Motion in inferno
The entrance into the second circle of hell marks a descent, a motion downwards, and this type of action is significant both in this fifth canto and throughout the whole of Dante’s Inferno. The theme of motion is dominant in this episode through the use of the winds and rains. It also comes out in other subtler motions that intertwine with the shades and the sins that brought them to this their eternal home.
The motions involved here are very frictional. They tell of coming and going, as well as of the conflict between the two. These motions depict a large amount of antagonism, yet they also tell of passivity and subjugation. They underline the posture of the persons involved as well as accentuate their roles in the epic. The motions evident in the poem also give insight into the nature of the hell being depicted. Much can be understood about the degree of the souls’ torment by the types of motion to which they are subjected.
The motions of Minos make him out to be a wielder, and this gives him an air of being in charge. He wields his tail, and with that authority. He “girdles” and “entwines” himself, and this motion is symbolic of the extent to which those sent to him will be bound and tormented in hell (Alighieri, 15). It is interesting that the degree of hell itself is depicted itself by a girdling, as each degree entwines a more horrifying one. This shows a unity of action between the motions of Minos and the nature of hell itself.
The spirits “come there before him” (15) and their movement toward him takes place in a manner of subjection. They are at his mercy, just as they will be at the mercy of the events of the hell to which his motion will whisk them. One almost gets from it the idea of the spirits’ genuflection before an elevated Minos. He sends, and that idea depicts a motion away from himself; but it also demonstrates mastery, as the souls who go away from him do so at his bidding. Then, the motion with which he sends them is akin to the manner in which they are taken. They are whirled away to the place of their doom.
Motions of coming and going occur regularly in this place of gale forces. The motion of the winds is demonstrated by a coming and going. The motion from one circle of hell to the next dooms that spirit to spend eternity in a much more horrifying place. What is more is that each frictional motion to and fro, each coming or going, often happens in fast succession one upon the other, so that it almost seems that they occur at once.
The spirits are forced into this frenzied motion by the winds: “hither, thither, down, up it carries them” (15). This motion echoes their plight. They are forced to come to this place, though in the same instant that they must come, their will is to go. This oscillating motion is indicative of the fact that decision is not granted those who have been condemned to hell. Hell is a place that commands, and all who go there must heed its every whim. There is also nothing inherently rational about that place, or at least its orders are not bound to be so. The vacillation of the winds shows that caprices of punishment are to be expected. Yet all will be punishment.
Ideas of combat and battles are expressed by the motion in the passage. Warfare and all that is connected with such an event is present in the episode’s movements. Looting and plundering are involved in these events. The place is described as moving “as the sea does in a tempest, if it be combated by opposing winds” (15). The winds arise again in this image, but this time their motion creates an atmosphere of battle. This place is one of fighting, where the event smites and molests the “spirits in its rapine” (15).
The whole atmosphere is described as a restless hurricane that pummels the souls that come within its domain. It rushes and blasts them, so that its very motion is of a type that harms and invites (impossible) retaliation. The only record of the souls’ giving back damage is in their lamentation, which smites the speaker as he comes near them. Though it is a battle, it is one that is already won for hell. Its pounding motions perpetrate upon its prisoners a torment that grants them no repose.
Another motion that depicts the nature of hell is its ability to impose its will upon the damned souls. This ties in with the ideas that have gone before: the souls are often being carried and led. The shades are borne along by strife (15), and their motion in the air forms that of a long line, as the captives are being led in the train of death and damnation. This subjugation to the will of the forces of darkness mirror the subjection these souls once had to their own evil lusts.
They are described as having been “called by desire” (16); called, not just in the sense of a foreign summoning but in the necessity they feel to move toward the source of the calling. These souls find themselves in hell because of influences upon their actions that have caused their motions toward things. It depicts a resignation to forces that cause actions that in turn lead to the peril of the damned, on whose part passivity (the lack of autonomous motion) is implied.
This idea is extended in the stories of those whose love was the precipitant of their doom; it, in effect, was the catalyst of their motion toward hell. This love led them, and they in their passivity allowed themselves to be led. In fact, when the speaker addresses one of the souls described as being in motion “through the lurid air” (16), the same soul is described as “benign,” and this gives an idea of stillness and passivity that hints that the energy for its motion is generated by an outside source.
Love is a slave-driver to all of them, continually making them move toward things they otherwise might not have chosen. Some even killed themselves for love, and this signifies a motion toward death that ushered their entrance into hell. Strangely, Achilles was somehow able to deviate slightly from this trend. He, after being ruled by love for so long, makes a motion toward self-government and fights with love. There is no evidence of his triumph, however, as he remains one of the captives of hell.
In order to allow the lover Francesca to tell her story, the motions of the winds hush and the seas become quiet. A level of calm is depicted in the cessation of the motion of elements even beyond the dominion of hell. The city of the speaker’s birth rests its weight upon the seashore, and this motion effects the stillness of the waves. The river Po is seen as descending in order to have peace, so it too moves from motion to stillness. Prior to this, a quasi-invocation to the “King of the universe” (16) was given by the speaker for Francesca’s peace.
Its effect is this stillness that would allow her to speak of happier times, and grant her at least a respite, if not complete relief. This seems to point toward a purgatorial notion of hell, where the living can pray to God for the succour of the damned. It implies that the motions of hell that grant agony to the spirits can be shielded by a divine Hand, further implying that hell itself is driven by an even greater power than itself.
It is evident that the images of motion in the fifth canto of Dante’s Inferno create a dynamic theme that moves the reader along from the entrance to the portal through to the other dimensions of hell. The motions are indicative of the authority of hell over the souls that are quartered there. Ideas of abasement are dominant in the souls’ lack of autonomy, in their compulsion to do the will of the forces that surround them.
Their spirits are flung upon winds, just as in life their wills were navigated by their desires. Other motions tell of a hell as a battlefield of lost causes, as the spirits are doomed, regardless of any desire they might have to fight. The nature of hell is to subdue and to punish, and its motions are ministrants of power that deals out anguish.