Virgil and Dante speak with Ulysses in the bolgia of the evil counselors.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
Shout for joy, Florence! As your wings spread wide over land and sea, your fame spreads everywhere – even in Hell! How ashamed I was to find five of your citizens among the thieves down there, something that does you little honor! However, if, as they say, early morning dreams are true, then you’ll soon enjoy the fate that Prato and others earnestly desire for you. And if it were today, it wouldn’t be a moment too soon! I myself wish that day had already come – the longer it delays, the greater my grief.This apostrophe, laden with an exile’s regret and pointed invective against Florence, technically closes Canto 25. One might imagine Dante standing with Virgil on the stone terrace above the … Continue reading
It was difficult as we climbed up over the great stones that had been like stairs bringing us to where we watched that spectacle of the thieves. Virgil went first and pulled me up behind him as we climbed. Hand and foot we groped our way along the rocks and crags of that ridge.This is reminiscent of their earlier climb out of the bolgia of the hypocrites. What they saw in the ditch of thieves was, in a sense, the greatest “spectacle” Dante has created yet. And Musa, in … Continue reading
Looking back, I grieved then, as I do now, when I remember what I saw in that bolgia, and I struggle to restrain my pride lest it take my talent away with it. Good fortune, or some other power, has given me this gift, and I must not misuse it.Following from the previous note, these are significant lines. For a moment, in the previous canto, Dante stood at the apex of his literary talent, outdoing his classical forebears. At the end of … Continue reading
Moving on with Virgil, I was reminded of how fireflies light up summer nights with their flickering as the peasant takes his ease and looks into the valley below him where he picks grapes or plows his fields. With countless such flamelets the eighth bolgia was resplendent as I reached a point where I could see down into its depths. Just as Elisha, whom the bears avenged, watched Elijah’s flaming chariot ascend far into the skies till he could see only the flames that concealed it, just so the flames in this bolgia moved along the throat of that canyon. Each tongue of flame hid within it a sinner, but never revealed what it had hidden.Having climbed up out of the seventh bolgia, Dante and Virgil have not quite reached the top of the bridge over the eighth one, but already what the Poet sees down within it brings to his mind the … Continue reading
There I was at the top of the bridge, leaning out so far that, if I hadn’t grabbed a nearby rock jutting out, I would have fallen down to the bottom. Virgil, who saw me peering so intently into that chasm, said: “Each of these great flames moving down there sheaths a sinner within it and burns him.”Dante has set up this almost comic scene of his falling over both as a result of his subtle curiosity and as a way of moving past his somewhat mysterious descriptions. Yet, in spite of the sense of … Continue reading
“Master,” I said quickly, “I was right. I had already guessed exactly what you just explained, and I was going to ask you who’s in that flame with its double tip, like the one that sprang up out of the pyre that consumed both Eteocles and his twin, Polyneices?”Dante’s powers of observation are growing so that he already knows the tongues of flame contain sinners. But his curiosity leads him forward because he notices a tongue that has two tips, and he … Continue reading
He replied: “Within that great tongue of flame are Ulysses and Diomedes. They march together, suffering in punishment, as together they went forth in battle. Theirs is a triple lament for what they did when they were alive: the ambush with the Trojan Horse, which led to the fall of Troy and enabled Rome’s noble founder to escape; the trick that brought Achilles into that war, and grief to his lover, Deïdamia; and their theft of the Palladium, sacred to Athena.”From the list of “sins” that Virgil outlines for Dante, it’s difficult to find an obvious connection among them that will give the reader a clear sense of why these two famous classical figures … Continue reading
“Dear Virgil,” I entreated him, “if they can speak to us from within their flames, I beg you a thousand times that we not leave here until they come near to us. You see how strongly I desire this!”Though he was anxious to speak with Francesca and Paolo in Canto 5, Dante’s passionate enthusiasm here is unique in the Inferno. Perhaps a more appropriate word to use here would be Dante’s … Continue reading
Replying gently, he said: “Of course. Your request is most worthy, and I’m happy to grant it. But listen, now: don’t you say anything to them. Leave all that to me, because I know very well what you want to ask. Perhaps because they’re Greeks they might just ignore you.”The contrast between Dante’s excited request and Virgil’s gentle and generous response here is humorous. Perhaps it was somewhat disappointing for Dante to hear that Virgil would do all the … Continue reading
