Harold J Wilson


DANTE’S OTHER BEATRICE - The story of Francesca da Rimini


Dante’s story of the doomed love of Paolo il Bello of the Malatesta for his sister-in-law Francesca da Polenta of Ravenna in Canto V of the Inferno is such a strikingly attractive and even ‘romantic’ introduction to Hell that one would scarcely guess that it is the last such depiction in the entire Commedia. This raises some questions about Dante’s intention in treating Francesca so sympathetically – for indeed he does, even to the point of portraying himself as quite overcome by her story.

 Charles Williams, in his brilliant study of Dante, The Figure of Beatrice, has focussed upon this episode as an example of the cul de sac Romantic love turns into when taken for its own end, even by relative innocents such as Paolo and Francesca. In fact, as Williams points out, it is this extreme case which Dante consciously uses for his example, both because of and in spite of the circumstances which appear to excuse it.

 It has been variously pointed out by Williams and others that this episode reveals how romantic passion provides a threshold whereby we may lose the precious moral freedom entailed in what Dantean language calls ‘il ben del intelletto’, the good of the intellect. This loss places our souls in mortal danger since when we abandon our moral perspective, even for this brief period of choice which Williams focuses on, we are apt to elect a passionate human love in its place and to try to fix all time about or within that ecstatic moment of human desire: “Verweile doch, du bist so schon,” as Goethe’s Faust declares. Or ‘May this moment become our eternity.’

 As Williams puts it, “The moment is near being a pander of beauty” and a page later, “So delicate, so momentary, so decisive, are the real crises in love.” (Figure, pp.150, 151) Although largely agreeing with Charles Williams’ analysis of the moral juncture at issue here, I cannot help feeling that, as always, there are a few more things to be said about Dante’s own sense of the meaning of this passage in the Commedia.

 In Dante’s early sonnet, from La Vita Nuova, quite possibly his answer to the cynicism about love of his mentor and friend Guido Cavalcanti was expressed in NeoPlatonic terms as “Amor e’al cor gentil son una cosa,” “Love and the gentle heart are one same thing.” This sonnet expresses a rather youthful and idealistic point of view: Amor sleeps peacefully within the noble heart until woken by the living image of a ‘wise woman.’ But Francesca tells her story by beginning with Dante’s words, and then ending them differently, “Amor ch’al cor gentil ratto s’apprende,” “Love that the gentle heart so swiftly seizes,” showing the image of ‘Amor’ as a raptor, a predator who preys upon the ‘gentle heart.’(‘gentil’ means ‘noble’ here)

 Williams, I feel, may well have mistranslated the Dantean line which Francesca speaks, as his reading of it is “Love which quickly knows itself in the gentle heart,” but if so he is in good company as a number of translators (e.g. Dorothy Sayers) have preferred  readings which are usually elegant restatements of the language of Dante’s original sonnet. I prefer the rendering, “Love that the gentle heart so swiftly seizes,”, as it contrasts more emphatically with the rather bland NeoPlatonic view of the early sonnet. “Ratto s’apprende” seems closer to ‘apprehend’ than to ‘comprehend,’ and indeed the same verb root, to ‘take’, is used to describe how Amor commands the love of Paolo and Francesca for each other: “prese costui” for him, and then, “mi prese del costui piacer si forte” for her ( note the “si forte”). This same Amor which, as Francesca puts it,” forgives no loved one from responding” is here presented quite differently from the one in Dante’s sonnet. 

 Perhaps it is partly my own poet’s instinct speaking, but why would Dante go to the trouble of having Francesca simply paraphrase the meaning of his own earlier poem when the representation of the noble heart as the victim of  a predatory Amor is precisely to the point of her argument and excuse ? One notices also that when she describes how they were reading of Lancelot, she says ,“come Amor lo strinse” how Love ‘seized’ or ‘took hold’ of him. This play on the earlier sonnet but with a very different interpretation of Amor serves to heighten the dramatic contrast between the two visions of love and therefore serves the poet’s purpose as well as Francesca’s. One should note that in the romance which is being read, it is actually Guinevere who grants a courtly kiss to Lancelot. But Dante changes this in Francesca’s account of their reading of it so that it accords more with his sense of the moment of temptation and so she relates their reaction to the queen’s being kissed by “cotante amante”, ‘such a lover’, rather than to his being kissed by her. Interesting, but here again, Dante is showing how Francesca’s version of ‘Amor’ gets hold of us, rather than what courtly love might eventually turn into.

