Curiosity's Lure from Dante to Moby Dick

Our minds aim at the truth of things, from quarks to quasars but, with lamentable frequency, we miss the mark and land ourselves in falsehood’s region of unlikeness. The universities where I spend much of my time bristle with defenses—peer review, double-blind studies, debate, and disputation—against this lamentable condition, and, outside of a few self-consuming corners of the humanities, they mostly succeed in their effort, at least on a long enough timeline.

But knowing goes wrong, not only by producing the wrong beliefs, but also by producing the right beliefs in the wrong way, or for the wrong reasons. This happens when two mathematicians independently prove a difficult theorem, but then sink into an acrimonious feud in dividing the spoils. It happens as well when a scientist successfully experiments on human twins to give them genetic resistance to HIV, or a physicist probes the deep places of being, but fails to refer the order he finds there to the LORD who made it. Our acts of knowing are necessarily also expressions of desire, and so can go wrong in all the ways that desire can.

Unfortunately, everyday English no longer has a word for a disordered appetite for knowledge. Lust and gluttony (the sexual and culinary appetites’ perversions) are still with us, if only just, but we no longer feel the medievals’ instinctive aversion from “curiosity” (curiositas), the perverse desire for knowledge. Indeed, despite our proverbial warnings about its killing the cat, “curiosity” seems to stand today, as “charity” once did, for a virtue paradigmatically invulnerable to excess. (“Too curious” is a phrase uttered only by parents humble-bragging about putatively precocious toddlers.) But since words are the spotlights we aim at our concepts, the shifting meaning of “curiosity” has largely left the older, vice-idea shrouded in darkness.

I seek to lift the veil from “curiositas.” I will employ the archaic Latin to arm you, gentle reader, against complacent confusions between scholastic vice and contemporary virtue. We will first consider an Augustinian account of curiositas, particularly as it is dramatized in the figure of Dante’s Ulysses (Inf. 26). Later, we will track some of Ulysses’ literary afterlives in Tasso, Tennyson, and Melville as synecdoches for the fortunes of curiositas in an age of forgetting.

The greatest Christian theorist of curiositas remains Augustine, for whom it was a trusty stick to beat his opponents with. The sheer scattered variety of Augustine’s treatments, however, means that he is most easily approached, at least for my purposes here, by way of the Augustinian curiositas-digest produced by Aquinas in his discussion of the vice in Summa Theologiae 2-2.167.1. Aquinas situates curiositas within his discussion of the virtue of temperance, which chastens the appetites, making them good citizens of each man’s moderate Aristotelian city. When temperance fails to discipline the appetite for knowledge, the result—at least if the failure is one of excess rather than defect—is “curiositas,” John’s “lust of the eyes” (1 Jn. 2:16), a restless desire for knowing unmoored from the overall flourishing of the knower and her neighbors.

Aquinas distinguishes among three forms of curiositas, illustrating each with a choice quotation from Augustine. First, there is curiositas born of a wrong motive for knowing:

There are some, who, forsaking virtue, and ignorant of what God is, and of the majesty of that nature which ever remains the same, imagine they are doing something great, if with surpassing curiositas and keenness they explore the whole mass of this body which we call the world. So great a pride is thus begotten, that one would think they dwelt in the very heavens about which they argue.[1]

Like our warring mathematicians, Augustine’s natural philosophers identify knowledge with their very selves, and imagine its growth as swelling them to gigantic proportions; in such men, knowledge puffs up, leavened as it is with malice.

Second, however, is knowledge sought, like the rogue geneticist’s, from a wrong source: “Maybe the philosophers were kept from the faith by their sinful curiositas in seeking knowledge from the demons.”[2] Demon-abetted philosophers might seem an odd point of a comparison for our aforementioned mad scientist, until you recall that he too, like any common Moloch-worshipper, achieves his ends through child sacrifice.

And finally, Aquinas proposes, there is knowledge with a wrong perspective: “In studying creatures,” he quotes Augustine as saying, “we must not be moved by empty and perishable curiositas; but we should ever rise up to immortal and abiding things.”[3] Like the atheist physicist, these philosophers are talented grammarians of the language of God, but fail to move in thought from the speech to their Speaker, and so fail the test of gratitude for gifts received from a superabundant giver.