So, when that great flame came near us, and when Virgil had decided the right moment to address them, I listened attentively. “O you two spirits sheathed within this one flame,” he said, “whether or not I have deserved any praise from you when I was alive and wrote my great epic, please stop here for a while. Let one of you, at least, tell us where, through your own fault, you were lost and died.”Just as Virgil waits for the “right moment” to speak, at that same right moment Dante’s Italian becomes very formal. Some commentators suggest that Virgil is actually conjuring the Greeks … Continue reading
Hearing Virgil’s polite request, the taller tip of that ancient fire began to sway back and forth, making sounds like a flame sputtering against the wind. Then, with its tip still moving, as if it were a tongue that spoke, the flame found a voice and replied:Up to this point, Dante has not indicated any noise or other sounds in this bolgia. This heightens the sense of mystery as the two travelers find themselves among great tongues of flame virtually as … Continue reading
“When I finally got away from the enchantments of Circe, who had kept me and my crew captive for more than a year near Gaeta (before Aeneas had called it that), no bonds with my son, no honor for my aged father, no happy debt of love I owed my wife, Penelope – nothing could quench the burning desire deep within me to know the world as much as possible and to experience all human vices and all human worth!Ulysses’ speech has three parts, and in none of them does he actually speak personally to the two travelers. Instead, he declaims as though he’s on a stage. This first part of his speech will … Continue reading
“So, with only one ship left, and that small crew of men who hadn’t deserted me, I set out upon the deep. Already behind us were Sardinia and the other isles in that sea. Then I saw the shores of Spain and Morocco. Me and my mates were old men, and tired. Finally, we reached the narrows at the Pillars of Hercules, which warn men not to sail beyond that point. By now we had passed Seville on the right, and Ceüta on the left.Ulysses (and his epic ego) continues to make himself the center of the story as he sets out to sea, the rest of his crew – which are “small” in comparison to him – are peripheral. As he heads … Continue reading ‘Brothers!’ I said to them, ‘You have survived a hundred thousand dangers to reach the West during this oh so brief vigil of our senses that is still left for us! You cannot deny yourself the experience of what lies beyond, behind the setting sun, the world unknown. Think of where you’ve come from: you are Greeks, not savages! You were not born to live like brutes, but to follow the ways of excellence and knowledge.’Dante the Pilgrim’s curiosity throughout the Commedia is one of the constant energies that opens his journey to the reader. His wanting to know gives us great amounts of knowledge we wouldn’t … Continue reading
“With this short speech, I made my old companions so excited about what lay ahead that nothing now could have held them back.This remark by Ulysses is almost humorous. He may have given a “short” speech, but, as we will see, it had long consequences. And by now, the excited Dante must be listening keenly to learn how … Continue reading So, with the dawn behind us, our oars became like wings for that mad flight, rushing headlong, and always to the left. By now, our usual night stars no longer rose above the ocean – we had exchanged them for those of the other pole.Emphasizing the idea of speed, Ulysses’ relates that his ship rushed headlong with oars like the wings of a bird on a “mad flight.” He is, of course, speaking in retrospect. They’ve … Continue reading It was five months after we had sailed past the great Pillars when, far in the distance, a mountain appeared darkly. It rose endlessly into the sky! I had never seen another like it.At this point – after “five months” – it’s worthwhile to transport ourselves back to the time of Dante and the geography of his day. The earth was made of the two hemispheres, north and … Continue reading
Overjoyed at first, our elation soon turned to grief. Out of that new world came such a wind that three times our ship was thrown around in the maelstrom. A fourth wind blasted at the stern, raising it up and sinking the bow – all as willed by Another. With that, the waters closed high above us.”At last, the great question of how Ulysses met his end is answered – according to Dante. Throughout this canto, Ulysses (Dante) has built a mountain of excitement with his tale and climbed to its … Continue reading
A Final Chuckle:A final chuckle: Has the reader stopped to consider that this entire story was related to Virgil in Greek and that Dante would not have understood a word of it? One might imagine Dante playing a … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||This apostrophe, laden with an exile’s regret and pointed invective against Florence, technically closes Canto 25. One might imagine Dante standing with Virgil on the stone terrace above the seventh bolgia shouting out this final rant before they leave. The irony in the first lines is biting. No doubt Florence was already famous, and we’ve seen several of her citizens scattered throughout the Inferno. But like some great black bird, the wings of this wicked city extend even over Hell! Singleton, in his commentary, quotes Chiappelli for the probable origin of the second sentence above: “…an inscription on the west front of the Palazzo del Podestà in Florence that exalts the city with the words: ‘who rules the sea, the land, and, in fact, the whole world.’”
