Canto XXVI opens with a passionate address to Dante's native Florence, saying that there are so many Florentines populating Hell because of the terrible actions of its citizens. Dante prophesizes that a day of mourning will come to Florence, and not a day too soon.
The poets move on to the eighth chasm where Dante sees thousands of little flames, reminding him of fireflies on a hillside. He leans so far forward on the ledge of the bridge that he almost falls into the chasm. Virgil says that each of the flames contains a sinner, which is hidden from view by the fire surrounding it. These are the Evil Counselors, people that used their power and their intellect for evil. Dante remarks that he already figured out that each flame contained a sinner, and that he wishes to speak with a great flame that splits away into two horns of fire. This two-pronged flame conceals Ulysses and Diomede, who are in Hell because of three evil deeds: the ambush of the Trojan Horse; the weeping of Deidamia, the King's daughter whom Achilles abandoned; and the matter of the theft of Pallas Athena's statue at the Palladium. Because Dante is Italian, Virgil suggests that he speak with them instead, because they are Greek and may scorn Dante's manner of speaking.
Virgil speaks to the flame and Ulysses, who makes up the larger part of the flame, begins to tell the story of his death. He had wanderlust and convinced a few of his friends to take a long journey with him. They sailed for five months beyond Hercules' Pillars and came to a giant mountain. As they sailed towards it, a storm broke and sunk the ship.
At the opening of Canto XXVII, Virgil allows the flame of Ulysses and Diomede to depart, and he turns his attention to another flame that wishes to tell his tale. This flame contains the soul of Count Guido da Montefeltro, who wants to know news from the upper world about his native city, Romagna. Dante tells him that Romagna is never without war and goes on to give him details of the recent past.
Dante wishes to know this shade's name, and mistaking Dante for a spirit as well, the shade answers with a bit of his history. He was a man of arms who hoped to make amends for his connection with arms by joining the Franciscans and becoming a friar. The "Great Priest" (Pope Boniface VIII), however, asked him for counsel about how to destroy his enemies. Thus, the shade was thrust back into his old sins. After he died, St. Francis came to retrieve him, but a devil said that this shade's name was written in his book because the shade resolved to give false counsel.
After hearing the spirit's story, the poets move to the ninth pit, where the Sowers of Discord reside.
At the beginning of Canto XXVI, Dante uses another political prophecy to propel the narrative and his political theme forward. Dante actually wishes this dark prophecy on his city. Because Dante was exiled at the time he wrote Inferno, these events had already come to pass.
The retribution that the sinners of the eighth chasm suffer fits with the sin that they perpetrated in life. They gave evil counsel (particularly to religious leaders), and therefore, misused God's gifts. These souls worked in hidden ways, and they will spend eternity hidden from sight and burning in flames that symbolize a guilty conscience.
The most dramatic event in Canto XXVI is Dante's meeting with Ulysses. Note that Ulysses and Diomede are punished for events that would have been acceptable, even praised, in the time in which they lived. Dante again falters from his concept that sinners are only punished according to the social standards of their time. Ulysses carried out the strategy of the Trojan Horse, which led to the fall of Troy and eventually, to the founding of the Roman line by Aeneas. Because Dante is partial to the Roman Empire, he sees this act as evil; however, another poet may see it as virtuous. Ulysses is also in the pit for two other acts: convincing Achilles to go on a journey, which caused Deidamia to die of heartbreak, and stealing a statue of Pallas from the Palladium, thus ensuring the downfall of Troy.
Virgil's telling Dante not to speak to Ulysses and Diomede is significant, because the two shades would perceive Dante as a descendant of Aeneas (because he spoke Italian) and associate him with the fallen Trojans. Virgil, on the other hand, is a virtuous poet who sang their praises and is thus better suited to speak with them. Also, Dante does not speak Greek. But, Dante does not provide an explanation for how he understands Ulysses.
Dante returns to his religious theme with the soul that the poets address in Canto XXVII, that of Count Guido da Montefeltro, a fallen friar who gave evil counsel to Pope Boniface. Dante does not miss an opportunity to bring attention to his belief that Boniface is evil; his name is scattered over the whole of Inferno, though he is not there presently — he was still alive in 1300.
There is a great deal of symbolism and metaphor in Cantos XXVI and XXVII, perhaps more than anywhere else in Inferno. The language deserves mention: Dante, at this point in the narrative, becomes a better and tighter poet, able to speak in distinctive voices that seem genuine. For example, compare the power of the voice of Ulysses to some of the other stories in the text. Dante's narration of Ulysses' last voyage is some of the best poetry and one of the highlights of the entire Inferno.
The story is apparently an invention by Dante, and while beautiful in itself, serves also to display Dante's increasing sureness of touch in the handling of his material. Ulysses seems to be speaking in his own words, not Dante's, in contrast with the story of Francesca. The story of Ulysses is the compelling, unembellished yarn of an experienced and courageous sailor.
Prato Cardianal Niccolo da Prato.
Eteocles Greek Mythology. a son of Oedipus and Jocasta.
Polynices Greek Mythology. a son of Oedipus and Jocasta.
Ulysses the hero of Homer's Odyssey; a king of Ithaca and one of the Greek leaders in the Trojan War.
Diomede Greek Legend. a Greek warrior at the siege of Troy who helps Ulysses steal the statue of Athena.
ambush of the Horse the Trojan Horse.
Circe in Homer's Odyssey, an enchantress who turns men into swine.
Penelope Ulysses' wife who waits faithfully for his return from the Trojan War.
Sicillian bull an instrument of torture in which a person is placed inside a brass bull that is then placed over a fire; holes cut in the bull emit the tortured's cries, sounding like a bull.
Verrucchio the castle of Malatesta.
Great Priest Pope Boniface III.
Prince of the New Pharisees Pope Boniface III.
Silvestro Pope who took refuge from Constantine during the persecutions of the Christians; later, he is said to have cured Constantine of leprosy.