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Dante’s Odyssey: or, How He Avoided a Watery Grave
An examination of Dante’s theological thought and conversion in light of the story of Ulysses in Canto 26 of the Inferno
These were the sins of Xavier’s past Hung like jewels in the forest of veils Deep in the heart where the mysteries emerge He bears the stigma of original sin — Dead Can Dance
Slowly, rosy-fingered dawn began painting the horizon in subtle shades of muted crimson, embellishing her daubs with greater vigour as Jove began his climb into the early morning Florentine sky. The poet looked out over the landscape from his vantage point at the tower's window, gazing upon the patchwork of grey cobblestone streets and red roofs that made up his beleaguered but beloved city. He stood in the Palace of the Priors, but though he had worked all night, his thoughts lay not in matters political now. He mused, thoughtfully, on the writing of his Banquet, a tribute to his newfound love, a lady possessed of sharper virtue than any he had known. The journey to the ultimate fulfilment of the intellect was surely the highest goal to which a man could aspire, but the poet plied those deep and sometimes treacherous waters with confidence and joy. He was certain his Lady would not be untrue or lead him astray. And yet — sometimes he felt a strange emptiness inside, like a hole aching to be filled, and no amount of reading and writing seemed to assuage that anxiety. Well, perhaps when Convivio was finished . . . after all, he was scarcely more than a quarter way through his life’s work. Gingerly, he descended the spiralling staircase of uneven stone steps, and emerged onto the street. He walked through the dark and crooked roads, narrowly bounded by simple two-story buildings and lined with sewage gutters. He passed through small and pleasant squares and crossed over the bridge, nodding his head at the warlike visage that was its guardian. He breathed in the crisp spring air, feeling full. Small clumps of pilgrims trudged along the streets, on their way to Rome to celebrate the Jubilee, but too early yet for anticipatory smiles to light up their faces.
Skirting the right bank of the Arno, he reached the site of his beloved San Giovanni. Adjacent to the baptistery, labourers were already working on the construction site of what was to be Firenze's greatest church, dedicated to Maria del Fiore. A bell chimed the hour for Matins, and the poet sidestepped into the little temple of Sta. Reparata. “Ave Maria,” whispered a voice in the darkness; “gratia plena” responded the poet. He knelt, and bowed his head, but his mind wandered to more engrossing matters as he spoke the words of the prayer. “. . . as it was in the beginning, so it is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. Alleluia.” He finished, and stepped once more into the cool morning air. Standing by the construction site was a man who looked familiar. His head was thrown back, and his hair blew in the breeze as he rocked back and forth on his heels. The poet approached him. Without turning, the man spoke. “I know the sound of that step as I know my own. Durante Alighieri, I presume?” The poet laughed. “Please, Giotto, call me Dante. You are like a brother to me.” Giotto turned towards him, the light of the future shining in his eyes, bringing beauty to his pinched face. “Here beside this glorious cathedral, one day will stand the tallest and most beautiful tower of Florence. I know, for I will build it. And, my dear friend, lest the world forget your greatness, I will one day paint a fresco of you in the very chapel of the Bargello itself. I swear it!” The poet laughed. “My friend, you dream big. I hope only to complete my book and my priorship successfully.” Giotto looked away and replied distantly, “Yes, I heard of your election. Congratulations.” The poet sensed something amiss in his comrade's manner. “Giotto? What's wrong?” Giotto concentrated even more intently on the rough and bronzed workers hauling large blocks of stone below. Without looking up, he murmured quietly, “You did not hear this from me. Your rise to power has not come at a good time for Florence. Donati has plans, and they are not good ones. Something is brewing for the end of this month, and I fear it will be bloody.” The painter turned back to the poet, his eyes searching and sharp as daggers. “Dante, I fear your life may be at
risk.” The poet shook his head. “Do not worry for me, old friend. I am il ponte between the two parties. Remember I am connected to Corso by marriage. All will be well. Come, let us talk of pleasanter things.” The two friends walked slowly towards San Piero. The poet spoke excitedly, his voice like a schoolboy’s. “I have been devouring, as at a feast, the works of the master of those who know, together with the Arab's commentary. Also have I studied the poetry of the Mantuan, who consecrated my art to greatness. Men like these shed light on what was unknowable: they make the universe attainable. I believe that in their work lies all a man can know, or wish to know; and thereby, true happiness.” Giotto looked askance at the poet. “And what of the wisdom contained within our Lord's holy book?” The poet's eyes flickered for a moment, glancing down at the road. “Ah yes, of course, that too.” The two friends clasped hands and parted ways near the Piazza San Martino. The poet continued towards home, and much needed rest. All at once, a flash of colour caught his eye. Ahead of him, on the opposite side of the street, was a young woman wearing a crimson dress. In a moment, she reached an alleyway, and a bright ray of sunlight illuminated her, bathing her in radiance for a moment that was frozen in time. The poet blinked, and she was gone. An icy hand gripped his heart. She reminded him of someone else, someone who he thought was forever gone, but whose life had once informed his very being. Yearning broke his immobility, and propelled him towards the alley. His steps beat a staccato rhythm against the cobblestones as he hurried forward, his eyes searching, searching . . . Once again he glimpsed that swath of red turning a corner, and increased his speed. He followed in pursuit, down unfamiliar by-ways, always seeing that ghostly figure just ahead, between two narrow buildings or turning yet another corner. Every time the poet saw the blood red against the pale skin and dark hair, his heart skipped a beat as he remembered one ten years gone.
