Dante’s Ulysses and the Allegorical Journey [David Thompson]

Table of contents

Dati bibliografici

Autore: David Thompson

Tratto da: Dante Studies, with the Annual Report of the Dante Society

Numero: 85

Anno: 1967

Pagine: 33-58

1. Ulysses and the Critics

Individual characters in the Inferno have often been viewd as pojections of Dante’s own personality; and, with the possibile exception of Francesca, Ulysses has proved the most frequent object of such interpretations. Thus Benedetto Croce declared that “non one of his age was more deeply moved than Dante by the passion to know all that is knowable, and nowhere else has he given such noble expression to that noble passion as in the great figure of Ulysses.”
Bruno Nardi advanced a similar theory in an essay that set the terms for most subsequent discussions of Ulysses. He noted that Dante, like Ulysses, had been forced to wander from place to place; and he found in both Ulysses and Dante the belief that knowledge constitutes the ultimate basis of human happiness. But in approaching the mountain of the terrestrial Paradise, Ulysses violated a divine prohibition; and therein lies the follia that damns him. “Ed è tragica follia, che nasce dall’esasperazione di un bisogno insito alla stessa natura umana, nell’appagamento del quale Dante fa pur consistere la suprema perfezione dell’uomo e la superiorità di esso sul bruto: ‘Nati non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.’”
Ulysses, almirable but doomed, illustrates a profound conflict within the mind of the poet: “… alla condanna del teologo fa contrasto la commozione colla quale è rievocato il momento in cui l’eroe s’accinge ad entrar nell’alto passo. Le brevi parole colle quali Ulisse trasfonde il suo ardore ai compagni, prorompono dal più intimo convincimento della coscienza dantesca, Ulisse balza fuori, audace e intrepido, dal cuore stesso del poeta che salpa sulla tragica nave a fianco dell’eroe.” And although Mario Fubini takes issue with Nardi on some points, he holds a similar opinion about the grandeur and nobility of Ulysses’ quest, and about the relationship between Dante and his creation: “Chi non sente nell’orazion picciola di Ulisse, battere il cuore stesso di Dante?”
Finally, Hermann Gmelin gives a firm stamp of approval to Nardî's whole interpretation of Ulysses. Nardi had concluded with Ulysses as “il tipo ideale dell’esploratore e del navigatore d'ogni tempo” (p. 163), and Gmelin has Dante making him into “einer erhabenen Symbolgestalt des menschlichen Forscherdranges”—a great “Abenteurer des Geistes.” There is even in Ulysses “ein Vorfahre des Kolumbus, der ohne jede Scheu als Renaissancemensch die Entdeckung neuer Welten erstrebte.” And Gmelin too asserts the parallel between Dante and Ulysses: “Es steckt in Dantes Odysseus unendlich viel von seinem eigenen Schicksal, der ganze Trau seiner kosmischen Reise…”
But Rocco Montano will not accept this “confusione fra Dante poeta e le sue creature dannate.” He grants that Dante had felt the fascination of pure intellectual inquiry, the temptation to a vain use of the intelligence. After all, a poet can hardly represent something of which he has had no experience at all. “Ma la capacità di rivivere e di rappresentare non è attuale partecipazione” (p. 158). Montano has summarized his own revisionist position in a reply to Fubini:

… svolgevo il concetto della impossibilità che Dante avesse voluto esaltare in Ulisse un ardore di avventura e di conoscenza, di sfida all’ignoto che è tanto peculiare alla sensibilità romantica quanto sconosciuto a quella medievale . . . Mostravo che Ulisse è, nella mente di Dante, l'incarnazione di un vano e distorto ricercare, di una sete di conoscenza che per il Poeta, come per tutto il mondo medievale, era curiositas, peccato, prostitutio nostrae virtutis rationalis (p. 175).

“Sensibilità romantica”—in Montano's view, readings of the Ulysses canto have been vitiated by a false view of poetry, a faulty and outmoded aesthetics; and at the heart of his critique lies a polemic against modern Italian criticism:

Nel caso dell’Ulisse dantesco dovremo probabilmente renderci conto che una lettura puramente intuitiva e sentimentale ha per tanto tempo destato emozioni che sono in contrasto col vero spirito dell'episodio. E non è detto, naturalmente, che il lungo errore di prospettiva debba trattenerci dal leggere con migliore cognizione di causa. Si tratta, in definitiva, di rinunziare ad una sensibilità romantica che per merito o per colpa dell'idealismo crociano è durato in Italia assai più lungo di quanto si sarebbe forse mantenuta (p. 157).

Montano’s trenchant critique scores off Nardi and Fubini at many points, and we can be grateful to him for drawing some distinctions that had been too easily overlooked in the general rush to appropriate Ulysses and his creator for the modern world. We do not really need a Dante “standing with one foot in the Middle Ages and with the other saluting the rising sun of the Renaissance.” And whatever our reactions to Ulysses’ speech, it should be clear that the same author creates both the heroes and the villains and is not necessarily to be identified with either.
Yet there is a further distinction to be drawn. When Nardi and Montano refer to the Dante who does or does not find expression in the figure of Ulysses, they presumably refer to the Dante who writes the poem, Dante poeta. But we have learned to distinguish carefully between Dante the pilgrim and Dante the poet, between the pilgrim who faints in sympathy at the tale of Francesca and the poet who put her in Hell. In the case of Dante, this is more than a literary distinction between author and persona; for the Dante who wrote the poem is quite literally a different man from the one who makes the journey described in it. Conversion has made of Dante a new man; and from his new perspective he can look back upon his old self, just as Augustine has re-viewed critically his pre-conversion existence.
This essay will examine Ulysses’ various appearances in the Commedia; consider relevant aspects of the Ulysses tradition prior to Dante; and then attempt to comprehend the significance of Dante's Ulysses within the context not only of the Commedia but also of Dante’s whole literary career. I hope to show that there is no necessary contradiction between Montano's assertion that Dante does not portray himself in the figure of Ulysses and Nardi’s feeling that Ulysses represents Dante in some significant respects. I suggest that in Ulysses Dante has rendered one aspect of his pre-conversion self, that we have (42 ita dicam) the portrait of the artist as a middle-aged man.

