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The Inferno by Dante Alighieri - Barron's Booknotes
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CANTO XXVI

Dante takes a satiric swipe at Florence before getting back to
the story of his journey. He says that he has seen five of that
city's members in the ring of the Thieves. He also suggests
that more evil will come to Florence as a result of her sins.

The poets climb up the rocky spur to the next bridge, which
arches over bowge viii, containing the souls of the Counselors
of Fraud. Dante describes what looks to him like a mass of
fireflies. As he gets closer, he peers intently and gathers that
each flame walking on the bottom of the bowge contains a
sinner. Seeing him study the scene with such fervor, Virgil
affirms what Dante has already guessed. For Dante's quest,
this is a good sign. He is beginning to see for himself what has
needed explanation before.



Dante does ask Virgil to identify two shades who occupy the
same flame. Virgil explains that they are Ulysses and
Diomede. At once Dante asks if he might speak with them. He
tells Virgil that he is aware that he cannot approach them
himself and implores Virgil to intercede.

NOTE: We'll have to remember a little classical legend to
understand this exchange. Ulysses (you may know him as
Odysseus) and Diomede were Greeks who fought against Troy
in the Trojan War. Ulysses was the creator of the Trojan
Horse, the deciding factor against the Trojans. Aeneas, the
hero of Virgil's epic, was a surviving Trojan who fled the
sacking of Troy and set off to found a new Troy, namely
Rome; Virgil, being a Roman, would therefore be a
descendant of the enemy, and Dante, an Italian, was also a
distant descendant of the defeated Trojans.

Dante knows if he speaks to the Greeks in Italian, they will
ignore him. Virgil, however, being the White Magician, and
aided here by divine assistance, can compel the spirits to
speak.

When the twin sepulchered spirits approach, Virgil uses the
formula for conjuration to make the two spirits stop and tell
their story. It is interesting that the spirits do not speak to the
poets. Rather, Ulysses tells his story as though he has been
programmed and has told it many times before. Several
explanations have been offered for this. Perhaps because
Ulysses' sin has been the abuse of the power of the tongue, the
shade can no longer have control over his speech.
Nevertheless, Ulysses' speech is moving. True, he deceived
his men by convincing them to sail to the ends of the earth
with him, but he cannot disguise the glorious hunger for
adventure that motivated him. Even this low in Hell, Dante
allows his own sympathy to surface, though he accepts God's
judgment.

The Counselors of Fraud have abused the gifts they have been
given by God, particularly the gifts of genius and speech.
Dante should have lived to see our advertising or our political
conventions. (Dante himself says in this canto that he, a poet,
must take special care not to abuse the same gifts.) Because
these sinners have deceived other men and hidden their
motives, they are hidden. The flame serves two purposes: one,
to suggest the destruction that the sinners have caused and,
two, to parody in the tongues of flame the gift of tongues that
has been defiled.

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