As the Poet moves toward his prophetic vision that comes with “early morning dreams,” perhaps he had the words of Jeremiah in mind: “Is Israel a laughing-stock to you? Was she caught among thieves, that you shake your head whenever you speak of her? (48:27)” Remembering that Dante wrote the Inferno in 1307 but sets it in 1300, he can speak for the dark hopes Florence’s neighbors (e.g., Prato) harbored for her. Not only this, but another event Dante may have had in mind took place in 1304 (around the time Dante was exiled). In that year, Pope Benedict XI sent his legate, Cardinal Niccolò da Prato, to Florence to try to settle its incessant political feuding. Unable to do so, he cursed the city, saying:
“Since you want to be at war and under a curse, and will neither hear nor obey the messenger of the Vicar of God, or have peace and quiet among yourselves, you will be left with the curse of God and of the Holy Church.”
And thereupon he excommunicated the city and placed it under interdict, which meant that the celebration of the Catholic Liturgy and other sacraments of the Church were suspended. Later, a series of calamities came upon Florence and many linked them with the Cardinal’s curse. One of these calamities is particularly ironic and is recorded both by the historian Villani and the early commentator Benvenuto. Here, Vernon, in his commentary, cites Benvenuto:
“About that time the ward of San Frediano determined to offer the Cardinal a fête, in which should be given a representation of Hell and the torments of the damned. They proclaimed publicly that all who wished to know wondrous things about another world were invited to assemble upon the Ponte alla Carraja upon the first of May. Stages were prepared upon boats on the river, and by artificial fires of different colors a picture of Hell was supposed to be displayed; men disguised as demons were represented casting sinners into the flames, and inflicting upon them other torments. The bridge was thronged with a vast concourse of spectators. Screams and yells of simulated agony made a horrible din to hear. Just when the excitement was at its highest, the bridge, which was built of wood, from the unusual and excessive load upon it, suddenly gave way, and fell into the Arno with all the people that were on it. The destruction of life was enormous; and ‘many who were looking down upon a simulated Hell went to a real Hell, and were brought within the terms of the proclamation which had been made, for they soon did know wondrous things of another world, and all the acted cries of suffering were converted into cries of stern reality.’”
It should also be noted that in 1306, Pope Clement V sent Cardinal Orsini to attempt a settlement. This attempt also ended without peace and another edict of interdict!
|↑2||This is reminiscent of their earlier climb out of the bolgia of the hypocrites. What they saw in the ditch of thieves was, in a sense, the greatest “spectacle” Dante has created yet. And Musa, in his commentary, gives us wonderful insights here. “At the approach of a bolgia in which those who used their skills sinfully are punished, it is significant that the Pilgrim’s first experience is one of needing to climb carefully, using all his skill, in order to reach the summit. The stones and rocky projections that impede his progress suggest the prideful inclinations in his psyche, which impede his spiritual progress. No longer does the Poet brag about his easy verses describing the transformations as he did toward the end of the previous canto; instead he is reduced to using his writer’s hands in the physical labor of guiding his feet in their climb.”|
|↑3||Following from the previous note, these are significant lines. For a moment, in the previous canto, Dante stood at the apex of his literary talent, outdoing his classical forebears. At the end of that canto he humbly apologized for subjecting the reader to such an over-the-top, hard-to-believe exhibition of his genius. Yet once again, he takes us into himself and tells us about the struggle he has to restrain his pride lest it ruin such a gift as he possesses. At the same time, this struggle to contain his talent with words is a perfectly-crafted segue into the main theme of this canto, which deals with unbridled pride, and which, according to the Book of Proverbs, “goeth before a fall” (16:18).|
|↑4||Having climbed up out of the seventh bolgia, Dante and Virgil have not quite reached the top of the bridge over the eighth one, but already what the Poet sees down within it brings to his mind the quiet, peaceful scene of a summer evening in the hills and valleys near Florence. Fireflies, which add an almost magical touch to the environments where they are found, add to the loveliness of what Dante imagines here, though what he’s actually looking at is not an imagined scene. Little flamelets are actually everywhere below him in this bolgia illuminating the darkness with a soft light.
This bucolic image changes to a famous incident recorded in the Second Book of Kings (2:11) where the prophet Elisha witnessed his mentor, Elijah, being taken up to heaven in a fiery chariot. Elisha watched the heavens until he could only see the flames that concealed the chariot. Dante’s reference to “the bears” in identifying Elisha is a gratuitous touch. After Elijah had been taken up into the heavens, Elisha went to another place. On the way he was met by a group of boys who jeered at him (2 Kings 2:23). “Go up, you baldhead; go up, you baldhead!” they shouted at him, referring to Elijah’s ascension. At that, Elisha cursed them and two bears came out of the forest and ate them!
Only now, with so many references to flames and in the soft glow of the canyon below him, does Dante become more specific – and more mysterious. In what appears to be a kind of procession, tongues of flame are seen moving slowly along the bottom of this bolgia, each one silently concealing within it an unidentified sinner – the contrapasso. In the Italian, Dante calls the concealment of these sinners’ identity “a theft” (l’furto), suggesting something “furtive” about them; and following that he uses the word invola, suggesting something “stolen.”