2. Ulysses in the Commedia

Because Book VI of the Aeneid is Dante’s most important literary precedent for his descent to the underworld, a brief comparison between Aeneas' experience and Dante’s will help to highlight certain significant features of the Inferno.
In his progress through Hades, Aeneas has a series of dramatic encounters with shades that are known to him personally. First, among the unburied, he comes upon his pilot, Palinurus, who had been swept overboard en route from Sicily. Next, in the Fields of Mourning, he has a tearful encounter with Dido. And then, among the famous warriors, he meets Deiphobus, who had perished in the fall of Troy. These three represent (in a reverse temporal order) Aeneas’ past, a past that is dead; and only by re-encountering, by re-experiencing his past, could he leave it behind him: “Not until he had faced and left the unappeased guilt and empty nostalgia of his old self, could he be ready for the realities of his future.”
But Aeneas does not even see Tartarus, the closest classical equivalent to Hell. Rather, he hears about it from the Sibyl. Of the sinners who are punished there she tells him:

hic quibus invisi fratres, dum vita manebat,
pulsatusve parens aut fraus innexa clienti,
aut qui divitiis soli incubuere repertis
nec partem posuere suis (quae maxima turba est),
quique ob adulterium caesi, quique arma secuti
impia nec veriti dominorum fallere dextras,
inclusi poenam exspectant.


vendidit hic auro patriam dominumque potentem
imposuit; fixit leges pretio atque refixit;
hic thalamum invasit natae vetitosque hymenaeos:
ausi omnes immane nefas ausoque potiti.

On the basis of this, and in the light of Aeneas’ encounters thus far, we might expect to find in Tartarus a variety of nefarious individuals from the realm of his own experience: a Clytemnestra, a Paris, a Ulysses. But instead, Virgil merely provides a standard array of infamous rebels against the authority of Jupiter: the Titans, Salmoneus, Tityos, Ixion—all impressive enough in their way, but unrelated to Aeneas’ own life. The classical epic hero has no intimate contact with the classical Hell.
We may contrast this with Dante’s trip through the underworld. In enjoining him to write about what he has seen, Cacciaguida says:

tutta tua vision fa manifesta,
e lascia pur grattar dov'è la rogna;
chè se la voce tua sarà molesta
nel primo gusto, vital nutrimento
lascerà poi quando sarà digesta.
Questo tuo grido farà come vento,
che le più alte cime più percote;
e ciò non fa d’onor poco argomento.
Però ti son mostrate in queste rote,
nel monte, e nella valle dolorosa,
pur l'anime che son di fama note;
chè l'animo di quel ch'ode non posa,
nè ferma fede per esemplo ch'haia
la sua radice incognita e nascosa,
nè per altro argomento che non paia
(Par. XVII, 128-142)

In Hell, Dante does see souls that we would naturally think of as “known to fame,” the notorious sinners out of the past, both mythological (Capaneus, Jason) and historical (Pyrrhus, Brutus). Indeed, the juxtaposition of Dido, Cleopatra, and Helen (Inf. V, 61-64) shows how continuous the mythological and historical realms were in Dante's imagination.
But in keeping with the immediate, practical purpose of the poem, Dante also includes a different class of famous souls, those who would be familiar to his original audience and, in many cases, known to himself. The memorable figures of the Inferno, the figures to whom Dante devotes separate cantos (and to whom De Sanctis and a host of others have devoted separate essays), spring not from the classical past but from Dante's Italy. Francesca, Farinata, Brunetto, Nicholas, Guido, Ugolino: friend or foe, they are sometimes comparable to Dido and Deiphobus, but they are a far cry from the remote inhabitants of Tartarus. Dante's own contemporaries, not an array of traditional cameo figures, play the lead characters in his infernal cast.
However, there is one exception. Amidst these Italians from the Duecento, and yet so apparently appropriate that we tend to overlook the anomaly, stands the figure of Ulysses, whose account of his last voyage and shipwreck dominates the twenty-sixth canto and constitutes one of the acknowledged high points of the Inferno.
Dante did not have to ransack Greek mythology just to find an interesting sinner for the eighth bolgia, for in the very next canto Guido da Montefeltro provides a striking modern example of an evil counselor. Only for this bolgia, in fact, does Dante create two such elaborate depictions: he has gone far out of his usual way to include Ulysses’ story. This alone would suggest that there is something especially important and problematic about Ulysses; and our initial impression is reinforced by Dante's recurrent preoccupation with him.
After emerging from Hell, and before beginning to climb the mountain, Dante and Virgil walked along the lonely plain. Virgil washed Dante’s face; and then they came to a shore:

Venimmo poi in sul lito diserto,
che mai non vide navicar sue acque
uomo, che di tornar sia poscia esperto.
Quivi mi cinse sì come altrui piacque.
(Purg. I, 130-133)

Surely this refers to the end of Ulysses’ ill-starred voyage. The rhyme itself recalls his narrative (cf. esperto and deserto at Inf. XXVI, 98/102), and “come altrui piacque” echoes the description of his shipwreck within sight of a mountain in the southern hemisphere:

Cinque volte racceso, e tante casso
lo lume era di sotto dalla luna,
poi ch'entrati eravam nell’alto passo,
quando n’apparve una montagna bruna
per la distanza, e parvemi alta tanto
quanto veduta non n’aveva alcuna.
Noi ci allegrammo, e tosto tornò in pianto;
chè dalla nuova terra un turbo nacque,
e percosse del legno il primo canto.
Tre volte il fe’ girar con tutte l’acque,
alla quarta levar la poppa in suso,
e la prora ire in giù, com'altrui piacque,
infin che il mar fu sopra noi richiuso.
(Inf. XXVI, 130-142)