We could expand Aquinas’s list indefinitely, as there are surely as many ways for knowing to wrong as there are ways to desire knowledge badly. But his discussion gives us an inductive grip on curiositas, which is an act of knowing distorted, not by falsehood, but rather by the love of self, even to the contempt of God and neighbor. We now have curiositas’s bones before us: but can these bones live? To breathe flesh and spirit upon them, we need the help of a poet rather than a philosopher-theologian. 

Ulysses Among the Damned

“All of human unhappiness,” Pascal observed, “comes from a single thing, which is not knowing how to remain at rest in a chamber.”[4] At any rate, this was certainly the source of Ulysses’s problems, as Dante reports them to us from his journey through Hell. In his descent through the Inferno, in the circle of the false counsellors, Dante meets a flame-shrouded Ulysses, who tells him and Virgil how he met his end. Dante’s rendition of the fabled liar’s story adds a surprising twist at the end: after he escapes from Circe and makeshis way back to Ithaca, Ulysses’s love for son, wife, or father “could [not] overcome the fervor that was mine / to gain experience of the world / and learn about man’s vices, and his worth,”[5] prompting him to embark on a voyage to the foot of Mt. Purgatory, which ended with his ship being sunk by a divinely-sent whirlwind.[6]

Homer’s Odysseus has traditionally been a type of homecoming and rest: for Plotinus, he was an image of the soul which escapes its exile among the “delights of the eyes” to rest in its true home above. And for the contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton, Odysseus is a type of “oikophilia,” the love of kith and kin which made him tear himself away from immortal life with a goddess and brave storms and monsters to come home.[7]

Dante, by contrast, offers us a Ulysses overcome by wanderlust. He and his companions, now “old and slow,” sailed across the Mediterranean to the Pillars of Hercules, which were placed by the demigod, “warning all men to go no further.”[8] Staring out past the limits placed upon human exploration, Ulysses gives a stirring speech to rally his shipmates for one last voyage:

To such brief wakefulness,
of our senses as remains to us,
do not deny yourselves the chance to know –
following the sun – the world where no one lives.
Consider how your souls were sown:
you were not made to live like brutes or beasts,
but to pursue virtue and knowledge.[9]

Ulysses frames this venture beyond the Pillars as a glorious quest for “virtue and knowledge,” “for human vices and worth.” He is a new Prometheus, defying divine edicts, not for selfish gain, but for the love of that imperishable good, knowledge. On this view, he should rank among the great demystifiers, breaking superstitious taboos to expand the frontiers of thought. Indeed, we will see this reading progressively crowding all others from the field in the reception of Ulysses by Tasso and Tennyson.

There is nothing particularly Faustian, of course, about valorizing the search for truth: Aristotle notes it as a commonplace that, “All men naturally desire knowledge,”[10] a statement Dante himself repeats at the beginning of his Convivio.[11] And the trope of the greybeard pursuing wisdom even to his dying breath is at least as old as Plato’s Phaedo. Nor should we be shocked at the allure of Dante’s Ulysses. Like Milton’s Satan, few characters from Purgatorio or Paradiso are as memorable or as compelling as Francesca, Brunetto Latini, or Ulysses. We readers are taken in by their explanations and exculpations; perhaps Dante himself was too, at some level.

Despite the superficial appeal of an heroic reading of Ulysses, Dante complicates matters considerably in the Commedia itself, by presenting the Greek as tragic type of curiositas. As Dante depicts it, Ulysses’s passion for knowledge looks to be doubly deranged, so encompassing that it both blinds him to the ways he injures others, and leaves him indifferent as to its objects. To the first, Ulysses admits to Dante that his last voyage came at his family’s expense: neither “my fondness for my son, nor pity for my old father, nor the love I owed Penelope, which would have gladdened her,” could restrain his longing to know. Moreover, Ulysses is as happy to know “human vices” as our “worth.”[12] Like Adam, he longs for knowledge of evil as well as good (cf. Gen 3:5).

Indeed, Ulysses is haunted by Adam: when he ignores the Pillars’ “ne plus ultra,”[13] and takes his crew five months’ sailing into the empty northern hemisphere, he comes within sight of land which no mortal flesh had beheld since the creation: Mount Purgatory, at whose summit lies the earthly paradise whence Adam and Eve were driven. If this was not clear enough, Dante links the two figures verbally: in Paradiso, Adam tells Dante that his “great exile” came about, not from “enjoying the tree (legno),” but from “transgressing the sign (il segno).”[14] Strikingly, Ulysses sought to cross “the high, open sea / with a single ship (legno),” and met his doom after passing the place “where Hercules set up (segnò) his warnings.”[15] Having eaten, like Adam and Eve, from the tree of knowledge, they were preparing to storm Eden and eat from the tree of life as well, then truly to be gods (cf. Gen 3:22-24).