Finally, the reader will do well to keep the following words that Dante uses in mind as this canto moves forward: flame, throat, tongue, theft, stealing.
|↑5||Dante has set up this almost comic scene of his falling over both as a result of his subtle curiosity and as a way of moving past his somewhat mysterious descriptions. Yet, in spite of the sense of mystery, Dante has already told us what Virgil now repeats, except Virgil adds that the sinners are actually burned within their tongue of flame. Here, it is worth pondering the sober words of St. James in his New Testament Letter: “And look at ships! They are so big that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the helmsman directs. In the same way, the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it can boast of great achievements. A huge forest can be set on fire by a little flame. The tongue is a fire, a world of evil. Placed among the parts of our bodies, the tongue contaminates the whole body and sets on fire the course of life, and is itself set on fire by Hell (3:4-6).”|
|↑6||Dante’s powers of observation are growing so that he already knows the tongues of flame contain sinners. But his curiosity leads him forward because he notices a tongue that has two tips, and he immediately references the classical story of the two sons of Oedipus who jointly succeeded their father to the throne of Thebes. But after his appointed term, Eteocles refused to relinquish power, so Polyneices fomented a bloody war (the famous Seven Against Thebes, one of whom was Capaenus the blasphemer from Canto 14). In a one-on-one contest, the two brothers slew each other. When laid together upon a single funeral pyre, it was said that even there their flames separated into two great tongues.|
|↑7||From the list of “sins” that Virgil outlines for Dante, it’s difficult to find an obvious connection among them that will give the reader a clear sense of why these two famous classical figures are here. They were, of course, among Homer’s great warrior-heroes, known for courage, strength, and cunning. As the canto proceeds, we will see how cunning connects the three “sins,” and Dante will show how the wiliness of Ulysses, in particular, led to his downfall. In Dante’s eyes, his cunning was another form of fraud, and thus deserving of being punished in this bolgia where, we will discover, are punished those who gave fraudulent advice. Here, Singleton notes that “the principle of contrapasso is evident in the punishing flame’s being likened to a tongue, for the sin punished in this bolgia is fraudulent counsel – false advice given by the tongue.” All three “sins,” of course, are connected to the fall of Troy which, as Virgil appropriately points out, gives rise to his own great epic which begins with that fall and ends with the founding of Rome. And one cannot miss the fact that it is Virgil – author of the Aeneid – who speaks.
The three “sins,” by the way, are famous in both Homer and Virgil: the first was the clever ambush on Troy by means of the iconic Trojan Horse. The second involved the “trick” of bringing Achilles into the war. His mother had disguised him as a girl and brought him to the court of King Lycomedes to live with his daughters so that he wouldn’t have to fight. Pretending to bring gifts to the king’s daughters, Ulysses hid among the gifts a shield and a lance which the disguised Achilles payed too much attention to and gave himself away – but not before he had seduced one of the king’s daughters, Deïdamia, and then abandoned her and her newborn child. The third involved the theft of the sacred Palladium, a gold statue of Pallas Athena that guaranteed the safety of Troy as long as it remained in the city.
|↑8||Though he was anxious to speak with Francesca and Paolo in Canto 5, Dante’s passionate enthusiasm here is unique in the Inferno. Perhaps a more appropriate word to use here would be Dante’s “ardor,” which comes from the Latin ardere, meaning “to burn.” One might say that it was Ulysses’ cunning ardor that landed him here in flames. And to this point, Musa adds a comical remark:
“The affinity between Dante and Ulysses is again brought to mind by the Pilgrim’s claim that he is ‘bending’ [Dante’s word] with desire toward the flame. He previously had to grab onto a rock in order to avoid falling into the ditch. ”
Langdon’s comment on this adds an insight contemporary with Dante’s age:
“Dante’s great desire to see Ulysses’ shade was due to the chance it offered of solving one of the greatest medieval literary questions: what became of Ulysses after his return to Ithaca? He felt somewhat as a lover of Shakespeare might on seeing the spirit of Hamlet in ‘another world.’” And we must wait until the end of the canto to find out.
