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Here in Italy Dante Alighieri is very much The Poet – the fellow who took it upon himself to describe in poetry a journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

His Divina Commedia – the Divine Comedy – is the object of passionate study by hordes of scholars, and a staple of the school curriculum. As far as I know, no Italian kid is allowed to leave school without meeting Dante – more or less exhaustively (that depends on the kind of school), and more or less satisfyingly (and that mostly depends on the teacher).

Father of the Italian language or no, Dante is no easy read. His Fourteenth Century Italian, his rhetorically complex style, and the many references to his day make the Commedia less than immediate to our modern ears – and while some teachers really do their best to introduce their pupils to the power and beauty of it, some… don’t. A great pity…

Dante’s work had a burst of nation-wide popularity a few years ago, however, when a very well-known actor gave it a televised reading – with a lot of, if you ask me,rather crowd-pleasing commentary… I wasn’t over-fond of the whole operation – but I won’t deny that it gave old Dante a boost.

Besides, there are readings – even Dante Marathons, where people alternate to read the whole 100 cantos over a few days (and often nights). My hometown of Mantua now and then hosts one of these marathons – and I wouldn’t be surprised if they devised a way to do it again this year, working around the restriction, seven hundred years after his death.

And today is the Dantedì – the official Dante Day in this year of celebration, so I thought I’d post one of my favourite bits from the Inferno.

I must confess to heretic thinking: I’ve always found the Paradiso a dead bore. There’ I’ve said it. With all its heavy theological bent, and its far more contemplative pace, the Paradiso can’t compare with the vivid portraits of tormented characters in the Inferno and Purgatorio. Of all these tormented characters, my favourite are King Manfred, and Ulysses.

In the Canto XXVI of the Inferno Dante gives us a splendid, poignant retelling of Ulysses. The smart, rather sly fellow of ancient myth becomes a tragic hero of thought, driven by an unquenchable, if doomed, thirst for knowledge that just won’t let him stop. Dante’s Ulysses is no man for happy endings. A quiet life on Ithaca, with his son, wife, and father, isn’t enough. He must sail away again – and his old comrades follow him all over the Mediterranean, as he learns about the world…

And then they get to the Pillars of Hercules (the straits of Gibraltar to us), where, for all they know, the world ends. And they are old and slow, by then, and wouldn’t it be sensible to go back, and spend their last years at home, with many tales to tell around a fire?

But no, not Ulysses. There is still more sea past the Pillars. More world to know, more mystery to uncover… so he addresses his friends:

‘Brothers,’ I said, ‘o you, who having crossed
a hundred thousand dangers, reach the west,
to this brief waking-time that still is left

unto your senses, you must not deny
experience of that which lies beyond
the sun, and of the world that is unpeopled.

Consider well the seed that gave you birth:
you were not made to live your lives as brutes,
but to be followers of worth and knowledge.’

I spurred my comrades with this brief address
to meet the journey with such eagerness
that I could hardly, then, have held them back;

and having turned our stern toward morning, we
made wings out of our oars in a wild flight
and always gained upon our left-hand side.

At night I now could see the other pole
and all its stars; the star of ours had fallen
and never rose above the plain of the ocean.

Five times the light beneath the moon had been
rekindled, and, as many times, was spent,
since that hard passage faced our first attempt,

when there before us rose a mountain, dark
because of distance, and it seemed to me
the highest mountain I had ever seen.

And we were glad, but this soon turned to sorrow
for out of that new land a whirlwind rose
and hammered at our ship, against her bow.

Three times it turned her round with all the waters;
and at the fourth, it lifted up the stern
so that our prow plunged deep, as pleased an Other,

until the sea again closed-over us.”

And while Allen Mandelbaum’s translation does only partial justice to the original – I find that it catches very well the urgency of Ulysses’s narration, and the power of his wild flight that, in the eyes of Dante, the Medieval Christian, puts the man in Hell for a bad case of hubris – and yet makes him worth of much admiration nonetheless.