 In fact, the attitude towards love presented  here seems, at first glance, to agree more with Guido Cavalcanti’s sceptical approach than with Dante’s youthful NeoPlatonic eros which leads us from the lower passions to higher things through the gentle influence of its inner working. I wondered if Dante had designed this dramatic recital as a long-owed homage to his old teacher and friend. Had his wanderings in exile caused him to see our human passion from a different point of view from his youthful belief in the singular devotion of the noble heart?

 There were other possibilities: Dante might have portrayed himself fainting at the end of her confession because he realized that his own behaviour fell under the same judgment as that of Francesca’s; that he also was guilty of sexual profligacy in his time – for which Beatrice would later reproach him. And too, by fainting at least he shows his own vulnerability, that he is not simply a privileged voyeur at the theatre of others’ misery. Or it might have been, also, that he had begun the canto largely as a literary compliment for his friend Guido Novello da Polenta, the nephew of Francesca, whose hospitality he had so enjoyed – and then, impulsively, the poetry along with the figure of Francesca had taken wing and outflown his own original intent!

 Francesca’s story is pathetic: how could her unsuspecting momentary fault have led to this conclusion? And also it is persuasive, given the context – Gianciotto had had them both killed before they could repent of their adultery and they died only a little post flagrante. Thus they had had little foresight and no time to reflect upon what they had done. And for this they were eternally damned? And thus it almost seduces us, and in part is intended to do so, since it almost seduces Dante himself in the telling of it. What is the meaning of this? Can it be embedded in the Commedia narrative like some accident of his memory which remains at odds with the main current of his thought like a boulder in the streambed?

 But then it came to me; perhaps this story is deliberately placed here towards the beginning of the journey as an antithesis and distorted mirror of Dante’s vision of Madonna Bice, that saving image which is both nourished and refreshed throughout his life and then completed in the Paradiso section of the Commedia when Beatrice herself  is taken up into the glory of the Divine Presence. The very seductiveness of the Francesca episode is necessary to give it dramatic strength as the tempting alternative to that higher passion which seeks to draw us onward to the love from which it lives and which itself “moves the sun and other stars.”

 And so here, at the beginning of his journey, on the brink of the habitations of the damned, Dante encounters his most poignant example of how beauty, romance, and innocence may assist in their own condemnation when they become a fatal spiritual idolatry. The great pity of it lies, of course, in the self-excusing circumstances which many of his contemporaries would readily have known about, since the lovers died together in 1285. And Dante himself may well have known Paolo ‘il Bello’ personally since he was named ‘Capitan del Popolo,’ an officer of the Florentine Militia for a year in 1282 when Dante was seventeen.

 But in the myth of their lives which was current at the time, we have poor lovely Francesca, married off to Gianciotto, a neighbouring grandee who just happens to be a cruel and cunning Malatesta and a repulsive hunchback with a handsome half-brother.( Dante refers to the Malatesta capacity for misrule in Canto xxvii) And here they both are, she and the half-brother, innocently reading together one morning without thought of any sexual flirtation – reading in fact about Lancelot and his love for Queen Guinevere whose lord and king is Arthur. Of course their eyes met a number of times and they were so moved by the text that the colour left their faces. But what could have been more innocent? And then there was just that damnable one point (“ma solo un punto fu”) in the text – when Guinevere smiles and Lancelot, at that ‘long desired’ moment, is granted her kiss. And then Paolo, taking his cue… Hmm. Well, it does provoke some slight question, doesn’t it?

 It should perhaps be noted that the relationship between Guinevere and Lancelot was at this point subject to the rules of ‘courtly love’ and that what he is granted, from that point of view, is only a midpoint in the lady’s acceptance of ‘her knight.’ I am referring here to the traditional courtly cursus of intimacy which proceeds from the Look to the Touch to the Kiss, to the Clasp and ultimately (if it be her gift) to the ‘Grace,’ if indeed this progression is taken with ultimate seriousness – which it need not be. My point is only that there is no necessary sexual implication attached to Guinevere’s kiss by itself. It is only a further step upon the path of courtly recognition. However, we know as well as Dante did to what final ‘grace’ her kiss portended. Presumably, Paolo and Francesca knew that as well. And since Dante has asked of her, “How many sweet thoughts and what great desires” must have led to this?” you can see that some degree of anticipation has actually been implied – or at least that is the question which he raises.