|↑9||The contrast between Dante’s excited request and Virgil’s gentle and generous response here is humorous. Perhaps it was somewhat disappointing for Dante to hear that Virgil would do all the talking, but we may have neglected to remember that he can read the Pilgrim’s mind, and so knows “very well” what to ask. As for Dante the Poet, this is a very clever segue into the ensuing conversation because he didn’t know Greek. Furthermore, Virgil seems to have known that the Greek sinners might look down their noses at Dante as a descendant of Aeneas and the defeated Trojans; Italian might have sounded strange to them; Virgil’s hometown of Mantua was founded by Greeks (Canto 20); and Virgil was an ancient and closer to them in time and celebrated their deeds in his Aeneid, though unfavorably, but at least making them famous. What wonderful bait – to be celebrated in not one epic, but two! Also, Virgil as an ancient speaks to characters from classical antiquity, while Dante speaks to the “moderns.”|
|↑10||Just as Virgil waits for the “right moment” to speak, at that same right moment Dante’s Italian becomes very formal. Some commentators suggest that Virgil is actually conjuring the Greeks because he was considered somewhat of a “white magician” in the Middle Ages. Understanding that he was not complimentary to these two “heroes” in his Aeneid, his request seems a bit risky. Nevertheless, he speaks of his work as “my great epic,” and, as he adds, if they at least appreciate the quality of his work, then they are, as it were, in his debt for having made them famous, and he asks them to respond in respect of that. At the same time, he doesn’t hesitate to stop on the moral high ground with the phrase “through your own fault.” But it is important for us to be reminded from time to time that every single soul in Hell is here by their own choice and through their own fault. Finally, as stated in an earlier note, Medievals were fascinated by the question of how Ulysses died. Having come off a tour de force in the previous canto, one wonders what Dante will invent here.|
|↑11||Up to this point, Dante has not indicated any noise or other sounds in this bolgia. This heightens the sense of mystery as the two travelers find themselves among great tongues of flame virtually as tall and large as a man slowly and silently moving along. But Virgil’s request is heeded by the taller tip of the flame that encloses the two Greek heroes, namely Ulysses, and the Poet’s imagination gives him the power to speak. First, he sways back and forth in acknowledgment of Virgil’s summons. Then there is that sputtering sound when you blow against a flame to get it started. Finally, the tongue of flame becomes a human tongue, it finds its voice, and it speaks. One has the sense here that Dante has taken this mute (and dead) Greek hero and reanimates him through Virgil’s request, brings him to life, and carefully gives him the power of speech.
As Dante was writing this scene, he may have had in mind some imagery from Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. Note the various correspondences. There we read that when the Apostles were gathered together the sound of a great wind was heard and the power of God’s Spirit descended upon them in the form of tongues of flame. Filled with this Spirit, they were able to speak in tongues and the throngs of pilgrims in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost all heard them speaking in their own languages. Thousands were converted. What Dante will present in the rest of this canto is Ulysses being in-spirited and using the power of his speech to sway others.
|↑12||Ulysses’ speech has three parts, and in none of them does he actually speak personally to the two travelers. Instead, he declaims as though he’s on a stage. This first part of his speech will take him and his companions to the western edge of the Mediterranean Sea; in the second part Ulysses gives a rousing speech (within his speech) to his men, spurring them on to unknown adventures; and in the third speech he explains how his adventures end. Dante creates this entire story, and we’re not sure of what resources he might have used. There is the amazing 6th century story of St. Brendan’s voyage west across the sea from Ireland. And in 1291, nine years before he set the Inferno, and longer before he wrote it, Vandino and Ugolono Vivaldi set sail from Genoa and out the Mediterranean to find a route to India by sea. They were never heard from again.
Ulysses begins his speech by recollecting the episode in the Odyssey when he and his crew were held captive by Circe, the sorceress/Siren who turned his men into pigs. This locates us momentarily within the epic story he (Dante) is about to change; and he adds to this a geographical location, Gaeta, an ancient coastal city about 50 miles north of Naples. In ancient times, the city had been called Caieta after Aeneas’ nurse whom he buried there (see Aeneid VII, 1-4). But the seemingly casual mention of Circe, Gaeta, and Aeneas here is not without importance. Circe lived on a mythical island off the coast of Gaeta called Aeaea. Dante wants to set up a contrast between Homer’s Ulysses, who was drawn to Circe’s island and Virgil’s Aeneas, who passed it safely on his way north. And more than this, when Ulysses speaks of his fondness for his son, Telemachus, and honor for his father, Laertes, Dante uses the phrase “la pieta del vecchio padre.” But by pieta he doesn’t mean “pity” in this case, but the more classical meaning of “duty” toward his father, something that Ulysses (sinfully?) neglected. This kind of neglect was frowned on among the classical ancients. On the other hand, in the Aeneid Virgil refers to Aeneas as “pious” Aeneas because he was a dutiful son toward his father and dutiful in his honor of the gods.
