{Sympathy for Ulysses} “The Divine Comedy” by Dante Alighieri (1320)

The twenty-sixth canto in Dante’s Inferno is one of the most beloved in the entire poem mainly for revisiting the admired character of Ulysses, Homer’s hero from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Curiously, Dante did not have access to the works of Homer, so his portrait of Ulysses, the Roman translation of the Greek Odysseus, is mainly a composite: a character created partly from his readings of Virgil’s Aeneid and partly from his imagination, and while Dante’s Ulysses is ostensibly more Roman than he is Greek, one cannot deny the power of his characterization.

Many readers since the Romantic era onwards  have felt a need to either apologize for Dante’s inclusion of Ulysses in the Inferno or to attempt to rescue him from the valley of the damned altogether. It is clear from the poem that Dante sympathizes with the torments of Ulysses too, when his protagonist, the pilgrim, passionately strains to hear the story of Ulysses once he realizes his whereabouts in the inferno: “thou seest how I bend toward it with desire.”

Dante approaches Ulysses as a Christian and through that moral lens, Ulysses certainly belongs in the inferno, but that doesn’t mean it’s a reality Dante is comfortable with: “I grieved then and grieve now anew when I turn my mind to what I saw.” Dante understands why Ulysses is in the Inferno: On the one hand, Dante is injured by seeing such a noble figure from antiquity in such a lamentable state, but on the other, he accepts that Ulysses is the author of his own misfortune.

Dante lists Ulysses’ sin as the act of false counsel; Ulysses built a reputation with his skills of craftiness and manipulation. In the epics of Homer, he deceives seemingly to no end, using his faculty of reason for personal gain and manipulation, which is a sin according to Dante, who is not anything if not orthodox in his conception of the afterlife. He appeals to divine inspiration for the vision he has been granted: “if favouring star or something better has granted me such boon, I may not grudge it to myself.” He is careful to remind his readers that he has not conceived the inferno as a fictional locale, which is, admittedly, a difficult boundary to demarcate, after all, we are reading a poem, an inspired poem, granted, still a poem written from flesh and blood fingers.

Did Dante really believe that the inferno existed as he illustrated, a real place awaiting people in the afterlife, or is it only a poetic conceit on his behalf? The poet’s beliefs and his poem are hardly separable entities in Dante’s case. Most scholars tend to put their ontological motives aside and commonly list The Divine Comedy as being a work with autobiographical significance, and realistically, what recourse does scholarship really have? The Divine Comedy is riddled with the idiosyncrasy and subjectivity of the poet, and Dante never does acquire the artless detachment that the author’s of the Gospels staked out.

As modern readers, our difficulty is how do we approach Dante’s poem? There is hardly a reader alive who would interpret Dante’s poem literally; how plausible is it to state that Dante was attempting to be secular and not orthodox in his approach? The theology of the poem and of the medieval world may be anachronistic to our secular age, but that does not mean that they are not morally or artistically relevant, or even, dare I say, true? The historical revaluation of The Divine Comedy has been bountiful in revealing the cultural context of the poem and the vast scope of the Dante’s references. The poem cannot be fully appreciated in any other way; however, we cannot, must not, sidestep Dante’s inspiration and ontology in deference to his artistry.

The twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno is very much like an acid test for readers to decide how they will interpret The Divine Comedy. Did Dante mean to have Ulysses punished interminably in hell? For the Romantics, Dante’s Ulysses was a kind of rebel, similar to Prometheus from antiquity or, for a nearer correspondent, Milton’s Satan. Ulysses, like Adam, is marked by the sin of pride. But according to Biblical tradition, it was Satan who was the first to be guilty of such an offense. There exists a general view of Dante’s Ulysses as tempter amongst certain scholars, which is in league with the view of Ulysses as the proverbial traveler from antiquity. This reading supports the argument of Ulysses as a rebel figure who urges his men to go beyond known limits in search of experience.

Dante’s Ulysses abounds in pride and it does not require a sleuth to realize that Dante and Ulysses are alike in many distinguishable ways. Dante views his own journey through the underworld as a trespass beyond acceptable bounds. As a poet and a philosopher, Dante was inevitably drawn to the plight of Ulysses who aspired to “gain experience of the world and of the vices and the worth of men.” If this is the very essence of Dante’s personal quest through the Inferno, why is Ulysses punished for possessing a similar desire and performing similar feats? Dante gives the answer to that question in the beginning of the canto.