At last, he gasped in triumph as he saw the apparition disappear into a small, humble chapel. He hurried expectantly forward, and stooped to enter the doorway. With but one foot inside, he called out "Bice—!" -Ce-, -ceechoed back from the bare walls of the chapel's empty interior. She was nowhere to be seen. Gingerly, the poet moved forward, stepping quietly upon the cracked flagstones, listening in vain. Reaching the first wooden pew, he knelt, holding his breath, waiting and hoping she would appear. The chapel was dark and dilapidated; moss grew on the walls, and a musty smell arose from the hay-strewn floor. The rough-hewn pews were unpadded, and there were no windows save a high skylight from which a single shaft of morning sunlight fell upon the coarse ground. The image of Christ hung on a wooden cross. The place hung in stillness, seemingly beyond time. A flapping of wings broke the silence, and a dove appeared in the shaft of sunlight, winging downwards. For the poet, time seemed to dilate, and as he watched the wings of the dove beat with gradual, agonising slowness, the shadows seemed to shift and grow, moving across the walls. He thought he heard voices crying out in eternal pain, and darkness and fear gripped his heart. The walls of the room closed in on him, and he felt himself falling into an abyss. At that moment, a child's voice filtered through the stone walls, thin and pure, singing, singing a verse — dwell thee not in darkness, in darkness dwell not! The air became charged, and sparked with energy. He looked up and his eyes met Christ's: those eyes! Filled with both sadness and ineffable joy, they pierced his very soul. A tear seemed to fall from the oaken form, and a voice murmured in his mind, its tone both tender and commanding — “The night is far spent, the day is at hand: cast off the works of darkness, and put on the armour of light. Arm yourself with your Lord Jesus Christ; spend no more thought on nature and nature's appetites, for the Son of man is come to save that which was lost. Hosanna! Blessed be His kingdom!” 1 Suddenly the poet's heart split open, and tears streamed down his cheeks; it seemed to him that a thousand heavenly voices took up that refrain,
carolling in harmonies unbearably sweet and divine. His eyes were fixed on the Messiah’s face; and those wooden lips moved and spoke with infinite sweetness and compassion: Now you are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you.2 The heavenly chorus soared into the stratosphere, waves of love surged in the poet's soul, and energy coursed through his body. The dove flew, and the light came streaming down.3
This story, while highly fictionalised and compacted, represents a process that the poet Dante Alighieri probably went through at a particular period in his life. Though the narrative here is abstracted back to April of 1300 (the fictional date of the Divine Comedy), and combined with other elements, I believe something like it occurred in about 1306, when Dante left off writing the Convivio, and began work on Inferno. In the above story, I posit as the catalyst to that sudden shift a mystical experience of ‘conversion’ analogous to Augustine’s in the Confessions. Although Dante was already Christian, he was plying his own course towards ultimate knowledge, and was not reliant on God: therefore he was not a Christian in the truest sense of that word. In order to explore these themes and issues, I wish to examine the voyage of Ulysses in Canto 26 of the Inferno as a parallel to Dante’s own abortive philosophical journey; and I will demonstrate how we may identify Dante with Ulysses, with the difference that Dante’s conversion was the salvific force that rescued him from the watery tomb of the Grecian hero.
