based on the author himself who travels into the bowels of the world, through hell, up to purgatory and finally up into the heavens. He meets a wide range of historical figures along the way and also people from his own time. In one way The Divine Comedy is similar to the "burn book" from the movie Mean Girls. Dante fills his version of hell with all those who hates and can't stand, devising tortures and torments for them. People who wronged him, got in his way, whom he didn't agree with, all end up in one of the suffering circles.
Inferno is generally the most favorite of the three parts because of the vivid and brutal imagery that Dante uses to portray the punishment of sinners. Their is always some irony and some tragedy to where they end up and how they suffer given the sins that put them there. My favorite part of Inferno has always been Circle Two when Dante sees the doomed lovers Paolo and Francesca.
They are portrayed differently in the poem and in other texts, but ultimately they were brother and sister in law who gave into their passions and were killed by their jealous husband/brother. They were reading one day the sexy adventures of Lancelot and Guinevere and gave into their passions and as the famous lines goes, "that day we read no more." They are punished for their lust by being forever ensnared in a cyclone of similarly damned souls. They are dragged across the sky in hell, the lack of restraint and control they had over their emotions and feelings, now something felt at every moment as they lack any control over anything, but are now slaves to the rapturous storm around them.
I recently wrote a poem from the perspective of Francesca, the woman in this pair of doomed lovers. I was attempting to pay tribute to the works of Gustave Dore, through whom I almost always imagine Dante's world. It was through Dore's work that I first encountered Dante and decided to read the entire poem. Dore is famous for his images of the Bible, Don Quixote, the Crusades and others. If you are not familiar with his work, you should try to pick up a collection.
In the poem Francesca is speaking to the reader long after she met Dante on his journey. She is sharing what it is like to be caught in the storm, and also discusses the nature of the punishment. Is she truly tormented by her fate? Or is there more to her story? For me, I improvise and argue there is much more, stuff which Dante on his journey blinded by the light of paradise cannot see.
The text of the poem is below:
A poet once asked me my story
He gazed upon this geyser of gushing human limbs and damned lives, mangled to mingling bits, a column of human ravishment twisting eternally, bringing lascivious light to the horrid night sky of human blight
When he heard my tale, he quickly swooned and fell to the ground as if the typhoon throes of so many cursed lovers had robbed him of his spark
I will tell you more than what I told him, for you might understand what the would-be poet, blinded by starlight could not
It is easy to feel lost in the roaring torment, as you too gaze upon me, riding skyward, always pulled by these groaning chains of those who like me were once lost in lust
This restlessness creates constant tenderness, my very skin straining, always scraping against the angry breath of the wind.
Paolo wraps me in an endlessly flapping cloak, always angrily clapping my form
That which it spares from the singing blasts of wind is nonetheless malformed by its constant slapping, always eagerly sapping and wrapping
We move in this tunnel of funneling carnality, the storm slithering between us, like slender whistling tendrils, churning us in the coloring waters of swirling sin
The roaring reminds me that the quietness of love, like the blood that collects to make a heart beat, stopping, frozen, with all drops slowing to a crawling desperate pause, will never be felt again
In the scalding mess of this infernal hurricane, there will never again be a moment of slow softness, a moment like that one day where his lips waited for just a moment across the abyss of desire, before they crashed into mine, shattering every bone in my body, whipping every muscle into a wringing fury, and the last thing I felt, was a book failing from my fingers, and the cluttering smash of it hitting the floor was the sound of everything I once knew coming to an end
All that is left for us is the storm and its blades always at our backs and each of its blasts like knife teeth, picking and spitting pieces of us into the vexing void
Our lust is meant to be like a long tongue, sharpened and hissing from the maw of Dis, that howls with madness as it licks at our spiraling forms
A storm of thundering spears, that pierces each of us, dragging us along this sensuous tempest, hauling each of us skyward, brutishly pulling, yanking, not one of us able to grasp the hellsward shaft that guts us with each groaning gust
But there is a crack in hell, perhaps one its architects did not notice or did not foresee.
This circling cyclone of lovers is meant to torture, to torment, to rend all feeling from those of us who felt too much and like quivering cups poured our lust onto the face of another, earning the ire and furious fire of the lords below and above
The banshee sighs warp you and fuse you to the object of your sin
The shrieking winds, a chorus of pious pretenders, reminding you of your crime of touch, of your laying with lust, and that you must now suffer alongside him or her, as you are both snagged by this fleshing searing flurry
The face of Paolo, stretched, etched with pain, cold in torment, hot in this vortex of flailing friction is meant to make me regret
So that every drop of pleasure that still remains in my wind burned mind will scald me worse than the storm, a rotten drop of honey, engulfed in so much wretchedness
But there is no taste of torment in my mouth, clenched shut even as the jealous Gods make all rumble around me, seeking to topple this last temple of my defiance
But the punishing lance that runs through every shaking inch of flesh does not penetrate my love
Even as my hand threatens to burst from the screaming scowling gale, I can reach for him still and will always have the thing to which all else, even this angry infernal hurricane, as menacing as the sky split open trying desperately to keep the universe from spilling free, will be nothing but whispers