Pairs, pathos and parallels in Dante’s ‘Inferno’

A starting point

I shall begin with a quotation from  Dorothy L Sayers.  In the notes to her translation (Penguin, 1949) of Inferno/Hell, she draws parallels between three pairs of sufferers in Hell, as follows (page 282):

“Ugolin and Roger [9th Circle] are the last of those pairs of shades who image partnership in sin.  In each case, only one of them speaks.  Francesca [2nd Circle] speaks of the sharing of the sin, and offers excuses for Paolo along with herself.  Ulysses [8th Circle] ignores Diomede (partnership is lost).  Ugolin justifies himself at Roger’s expense (treachery can share nothing but a mutual hatred).”

I comment on these three pairs, below.  Also, I quote short passages from the relevant cantos.  (Dante is best served by longer passages.)  The Italian edition used is that of the Superbur Classici (Milan, 2001). All the translations into English were made by the 19th century American poet, H W Longfellow.

Francesca and Paolo

To give the background of this notorious story, I can do no better than quote D L Sayers’s note, appended to her translation of Inferno (page 102):


“[Francesca] was the daughter of Guido Vecchio da Polenta of Ravenna….For political reasons, she was married to the deformed Gianciotto, son of Malatesta da Verruchio, lord of Rimini, but fell in love with his handsome younger brother Paolo.  Her husband, having one day surprised them together, stabbed them both to death (1285).”


In her long speech to Dante, Francesca compares her past and present situations.  Then, she was in the arms of Paolo.  Now, in Hell, they are swept by the constant wind, as they were by their passion:


‘La bufera infernal, che mai non resta,

  mena gli spirit con la sua rapina;

  voltando e percotendo li molesta.’


[Canto V, 31-33]


‘The infernal hurricane that never rests

  Hurtles the spirits onward in its rapine;

  Whirling them round, and smiting, it molests them.’


Francesca reflects ruefully upon their fall:


“Nessun maggior dolore

 che ricordarsi del tempo felice

 nella miseria….”


[Canto V, 121-3]


“There is no greater sorrow

  Than to be mindful of the happy time

  In misery.”


In his notes, appended to his translation, Longfellow writes: “This thought is from Boethius”; and he supplies the quotation: “In omni adversitate fortunae, infelicissimum genus est infortunii fuisse felicem et non esse” [Book II, Prose 4] – “In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy” [tr Victor Watts, Penguin, 1999].


In the canto, the flames of the pair’s illicit love are fanned by their reading, in the 13th century French romance, Lancelot du Lac, about the affair between Guinevere and the knight. (See lines 127-138.)


The underlying messages of the canto are, firstly, that the lovers drifted into their relationship, surrendering to their instincts, without exercising self-control, and secondly, that they did not have time, when they were murdered, to repent and to sort out their spiritual affairs.


Having said this, it is clear that Dante (as pilgrim) feels sympathy with them:


‘Mentre che l’uno spirto questo disse,

  l’altro piangeva sì, che di pietade

  io venni men così com’io morisse.’


[Canto V, 139-141]


‘And all the while one spirit uttered this,

  The other one did weep so, that, for pity,

  I swooned away, as if I had been dying.’  


Ulysses and Diomedes


Ulysses is not the hero of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.  Indeed, Dante and his contemporaries had no access to Greek originals.  In Book II of Virgil’s Aeneid, he would have seen Ulysses described as “unpitying” and “sacrilegious” – the man who devised the fateful Trojan Horse, which brought about the fall of Troy.


In the Divine Comedy, Ulysses and Diomedes have suffered a loss of reputation.  They have been transformed into a flame: they share it, but Ulysses has the “greater horn”.  They are detained in the division of the Eighth Circle of Hell, which is reserved for: the “evil counsellors” (H W Longfellow), the “counsellors of fraud” (both D L Sayers and L Magugliani), the ”intellectually dishonest – those who have made deceitful or destructive use of their intellectual gifts” (R Kirkpatrick). 


Homer’s Odyssey tells how, after the end of the Trojan War, Odysseus/Ulysses took ten years to reach his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus and his father Laertes, on his home island of Ithaca, surviving many challenges and delays on the way.  Dante’s somewhat debased character reveals, in his monologue, how he abandoned his family to go on his travels again, to satisfy his curiosity, exceeding the bounds of human knowledge, symbolised by the Pillars of Hercules (at the Rock of Gibraltar).