Then, further along in Purgatorio, we have an explicit reference to Ulysses. After viewing examples of zeal and sloth on the fourth terrace, Dante goes off on a rambling train of thought; his pensamento turns into a sogno; and in this dream there appears to him a femmina balba who sings bewitchingly:

‘Io son,’ cantava, ‘io son dolce Sirena,
che i marinari in mezzo mar dismago;
tanto son di piacere a sentir piena.
Io volsi Ulisse del suo cammin vago
al canto mio; e qual meco si ausa
rado sen parte, sì tutto l’appago.
(Purg. XIX, 19-24)

A donna santa appears beside Dante; she calls upon Virgil; he in turn tears open the siren's clothes and exposes her belly; and the stench awakens Dante from his dream.
Finally, when Dante is far aloft and about to ascend to the Primum Mobile, Beatrice tells him to look down and see how far he has turned. He looks—and the first thing that catches his attention is “di là da Gade il varco/folle d'Ulisse” (Par. XXVII, 82-83). So Ulysses is not just another (albeit vividly portrayed) inhabitant of Hell. He figures in each of the three cantiche; and even before entering into an analysis of these appearances we can safely assert that Dante makes him a creature of more than temporary or incidental interest.
Ulysses’ various appearances are notable enough; but even more immediately striking is the sort of thing that Dante tells us about him. Aside from the list of sins that landed Ulysses in Hell, and a few details of his story (e.g., his having stayed with Circe), Dante has invented the entire account of Ulysses, not only the final voyage but also the above version of his encounter with the siren. And he has invented these episodes not to fill gaps in the story as known to himself and his Greekless contemporaries, but (pace my fellow critics ) in direct opposition to a perfectly clear tradition.
Benvenuto da Imola shows us that Dante’s Ulysses was something of a puzzle even to the early commentators:

Est autem hic ultimo toto animo advertendum, quod illud quod autor hic scribit de morte Ulyxis non habet verum neque secundum historicam veritatem neque secundum poeticam fictionem Homeri vel alterius poetae. Dixerunt ergo aliqui et famosi quod Dantes non vidit Homerum et quod expresse erravit, nam, ut tradit Dites graecus et Dares phrygius in troiana historia, Ulyxes fuit interfectus a Telegono.

From Dares and Dictys, or from the extensive literary tradition dependent upon them, Dante could easily have learned about Ulysses’ return to Ithaca and about how he died there. And these were not the only obvious sources of information. Classical texts cast considerable light upon Ulysses’ fate; but if we consider these sources too vague, we need only turn to the various mythographers.
Hyginus, for example, gives us the various stages of Ulysses’ homeward voyage, step by step. After lying with Circe and siring Telegonus, Ulysses proceeds to Avernus for his descensus ad inferos. Then, warned by Circe, he passes successfully by the sirens, reaches home, destroys the suitors, and eventually dies at the hands of Telegonus.
I think we can assume that if Dante was the least bit curious about Ulysses, he may be expected to have found his way to one or another of these sources of information; and without laboring this point unduly, I should like to suggest that Benevenuto was right when he asserted: “Verumtamen quicquid dicatur, nulla persuasione possum adduci ad credendum quod ignoraverit illud quod sciunt etiam pueri et ignari ["as every schoolboy knows…”]; ideo dico quod hoc potius autor de industria finxit.” Dante was so interested in Ulysses that he first made a special point of including him, and then changed the accepted story in a radical fashion. But for what purpose? What had Ulysses to do with Dante, and Dante with Ulysses?

3. Ulysses among the Allegorists

If the bare outline of Ulysses’ story was clear enough, the interpretation of it had varied considerably; and Dante was not the first at whose hands the character of Ulysses had undergone a metamorphosis.
Homer's Odysseus was a comparatively complicated man, realistic, resourceful, possessed of a strong intellectual curiosity—in many ways, an “untypical hero.” But in contrast to our notion of The Wanderer, the hero of the Odyssey had a very simple desire: to return home. His curiosity may impel him to hear the sirens’ song, and he does indeed seem rather to dally along the way; but the goal of his journey is Ithaca, and from the opening council of the gods we know that he will reach that goal, by hook or by crook. Even Nausicaa and the Phaeacian Utopia cannot stay his return to Penelope.
Odysseus was far more adaptable than his rather stolid peers, and later writers seized upon him for a variety of purposes: his “complex personality becomes broken up into various simple types—the politigze, the romantic amorist, the sophisticated villain, the sensualist, the philosophic traveller, and others.” His detractors generally concentrated on his Trojan exploits. Of course, he comes off rather badly in the Aeneid; and Virgil (along with Statius) supplied Dante with an account of the sins for which Ulysses is punished:

E dentro dalla lor fiamma si geme
l'aguato del caval che fe’ la porta
ond’ uscì de’ Romani il gentil seme.
Piangevisi entro l’arte per che morta
Deidamia ancor si duol d'Achille,
e del Palladio pena vi si porta.
(Inf. XXVI, 58-63)