Ulysses’s voyage finds another parallel, not in scripture nor the classics, but rather in Dante himself, both as a pilgrim to Mount Purgatory, and as a chronicler of that journey. Dante was the first mortal since Ulysses to see the mountain, and the first since Adam to ascend it; for the reader who might miss the connection, Dante (the poet) primes the pump, observing, on his escape from hell onto the shores of Mt. Purgatory, “Now we came to the empty shore / Upon those waters no man ever sailed / who then experienced his return. / There he [sc. Cato] girded me as it pleased Another.”[16] No one had navigated the waters Dante then beheld—at least, not and lived to tell of it. The parallel is clinched with the cinching of Dante’s belt, done “as it pleased another,” the very phrase that accompanied the whirlpool that devoured Ulysses’s ship.[17]

At the outset of the Paradiso, Dante proposes another parallel between himself and Ulysses, this time not as pilgrim, but rather as poet, leading his readers on a venture into the vasty deep of heaven itself. In one of his rare apostrophes to the reader, Dante figures their relation as a sea expedition, in unmistakably Ulyssean accents: 

O you, eager to hear more,
 Who have followed in your little bark,
 my ship that singing makes its way,

turn back if you would see your shores again.
 Do not set forth upon the deep,
 for, losing sight of me, you would be lost.

The seas I sail were never sailed before
 Minerva fills my sails, Apollo is my guide,
 nine Muses point me toward the Bears.[18]

The echoes of Inferno 26 abound: Ulysses’ “little company (compagna picciola)” strikes a chord with the “little bark (piccioletta barca)” of Dante’s companions; both men sail in a “legno”; both travel into uncharted waters. Indeed, it is hard not to wonder if this apostrophe does not reflect a certain anxiety on Dante’s part about the temerity and possible presumption of his cosmic chronicle; as Borges observed, “Dante was Ulysses, and in some way had to fear Ulysses’ punishment.”[19]

But why was Ulysses drowned within sight of Mt. Purgatory’s shore, whereas Dante was welcomed in? Dante himself had earlier sought a “short way” to the “beautiful mountain,” but had been turned back by the three beasts, “a panther,” “a lion,” and “a she-wolf.”[20] Interestingly, he was particularly troubled by the she-wolf,[21] a beast herself of universal appetite,[22] who reappears in Purgatorio 20, as an explicit figure for avarice.[23]

Dante, like Ulysses, was undone by deranged desire, but unlike the clever Hellene, he was able to learn that the only way to climb that longed-for mountain was to descend into the earth. He learned that “whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will exalted” (Matt 23:12), that “the way up is the way down.”[24] I cannot say if Eliot understood that quoted fragment of Heraclitus this way, but it offers a neat one-line summary of the Inferno’s plot, in which Dante’s journey down to the center of the Earth switches, as he clambers over the planet’s center of gravity, conveniently located on Satan’s hindquarters, to a climb up toward Mt. Purgatory.[25]

Dante’s Ulysses, then, is neither a straightforwardly heroic nor villainous figure, but something more complex: his is the very journey that Dante had embarked when he lost his way in the gloomy wood, as well as a grand parody of the journey that Dante in fact undergoes in the Inferno. In Dante’s Ulysses, curiositas takes on all the captivating complexity of a noble, but tragically misguided human life: he longed for knowledge, the greatest good offered to us here below, but he wanted it, like Adam, on his own terms, without regard to the family who waited for his return, or for the LORD at whom all knowledge implicitly aims. He would not heed the divine “ne plus ultra,” neither cherubim nor flaming sword. And when Dante meets him, he is still, like the rest of the infernal souls, unshakably fixated on the misbegotten loves which led him away from his true end.

Ulysses in the Age of Exploration

Dante’s Ulysses has been reborn many times, and his fortunes across these afterlives reflects the slow transformation of the vice of curiositas into the virtue (such as it is) of curiosity. The uncertainty and ambiguity between these ideas is already mounting in an early reprisal of the story, in Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered (1581), an epic poem about the capture of Jerusalem during the First Crusade. By book XV, Rinaldo, one of the Crusaders’ greatest champions, has been bewitched by the sorceress Armida, and taken captive to an island fortress in the Atlantic Ocean. Two knights set out to recover him, and find themselves taken under the wing of an angelic guide, who somehow powers a skiff to shoot across the Mediterranean Sea in three days’ time.