Thus, while Ulysses mentions his family only in passing, he says nothing more about them or his return to Ithaca. Rather, he seems purposely to ignore the bonds they naturally had on him and follows, instead, the siren’s call of ambition for knowledge, which he sets higher than family obligation. And here now he delivers what are perhaps the boldest lines in the entire Inferno. No other character has or will express such high aspirations. With the pun intended, what he tells us is breathtakingly bold, adventurous beyond belief, inflated, prideful, utterly dangerous, and something only an epic hero of his stature might hope to get away with! His desire is absolutely epic, and he speaks as though he were a deity! And he’s only beginning. One can humorously imagine the excited Dante standing there with his mouth open in awe.
At the same time, it’s fascinating to ponder what was going through the mind of the Poet as he set these words down on paper. Unknowingly, he creates a character like Milton’s Lucifer in Paradise Lost. And how many of Shakespeare’s characters might have harbored such thoughts, and what dramas might have ensued? Or Goethe and others? Selling his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge would be beneath him. For Ulysses, it was his right – ALL of it! Though Dante did not know Greek, did he nevertheless have access to the great plays of antiquity in translation? Ulysses’ words need a Greek theater and an audience of thousands such as they could hold.
What Ulysses is proposing is sheer madness, but perhaps only a character of his stature might be able to carry this off. In a sense, the sheer immensity of his proposal only makes sense when we consider the primordial story of the Garden scene in Chapter 3 of the Book of Genesis. If Adam and Eve (and we by being their children), by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, became like God (as the serpent said they would), with the ability to tell right from wrong, Ulysses, masquerading as one of their greatest heirs, proposes to become even greater than God by cataloging every human experience that his and our mythical ancestors set in motion by their “original” sin. We might be able to excuse the primordial couple from the sin of pride because they were tricked by the serpent. But Ulysses has no such excuse because he is, in a sense, the primordial trickster writ large on the pages of Homer’s epics. And what Virgil does here is to re-kindle his flame and let him step out of his epics in order to tell us with unvarnished pride the untold story of his last adventure, which Dante the Poet records word for word.
Once they had eaten the “forbidden fruit” from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve realized that they were naked and, for the first time, they experienced shame. Their “sin” was their first experience of a kind of knowledge that cost them the loss of their innocence, because until then they had no knowledge or experience of evil. Not only did they gain this experience, but even greater than this, they gained the ability to discern, which was unnecessary in their previous state. Though Ulysses knows and can clearly discern the difference between good and evil, he wants complete knowledge of both: an epic sin! And while he may have forced Circe to turn his men back from pigs into their human form, here he’s become a virtual pig himself! He wants everything and he’ll eat anything. At this point, one might imagine him in the Garden defiling the Tree!
Soon enough, he will tell his crew, “You cannot deny yourself the experience of what lies beyond.” Here he becomes the serpent in the Garden assuring Adam and Eve with epically false words: “Surely, you will not die.” And with these, and a lifetime of false words, he’s here in Hell. Back in Canto 5, Francesca ended her sad take by telling Dante that by the power of one line in the story they were reading she and her lover, Paolo, lost their souls. At that, Dante fainted, perhaps realizing the power he possessed and the responsibility he bore to use words truthfully.
Finally, in his De finibus (On the ends of good and evil), which Dante had access to, Cicero offers a very different perspective on Ulysses by suggesting that it wasn’t the Sirens’ songs that lured passing mariners. Rather, it was knowledge. One wonders whether Ulysses here is so bold in his quest for knowledge at all costs because Dante had Cicero’s text in mind when he wrote this Canto. This is Cicero in Book 5:18 in De finibus:
“Let us consider the parts of the mind, which are of nobler aspect. The loftier these are, the more unmistakable indications of nature do they afford. So great is our innate love of learning and of knowledge, that no one can doubt that man’s nature is strongly attracted to these things even without the lure of any profit. Do we notice how children cannot be deterred even by punishment from studying and inquiry into the world around them? Drive them away, and back they come. They delight in knowing things; they are eager to impart their knowledge to others; pageants, games and shows of that sort hold them spell-bound, and they will even endure hunger and thirst so as to be able to see them. Again, take persons who delight in the liberal arts and studies; do we not see them careless of health or business, patiently enduring any inconvenience when under the spell of learning and of science, and repaid for endless toil and trouble by the pleasure they derive from acquiring knowledge? For my part I believe Homer had something of this sort in view in his imaginary account of the songs of the Sirens. Apparently it was not the sweetness of their voices or the novelty and diversity of their songs, but their professions of knowledge that used to attract the passing voyagers; it was the passion for learning that kept men rooted to the Sirens’ rocky shores. This is their invitation to Ulysses (for I have translated this among other passages of Homer): ‘Ulysses, pride of Argos, turn thy bark / And listen to our music. Never yet / Did voyager sail these waters blue, but stayed / His course, enchanted by our voices sweet, / And having filled his soul with harmony, / Went on his homeward way a wiser man. / We know the direful strife and clash of war / That Greece by Heaven’s mandate bore to Troy, / And whatsoe’er on the wide earth befalls.’ Homer was aware that his story would not sound plausible if the magic that held his hero enmeshed was merely an idle song! It is knowledge that the Sirens offer, and it was no marvel if a lover of wisdom held this dearer than his home. A passion for miscellaneous omniscience no doubt stamps a man as a mere dilettante; but it must be deemed the mark of a superior mind to be led on by the contemplation of high matters to a passionate love of knowledge.”