Since Virgil is Dante’s mentor, and since the literary tradition (Latin and vernacular) offered Dante a consistently unfavorable picture of Ulysses, it might seem almost inevitable that he should end up in Hell. After all, Dante’s pro-Trojan bias can place even Ripheus among the blessed. But another tradition presented quite a different view of Ulysses.
Greek allegorical interpretation of Homer received part of its impetus from the attacks of philosophers who considered his picture of the gods a scandal. Plato’s famous (or infamous) condemnation of the poet is merely the culmination of a long series of criticisms; as early as the sixth century B.C. Xenophanes had complained: “Both Homer and Hesiod have attributed to the gods all things that are shameful and a reproach among mankind: theft, adultery, and mutual deception.” Granted, replied Homer’s apologists—if we read him literally. But Homer's gods are actually personifications of natural forces, of the four elements, etc. Early Greek thinkers were mostly natural philosophers, and allegorica! interpretation found their various systems of thought already expressed in the Homeric poems: Homeros physiologei. And since cosmogonical myths are largely absent from the Odyssey, the allegorists concentrated upon the Iliad, whose divine protagonists were easily identified with cosmic forces.
Later modes of allegorical interpretation are also a good guide to the currents of philosophical thought; and after Socrates had given Greek philosophy a distinctly ethical orientation, allegorists came to consider Homer not a scientist but a moralist: Homeros paideuei.
Now the Odyssey became the focus of their attention; and philosophers of various sects could agree that Odysseus represented the human ideal, the model of perfect wisdom. The Cynics stressed his endurance, his indifference to hunger and pain: he was their ideal ascetic. The Stoics had a similar view of him, although they tended to emphasize the elements of labor and struggle in his life: “… [Ulixen et Herculem] Stoici nostri sapientes pronuntiaverunt, invictos laboribus et contemptatores voluptatis et victores omnium terrorum.”
Ulysses’ adventures come to represent the wise man's battles against many forms of vice and temptation: he struggles against—and overcomes —the passions with the aid of gods (Hermes, Athena) who represent reason and wisdom. And as Socrates had rejected the study of the external world to concentrate on man, so Ulysses’ leaving Calypso to return to Penelope represents the renunciation of science for philosophy, the true wisdom.
This idea of Ulysses as the Sage, the perfect Wise Man triumphant over passion and adversity, finds expression in many Latin texts – nowhere perhaps more strikingly than in the conclusion to Apuleius’ De Deo Socratiss:

Nec aliud te in eodem Ulixe Homerus docet, qui semper ei comitem voluit esse prudentiam; quam poetico ritu Minervam nuncupavit. Igitur, hac eadem comitante, omnia horrenda subiit, omnia adversa superavit. Quippe, ea adjutrice, Cyclopis specus introivit, sed egressus est: Solis boves vidit, sed abstinuit: ad inferos demeavit, sed ascendit. Eadem sapientia comitante, Scyllam praeternavigavit, nec ereptus est: Charybdi conseptus est, nec retentus est: Circae poculum bibit, nec mutatus est: ad Lotophagos accessit, nec remansit: Sirenas audiit, nec accessit.

Ulysses as a Platonist's hero! The reconciliation of Homer and Plato would seem well-nigh complete; but Neoplatonists carry the process still further, and Plotinus can even compare the catharsis of the soul with the journey of Ulysses:

Qui itaque modus? quae machina? quae ratio, qua quis inexistimabilem pulchritudinem contempletur?... Abeamus hinc, amici, in patriam dulcem confugientes. Quaenam igitur fugiendi ratio, et qua via veneficia Circes Calypsusque devitabimus? Quod quidem licet perobscura Ulixis significat fabula: quae illum fingit manere nolentem, quamvis spectacula illi oculis jucunda occurrerent, et caetera, quae sensus oblectant, promitterentur. Patria vero nostra ibi est, unde venimus, ibidem quoque pater.

The One, Intelligence and the Soul “constitute the beloved native land to which Ulysses who is the wandering soul in the sensible world is bound to return; and, like Ulysses, the soul must flee from the enchantment of sensible things, from the charms of Circe.” This Ulysses is a product of the third phase of ancient allegorical exegesis, the mystical or theological (Homeros theologei).
While Stoicism and Epicureanism were being irreparably overthrown, the second century saw a revival of Platonism in such figures as Apuleius and Numenius. Platonism was taken up again partly because it satisfied religious needs, just as did the mystery religions which flourished at this time. These religions promised a rebirth of the soul; and this idea of renewal also figures large in the Hermetic writings. Bréhier notes that

these transformations of the soul appear to us as mere changes of internal states. But this could not be the case for the Hellenic imagination, which had a far too concrete conception of the soul not to imagine an inward transformation as a change of actual place, a passage from one place to another. The ascent or descent of the soul became a journey across the world.

To the Neoplatonists, Homer was a truly inspired poet, not a mere imitator of imitations as Plato would have him. He drew his knowledge directly from the divine fount and dispensed it in a veiled and enigmatic form which the initiated would understand. To Numenius, Ulysses’ voyage was not just a series of adventures, or even a series of moral triumphs; Ulysses’ journey represented the journey of the soul. The human soul descends from the heavens into the realm of generation and becoming, and is there a prisoner of the flesh; but eventually it regains its heavenly fatherland. Ulysses’ long wanderings on the sea are an image of the soul’s troubled exile in the world of matter; and the final trial imposed upon him by Tiresias (to travel until he should reach a people ignorant of the sea) signified the flight of the soul beyond this material realm.
Thus, through a process of interpretation and reinterpretation, Ulysses’ adventures became the great archetype for any journey or process, physical or spiritual; and whether they traverse the way of our life or the streets of Dublin, we will do well to view Ulysses’ descendants through a Platonic glass.

4. Ulysses and Aeneas

Seneca had complained about people who wasted their time in vain speculations about Ulysses’ route:

Quaeris, Vlixes ubi erraverit, potius quam efficias, ne nos semper erremus? Non vacat audire, utrum inter Italiam et Siciliam iactatus sit an extra notum nobis orbem, neque enim potuit in tam angusto error esse tam longus; tempestates nos animi cotidie iactant et nequitia in omnia Vlixes mala inpellit. Non deest forma, qua sollicitet oculos, non hostis; hinc monstra effera et humano cruore gaudentia, hinc insidiosa blandimenta aurium, hinc naufragia et tot varietates malorum. Hoc me doce, quomodo patriam amem, quomodo uxorem, quomodo patrem, quomodo ad haec tam honesta vel naufragus navigem.

