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