When they reach the Pillars of Hercules, and gaze for the first time upon the storm-tossed Atlantic, one of the knights, Ubaldo, beseeches their guide, “If ever man before here sailed tell, / Or other lands here be wherein men dwell.”[26] She replies, “Within his pillars would [Hercules] have impaled / The overdaring wit of mankind vain, / Till Lord Ulysses did those bounders pass, / To see and know he so desirous was.”[27] Superficially, this is the same Ulysses as Dante met in Hell, who rewrote Homer’s ending of his saga with a final bid for global circumnavigation in quest of knowledge.

Nonetheless, the character is subtly but importantly altered: rather than a blasphemous quest for forbidden knowledge, Ulysses’s voyage is presented as a visionary effort thwarted by technological limits of a backward era: “He passed those pillars, and in open wave / Of the broad sea first his bold sails untwined, / But yet the greedy ocean was his grave, / Naught helped him his skill gainst tide and wind.”[28]

But Ulysses’s failed voyage, the angel promises, was mere prelude:

The time shall come that sailors shall disdain
To talk or argue of Alcides' [sc. Hercules’] strait,
And lands and seas that nameless yet remain,
Shall well be known, their boundaries, site and seat,
The ships encompass shall the solid main,
As far as seas outstretch their waters great,
And measure all the world, and with the sun
About this earth, this globe, this compass, run.

A knight of Genes shall have the hardiment
Upon this wondrous voyage first to wend,
Nor winds nor waves, that ships in sunder rent,
Nor seas unused, strange clime, or pool unkenned,
Nor other peril nor astonishment
That makes frail hearts of men to bow and bend,
Within Abilas' strait shall keep and hold
The noble spirit of this sailor bold.[29]

For Tasso, Ulysses did no wrong in his voyage, and the storm that wrecked him is given no divine provenance; he simply had the misfortune to try that voyage before the galleons had been built which would eventually make it possible. (The knights presumably do not count, since they have supernatural aid!) Tasso, writing in the early modern period, already reflects one of the basic difficulties we face today in retrieving Dante’s Ulysses as a figure of curiositas: as it happens, it is not impossible to sail the great oceans; the equator is not too hot for human life to survive there; and the Antipodes are not actually unpeopled, but rather abound with other cultures.[30]

The pressure exerted by these startling discoveries has flattened out the character of Ulysses in some post-Dantean incarnations. It is as though Tasso scored Dante’s symphony for performance on a harmonica: the main theme is still discernible, but the subtle harmonies and counterpoint of Inferno 26—e.g., Ulysses’ considered disregard for family or his lust for knowledge of “vices”—has been reduced to a monotone premonition of Columbus’s achievements.  

Ulysses and the Ringing Grooves of Change

Alfred Lord Tennyson also was so taken by Dante’s transformation of Ulysses’ peaceful homecoming into a final epic voyage that he wrote his own eponymous version of the story. Tennyson more energetically endorses the heroic reading of Dante’s Ulysses even than Tasso, suppressing as he does every compromising detail from the original. In “Ulysses” (1831), far from a Faustian passion for knowledge that snaps every family tie, Tennyson offers the reader a king secure in his relations, who amiably leaves his kingdom to “my own Telemachus,” and remarks, “He works his work, I mine.”[31] Moreover, Tennyson grants us no mention of the fearsome warnings offered by the Pillars—his Ulysses trespasses no boundary except “the utmost bound of human thought.”

As we saw above, this heroic reading has much to commend it. Even the most skeptical reader will struggle to keep his heart from beating a bit faster at Ulysses’ concluding peroration:

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.[32]

Nonetheless, there is still something unsettling in this Ulysses’s passion for endless journeying, all road and no destination: “I am become a name; / For always roaming with a hungry heart” (thanks not least to Dante!).[33] It is no surprise that such a man perceives that “all experience, is an arch wherethro' / Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.” There seems to be a confusion here about the precise good afforded by progress, in knowledge as in other areas, which is exactly repeated in the famous concluding line of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall”: “Let the great world spin for ever down the ringing grooves of change.”[34]

The obvious response to the view that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive is C.S. Lewis’s: if that were true, and known to be true, no one would travel in the first place. The mind is made to travel in knowing, yes, but not to “ring forever” from change to change. Rather, we are made, on this or that question, and in the vision of God, on all questions, to come to rest. Ulysses’ Victorian “curiosity” is in fact still “curiositas,” however boldly it is painted.

