Love, Ardor, Valor.
These are three essential rhymes in Canto 26 of Dante's Inferno, the episode in which Dante meets Ulysses. We just talked about this canto in class and I can't seem to move on with my day.
In The Odyssey, Ulysses spends 20 years trying to make it back to Ithaca to his wife, son, father, and kingdom, and he encounters numerous trials and temptations that impede his great journey home. Sometimes the holdups are not his fault, but often he is taken in by a tempting woman or caught up in his own curiosity and needs to go explore.
In Dante's version, Ulysses takes his exhausted crew on a wild goose chase after who knows what. He is not urged to return home by the amore of Penelope, for the ardore to "gain experience of the world" and learn of human valore cannot be quenched. Remarkably, Dante rewrites the ending of the epic of all epics, turning Ulysses, the ultimate homecomer, into a man driven to death by his thirst for adventure. Dante has him pass through the Pillars of Hercules, ignoring their warning, "Here, but no further," leaving the Mediterranean and thrusting into the endless Atlantic. Ulysses gives a rousing speech to his men to urge them on, declaring, "Consider your sowing: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge."
For Dante, this speech is a lie. You cannot follow virtue and knowledge and learn of the valor of man by leaving civilization and heading out into isolation. Ulysses' famous quest has landed him in one of the lowest circles in hell. But why?
At the beginning of this canto, Dante has to work hard to restrain himself from practically jumping into the flames with Ulysses to hear his story. Virgil has to remind him, "see that your tongue restrain itself." There is something at stake here for Dante that resonates with Ulysses' journey, and it has to do with restraint. What can be lost here if restraint is not accomplished? What can be damaged?
Frankly, I am mystified here. But I do know that Dante is touching upon something deep. Dante himself had been condemned to exile from his beloved Florence when he wrote this, never to return, so perhaps he wants to compare himself to Ulysses by changing his story to keep him forever from his home, as well. Or maybe it's a point about isolation - Dante's great journey through the heavens is ALL about people. The quest was begun at the charge of a heavenly personage, and every adventure and discovery comes at the hand of another person, through a conversation and face-to-face interaction. Ulysses headed out into the unpeopled and barren world, so perhaps this is a caution against isolation from other people.
We read today's text next to Tennyson's excellent, excellent poem about the same hero, which ends:
Death closes all: but something ere the end, Some work of noble note, may yet be done, Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods. The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks: The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends, 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world. Push off, and sitting well in order smite The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths Of all the western stars, until I die. It may be that the gulfs will wash us down: It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, And see the great Achilles, whom we knew Though much is taken, much abides; and though We are not now that strength which in old days Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are; One equal temper of heroic hearts, Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
(I put my favorite lines in bold).
Is this not the most evocative poem? This is how we see the great Ulysses - the man supreme, who fed the human hunger for adventure, questing, friendship, battle, heroism. 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world! The deepest longing of the human heart seems to cry out equally for home and adventure, and it seems we cannot be satisfied with just one. I don't know about you, but this poem (you should read the whole thing, it's not long) makes me tear up with the longing to have a face full of wind, muscles sore and strained, some horizon beckoning onward. There is nothing more exhilarating than to picture the explorere's life - and, perhaps, even the explorer's death.
For Dante, Ulysses' journey was doomed. As soon as he approaches the farthest side of the world - which, in Dante's universe is the Mount of Purgatory - Ulysses' ship is caught in a whirlwind and the entire crew drowns.
Does Dante prohibit this great explorer from summiting this peak because he wants to paint the spiritual journey as the greatest adventure? Is Ulysses' quest supposed to pale in comparison for the things that await in the afterlife? Or even before death, in the spiritual imagination of he who looks within and leaves the oars and sails at rest? I wonder if this can ever be satisfying. Maybe Dante wants us to know that it is satisfying, and infinitely more so than a life before the mast. Shakespeare called death "The undiscovered country." Does Dante agree?