|↑13||Ulysses (and his epic ego) continues to make himself the center of the story as he sets out to sea, the rest of his crew – which are “small” in comparison to him – are peripheral. As he heads toward Gibraltar, one by one all the familiar landmarks are left behind, Sardinia first and other smaller islands in the Western Mediterranean. Spain and Morocco shrink to Seville and Ceuta as the known world slips behind them while the vast unknown of the Atlantic lays before them. It’s appropriate that Ulysses address his crew at the Pillars of Hercules, the door, as it were, to that unknown world. The “Pillars” are actually the Rock of Gibraltar on the Spanish side and probably the mountain Jebel Musa on the Moroccan side. In mythology, North Africa and Europe were connected where the present Strait lies. Hercules, needing to pass beyond, smashed through the mountains between the Atlantic and Mediterranean creating the Strait, but marking the limit of the known world with two great pillars.|
|↑14||Dante the Pilgrim’s curiosity throughout the Commedia is one of the constant energies that opens his journey to the reader. His wanting to know gives us great amounts of knowledge we wouldn’t otherwise have. But his curiosity is nothing compared to that of Ulysses. His crew are most likely older men like himself, the last remnants (survivors) of his “hundred thousand” previous adventures, and obviously dear to him because he calls them brothers. But the latter part of his opening is fascinating. The “oh so brief vigil of our senses” is such a poetic and existential image of human life, it’s hard to believe coming from the mouth of a rugged, seasoned warrior like Ulysses. For a moment he becomes the poet of his own epic – and Dante’s! Because Dante’s Poem is definitely a spiritual creation, the word “vigil” connotes the rituals of the Liturgy that take place on the eve of a particular Christian feast or celebration. One can take Ulysses’ statement two ways: that it minimizes the value of his crew’s life experience by simply relegating it to the realm of a vigil; or on the positive side, that it portends the “feast” of knowledge that awaits them on the new day in the unknown world. Even more, what Dante wants us understand is that life is, in fact, a vigil that precedes the great feast of Paradise. In an interesting way, Ulysses’ poetic moment on the verge of what he thinks will be something great bears a forward kind of affinity with Shakespeare’s Macbeth 300 years later, when all is lost to the king who, in a spectacular soliloquy, looks back on life and calls it a “brief candle…a walking shadow.” But under the Greek’s inflated vision here is the dark reality that he and all his crew, in their sunset years, have little time left. When the “brief candle” goes out, the shadows take over.
It should be noted that Dante’s Ulysses isn’t the only one in classical literature to give such a speech, though his is matchless. Dante would have found speeches given on significant occasions in Virgil, Lucan, and Horace. He may also have been familiar with Châtillon’s Alexandreid, a Medieval French epic about Alexander the Great, where this great adventurer, quoted by Charles Singleton in his commentary, says what Dante’s Ulysses might have said:
“Now since there is nothing more left of the world to be traversed, lest weapons so used to war should grow rusty, come, let us seek those who dwell under another sun, on the other side of the world, lest our glory should fade and our courage miss a chance to shine; this way, an immortal song will be our reward” (X,5307-5312,col.569).
In Dante’s text, however, Ulysses doesn’t “suggest” to his crew – he tells them bluntly, “you cannot deny yourself” the experience that lies before you. He’s not only the captain of the ship, but of their lives. And then his pride and ego simply pour out all over them! “You are Greeks, not savages!” As though to say that being Greek, one has a right to, inherits, and owns knowledge and experience. Any other kind of life is worthless. It’s strange to consider that Ulysses, with his huge ego, fails to realize how small he makes the world and human existence if it only belongs to Greeks, as though everyone else is a savage, unable to think and reason. Isn’t this the case with sin? We miss the mark, and we choose to make ourselves less than what we’re destined to be.