The principal difference between Dante and Ulysses is that that Dante curbs his abilities, “lest they run where virtue does not guide them”, while Ulysses consistently allows free rein to his devices. The flame that swaddles Ulysses in the Inferno is meant to signify the external sign of his inner ardor, which is a curious analogue to William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell: “As I was walking among the fires of hell, delighted with the enjoyments of Genius; which to Angels look like torment and insanity”. Blake, who was heavily influenced by Dante, summarizes the view several scholars have posited: Dante is not condemning the fraudulent acts of Ulysses; he is exalting them.

The Romantics have been crucial in founding the modern perspective of Dante. Not only have several key writers of the age provided criticism on Dante, they have written poems of their own attempting to emulate Dante’s allusive and allegorical style. William Blake was one of the first writers to champion the view of Satan being the true hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost. He may have had a similar feeling about some of the people that populated Dante’s Inferno and he most certainly had a iconoclastic view of Dante’s inferno altogether. Blake was not held to be orthodox in his theological beliefs at all and he believed that he held the interpretive keys to several of his favorite books, including the holy scriptures and Dante’s The Divine Comedy. This explains why several post-Romantic readers have upheld the view that Dante could not have been orthodox in his theological beliefs and that he was employing a poetical style that demanded a particular wisdom from his readers. This returns us to our original question, what is the proper way of reading Dante’s Inferno? Dante may have been appalled by the Romantic interpretations of his poem, but there may be grounds in the poem that Dante was employing a similar method of interpretation himself.

The motivation for the Romantic reevaluation of Dante’s poem is quite simple in theory: Several of the Romantics felt that The Divine Comedy was too sophisticated and incommensurably pleasurable to suffer the passage of time with its inherent prejudices. The Romantics knew that the Divine Comedy needed reinterpretation in order to be relevant to their day and age. Books such as John Milton’s Paradise Lost also benefited from a Romantic reevaluation. Even if such interpretive methods are categorically incorrect, then Dante is probably guilty of the sin himself. His view of the classics, and even of historical texts, was highly subjective and contentious. His conception of literature was anagogical and The Divine Comedy was designed to be interpreted in an spiritual sense.

The writers of the New Testament letters consistently applied a spiritual reading to the Old Testament scriptures and even Old Testament writers could be accused of interpreting historical events and national history according to such a precept. Dante believed that he was practicing anagogical writing in The Divine Comedy. Several of the New Testament writers who inspired Dante were ambassador’s of it. But what exactly is the purpose anagogical writing? Each practitioner of the method likely had his or her own purpose and Dante is no exception. Most scholars most say that the method of anagogical writing, especially because it is highly subjective and speculative as an art, is largely determined by the author’s mystical leanings or spiritual preoccupations. For Dante, it took a shape that was distinct to him or, in other terms, the Divine Comedy is Dante’s definition of the anagogical method. He uses the art of anagogical writing to achieve practical and pedagogical ends.

Dante was evidently a voracious reader and a notable thinker of his age, and his interests were not only Christian. His mind likely poured through the classics as they became available to him. He had more than a passing fancy for history and the occult. He was enamored by the art of poetry and composed on a variety of subjects that were not strictly Christian. Upon his meeting with Beatrice he confessedly underwent a conversion that was total in its effect. Never in Dante’s poems are we completely sure if he is being literal or mystical. The same may be said of The Divine Comedy and the relationship it bears to his life and the poetic tradition. But the inferences several scholars have made, one that general readers may witness in the course of Dante’s poetic career, is that Dante was struggling to reconcile his personal beliefs within the strictures of his medieval context, not to mention the relationship of his “new life” to his old life, after undergoing the conversion illustrated in the Vita Nuova.

The sympathy Dante feels for Ulysses in the Inferno can also be explained by an autobiographical inference. Dante’s sympathy operates like penitence: his transition from being like the inferno’s many inhabitants who are occluded and tormented, to being like the remorseful on mount purgatory via his spiritual rebirth, and finally looking beyond to paradiso to “see again the stars.” When Dante frames Ulysses in the Inferno, he is able to gaze at his inky reflection up close, and witness what could have been but what is no longer, thanks to the grace of Beatrice, God, and the wellspring of imagination itself.