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The Last Voyage of Ulysses


Inferno - Canto XXVI


Rejoice, oh Florence! You who are so grand

that through nations and oceans your fame wings,

and in Inferno see your fame expand!

Among the thieves—to say it brings me shame—

I counted five, five of your citizens.

You gain outstanding honor by their fame!

Yet if toward morning our dreams become true

you shall feel, and the day is drawing close,

what Prato, and more, prophesy for you.

Not an hour too soon if it were today!

Let the day come, since it must indeed come,

and waiting weighs on me, as my hairs gray.

 

We left that place, ascending the steep stair

we had descended, built of broken rocks.

My guide ahead, I struggling to stay near

him, we proceeded on that dismal trail,

inching up crags and jagged cliffs, so that

without both hands and feet our grip would fail.


I sorrowed then, and sorrow now again

as my mind turns back to the thing I saw.

Writing these lines, I must restrain my pen

from rushing where no goodness stands to guide me

so that, if a kind star or something greater

grants me this gift, I keep its aid beside me.

 

Just as the peasant resting on a slope

during that season when the yellow sphere

illuminating our world is least covered up,

at dusk, when the fly yields to the mosquito,

watches fireflies by millions throng the valley

where he picks grapes, perhaps, or drives a plow,

so numberless were the crackling fires that roared

through the Eighth Ditch—the spectacle that loomed

in the thick smoke beneath us as we neared.

As the man bears avenged struggled to view

the disappearing chariot of Elijah

when the steeds rose erect into the blue

till nothing of it remained to his eye

but a brief stroke of orange flame, much like

a wisp of cloudlet racing up the sky,

so quickly raced these torches through the throat

of the ditch, and though none unveiled its prize

each bathed a sinner in a blazing coat.

 

I edged onto a thin bridge close above

the brink so that, had I not clutched a rock,

I might have toppled down without a shove.

My Leader, who observed me so enraptured,

explained, “Within the fires are the spirits,

each swathed in the flame wherein it is captured.”

 “Master,” I answered, “hearing you say so

I am the surer. I already guessed

as much and meant to ask you, if you know,

who is the flame approaching with forked head

so that it seems a blaze sprung from the pyre

where Eteocles and his brother lay dead?”

“Within it are tormented,” replied the sage,

“Ulysses and Diomedes. Thus together

they face God’s wrath as Troy once faced their rage.

Within those flames they groan their crimes of earth:

the treacherous Wooden Horse that breached the gates

whereby the noble seed of Rome sprang forth.

They lament the guile because of which the shade

of Deidamia still mourns dead Achilles,

and there the Palladium’s robbery is paid.”

 

“If words can penetrate that crackling veil

as human speech,” I cried, “Master, I pray

and pray again, and may that prayer avail

a thousand—don’t move on till the horned fire

edges close by us and recounts its tale

—you see how I lean toward it in desire!”

He answered me: “Prayers such as yours deserve

to be commended. Therefore I accept it.

But see you hold your tongue in check! Reserve

the questioning to me. What your mind seeks

I understand, and they would be too proud

to answer you, perhaps, for they were Greeks.”

 

When the flame had edged close enough that place

and time seemed right, I listened as my guide

raised his deep voice in formal address thus:

“Oh you who are two spirits in one flame!

If ever I deserved while I was living,

deserved of you a great or little name

because I placed you in my lofty lines,

do not move off, and one of you recount

the way he died.” ​​​The greater horn gave signs

it would tell: first beginning to distend

its tip with muffled crackling, not unlike

an open campfire dragging in a wind,

darting it quickly back and forward, then

as if it were a tongue that spoke, it flung

a man’s hoarse voice above the crackling: ​​​​​​“When


I escaped Circe who held me shipwrecked

on Gaeta and resumed my voyage home

neither my tender son nor the respect

owed my old father nor the proper love

that might have made Penelope so glad

could subdue in me the unsated lust

to know earth through experience and motion,

to learn of men, their greatness and their flaws.

Therefore, I put forth on the open ocean

with one ship only and the dwindled band

who never deserted me. Steering our course west

past unnamed islands, bays, unscouted land,

I and my company were old and slow

when we came to the straits where Hercules

installed twin pillars so all men might know

beyond those they were not meant to explore.

On our right hand lay the low coast of Spain,

on our left hand the dark Moroccan shore.

 

"Brothers," I cried, "who through a hundred thousand

perils have now arrived to seek the West,

for this, the final vigil of our senses

remaining to us, do not ask to rest

the yearning to demand experience

of lands without inhabitants beneath

the sunset. Think upon the seed from whence

you sprang: you were not born to live like brutes

but to lead lives of worth and understanding!’

 

This brief speech made my crew so resolute

to sail that had I talked now of returning

not one of them, I think, would have turned back.

Therefore we set our prow against the morning,

making our oars wings on that insane flight

through the broad blue, leaving shore far behind us.

Already every star we knew by night

had disappeared below the watermark,

and we were five months on the ocean when

we could discern a mountain looming dark

on the horizon, tall beyond belief

and looming taller as our vessel neared.

We raised a cheer, which changed to cries of grief,

for from that New Land a whirlwind appeared

which quickly slammed our fragile ship broadside.

Three times we circled with the surge until,

on the fourth spin, the stern thrust high in air,

the prow plunged deep, as pleased Another’s will,

and then the waters locked above our heads.”


Translated by Carey Jobe

תגובה אחת


אורח
03 בספט׳ 2023

Dante clearly believed there were limits imposed by God on the pursuit of knowledge. Ulysses stepped beyond these bounds, in Dante's view. It is a decidedly Medieval attitude. Still, Dante himself was an avid pursuer of knowledge though from a Christian perspective to be sure. And without that deep human desire "to boldly go where no man has gone before," how could there ever have been a Renaissance?

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