[From the final lines of Canto V of Dante's Inferno. Dante, accompanied by the Roman poet Virgil, is speaking with a couple who engaged in illicit love. The lovers are now condemned to Hell, where their only punishment is to be battered forever by the wild winds of their passion.]
When I had finished listening to these injured spirits, I bowed my head and kept it lowered until Virgil said to me, "What are you thinking of?"
"This is so sad a tale," I replied. "These spirits had sweet thoughts, and see what a painful destination their desire has brought them to." Turning back to the spirits, I said, "Francesca, your torments make me cry from grief and pity. But tell me – back in the time when you sighed sweetly for each other, how did Love allow you to recognize your dubious desires?"
She responded to me, "Nothing is more painful than to remember happy times when you are miserable – your teacher knows this. But if you desire to know the origin of our love, I will weep and tell you.
"One day we were reading for pleasure about Lancelot the knight, and of how love enslaved him with desire for King Arthur's wife. We were alone and had no misgivings. Several times, the words we read drove our eyes together and we blushed. But one moment alone overpowered us: when we read of how the great lover surrendered to his desire and kissed the queen's smiling lips. Then my companion here, who will never be separated from me, kissed my mouth all trembling. The book was our pander, and so was its author . . .
"We read no more that day."
While Francesca spoke, the spirit beside her wept. As for me, I was so weakened by pity that I fainted—
—and fell, as a dead body falls.
(The Missing Canto)
As a child hearing the song of his beloved mother is woken from deep sleep, so I felt myself drawn back from my darkness by the stern sound of my master's voice.
"Come," said Virgil, "we have far to go on our journey to the depths of this place of punishment; after that we must climb many miles before we reach the summit where I will give you over to the lady who dwells among the blessed. You do not wish to keep your fair lady waiting."
But this mention of my beloved Beatrice did not draw me from my lethargy, as it once had. I lay staring up at the great poet who had condescended to leave the fresh, green meadow of his home within Hell and save me from the dark wood where he had found me. He, seeing that I made no move to rise, grew yet more stern, like a schoolmaster who finds that he is burdened with a lazy pupil.
"Come!" he cried to me. "Just now you revealed the depths of your love for Beatrice when you sighed and swooned for pity of those spirits who are joined eternally in love and pain. Would you be faithless to your lady, when she has taken the effort to assign me as your guide on this journey?"
The place where we sat was colder than the place where we had watched the wind-driven lovers, and cool mist travelled up the path we must journey down. Yet I felt myself grow hot at Virgil's words, and I turned my eyes hastily toward the ground, lest he should read what was written there.
"Master," I said with hesitant voice, "it is true that my love for that fair lady has always been great. Yet it has been said by one who is wise that, had there been no necessity for the begetting of children, God would have given Adam a male companion rather than that beguiling woman who captured his heart. For many years this saying has been dark to me, for I could not see in what way anyone could exceed my lady in fairness. Yet it was through a poet, gifted by God in majestic words, that I came to learn all I know of my art. So that now, as never before, I have come to see how it is that a man may love a lady, yet feel his heart turn toward another, despite his will."
When I looked up again, I saw from my master's grave eyes that this great man, whose writings I had pored over on many a night, had seen into the depths of my heart and knew what was written there. So great was my shame that I felt the desire to flee, and I hung my head, like a boy not knowing which way to look.
When finally my master spoke, it was with words gentler than before, soft like the mist that touched our bodies in the starlight.
"Well I know of what you speak," he said, "for in my youth I learned at the knee of a poet yet greater than I, a man who, in the mercy of the Judge who dwells above, has had his eyes opened to see that which is denied to the rest of us who lived in the time of the false gods. My teacher dwells now among the blessed, yet even when I was his pupil, something of his glory could be seen. I loved him greatly, and many was the sweet day we spent in each other's arms."
At these words, I could not keep from crying out with surprise. "Master," I said, "if this is so, why is it that you live with those who did not worship God in the right manner, yet were in all other respects faithful to His law?"