This Ulysses speaks, in part, as follows:


“né dolcezza di figlio, né la pieta

  del vecchio padre, né il debito amore

  lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta,

vincer potèr dentro da me l’ardore

  ch’i’ ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto

  e delli vizi umani e dei valore.”


[Canto XXVI, 94-99]


“Not fondness for my son, nor reverence

  For my old father, nor the due affection

  Which joyous should have made Penelope,

Could overcome within me the desire

  I had to be experienced of the world,

  And of the vice and virtue of mankind.”


In the event, Ulysses set sail, in one ship, with a “small company” of men.  When they reached the Pillars of Hercules, he urged his men on:


“Considerate la vostra semenza:

  fatta non foste a viver come bruti,

  ma per seguir virtute e cognoscenza.”


[Canto XXVI, 118-120]


“Consider ye the seed from which ye sprang;

  Ye were not made to live like brutes,

  But for pursuit of virtue and of knowledge.”


As the story unfolds, the seamen enter the Atlantic and journey south for five months. They reach the southern hemisphere (unknown to Europeans in Dante’s time).  They catch sight of Mount Purgatory (see Purgatorio): they first are “joyful”, but then weep, because they are struck by a whirlwind, which sinks the ship and drowns them all.


In later centuries, European sailors ventured out into the Atlantic, and their explorations were crowned with success, as they discovered new lands.  Dante, however, is making the point that Ulysses was rash and arrogant: he led his men astray – to their deaths, indeed; and he failed to give enough weight to his family responsibilities.


Ugolino and Ruggiero

In the Ninth Circle, near the very bottom of Hell, and confined in ice, we meet Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, Podestà of Pisa, and his enemy, Archbishop Ruggiero degli Rubaldini. They are portrayed as traitors to their country, in their capacity as stirrers up of civil war and assassination.  Ugolino and Ruggiero were first allies and then competitors for power. In 1289, Ugolino, his sons and his grandsons surrendered to Ruggiero: he locked them up in a tower in Pisa, and let them to starve to death. 

Here, Ugolino describes the moment he gathered that their fate was sealed:

“ed io sentì’ chiavar l’uscio di sotto

  all’orribile torre; ond’io guardai

  nel viso a’ miei figluoi sanza far motto.

Io non piangeva, sì dentro impetrai:

  Piangevan elli.”


[Canto XXXIII, 46-50]


“And I heard locking up the under door

  Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word

  I gazed into the faces of my sons.

I wept not, I within so turned to stone;

 They wept.”


Now, Ugolino is mercilessly gnawing at Ruggiero’s skull.  So, Ugolino is exacting his revenge, while being punished, himself.  (A parallel is to be found in Book VIII of Statius’s Thebaid, where Tydeus bites at the head of his dead enemy, Menalippus.  See also Chaucer’s Monk’s Tale, based on Dante’s account.) 


The point is that Ugolino has lost all his humanity and is no better than the man who deceived him; and we must not equate revenge with justice.




In his introduction to his edition and translation of Inferno (Penguin, 2006), Robin Kirkpatrick provides an instructive analysis:


‘The ethical plan of Hell (….) confirms the view that the worst of sins are those that arise from the perversion of intellectual purpose.  Thus the first seven cantos are devoted to the (relatively) insignificant sins that arise from a surrender to urges and appetites of disruptive sexual passions or greed, avarice, anger and sluggishness of mind….Worse than any such sins are those in which the mind, in pursuit of its own advantage, consciously contradicts some self-evident or fundamental principle of its own existence.  [See, for example, suicide.]….Worse still are the sins of lying and cheating and, worst of all, treachery….Last of all is the frozen lake of the traitors.  All life is extinguished here.’  [Page lxxviii]


David R Harries


December 2013




2 thoughts on “Pairs, pathos and parallels in Dante’s ‘Inferno’

  1. ..”the worst of sins are those derived from perversion of intellectual purpose”
    Food for thought indeed specifically those of scientific enquiry, genetics, eugenics ..

    • Thanks, Dr Dog. In my draft, I included a reference to the subsequent triumph of the scientific method (which I later discarded). In each age, we need to adapt the insights of earlier times. David.

      On 31 December 2013 16:24, davidronaldharries

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