John Keats (English Romantic poet , 1795 – 1821 was inspired by the story of Paolo and Francesca in the fifth canto of the Inferno, and wrote a sonnet in the first volume of the miniature Cary’s Dante he always kept with him.
The composition should date back to first part of 1819, because in a letter to his brother George dated April 18 or 19 he wrote:
“The fifth canto of Dante pleases me more and more—it is that one in which he meets with Paolo and Francesca. I had passed many days in rather a low state of mind, and in the midst of them I dreamt of being in that region of Hell. The dream was one of the most delightful enjoyments I ever had in my life. I floated about the whirling atmosphere, as it is described, with a beautiful figure, to whose lips mine were joined as it seemed for an age—and in the midst of all this cold and darkness I was warm—even flowery tree-tops sprung up, and we rested on them, sometimes with the lightness of a cloud, till the wind blew us away again. I tried a sonnet upon it—there are fourteen lines, but nothing of what I felt in it—O that I could dream it every night—
As Hermes once took to his feathers light
When lulled Argus, baffled, swoon’d and slept,
So on a delphic reed my idle spright
So play’d, so charm’d, so conquer’d, so bereft
The Dragon world of all its hundred eyes;
And seeing it asleep, so fled away;—
Not to pure Ida with its snow-cold skies,
Nor unto Tempe where Jove grieved that day;
But to that second circle of sad Hell
Where in the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of Rain and hailstones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss’d, and fair the form
I floated with about that melancholy storm. “(1)
“A Dream, After Reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca” speaks of the two lovers in Dante’s Inferno who fall in love while reading a book, but Francesca’s husband finds them together and kills them.
It is an Elizabethan sonnet with no line breaks so that it simulates a continuous flow like the winds by which the two lovers are carried. In its last lines Keats imagines what Dante does not tell us, Paolo’s point of view, when he says that the lips he kissed were sweet and pale.
The dream reconstruction of the episode is precede d by a mythological evocation. It is about the story of Hermes who was sent by Zeus to kill Argus, the hundred-eyed giant, who was holding Io captive
To free Io, Hermes managed to kill Argus by pretending to be a shepherd and sending him to sleep by the sweetness of his play on the flute. After that, he slew him by hitting him with a stone or, according to others, cutting off his head.
The lovers need no words to “tell /Their sorrows” while floating with Keats in the middle of all that cold and gloomy circle.
(1) Come Hermes una volta con le sue ali leggere
fuggì via dopo aver cullato Argo, fino a farlo addormentare
così su una canna delfica il mio spirito ozioso
suonò, incantò, conquistò, e privò
di tutti i suoi cent’occhi il drago del mondo;
e dopo averlo visto addormentato, fuggì via –
non sull’Ida puro tra i cieli freddi di neve,
né a Tempe, dove Giove quel giorno si era sentito sconsolato,
ma in quel secondo cerchio del triste inferno,
dove tra raffiche, vortici e scrosci
di pioggia e di grandine, gli amanti non han bisogno di dire
le loro pene. Pallide erano le dolci labbra che vidi,
pallide le labbra che baciai e leggiadra la forma
con cui mi misi a fluttuare in quella bufera malinconica.
Image: William Blake (1757–1827) Dante Hell V