ABSTRACT

In Canto Twenty-Six of the Inferno, Virgil and Dante come upon the Greek heroes Diomedes and Ulysses, who are condemned to wander as one scorching flame because of the frauds they committed together while alive. Out of the flame, Ulysses narrates the story of his death-how having reached the Pillars of Hercules and spurred his men to further adventure, he sailed his final voyage:

Ulysses’ desire for knowledge and experience, the cause of all his adventures in the Odyssey, also leads to his death. Yet although Ulysses believes that the whirlwind that destroyed his ship “pleased an Other [altrui piacque],” his narrative leaves the identity of this “Other” ambiguous: it could be the

Christian God or it could be the Greek god Poseidon finally exacting revenge for the slaughter of his immortal oxen. The problem derives, in part, from Ulysses’ failure to understand the meaning of his final vision: “a mountain, dark [bruna] / because of distance, and it seemed to me / the highest mountain I had ever seen.” The mountain, as the pilgrim Dante learns later, is Purgatory, the earthly antechamber of Paradise, and Ulysses’ brief glimpse is the closest any of the figures in the Inferno comes to seeing Providence or even the path leading to Providence. Yet in a moment of astonishing irony, heart-breaking in its affect, Dante withholds this knowledge from Ulysses. At best, the knowledge registers only as a brief and enigmatic (to Ulysses) burst of joy, “And we were glad [Noi ci allegrammo],” which immediately and in a Keatsian manner turns to “sorrow [pianto].”