I thought my words might offend Virgil, but he merely looked upon me sadly and shook his head. "When we reach the foot of the mountain that will bring us to your fair lady, who dwells eternally in the heights, you will meet with a man who self-murdered his body, in violation of the law that the Judge above has decreed. Yet this man did not know that law, living as he did in the ignorance of darkness, and he had been taught by his teacher that such a deed was a sacrifice to the Divine. This being the case, the Judge has accepted the man's sacrifice and permits him to serve in the high position of guardian to the mountain where we will climb.
"In the same manner, the Judge accepted my love for my teacher as true love, though it was darkened by my ignorance of His law. For love is the seed, not only of every good act, but every evil one as well. Evil cannot exist in itself; it must, like a parasite, draw upon good. And so, since my desire as a youth was to follow good, and since no Teacher yet lived to tell me that I had gone astray from the good, my evil was treated by the Judge as good, and my sin forgiven."
This speech confused my dizzy mind, and I rose weakly to my feet, saying, "But if this is true, then no man who loves truly need fear punishment for his love, since the sincerity of his desire to follow good will be known by the One who dwells above."
Virgil gazed long at me and spoke no word, but drew from his clothing a scroll, which he rolled out before me.
"Look," he said, beckoning me toward the book, "here is a passage you have read many times, of the love Nisus held for Euryalus. I wrote those words in memory of my old teacher; read them again, so that you may understand their meaning."
Still more bewildered, I followed the command of the master whom I loved above all other men, and bent my head to the task. There I read of the great love that Nisus held for Euryalus, and of how he sacrificed his own life rather than allow his beloved friend to go alone to death. The words brought a blush to my cheek, and I found myself looking up at my master, whose eye was prepared to catch mine, as a mother catches hold of her child.
"Is this not true love?" he said in a voice as gentle as the mist. "Is this not love that two men may share?" And he bent his head toward mine.
Then I pulled back, my heart beating like the rapid thump of a warning drum in war. "This may not be," I stammered. "I was taught that I must not embrace any man with such love, nor would I be true to my lady if I did so."
I expected my master to grow black with anger, as he had done in the past when I made foolish errors. Instead, his face grew bright, and he said, "A pupil may sometimes teach himself his own lesson, without need for a teacher to train him."
I understood then what he had been saying, and my cheeks turned warm again as I recognized how narrowly I had come to failing the test Virgil had set for me. "Master," I ventured at last, "it seems hard that I may not know such love because I was taught that it was wrong, while you, who lived in the time of ignorance, could share such love with your teacher and be granted forgiveness for it."
Virgil's face grew grave once more, and he was silent a moment, his gaze upon the fog. When at last he spoke, it was with a softness like the stroke of a mother's hand or the touch of the chilling mist around us.
"I live in the place I dreamed of," he said. "All is beautiful where I dwell, and I receive the company of others like myself, who loved life with measure and reason and did not allow ourselves to enter into excess. Yet I have heard that, where the blessed spirits live, those spirits partake in an eternal, exuberant dance. I cannot imagine such a thing, and because I cannot imagine it, I will never know it."
Then my heart grew heavy with pity as I recognized the full measure of the manner in which his life's darkness had cut my master off from sight of the light above. I ventured to say, "Yet you tell me that your teacher dwells among the blessed. Would it not be possible for you to call upon the Judge to enlighten your eyes so that you might partake in that joyous dance?"
He shook his head, looking with intense eyes upon the mist. "What is light to some is fire to others. If I were to ask to be taken from the place where I live, I must acknowledge as false that love which I thought to be true. I must see that love for the evil that it was rather than remember it as good. That is what is demanded of me by the Judge, if I would dwell among the blessed spirits."
He raised his eyes to me then, and in a voice that called to me like the throbbing song of a mother bird calling to her beloved offspring, he said, "Yet I am torn either way, for I must either deny the love that I knew as a youth or I must be divided eternally from a pupil whom I suspect I will come to love greatly. It is well for me that you have made your choice, for I do not know whether I would have had the strength to deny you what you wished."
He placed his hand upon mine, and I felt tears overcome me as I thought of the moment when we must be parted, he to live in the half-light of his chosen world, and I to be led by my lady into the bright dance. And as the weight of my pity drew me down, I fainted—
—and fell, as the Judge's hammer falls.