Ulysses Hunts the White Whale

Reading Tasso’s and Tennyson’s reception of Dante’s Ulysses, we witnessed amnesia descend, veiling the complex role of curiositas in the Commedia’s account of human restlessness. That complexity returns, however, darker and more terrifying than even Dante could have ever imagined, in the figure of Melville’s Ahab.[35] Borges was perhaps the first to observe “a deeper affinity [than that between Dante’s and Tennyson’s Ulysses]: that of the infernal Ulysses with the accursed captain: Ahab of Moby Dick. The latter, like the former, works his own perdition by force of wakefulness and courage; the general plot is the same, their end is identical.”[36]

The similarities in plotline are striking indeed: both Dante’s Ulysses and Ahab return home after a harrowing voyage; gripped by a kind of monomania, both find themselves compelled to forsake wife and children and take once more to the sea; both give rousing speeches which compel their crews to join them in an apparently mad venture; and in the end, both find themselves plunged to the bottom of the sea by a “vortex” caused by an implacable, superhuman force.

Unlike Ulysses, whether in Dante or Tennyson, Ahab is driven not by an Aristotelian desire for knowledge as such, but by lust for a particular experience, so vivid that it swelled from his dreams: “In his very sleep, his ringing cry ran through the vaulted hull, ‘Stern all! the White Whale spouts thick blood!’”[37] Obsessed with this vision, Ahab leaves his young son and wife, whom he “widowed when [he] married her,”[38] and takes instead “a stick of whale’s jaw-bone for a wife.”[39] That vision so completely overwhelms his charge to fill the hold with sperm oil, that he throws the First Mate, Starbuck, out of his cabin for suggesting a stop to plug leaking barrels,[40] and refuses to break off his quest to help the captain of the Rachel search for his lost son.[41] While Captain Boomer of the Samuel Enderby, who lost an arm to Moby Dick, cheerfully maintains, “No more White Whales for me; I’ve lowered for him once, and that has satisfied me,” Ahab can only growl, “What is best let alone, that accursed thing is not always what least allures. He’s all a magnet!”[42]

Ahab radiates Ulysses’s mad charisma, but in a way closer to the rough ground of our experience than the elevating strains of Tennyson’s and Dante’s characters alike. “He’s a queer man, Captain Ahab” Bildad tells Ishmael when he ships in the Pequod, “but a good one . . . a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn’t speak much; but, when he does speak, then you may well listen.”[43] Indeed, when he offers his call to arms in the “Quarter Deck,” they all listen very closely indeed, particularly after he nails a “sixteen-dollar” gold piece to the mast, the promised reward for the man who sighted the White Whale. “It was Moby Dick that dismasted me,” he cries, “and I’ll chase him round Good Hope, and round the Horn, and round the Norway Maelstrom, and round perdition’s flames before I give him up.”[44]

When Starbuck wonders how many barrels  of oil Ahab’s vengeance will yield, or what satisfaction there can be in avenging himself “on a dumb brute, that simply smote thee from blindest instinct,”[45] Ahab declares that Moby Dick is but a “pasteboard mask” for some “still reasoning . . . inscrutable thing,” which he “chiefly hates,” and which he strikes at through the whale.[46] A blaspheming Spinozist, Ahab seeks to smite the God whose manifests himself in all finite being. This blasphemy is the smoldering heart of every act of curiositas, which is a sin, not only against knowledge, but against the LORD who is its source and means and end.

And of course, Ahab gets his chance to strike, at the story’s, and his own, end. Like Ulysses’s, Ahab’s quest ends with a whirlwind (“one vortex carried the smallest chip of the Pequod out of sight”[47]), which plunges him and his crew to the bottom of the sea. But where Dante’s Ulysses is blindsided by the divine tempest, Ahab plunges himself into it willingly: “‘Oh! Ahab,’ cried Starbuck, ‘not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!’”[48] In the end, Ahab has become curiositas incarnate, a mere vessel for his yearning after the sight of the White Whale’s spout of thick blood.

