Wrapped in a shroud of fire, sputtering words from the tip of the flickering flame—this is how Ulysses appears to us in canto 26. As Dante approaches the eighth pouch of the eighth circle of hell, he sees sinners in flames; he knows he’ll find Ulysses among these “fireflies that glimmer in the valley.” The man is tied up in a flame with Diomed, both of them being punished for their ruse at Troy. Dante begs Virgil to let Ulysses speak.
When we finally put down the Inferno, Ulysses is one of the sinners we remember best. Not because he’s well known or the architect of one of the greatest schemes in history, but because, like Pier or Francesca, there’s charm, tenderness, and beauty in the way he speaks. On this point, I disagree with Robert Hollander, whose annotations explain that these aforementioned sinners are not meant to be entirely sympathetic—they’re actually self-righteous, Hollander writes, and they’re unable to see the gravity of their sins. By allowing them to speak in a manner that almost absolves them, Dante is even poking fun at them.
Dante may have been an ironist, too, but above all, he was a poet, as canto 26 proves. Here we have a Ulysses who finally returned to Ithaca and yet could not abandon adventure. He loved his wife and son and father and his home, but his heart remained tethered to the unknown. Dante’s Ulysses longed to see more. After years of travel, he and his men reached the rim of the earth, end of the world—legend foretold that any adventurer who went beyond that point would be killed. Ulysses kept going, and his ship was destroyed.
C. P. Cavafy, an early twentieth century Greek poet, also wrote about Ulysses’s lust for adventure in his poem “Ithaca”:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become,so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Cavafy tells Ulysses not to rush. Ithaca is home, but it isn’t; its real gift is that it isn’t where we are now—and every waypoint and every island that stands before Ithaca is part of what Ithaca has to offer. Dante’s Ulysses arrived home too soon, and asked too much of the tiny Greek isle. Dissatisfied, he took off again. Ithaca is a purpose but not a goal—Dante’s Ulysses lost his Ithaca when he arrived in Ithaca. The difference between Cavafy and Dante is that the former is speaking to a still-wandering hero, and the latter writes as a Ulysses who had already set off a second time.
Reading Cavafy beside Dante’s text is tragic—in this light, Cavafy’s poem is no longer a piece of advice, but a lament and a cautionary tale. We, too, may one day despair upon reaching Ithaca. What if, like Ulysses, we spent far too little time at sea, and we finally arrive at Ithaca only to find it has nothing left to offer?