Canto 26 begins with an apostrophe addressed to Florence, which is the result of the pilgrim’s experience in the preceding canto. Then the poet turns to the subject of the current canto, uttering these words, upon which the entire canto pivots: (Inf. 26.19-24)
Allor me dolsi, e ora me ridoglio Then I grieved, and now I grieve again, quando drizzo la mente a ciò ch’io vidi, when I consider what I saw, e più lo ’ngegno affreno ch’i’ non soglio, and I rein in my wit more than is my custom, perché non corra che virtù nol guidi, that it may not run without virtue guiding it, sì che, se stella bona o miglior cosa so that, if a good star or something better m’ha dato ’l ben, ch’io stessi nol m’invidi. has given me what is good, I may not deprive myself ofit.
This grief, which recurs for the poet in mere contemplation of the sequence to come, is unusual in Inferno because it precedes the depiction of the characters and sin of the canto. Thus we are alerted to the fact that this canto will hold especial personal meaning for the pilgrim/poet. But rather than revealing all the personal details, he chooses to ‘rein in [his] wit’, and gives us a masterful tercet that not only sums up Ulysses’ fatal flaw (which will be explicated later in the canto), but also tells us how the pilgrim, possessing the same flaw, did not share the same fate. Dante breaks with classical tradition here by not equating virtù with ingegno.4 He acknowledges that his wit or genius (ingegno) derives either from astrological influence (‘stella bona’) or God’s grace (‘miglior cosa’), but in the same sentence he explicitly states that if he were to allow his genius (‘il bene’ in the second tercet) to pursue any desired object (of knowledge or experience) without the restraining influence of a higher moral code, he would lose that genius (and, possibly, his life).
This is exactly what happens to Ulysses, as we shall see. Dante does something startlingly original in this canto: he writes a new ending to a classical myth widely known in his day. He reinterprets the myth with a Christian understanding, and ends it as a Christian must. Ulysses undertakes a self-reliant voyage which equates knowledge with virtue, and embraces the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, regardless of object. This is a moral transgression in the Christian framework must be doomed from the start. Dante goes on to describe the flames which fill the ditch of the eighth malebolge, each flame imprisoning a soul. He ironically compares the flames to Elishah’s vision of Elijah’s ascent to heaven in a fiery chariot in 2 Kings 2:11. But this, of course, is an infernal vision. Next we are presented with another key tercet: (Inf. 26.43-5)
Io stava sovra ’l ponte a veder surto, I was standing erect on the bridge in order to see, sì che s’io non avessi un ronchion preso, so that if I had not grasped a projection, caduto sarei giù sanz’ esser urto. I would have fallen without being pushed.
This verse is highly allegorical, and helps us to make the identification of Dante with Ulysses. I submit that this is an autobiographical reference, and ‘il ponte’ that the poet stood on is the bridge of secular classical philosophy, from which he hoped ‘to see’. However, he stood ‘erect’ which immediately conjures the image of a prideful, self-reliant stance, one from which it is all too easy to fall ‘without being pushed’, that is, with no further transgression then that. And of course, that fall would be the fall from grace, the fall from observant Christianity, the fall into the abyss. However
(though that fall had more than begun in his life), Dante ‘grasped a projection’, that is, he armed himself with Christ and took refuge in the Lord. Strictly speaking, he merely grasped that which was offered through divine compassion and grace, personified in the form of Beatrice (who allegorically caused the poet to be rescued through her agent Virgil). This authentic and imminent sense of Christian virtue and wisdom was precisely what he had lost when he found himself in ‘una selva oscura’. This made clear from a passage spoken by Beatrice in Canto 30 of Purgatorio:
My countenance sustained him [Dante] for a while . . . I led him with me toward the way of righteousness. As soon as I . . . had [died], he took himself away from me and followed after another; . . . he turned his footsteps toward an untrue path; he followed counterfeits of goodness, which will never pay in full what they have promised. He fell so far . . . (Purg. 30:121-133)
Here Beatrice represents the ideal of Christian wisdom and virtue, and ‘another’ is ‘the other woman’ with whom Dante is unfaithful. Dante himself, in the Convivio, tells us who this other woman is.
