Inferno -- Canto XXVI

Evil Counselors, Ulysses







9 Prato, a town near Florence, seems here to represent her neighbor’s hostile attitude toward her.
















34 Elisha watched Elijah ascend into heaven in a chariot of fire (2 Kings 2:11-24).











54 Eteocles and Polynices, twin sons of Oedipus, quarreled over the Theban throne and provoked the war of the seven kings against Thebes.

56 Ulysses and Diomede, the Greek heroes, are punished in the eighth pocket for evil counselors because of their plot to deceive the Trojans with the wooden horse in which they hid until, within the city, they opened the gates to their army which destroyed the city. They also had Achilles abandon Deidamia to join in the Trojan campaign (l. 62). Ulysses and Diomede stole the Palladium, a statue of Pallas Athene (l. 63), to secure victory for the Greeks.


















91 Ulysses tells of being detained by the sorceress Circe, who had turned his men to beasts, on the island of Aeaea, near Gaeta in southern Italy between Rome and Naples and named by Aeneas for his nurse Caieta.

96 Penelope was his long suffering wife.







108 The Pillars of Hercules, now Gibraltar, in classical times considered to be the western limit of the known world.

















135 The peak is Mount Purgatory in the southern hemisphere.

           Be glad, Florence, for you are so great
           That over sea and land you flap your wings
           And throughout all of hell they spread your name.
           Among the thieves I found five citizens
5          Of yours — I am ashamed of who they were —
           And you are not raised to any heights of honor.
           But if near dawn the dreams we have are true,
           Then you shall feel, a little while from now,
           What Prato and the others crave for you.
10        If it already happened it should not be
           Too soon; I would it had, since it must be so!
           The longer my wait, the heavier my burden.
           We left there, and up by the jutting rocks
           That served as stairs for our descent
15        My guide climbed once more and pulled me after.
           And we followed along our solitary way
           Among the crags and rockpiles of the ridge;
           Without our hands our footing would have failed.
           It grieved me then and now again it grieves me
20        When I direct my mind to what I saw
           And more than usually I curb my talent
           Lest it rush in where virtue fails to guide;
           So, if a friendly star or something better
           Has given me the gift, I don’t gainsay it.
25        As many fireflies as the peasant — who
           Rests on a hillside in the season when
           The one that lights the world hides his face least
           And when the flies make way for the mosquitos —
           Sees glittering below him in the valley
30        Where perhaps he harvests grapes and plows,
           So many flames everywhere enkindled
           The eighth pocket, as I myself perceived
           As soon as I was there where one sees bottom.
           And just as he who avenged himself with bears
35        Beheld Elijah’s chariot departing
           With the rearing horses rising up to heaven,
           But never could have followed it with his eyes
           Except for the one flame that he kept watching
           Just like a little cloud sailing skyward:
40        In this way each flame moved through the throat
           Of that deep ditch, none showing what it stole,
           Though every flame secreted its own sinner.
           I stood straight, then leaned out on the bridge
           To look — had I not grabbed a jutting rock
45        I would have toppled off without a push!
           And my guide, seeing me so attentive,
           Said, "Within those fires there are souls,
           Each one swathed in its self-scorching torment."
           "My master," I replied, "by hearing you
50        I’m even surer, but already I’d concluded
           It was so, and wanted to ask you this:
           "Who’s inside that approaching flame so split
           On top that it seems to rise out of the pyre
           Where Eteocles lay beside his brother?"
55        "Within that flame Ulysses and Diomede
           Suffer tortures," he told me; "they go together
           In punishment as once they went in wrath;
           "And there inside their flame they grieve the ruse
           By which the horse became the gate through which
60        The Roman’s noble seed has issued forth.
           "There they mourn the trick that makes the slain
           Deidamia still weep for Achilles,
           And there they pay for the Palladium."
           "If it is possible for them to talk
65        From within these flames," I said, "master, I pray
           And pray again (may my prayer count a thousand!)
           "That you will not deny my waiting here
           Until the flame with two horns comes this way:
           You see how I bend toward it with a passion!"
70        And he said to me, "Your request deserves
           High praise, and for that reason, it is granted.
           But you be certain to restrain your tongue.
           "Allow me to talk to them: I comprehended
           What is your wish, but they may show disdain,
75        Since they were Greeks, for your speaking to them."
           After the flame had come to us, my guide,
           Judging the time and place now to be ripe,
           Spoke, and these are the words I heard him say:
           "O you who here are two within one fire,
80        If I merited from you while I was living,
           If I merited from you much praise or little
           "When in the world I wrote my lofty lines,
           Do not leave, but let one of you tell where,
           By his own doing, he lost his way and died."
85        The greater of the horns of ancient flame
           Started so to tremble, murmuring,
           That it seemed like a flame breasting the wind.
           And then, shaking the tip this way and that,
           As if it were a tongue about to talk,
90        It launched outward a voice that uttered, "When
           "I set sail from Circe who had ensnared me
           For more than a year there near Gata —
           Before Aeneas had given it that name —
           "Not fondness for my son nor sense of duty
95        To my aged father nor the love I owed
           Penelope to bring her happiness
           "Could overmaster in me the deep longing
           Which I had to gain knowledge of the world
           And of the vices and virtues of mankind.
100       "I embarked on the vast and open sea
           With but one boat and that same scanty crew
           Of my men who had not deserted me.
           "On one shore and the other I saw as far
           As Spain, far as Morocco, Sardinia,
105       And the other islands the sea bathes about.
           "I and my shipmates by then were old and slow
           When we came at long last to the close narrows
           Where Hercules had set up his stone markers
           "That men should not put out beyond that point.
110      On the starboard I now had passed Seville
           And on the port I already passed Ceuta.
           " ‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘who through a hundred thousand
           Dangers have reached the channel to the west,
           To the short evening watch which your own senses
115       " ‘Still must keep, do not choose to deny
           The experience of what lies past the sun
           And of the world yet uninhabited.
           " ‘Consider the seed of your generation:
           You were not born to live like animals
120       But to pursue virtue and possess knowledge.’
           "I rallied my shipmates for the voyage
           So sharply with this brief exhortation
           That then I could have hardly held them back.
           "And turning our stern toward the morning,
125      Of oars we made wings for that madcap flight,
           Always gaining on the larboard side.
           "Night by now gazed out on all the stars
           At the other pole, and our stars sank so low
           That none rose up above the ocean floor.
130       "Five times the light that spread beneath the moon
           Again shone down and five times more it waned
           Since we had entered that deep passageway
           "When a lone mountain loomed ahead, dark
           In the dim distance, and it looked to me
135      The highest peak that I had ever seen.
           "We leaped for joy — it quickly turned to grief,
           For from the new land a whirlwind surging up
           Struck the foredeck of our ship head on.
           "Three times it spun us round in swirling waters;
140      The fourth round it raised the stern straight up
           And plunged the prow down deep, as Another pleased,
           "Until the sea once more closed over us."
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