For Dante, Ulysses is a subtle warning against the lure of curiositas, which Augustine and Aquinas had limned so carefully. For Tasso and Tennyson, taken with the astonishing possibilities opened by the scientific and technological revolutions, Ulysses is a Columbus or von Humboldt, an intrepid mind bent on ceaseless geographic and intellectual conquest. For Melville, Ahab is a premonition of the horrors which curiositas’s lure might draw us to, once those revolutions had magnified desire’s reach; even in 1851, the Civil War’s mechanized killing, and the still-greater devastation of World Wars, gas chambers, and atom bombs, already seem to leer on Melville’s horizon.

But in the end, for Melville as much as Dante or Augustine, the true danger of curiositas always lurks within, rotting the soul so that it crumbles to dust with temptation’s lightning strike. Those of us who steel our souls against this sin’s decay would do well to set, not only Aquinas’s schematic, but still more Dante’s Ulysses and his descendent, Melville’s Ahab, before our mind’s eye, as icons of the besetting danger of the lust of the eyes.

[1] Augustine, On the Customs of the Catholic Church 21, quoted in Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.167.1.

[2] Idem, On True Religion 4, quoted in Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.167.1.

[3] Ibid., 29, quoted in Aquinas, Summa Theologiae 2-2.167.1.

[4] Pensées in Oeuvres Complètes (ed. Louis Lafuma; Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1963), no. 136, p. 516b, my translation.

[5] Inferno, trans. Robert Hollander and Jean Hollander (New York: Anchor Books, 2000), 26.97-99.

[6] Inf. 26.130-142.

[7] Cf. Where We Are: The State of Britain Now (New York: Bloomsbury, 2017), 103.

[8] Inf. 26.105-109.

[9] Inf. 26.115-120.

[10] Metaphysics A, 980a.

[11] Convivio, trans. Richard Lansing (Garland Library of Medieval Literature, 1980), bk. 1, ch. 1.

[12] Inf. 26.99, 120.

[13] Inf. 26.109.

[14] Paradiso, trans. Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2007), 26.115-117.

[15] Inf. 26.101, 108. I first heard this echo observed in a seminar at Duke University with the invaluable Christian Moevs.

[16] Purgatorio, trans. Robert Hollander & Jean Hollander (New York: Doubleday, 2003), 2.130-133.

[17] cf. Inf. 26.141.

[18] Par. 2.1-9.

[19] Jorge Luis Borges, “El Ultimo Viaje de Ulises,” in Nueve Ensayos Dantescos (Ediciones Neperus, 1982), 12, my translation.

[20] Inf. 1.32, 45, 49.

[21] Inf. 1.88-90.

[22] Inf. 1.98-99.

[23] Purg. 20.10-15.

[24] Cf. T.S. Eliot, “Dry Salvages” 3.129.

[25] Cf. Inf. 34.106-114.

[26] Jerusalem Delivered, trans. Edward Fairfax, 15.24.

[27] Ibid., 15.25.

[28] Ibid., 15.26.

[29] Ibid., 15.30-31.

[30] Ibid., 15.27-28.

[31] Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses” in English Poetry III: From Tennyson to Whitman. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14., no. 635, l. 33, 43.

[32] Ibid., l. 65-71.

[33] Ibid., l. 11-12.

[34] Idem, “Locksley Hall” in English Poetry III: From Tennyson to Whitman. The Harvard Classics. 1909–14., no. 636, l. 194.

[35] There are two general references to Dante in chapters 85 and 86 of Moby Dick. While I do not know of any affirmative reference by Melville to Dante’s Ulysses in particular, there was a general explosion of American interest in Dante in first half of the nineteenth-century, which makes it likely Melville had read at least the Inferno (cf. Kathleen Verduin’s “Dante in America: The First Hundred Years,” in Reading Books : Essays on the Material Text and Literature in America (eds. Michele Moyland & Lane Styles; Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1996), 19-20).

[36] Nuevos Ensayos Dantescos, 12.

[37] Ibid., chapter 111.

[38] Ibid., ch. 132.

[39] Ibid., ch. 108.

[40] Ibid., ch. 109.

[41] Ibid., ch. 128.

[42] Ibid., ch. 100.

[43] Ibid., ch. 16.

[44] Ibid., ch. 36.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., ch. 135.

[48] Ibid

Featured Image: Photo by Julain Ilcheff Borissoff, An artwork of Dirk Claesen shot at Scheveningen beach, artificial sperm whale, taken on 11 July 2007; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.


Brendan Case

Brendan Case is Associate Director for Research in The Human Flourishing Program at Harvard University.

Read more by Brendan Case