Ulysses interests the Stoic as an wie exemplar of a man who loved his country, wife and father, and who in the face of difficulties managed to win through to his honorable domestic goal.
Dante has Ulysses’ speech open on exactly the opposite note:

… Quando
mi diparti’ da Circe, che sottrasse
me più d’un anno là presso a Gaeta,
prima che sì Enea la nominasse;
nè dolcezza di figlio, nè la pieta
del vecchio padre, nè il debito amore,
lo qual dovea Penelope far lieta,
vincer poter dentro da me l’ardore
ch’i'ebbi a divenir del mondo esperto,
e degli vizii umani e del valore.
(Inf. XXVI, 90-99)

In the belief that Dante had transferred Sinon’s sentiment to Ulysses, Edward Moore cited these lines as the source for Ulysses’ speech:

Nec mihi iam patriam antiquam spes ulla videndi,
Nec dulcis natos exoptatumque parentem.
(Aen, II, 137-138)

Pietro di Dante had cited: “Ascanium patremque meum iuxtaque Creusam” (Aen, II, 666) —which makes more sense, in that we have son, father and wife (and in the same order, as Pietro pointed out). Ulysses makes no mention of patria. Also in this connection, we might note Venus’ words to her son:

non prius aspicies ubi fessum aetate parentem
liqueris Anchisen, superat coniunxne Creusa
Ascaniusque puer?
(Aen. II, 596-598)

These last two citations give us a hint of what Dante is up to. While Ulysses was wandering around the Mediterranean, Aeneas and his men were also on a voyage, making their laborious way to Italy; and Dante is at some pains to establish his Ulysses as an anti-Aeneas.
Among Ulysses’ crimes was “l’aguato del caval che fe’ la porta ond' uscì de’ Romani il gentil seme” (cf. “Considerate la vostra semenza” at line 118); he refers to his being held by Circe near Gaeta “prima che sì Enea la nominasse”; and Ulysses’ thoroughgoing rejection of pieta(s) makes him the opposite of pius Aeneas, who was introduced at the outset as “quel giusto figliuol d’Anchise, che venne da Troia” (Inf. I, 73-74), and “di Silvio lo parente” (II, 13). And we may consider especially the way in which Ulysses inspires his men to make their final voyage:

“O frati,” dissi, “che per cento milia
perigli siete giunti all’occidente,
a questa tanto picciola vigilia
de’ nostri sensi ch'è del rimanente,
non vogliate negar l'esperienza,
diretro al sol, del mondo senza gente.
Considerate la vostra semenza:
fatti non foste a viver come bruti,
ma per seguir virtute e conoscenza.”
(Inf. XXVI, 112-120)

For a comparable exhortation, the commentators naturally refer us to the speech in which Aeneas, after a storm has driven them off course to Africa, tries to encourage his men with hopes of better things to come:

O socii (neque enim ignari sumus ante malorum),
o passi graviora, dabit deus his quoque finem.
vos et Scyllaeam rabiem penitusque sonantis
accestis scopulos, vos et Cyclopia saxa
experti: revocate animos maestumque timorem
mittite; forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.
per varios casus, per tot discrimina rerum
tendimus in Latium, sedes ubi fata quietas
ostendunt; illic fas regna resurgere Troiae.
durate, et vosmet rebus servate secundis.
(Aen. I, 198-207)

But let us pursue our Quellenforschung a bit further. Aeneas’ speech in turn had been modeled upon that in which Odysseus exhorted his men as they approached Scylla and Charybdis:

Friends, hitherto we have been in no wise ignorant of sorrow; surely this evil that besets us now is no greater than when the Cyclops penned us in his hollow cave by brutal strength; yet even thence we made our escape through my valour and counsel and wit; these dangers, too, methinks we shall some day remember.
(Od. XII, 208-212)

Book V lists numerous passages in which Virgil is alleged to have borrowed from Homer. Macrobius, with a generosity that has not characterized all critics before and after him, thinks that Virgil improved on his model at many points; and as an example he quotes Aeneid II, 198-203, along with Odyssey XII, 208-212. He remarks: “Ulixes ad socios unam commemoravit aerumnam: hic ad sperandum praesentis mali absolutionem gemini casus hortatur eventu…. Sed et hoc, quod vester adjecit, solacii fortioris est. suos enim non tantum exemplo evadendi, sed et spe futurae felicitatis animavit, per hos labores non solum sedes quietas, sed et regna promittens” (V, xi, 7-8). Macrobius had already made several comparisons between the Homeric and Virgilian texts, providing in the process a good deal of information about the 0dyssey and its hero; and here he not only makes an explicit comparison between Odysseus and Aeneas but also an important point about the lines (204-207) in which Virgil added to the substance of Odysseus’ speech. Besides an end to their labors, Aeneas offers his men the prospect of empire; and although he still thinks of it as merely a revived Troy, the regna he promises will prove to be the imperium Romanum that plays such an important part in Dante’s thought.
Ulysses and his men are on their own, relying upon their innate qualities, in the pursuit of “virtute e conoscenza” – which seem to consist in experiencing some unspecified “mondo senza gente.” Aeneas, on the other hand, relying on divine guidance (“deus dabit finem”), makes for a definite goal, his patria (“tendimus in Latium”; cf. Aen. IV, 347: “hic amor, haec patria est”):

ch’ei fu dell’alma Roma e di suo impero
nell’empireo ciel per padre eletto:
la quale e il quale (a voler dir lo vero)
fu stabilito per lo loco santa,
u’ siede il successor del maggior Piero.
(Inf. II, 20-25)