Finally, there is a fascinating irony at work here. In Canto 3, Virgil told Dante, upon their entrance through the Gate, that everyone in Hell had lost the good of their intellect. Here, Ulysses appeals to the noble intellectual heritage of his Greek companions and in the process closes all other doors of possibility except the one that lies before them. Doing this, however, we will see what happens.
|↑15||This remark by Ulysses is almost humorous. He may have given a “short” speech, but, as we will see, it had long consequences. And by now, the excited Dante must be listening keenly to learn how Ulysses’ voyage fared. But after this claim, Hollander, in his commentary, calls Ulysses “a con artist, and a good one, too…who masks his pride in false humility.”|
|↑16||Emphasizing the idea of speed, Ulysses’ relates that his ship rushed headlong with oars like the wings of a bird on a “mad flight.” He is, of course, speaking in retrospect. They’ve sailed west out of the Strait of Gibraltar, ignoring the age-old warning, ne plus ultra, “go no further,” and then left, down the western side of Africa. Singleton remarks that at this point Ulysses resolutely (using his great Greek intellect) “turns his back on all the known world, to face toward the unknown….” At some point, they cross the equator and, like crossing the point of no return, they “exchange” the stars of the northern hemisphere for those of the south.|
|↑17||At this point – after “five months” – it’s worthwhile to transport ourselves back to the time of Dante and the geography of his day. The earth was made of the two hemispheres, north and south. But here is where things were vastly different than the present day. The northern hemisphere contained all the land – Europe, Asia, and northern Africa. The southern hemisphere was covered entirely by water and unexplored. Except…on the globe, the Mountain of Purgatory was thought to be situated directly opposite the city of Jerusalem. This will be explained in further detail toward the end of Canto 34. And here is another event Ulysses (and his crew) might boast about: he is the first human to see the Mountain since Adam and Eve! But at this point, both Ulysses and the reader may be surprised at this discovery, and certainly Ulysses and his men could not have conceived of a place like Purgatory. And, of course, he’s in Hell!
In his Personal Narrative of Travels, written exactly 500 years after Dante’s death, Alexander von Humboldt, gives us a sense of what Ulysses and his crew might have experienced once they crossed the equator.
“Nothing awakens in the traveler a livelier remembrance of the immense distance by which he is separated from his country, than the aspect of an unknown firmament. The grouping of the stars of the first magnitude, some scattered nebulae, rivaling in splendor the milky way, and tracks of space remarkable for their extreme blackness, give a particular physiognomy to the Southern sky.”
Dante the Pilgrim will note many of these stars at the beginning of the Purgatorio.
|↑18||At last, the great question of how Ulysses met his end is answered – according to Dante. Throughout this canto, Ulysses (Dante) has built a mountain of excitement with his tale and climbed to its emotional heights, only to fall off a cliff at its summit! Purgatory is the mountain that saves, but Ulysses is so blinded by his arrogant ambition that nothing can save him. Earlier, Dante described Ulysses’ first words as flames “sputtering against the wind.” The wind that comes now from “that new world” he so boldly sought is a biblical reminder of God’s punishment for presumption, and the triple turning of his ship before it sinks is an image of the Trinity whom Ulysses could never conquer. Dante, however, found himself climbing that same mountain, at least figuratively, in Canto 1, until he was driven back by the three beasts (again, the number 3), bringing him to Virgil and the beginning of his salvific journey. In a final irony, the waters that closed over Ulysses quenched his life, and ignited the flame that enfolds him for eternity.
While this story of Ulysses’ end is Dante’s, he continues to borrow from Virgil’s Aeneid – in this case, the final image of the ship going down. Virgil writes: “… but a wave whirls the ship, driving it three times around in the same place, and then a sudden eddy swallows it up in the sea” (I:116f).
In the end, Courtney Langdon summarizes wonderfully: “The story of Ulysses’ last journey and death in quest of adventure, which closes this Canto, is more than an illustration of its hero’s baneful powers of persuasion, if it be that. Transcending this, it becomes in his hand one of Dante’s most classically conceived passages, presenting a picture of the Hellenic race’s genius for fearless pursuit of knowledge and truth for its own sake, couched in words so simple, direct, and self-restrained that one, who did not know Dante, would think that the whole Canto was written by a different hand from that which penned the last two. Never have the essentials of a shipwreck been narrated with such awfully convincing brevity.”
|↑19||A final chuckle: Has the reader stopped to consider that this entire story was related to Virgil in Greek and that Dante would not have understood a word of it? One might imagine Dante playing a trick on the reader here, but at the same time he gives us a further example of how words can completely capture us. Ulysses, and the story he just told, is so convincing that – again, considering the earlier note on Pentecost – like the crowds in Jerusalem who heard the Apostles of Jesus speaking in their own tongues, we (and Dante the Pilgrim) understood every word Ulysses spoke.|