 So it may not be Dante’s purpose to let Francesca entirely off the hook but still it is better for him, at this point, to let Paolo make the running. Thus it is Lancelot’s kiss rather than Guinevere’s and then Paolo’s “boca mi baccio” which provokes Francesca’s ‘unforgiven’ response which she then tries to lay at the door of a compelling Amor. If God will not forgive her, well, then, neither would Amor! So what else could she have done? Charles Williams feels both the pity of the situation and also the judgment – and attributes this to Dante’s artfulness. There is no question in his mind or mine but that Dante expects you – at least eventually – to see through Francesca’s bewildered innocence. How totally innocent could she have been? Amor gets the blame but even if their passion was accidental, then it was at least an accident just waiting to happen. Williams notes this and carefully parses the moral progress from this ‘first step’ on the ladder of self-indulgence to Hell’s further deeps and bolges of sheer greed and finally savagery and betrayal.

 We may well consider Dante to be, like Milton, ‘of the devil’s party’ in spite of himself, at least at this first threshold of the infernal realms, admiring Paolo and Francesca’s brief play upon the stage of human passion even while he argues the opposite course; or we may consider the episode as a darkly mirrored reflection of that sacred vision which he was attempting to keep safely apart, throughout the years, from the coils and tendrils of sexual passion. Or indeed it may be that, being Dante, both observations are true – even as they may continue to be true in our own sympathy with both loves, in the graceful eternity of Mona Bice and that other darker one, of Francesca; especially since we ourselves may have set our feet upon such differing pathways in the courses of our lives.

 At this point in the argument, I would like to introduce into evidence, may it please the court,  a few more bits of clarifying circumstantial context: Point One; Paolo and Francesca at the time of their deaths had known each other well, if not intimately, for some time. She had a nine-year-old daughter and he had children at home. Thus, the ‘moment of temptation’ which Dante portrays and Charles Williams refers to had been preceded by ten years of social familiarity. Dante, in fact, when he asks her about “What sweet thoughts and great desires” seems to refer to some previous mutual acquaintance between them. The second point which bears upon my interpretation is that Paolo, although a bastard by birth, seems to have largely supplanted Francesca’s husband, Giancaccio, as their father’s favorite. Why else would it have been he who was seconded to the position of ‘Capitan del Popolo’ in Florence in 1282? There are quite possible conclusions to be drawn from these two bits of historical evidence. Let me add that it is or should be incontestable that the ‘Old Mastiff’ of the Malatesta would not want, after surviving for a full century by his wits and strength,  to go down into his grave leaving a lame heir unworthy of his name and fame.

 It may indeed have been, as it seems to me, that historically there was ample time and opportunity for some ‘sweet thoughts’ and their concomitant desires to have grown between Paolo and Francesca over the ten years of their acquaintance. It may also have been the case, almost inescapably, that Giancaccio as the eldest son of their powerful father,  hated Paolo for  taking his place in the sun as ‘il Vecchio’s’ heir and deputed successor. So he may well have been aware of the natural attraction between Paolo and his wife and indeed may have fostered it with convenient absences which baited the trap. Certainly, his precipitate murder of them both can be interpreted not only as a further revenge – since they had no time to repent and so would die outside of the sacrament of absolution – but as a way of getting rid of Paolo so that he could retake his rightful place as eldest son of the head of the Malatesta clan. He may even have persuaded himself that they were conspiring together to get rid of him. “He’s taken my wife, now why not my life?” With this clear justification for his act, perhaps he could avoid his father’s inevitable attempt at intervention, and by a double stroke regain his preferred place in the family hierarchy. Or so he may have thought.