Moreover, Aeneas is just recovering from a shipwreck and about to begin his hesitating but fate-driven course to Italy, while Ulysses is starting a voyage that will end in shipwreck “com’altrui piacque.” Ulysses’ speech echoes Aeneas’; but their differing situations and attitudes are a measure of the gulf between them, of the extent to which Ulysses appears as the antitype of Aeneas.
This contrast between Ulysses and Aeneas (which is ultimately a contrast between Greeks and Romans) is later reinforced implicitly by Dante's juxtaposition of materials. Purgatorio XVII, at the center of the poem, discusses disordered love as the principle of sin; and Canto XVIII continues with an exposition about the nature of love. Dante then witnesses the purgation of sloth on the fourth terrace. The examples of zeal are driven by “buon volere e giusto amor” (96), while in contrast, as examples of sloth, we have the Hebrews who did not make it to Canaan and the Trojans whom Aeneas had to leave behind in Sicily:

Diretro a tutti dicean: ‘Prima fue
morta la gente a cui il mar s’aperse,
che vedesse Jordan le erede sue’;
e, ‘Quella che l'affanno non sofferse
fino alla fine col figliuol d’Anchise,
sè stessa a vita senza gloria offerse.
(Purg. XVIII, 133-138)

Before he falls asleep, the last words Dante hears concern those who did not last to the end of the journey, those who had no heart for establishing the Roman Empire. He then proceeds to dream about the siren who lured Ulysses off his course: Ulysses’ divagation is measured against the steadfastness of Aeneas.
A similar pattern appears in Paradiso. Just before looking down at Ulysses’ varco folle, Dante heard St. Peter's scathing denunciation of the Church, which had ended:

Del sangue nostro Caorsini e Guaschi
s’apparecchian di bere; o buon principio,
a che vil fine convien che tu caschi!
Ma l’alta provvidenza, che con Scipio
difese a Roma la gloria del mondo,
soccorrà tosto, sì com'io concipio.
(Par. XXVII, 58-63)

Again, a reference to Roman glory precedes the reintroduction of Ulysses; and his mad course contrasts sharply with the providential course of Roman history.
Even more than the Hebrews, the Romans were in Dante's eyes a chosen people; and this consideration should help us to appreciate the dramatic situation of Inferno XXVI. Between the False Counselor and the Christian poet (whose poetic testament is to be a form of counsel) stands Virgil, Dante’s counselor and the spur to Dante’s journey. And as Rome mediated between the pagan and the Christian worlds, so Virgil mediates between Ulysses and Dante, between the great figure of classical wisdom and the pilgrim pursuing a course that confounds that wisdom: “Quoniam et Judaei signa petunt, et Graeci sapientiam quaerunt: nos autem praedicamus Christum crucifixum, Judaeis quidem scandalum, gentibus autem stultitiam, ipsis autem vocatis Judaeis, atque Graecis, Christum Dei virtutem, et Dei sapientiam; quia quod stultum est Dei sapientius est hominibus, et quod infirmum est Dei fortius est hominibus.”

5. Ulysses and Dante

The Commedia relates not a dream vision, a static picture of the after life, but rather a dynamic process, Dante’s pilgrimage to God. And Dante's own particular journey has in turn a further significance; for his physical progress to the Empyrean represents also the Christian’s itinerarium mentis ad Deum in this life.
A bodily journey as an allegory of the soul’s journey to God—how far are we from the Odyssey of the Neoplatonists? Or from the Aeneid as allegorized by Bernard Silvestris? Bernard glosses Aeneas as spiritus humanus; and his glosses on Aeneas’ spiritual itinerary usually draw upon the Neoplatonic-Christian allegorical tradition: e.g., “in hac vita itur ad contemplationem, in alia ad ora, i.e., ad videndum facie ad faciem.”
If this sounds more relevant to Dante than to Virgil, we should not be too surprised; for many features of Dante’s dual journey have proven comprehensible only within this same context. For example, at the outset Dante walked “sì che il piè fermo sempre era il più basso” (Inf. I, 30) not because of an irregular terrain or for any anatomical reason, but because one of the “feet of his soul” was lame. He advances to the Earthly Paradise on these feet of the soul; and then for his flight to God he needs the “wings of the soul,” which bear him aloft to the point of his final illumination:

Veder voleva, come si convenne
l’imago al cerchio, e come vi s'indova;
ma non eran da ciò le proprie penne,
se non che la mia mente fu percossa
da un fulgore, in che sua voglia venne.
(Par XXXIII, 137-141)

Though these wings of the soul are ultimately Platonic, the Christian flight involves not the reassumption of plumage lost during a fall into the material realm, but rather a metamorphosis:
O superbi Cristian miseri lassi,
che, della vista della mente infermi,
fidanza avete ne’ ritrosi passi;
non v'accorgete voi, che noi siam vermi
nati a formar l’angelica farfalla,
che vola alla giustizia senza schermi?
(Purg. X, 121-126)

Virgil can take Dante part of the way, through the realm of human nature; but Dante’s translation to the supernatural order is possible only with the aid of sanctifying grace, and he must be endowed with wings by Beatrice (“… colei/ch'all’alto volo ti vestì le piume”).
Dante’s is not the only flight in the poem: Inferno XXVI also dramatizes a metaphorical volo, this time a flight that failed:

Li miei compagni fec’ io si acuti,
con questa orazion picciola, al cammino,
che appena poscia gli avrei ritenuti.
E volta nostra poppa nel mattino,
de’ remi facemmo ali al folle volo.
(Inf. XXVI, 121-125)

If Dante thus describes Ulysses’ journey in the same terms he uses of his own, we should be alert to the possibility that Ulysses’ journey also has a metaphorical significance. And we need not venture very far afield to discover its relevance.
At several points, the Inferno establishes a parallel between Ulysses’ voyage and Dante’s present journey. We will recall that Ulysses urged his men to seek esperienza, and then we note that Virgil leads Dante through Hell “per dar lui esperienza piena” (Inf. XXVIII, 48). Ulysses’ cammino recalls Dante's (Inf. I, 35); and the alto passo that Ulysses enters must bring to mind “lo passo/che non lasciò giammai persona viva” (Inf. I, 26-27). Dante had expressed grave reservations about making the journey in the first place:

Ma io perchè venirvi? o chi ’l concede?
io non Enea, io non Paulo sono;
me degno a ciò nè io nè altri ’l crede.
Perchè se del venire io m’abbandono,
temo che la venuta non sia folle.
(Inf. II, 31-35)

And folle is the very word that both Ulysses and Dante apply to Ulysses’ flight.
Then later, when Beatrice is passing judgment upon Dante, he confesses how he had gone astray:

Piangendo dissi: ‘Le presenti cose
col falso lor piacer volser miei passi,
tosto che il vostro viso si nascose.’
(Purg. XXXI, 34-36)

This falso piacere may well recall the siren’s piacere, especially when Beatrice goes on to rebuke Dante in terms reminiscent of that dream in Purgatorio XIX:

Tuttavia, perchè mo vergogna porte
del tuo errore, e perchè altra volta
udendo le Sirene sie più forte,
pon giù il seme del piangere, ed ascolta;
sì udirai come in contraria parte
mover doveati mia carne sepolta.
Mai non t’appresentò natura o arte
piacer, quanto le belle membra in ch’io
rinchiusa fui, e sono in terra sparte:
e se il sommo piacer sì ti fallio
per la mia morte, qual cosa mortale
dovea poi trarre te nel suo disio?
Ben ti dovevi, per lo primo strale
delle cose fallaci, levar suso
diretro a me che non era più tale.
Non ti dovea gravar le penne in giuso,
ad aspettar più colpi, o pargoletta,
o altra vanità con sì breve uso.
Nuovo augelletto due o tre aspetta;
ma dinanzi dagli occhi dei pennuti
rete si spiega indarno o si saetta.
(Purg. XXXI, 43-63)

Instead of following the way set for him, Dante had flown off course, lured by the siren song. He had been something of a Ulysses; and we can further infer that Ulysses’ metaphorical flight represents a spiritual course once pursued by Dante himself until it ended in disaster.
This much is suggested by Dante’s text; but it may well be objected, why speak of a “spiritual course”? Did not Ulysses’ siren represent the temptations of the flesh? And what is so spiritual about Dante’s siren-like pargoletta? Is Dante not simply confessing that he had indeed been attracted by the donna pietosa after Beatrice’s death? Perhaps. But Dante’s confrontation with Beatrice is the central event of the poem and the climax of the most important relationship of his life; and unless we wish to assume that Beatrice is displaying, after all those years, an inordinate feminine pique, we had best assume that Dante’s charmer was more than just a Florentine augelletta. To grasp her significance, and the significance of Dante’s relation to Ulysses, we shall have to move for a moment outside the poem itself; for Beatrice's accusation must be viewed within the context of Dante’s whole literary and spiritual career. And that career must be viewed within a far more ancient context.
We observed above that in late antiquity Ulysses had become a figure of sapientia and his journey an allegory for the journey of the soul. So rich was his story in metaphorical implications that many authors had this paradigm in mind even when they did not mention Ulysses explicitly, as in Plotinus’ description of the contemplative:

Tertium denique genus hominum est divinum, in quo quidem illi sunt, qui et majore potentia et perspicacia oculorum freti supernatam lucem acute suspiciunt, ad eamque perspectam se prorsus attollunt, inferiores nebulas et caliginem transcendentes, et, cum transcenderint, ibi permanent, haec omnia prorsus despicientes, nec aliter regione superna tanquam vera et propria delectantur, quam peregrinus post longos errores legitimae tandem patriae restitutus.
(Enn.V, ix, 1)

St. Augustine also used Ulysses’ voyage as a paradigm for the vita philosophica. He develops the metaphor brilliantly (if at rather too great length for quotation here) in the preface to his De Beata Vita, written when he was much under the influence of the Neoplatonists; and if this were his last word on the subject of philosophy we might well construe Ulysses’ voyage as a noble Augustinian endeavor. But later Augustine took quite a different view of the philosophic texts he had once embraced; and the central chapters of the Confessions are an impassioned polemic against the Platonists. He tells how he had found much in their books that accorded with what the Scriptures related about God; but he also tells how he found them lacking the most important things of all:

quia vero in sua propria venit et sui eum non receperunt, quotquot autem receperunt eum, dedit eis potestatem filios dei fieri credentibus in nomine eius, non ibi legi. Item legi, quia verbum, deus, non ex carne, non ex sanguine neque ex voluntate viri neque ex voluntate carnis, sed ex deo natus est; sed quia verbum caro facius est et habitavit in nobis, non ibi legi. ... qui autem cothurno tamquam doctrinae sublimioris elati non audiunt dicentem: discite a me, quoniam mitis sum et bumilis corde, et invenietis requiem animabus vestris, etsi cognoscunt deum, non sicut deum glorificant aut gratias agunt, sed evanescunt in cogitationibus suis et obscuratur insipiens cor eorum; dicentes se esse sapientes stulti fiunt.

Disillusioned at last with his former course, Augustine embarks upon another journey: “Et inde admonitus redire ad memet ipsum intravi in intima mea duce te et potui, quoniam factus es adiutor meus” (VII, x, 16).
The philosophic voyage is not the way after all; and Augustine could well agree with the warning issue by his contemporary, Paulinus of Nola:

Esto Peripateticus Deo, Pythagoreus mundo; verae in Christo sapientiae praedicator, et tandem tacitus vanitati, perniciosam istam inanium dulcedinem litterarum, quasi illos patriae oblitteratores de baccarum suavitate Lotophagos, et Sirenarum carmina, blandimentorum nocentium cantus evita… [Sirenas] oportet ultra Ulyxis astutiam cauti non auribus tantum, sed et oculis obseratis et animo quasi navigio praetervolante fugiamus, ne sollicitati delectatione letifera in criminum saxa rapiamur et scopulo mortis adfixi naufragium salutis obeamus.