When the first joy of my soul was lost, I remained in such sorrow that no consolation could bring comfort to me. Yet after a certain time . . . my spirit, that longed for healing, found rescue in the way in which other disconsolate persons had found relief before. And I began to read . . . [I found] not only comfort for my tears but a knowledge of authors, sciences and books, and considering these I judged that Philosophy, who was the mistress of all these authors, sciences and books, must needs be something very high. And I fancied her in the shape of a noble woman . . . and my sense of truth saw her with such pleasure that it scarce could ever turn from her. . . . in a short time, perhaps in thirty months, I began to feel so much of her sweetness that my love for her expelled and destroyed every other thought. (Con. 2:13)
Returning to the eighth malebolge, we find that Dante is more eager to speak with Ulysses than anyone else he has encountered (‘If they can speak within those flames, master, much do I beg you, and beg again that each prayer may be worth a thousand, that you not refuse to wait until the horned flame comes here: see that I bend toward it with desire!’ 26.64-68). I submit that the only possible reason for this extraordinary eagerness is that Dante identifies himself and his own abortive philosophical journey with Ulysses and his journey. Dante knew from the writings of Augustine and others that Ulysses’ journey was regarded allegorically as the quest for knowledge. While that quest is usually a lofty pursuit, there are two primary flaws in Ulysses’ quest. The first is that he undertakes it without reliance in any way on the divine; and the second is that he does not discern the worthiness of different objects of knowledge, but regards all knowledge as intrinsically worthy. Ulysses spoke of ‘. . . the ardour that I had to gain experience of the world and of human vices and worth; but I put out on the deep, open sea alone . . .’ (Inf. 26.97-100) Like the secular humanist and Neoplatonist, Ulysses believed that he could discover alone all there is to know that is worth knowing, despite the fact that both he and the world are made by God, whose nature is inscrutable mystery, and who reveals himself as he wills. And thereby Ulysses attempted journey to God’s earthly paradise is doomed to failure, as he does not attempt it through God or any of His agencies. This explains the first flaw.
The second is Ulysses’ misperception regarding the nature of knowledge, consisting of two parts. Firstly, he fruitlessly quests after a pointless object of knowledge (‘the world without people’ 26.117), thereby demonstrating his lack of discernment as far as the worth of a given object of knowledge. Secondly, he equates virtue and knowledge, thus implying that the pursuit of any knowledge, by any means, is virtuous (‘you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge’ 26.119-20). (This also explains why he would pursue a pointless object.) Nonetheless, Ulysses and his men decide on ‘turning our stern toward the morning, [and] of our oars we made wings for the mad flight’. Freccero points out in relation to this passage that “de’ remi facemmo ali” derives from a Latin phrase, ‘remigium alarum’ or ‘the oarage of his wings’. It is this phrase which is glossed by neoplatonic commentator Silvestris (whom Dante had read) as meaning ‘the exercise of his reason and intellect’ (alarum remigium i.e. rationis et intellectus exercitium sacravit).5 Thus the reason that the flight is mad, Dante implies, is that it depends solely on the exercise of reason and intellect, without the context of a divine framework. Ulysses’ journey through the vast ocean continues until even the pole star, his only fixed and reliable guide, has disappeared (26.127-9). Within the sight of the mountain of purgatory, his vessel is caught in a whirlpool, ‘until the sea had closed over us’, and the ship goes down with all hands (26.137-142). For the final and decisive proof of Dante’s identification with Ulysses, we must go back to the first canto of the Inferno. Here Dante uses
the image of a shipwreck to describe the fate he so narrowly survived: ‘And like one with labouring breath, come forth out of the deep onto the shore, who turns back to the perilous water and stares . . .’ (1.22-24). It is clear that he saw the light just in time and abandoned the ‘mere appearances [that] turned [him] aside with their false loveliness’ (Purg. 31.34-35). Unlike Ulysses, he abandoned the Lady of Philosophy (or, more accurately, demoted her from mistress to servant) and once again returned to Beatrice, the exemplar of Christian virtue; and thus he was received into the heart of God.
Durling, Robert M. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. Volume 1 – Inferno. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. Federn, Karl. Dante & His Time. London: William Heinemann, 1902. Freccero, John. Dante: the Poetics of Conversion. Mandelbaum, Allen. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri: Purgatorio. New York: Bantam, 1984. Ragg, Lonsdale. Dante and His Italy. New York: Haskell House, 1973 (reprint of the 1907 edition).
Romans 13:12, 14; and a few words from here and there. John 15:3-4. 3 For the descriptive elements of this story I am indebted to Federn and Ragg, who have written wonderful books on Dante’s historical and cultural context (see bibliography). The idea to use an expositive story as part of the essay I owe to my friend José Perillán. 4 Freccero 18. 5 Freccero 16-17.
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