When he first enters the Second Circle, Dante sees Minos, a horrible, snarling demon to whom each soul confesses everything, receiving their sentence from him. Minos warns Dante to turn back, but Virgil again asserts that Dantes journey is divinely ordained.
Now Dante hears wailing again, in a place where light is mute. A hellish storm drives the spirits ceaselessly through the air like a flock of birds, tormenting them; they have no hope of rest, no hope of less pain. One long line of spirits draws Dantes attention, and he asks Virgil who they are. Virgil tells him of more than a thousand, “ladies of ancient times and warriors,” all having died because of love, and Dante is bewildered by pity.
Dante asks to speak to two who are borne on the wind together, and who “seem so light on the wind.” Virgil tells him to ask them to come in the name of their love; they swoop down to him like doves borne to their nest by desire. The woman speaks, full of gratitude for Dantes kind interest, and says that all-powerful Love brought them together and holds them together still. Love led to their dying together, and the deepest pit of Hell is waiting for the man who killed them. Dante recognizes her as Francesca and knows the story of her husband finding her with his brother Paolo and killing them both, and he stands silent with head bowed, thinking of the power of the desire that has brought the two lovers here. Telling Francesca that her suffering makes him weep, he asks how she and Paolo first realized they were in love. She tells how they were reading together of Lancelots love for Guinevere, and “when we read that the smile so desired was kissed by so great a lover, this man, who will never be parted from me, kissed my mouth, all trembling. A Galeotto [pander, go-between] was that book and the man who wrote it; that day we read no more” (lines 133-138). As Francesca speaks, Paolo weeps so bitterly that Dante faints from sheer pity.
This canto is one of the most famous in Dantes Inferno, creating strong reactions in just about everyone who reads it. Paolo and Francesca had been killed only a few years before the year of Dantes journey through the worlds of the afterlife (which he set in 1300), and everyone in Italy at the time knew their story. Some later readers have felt that Dante is showing them as victorious over Hell, since they will be together forever. Others have felt that Dante is showing Francesca as self-deceiving and selfish. What is clear is that Dante is showing himself, at this stage in the journey, as deeply sympathetic with the lovers. We find out in the Purgatorio that he himself tended to be overmastered by desire, and certainly the romantic literature of his day, which he loved, tended to present romantic love as all-powerful and to excuse those who were led by it to break their marriage vows. At the same time, Dante the narrator makes the nature of the punishment reveal the essence of the sin, as so often in the poem: as all those who suffer in the Second Circle allowed themselves to be swept away by passion while they were alive, ignoring the harm they were doing to themselves and others, so now they are swept away forever by a black wind.
At the same time, it is worth noting that those who give in to their passions and desires, who are, in that sense, incontinent-they cannot contain their impulses-are on the highest levels in Hell, the Circles of Incontinence. The giving in to lust seen in this Second Circle, which at least involves some kind of feeling for another person, is the least serious of all the sins-though it is still mortal. It can kill the soul if one does not realize that this kind of love cannot give real happiness, if one becomes addicted to it.