Monday, December 26, 2016

Evanston: the death of Ulysses and Penelope's Song and Ithaca, illinois

        Translation is a fine and difficult art as well as a great public service.  I just finished reading Dante’s INFERNO for the third or fourth time.  On this occasion in the fine John Ciardi translation.  
        I had forgotten that Ulysses is in the eighth circle of Hell, one reserved for those whose sin was fraud.  Ulysses was guilty of other sins as well, but his primary one was the Trojan Horse.  He and the others dwelling in that circle have been turned into eternal pillars of flame.
        Homer leaves Ulysses upon his return to Ithaca after his ten year voyage home from Troy after the ten year Trojan War, an extremely slow VMG (velocity made good.)  Dante, as did his fellow poets, Tennyson and Kazantzakis, did not believe restless Ulysses stayed there.
        Here is Ciardi’s version of the end of Canto XXVI in which Ulysses and his few remaining loyal men sail through the Strait of Gibraltar, then south for five months, the Pole star touching then sinking below the horizon as they cross the Equator.  This was an impressive feat of imagination by Dante, who died in 1321, more than a hundred years before any European sailor crossed the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere.
        In the first line ‘it’ refers to the double pillar of flame in which Ulysses resides with his co-conspirator, Diomede.

"When I left Circe," it said, "who more than a year 
detained me near Gaeta long before 
Aeneas came and gave the place that name, 
not fondness for my son, nor reverence 
for my aged father, nor Penelope's claim 
to the joys of love, could drive out of my mind 
the lust to experience the far-flung world 
and the failings and felicities of mankind. 

I put out on the high and open sea 
with a single ship and only those few souls  
who stayed true when the rest deserted me. 

As far as Morocco and as far as Spain 
I saw both shores; and I saw Sardinia 
and the other islands of the open main. 

I and my men were stiff and slow with age 
when we sailed at last into the narrow pass 
where, warning all men back from further voyage, 
Hercules' Pillars rose upon our sight. 
Already I had left Ceuta on the left; 
Seville now sank behind me on the right. 

'Shipmates,' I said, 'who through a hundred thousand 
perils have reached the West, do not deny 
to the brief remaining watch our senses stand 
experience of the world beyond the sun. 
Greeks ! You were not born to live like brutes,
but to press on toward manhood and recognition!' 

With this brief exhortation I made my crew 
so eager for the voyage I could hardly 
have held them back from it when I was through; and turning our stem toward morning, our bow toward night, 
we bore southwest out of the world of man; 
we made wings of our oars for our fool's flight. 

That night we raised the other pole ahead 
with all its stars, and ours had so declined 
it did not rise out of its ocean bed.

Five times since we had dipped our bending oars 
beyond the world, the light beneath the moon 
had waxed and waned, when dead upon our course 
we sighted, dark in space, a peak so tall 
I doubted any man had seen the like. 

Our cheers were hardly sounded, when a squall 
broke hard upon our bow from the new land: 
three times it sucked the ship and the sea about 
as it pleased Another to order and command. 
At the fourth, the poop rose and the bow went down
till the sea closed over us and the light was gone." 
        The peak was the Mountain of Purgatory.  In Dante’s geography, the Southern Hemisphere is all water except for that peak which rises from the sea at the point directly opposite Jerusalem.

        In doing some research on Dante after finishing the Ciardi translation, I came upon an even more recent one by Clive James that I liked enough to buy as well.  It includes all three parts of THE DIVINE COMEDY.  I don’t recall reading PURGATORY or HEAVEN before.
        Here in Clive James’s version of the death of Ulysses.

“When I left Circe, having lived with her
More than a year in Italy, before
Aeneas got there, no love for my son,
No duty to my father, and what’s more
No love I owed Penelope—the one
Who would have been most glad—could overcome
In me the passion that I had, to gain
Experience of the world, and know the sum
Of virtue, pleasure, wisdom, vice and pain.
Once more I set out on the open sea,
With just one ship, crewed by my loyal men,
The stalwart who had not deserted me.
As far as Spain I saw both shores, and then
Morocco, and Sardinia, and those
Numberless islands that the sea surrounds.
But men grow old and slow as the time goes,
And so did we, and so we reached the bounds
Of voyaging, that narrow outlet marked
By Hercules so nobody should sail
Beyond, and anybody thus embarked
Knows, by those pillars, he is sure to fail.
Seville on my right hand, I left behind
Ceuta on my left. ‘Brothers,’ I said,
‘Dangers uncounted and of every kind
Fit to make other sailors die of dread
You have come through, and you have reached the west,
And now our senses fade, their vigil ends:
They ask to do the easy thing, and rest.
But in the brief time that remains, my friends,
Would you deny yourselves experience
Of that unpeopled world we’ll find if we
Follow the sun out into the immense
Unknown? Remember now your pedigree.
You were not born to live as brutes. Virtue
And knowledge are your guiding lights.’ I gave
With these words such an impulse to my crew
For enterprise that I could not, to save
My life, have held them back. We flew
On oars like wings, our stern, in that mad flight,
Towards the morning. Always left we bore.
Stars of the other pole we saw at night,
And ours so low that from the ocean floor
It never once arose. Five times the light
Had kindled and then quenched beneath the moon
Since first we ventured on our lofty task,
When we could see a mountain, though not soon
Could see it clearly: distance was a mask
That made it dim. But it was high, for sure:
Higher than anything I’d ever seen,
It climbed into the sky. Who could be more
Elated than we were, had not we been
Plunged straight away into deep sorrow, for
The new land gave rise to a storm that struck
Our ship’s forepart. Three times the waters led
Us in a circle. Fourth time, out of luck.
Stern high, bow low, we went in. Overhead
Somebody closed the sea, and we were dead.

        By chance the other afternoon I was listening to the Canadian, Loreena Mckennitt, sing ‘Penelope’s Song.’  Penelope being Ulysses faithful and long suffering wife.
        And if you care to make the leap, you can tie this all together with ‘Ithaca Illinois.’
        Some sailors still leave their wives “to follow the sun into the immense unknown.”