 Giancaccio was of course  wrong. ‘Mastin Vecchio’ did not survive from 1212 to 1312 by ignoring those who deliberately crossed him in such a flagrant manner. Nor would he have enjoyed the thought that his own legacy of ‘misrule’ would now be left in the hands of a weakling whose memory would reflect no credit or glory upon him. Giancaccio did not only kill his father’s real heir but a large part of his living memory. This explanation also casts some light on Francesca’s exclamation to Dante that ‘Caina’, that deeper bolge of those who betrayed their nearest, “waits for him.” It was Giancaccio who betrayed them to their deaths. He set the trap and perhaps he even connived at their being thrown together. Barbara Reynolds in her fine big book says that Dante, “the man from Florence,” could not know about such circumstances, but Dante had no doubt admired Paolo il bella  and the figure he cut in Firenze in Dante’s youth, and it was Guido Novello, Francesca’s nephew, whose welcome guest Dante had been, and who buried him. They must have been close and it is inevitable that they would have spoken of these events. So Dante would indeed have known which one of these three persons had been the greater ‘betrayer’ and certainly from Guido’s perspective it must have been Giancaccio who set the whole thing up.

 So of course it didn’t work out in quite the way Giancaccio had hoped. The ‘Old Mastiff,’ as Dante calls him, disinherited his oldest son for this act and from that time onward his own line was banished from the family fortunes and remained permanently in disgrace. Giancaccio himself was murdered, perhaps by a surviving brother, Malatestino.  Even if he pled his own suspicions and moral case for avenging his honour, this must have cut little ice with old Mastin. His son’s pretension to being an innocent and wronged husband must have evoked no more than a bitter laugh from his father. One may wonder how much of all this Dante himself knew or surmised after his long conversations with Guido Novello, Francesca’s nephew. We will never know, though I reckon it must have been plenty, if entirely from the Da Polenta family’s side of the story. But certainly it points up the way in which Dante depicted their relationship poetically for his own purposes, emphasizing the importance of that dramatic ‘moment’ which on both their parts – or certainly Francesca’s – was so nearly innocent, but not quite!

 It is in regard to this ‘poetic’ perspective that we can appreciate Barbara Reynold’s distinction between Dante the man and Dante the poet. But from his poetic standpoint, how could there be a noble and singular path of love with its spiritual aim without there being an alternative reality which partook of some similar power? But then how to construe it with appropriate poetic force? What mythologem to conjure it up with? Virgil used Dido and Aeneas, but that classical vein of ore had already been well mined – along with Tristan and Iseult. Perhaps, since he was writing in the ‘Lingua Toscana’ anyway, something closer to home would serve, some story which everyone had heard and been moved by? ‘Ah, I have it.’ It does seem to me also that as Dante the poet shows Dante the man fainting before the self-revelation of Francesca, so he implicitly recognizes some reflection of his own self in that importunate and damnable moment which she has given assent to, almost, somehow, unknowing. 


 Night Noises


I wake to the tune of an old man walking

Back and forth and up and down

As if across some upstairs floor,

 His pace is steady, slow, then halting

As if he turned to look below

At all the gardens as they lie

On either side of our bungalow.


I become aware then of the clock

And its small whining whir as each

Nervous hand pursues its brother

Down one side and up the other,

And then, beyond, the electric purr

Of the buzzing blood stream, never far

From my waking or my sleeping ear.


On the nocturnal passage to my

Garden study, in the bright sky

Orion wheels from west to east,

As the stars dance through their nightly

Polar figures and the winter

Weather stirs from the Atlantic.

Today is the shortest day of the year.


Each petal and branch is glinting white

Where the frost has painted them,

Only a few spare shafts of sun

Will penetrate dawn’s frozen mist;

They seek my breath, chill sky and sea,

My pulse a ticking clock of blood

That paces while it beckons me.



Tides of Marriage


You lose me at night in the coughing dark

Or in your morning coffee ritual,

In the gathering work day or the stark

Failure even to recognize my footfall.


Then you complain that I have lost you,

Do not comprehend your life, its loss

Of mother, sister, the approval of those who

Have passed beyond your need, almost.


I take you seriously but at some point

I lose it all, become extreme, abusive,

The prophesied one come only to disappoint.

Then suddenly I slope off, elusive,

To the pub, The Dew Drop, where, alone,

I am able to re-evoke your fascination.