As Courcelle observes: “C’est la lecture des philosophes qui est interdite; l’héroisation par la culture est, au gré de Paulin, un erreur funeste.”
Therefore there are excellent grounds for seeing Ulysses’ voyage as a philosophic flight, and the sirens as not carnal but intellectual temptations. Now Dante’s two major changes in the Ulysses story were (1) having his homeward journey broken off by a quest for knowledge; and (2) having him diverted by the sirens. The legendary and allegorical Ulysses did no such things: on this all authorities were agreed. But if our inference is correct, that Ulysses’ voyage represents an earlier enterprise of Dante's, then Dante’s career should evidence a similar divagation; and this is exactly the case.
If we are prepared to view the sirens as intellectual temptations, we may also be prepared to take Dante at his word when he claims that the donna pietosa was really Lady Philosophy. To Grandgent, Dante's attempt to convince us of this in the Convivio was a glaring instance of bad faith on his part; and he remarks that “it is noteworthy that this treatise was never finished. Dante’s conscience, apparently, was ill at ease; and here, in the Commedia, he at last tells the whole truth, admitting that his love for the pargoletta was not merely an innocent devotion to that ‘figlia d’Iddio, regina di tutto, nobilissima e bellissima Filosophia' (Conv. II, xiii, 71-72), but also, and originally, a sentiment deserving reprobation.” There certainly was such a real lady; for she appeared in the Vita Nuova, and that is not an allegorical work. But Dante never says that the lady represented only Lady Philosophy, that he wanted to allegorize her away. His lengthy explanation of the literal level of his canzone (Voi che intendendo) should suggest that there was something real there to talk about; and James E. Shaw has shown that there is no contradiction between the lady’s being real and her being a symbol of philosophy according to the author’s “sentenza vera.” The one does not cancel the other.
Therefore, when a real Beatrice accuses Dante of having been lured off course by a real lady, we need not call this a renunciation of his former allegory; and we need not rush to judgment upon Dante himself. But we should see it as a denunciation of his own former pursuit of “virtute e conoscenza” in his philosophical-ethical treatise, the Convivio. As usual, Dante assumes on the reader’s part a familiarity with his earlier works; and the alert reader is to realize that he is now issuing a palinode to one of them.
Ulrich Leo has documented in great detail the fundamental differences between the Convivio on the one hard and the Vita Nuova and Commedia on the other. In the Convivio, the author's guides are reason and faith, while in the works concerned with Beatrice they are seeing and vision; and “it is evident that, once the poets spirit found itself filled with this greatest of all his religious symbols—the experience of his eyes confronted with the reality of supernatural light, a symbol which, besides being religious more than philosophical, is poezic and not prosaic—he had to renounce his philosophical and ethical prose writing, per correr migliori acque of religious poetry.”
Leo’s distinction is important; but it still does not explain why Dante “had to” abandon the Convivio. The Commedia represents a return to the mode of direct vision, which Dante had originally followed before going off on an abortive philosophical flight. But this venture into philosophy was not just another way of writing, which Dante could assume or drop as his muse required: in Beatrice’s terms, it was a falling away that had brought Dante nearly to damnation:

Alcun tempo il sostenni col mio volto;
mostrando gli occhi giovinetti a lui,
meco il menava in dritta parte volto.
Sì tosto come in sulla soglia fui
di mia seconda etade, e mutai vita,
questi si tolse a me, e diessi altrui.
Quando di carne a spirto era salita,
e bellezza e virtù cresciuta m'era,
fu’ io a lui men cara e men gradita;
e volse i passi suoi per via non vera,
imagini di ben seguendo false,
che nulla promission rendono intera.
Nè impetrare ispirazion mi valse,
con le quali ed in sogno ed altrimenti
lo rivocai; sì poco a lui ne calse.
Tanto giù cadde, che tutti argomenti
alla salute sua eran già corti,
fuor che mostrargli le perdute genti.
Per questo visitai l’uscio dei morti,
ed a colui che l’ha quassù condotto,
li preghi miei piangendo furon porti.
(Purg. XXX, 121-141)

Or in Paulinus’ terms, Dante had been headed for a naufragium salutis; and we need hardly wonder at the harshness of Beatrice’s indictment.
Ulysses’ voyage is an image of the misguided philosophical Odyssey; and Dante’s dream in Purgatorio XIX dramatizes how he saw the light, with the aid of Virgil and Beatrice. The Convivio is unfinished because it represented a via non vera that led toward spiritual shipwreck: Philosophy cannot do what Boethius’ lady had claimed, and Dante must make a different journey, the Augustinian journey into the self.
In this perspective, we can appreciate the apparently gratuitous allusion to Ulysses at the end of Pyrgatorio I. Dante had already represented himself as a shipwreck in the metaphorical equivalent of the waters in which Ulysses drowned; and when Dante and Virgil walk along the shore “com’uom che torna alla perduta strada” (Purg. I, 119), it marks his return to the way Beatrice had set for him in the first place, the via salutis that he had for a while abandoned. Ulysses comes to ruin where he does, not because he violated a divine prohibition in approaching the mountain, but because Dante wants him there to emphasize the contrast between his own present upward course and his own previous folle volo.

Thus both Nardi and Montano are partially right. The Dante of the Convivio does indeed find expression in Ulysses; our author writes whereof he knows. And this earlier Dante is judged by his post-conversion successor, who could well agree with much of the critique that Montano levels against Ulysses.
Dante’s version of the Ulysses story is eccentric not because he lacked information but because he has adapted it to depict his own spiritual history. However, Ulysses’ role in this philosophical palinode does not make it irrelevant that he was also judged against Aeneas. The literal level of the poem has its own integrity and validity, which is not obliterated by a further allegorical significance. And just as Rome and Virgil mediated between the Greek and the Christian, so Aeneas is the bridge between the one level of significance and the other; for despite his original protestation, Dante does prove to be an Aeneas after all, in quest of “quella Roma onde Cristo è romano.”

University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Date: 2022-12-27