The man, for wisdom's various arts renown'd,
Long exercis'd in woes! oh muse! resound
Who, when his arms had wrought the destin'd fall of sacred
Troy, and raz'd her heav'n-built wall,
Wand'ring from clime to clime, observant stray'd,
Their mariners noted, and their states survey'd.
On stormy seas unnumber'd toils he bore.
— Alexander Pope's translation of the opening lines of The Odyssey
A great wave drove down from above him
with a horrible rush, and spun the raft in a circle,
and he was thrown clear far from the raft and let the steering oar
slip from his hands. A terrible gust of storm winds whirling
together and blowing snapped the mast tree off in the middle
and the sail and the upper deck were thrown far and fell in the water.
He himself was ducked for a long time, nor was he able
to come up slackly from under the great rush of the water....
so the raft's long timbers were scattered, but now Odysseus
sat astride one beam, like a man riding on horseback.
— Richard Lattimore's translation of passages from book 5 [144/145]
Odysseus in one motion strung the bow.
Then slid his right hand down the cord and plucked it,
so the taut gut vibrating hummed and sang
a swallow's note.
In the hushed hall it smote the suitors
and all their faces changed. The Zeus thundered
overhead, one loud crack for a sign....
He dropped his eyes and nodded, and the prince
Telemakhos, true son of King Odysseus,
belted his sword on, clapped hand to his spear,
and with a clink and glitter of keen bronze
stood by his chair, in the forefront near his father.
"You yellow dogs, you thought I'd never make it
home from the land of Troy. You took my house to plunder,
twisted my maids to serve your beds. You dared
bid for my wife while I was still alive.
Contempt was all you had for the gods who rule wide heaven,
contempt for what men say of you hereafter.
Your last hour has come. You die in blood."
— Robert Fitzgerald's translation of passages from books 21 and 22
ike the figure of Robinson Crusoe, that of Odysseus has served as a basic paradigm or structure capable of conveying attitudes very different from those originally associated with this archetypal survivor. The intonations of Odysseus, however, present us with far more complex matters of literary and cultural history than do the comparatively simple variations of Defoe's castaway. The creative misinterpretations of Robinson Crusoe take the form of removing the divine perspective from the narrative. Removing Defoe's God transforms his narrative of punishment, trial, and spiritual education which lead a prodigal son back to his father into a figure of human and metaphysical isolation. No such simple change in one element characterizes recent intonations of The Odyssey; and furthermore, unlike the English castaway, Odysseus is an extraordinarily complex figure who descends to us surrounded by complex and often contradictory traditions.1 The modern variations of Crusoe and his situation clearly begin with Defoe's novel — an easily [145/146] identifiable work which has a single text fixed in all its essentials. In contrast, Odysseus comes down to us from classical times in two different versions: whereas the wise, pious, courageous, much suffering hero of the Homeric poems stands as a defining example of what is greatest in humanity, he appears in Vergil as the archetypal trickster and betrayer. The ambiguities of this figure are not simply a matter of whether he appears as Odysseus or Ulysses — not that is merely a matter of Greek or Roman traditions — since Sophocles' Philoctetes already presents him as a dishonourable cheater willing to blame his superiors for his acts. Similarly, Plato, who variously presents Odysseus as both a good and an evil man, describes him as false and wily in the Lesser Hippias. It is this darker Odysseus who appears in Vergil and Dante and to whom Hugo refers in the opening lines of "Apres avoir lu les lettres a l'inconnue": "Cela ne change pas beaucoup, la turpitude./ Ulysse peut tromper Polypheme." Since ancient times men have manipulated The Odyssey to convey their own conceptions of human existence. Odysseus is, above all the man who would return home, and his longing for Ithaka has long been taken as a figure of every mall's desires for spiritual bliss. In the ninth book of The Odyssey the hero defines himself in relation to his homeland when he tells Alkinoos
My home is on the peaked sea-mark of Ithaka
under Mount Neion's wind-blown robe of leaves . . .
I shall not see on earth a place more dear,
though I have been detained long by Kalypso
loveliest among goddesses, who held me
in her smooth caves, to be her heart's delight
as Kirke of Aiaia, the enchantress,
desired me, and detained me in her hall.
But in my heart I never gave consent.
Where shall a man find sweetness to surpass his own home and his parents?
In far lands he shall not, though he find a house of gold.
[trans. Robert Fitzgerald]
This desire to return to that place where a man may be truly himself and truly at home has long been taken to be a defining and even archetypal human characteristic. Since late classical times commentators like Porphyry have allegorized The Odyssey, turning its hero into a figure for the soul of Everyman.2 As Plotinus argues in the [146/147] sixth tractate ("On Beauty") of the first Ennead, we should flee the snares of material beauty and seek to reach the beloved Fatherland.
How are we to gain the open sea? For Odysseus is surely a parable to us when he commands the flight from the sorceries of Circe or Calypso — not content to linger for all the pleasure offered to his eyes and all the delight of sense filling his days. [trans. Stephen MacKenna]
The ancient tendency to perceive the Homeric poems as a treasure hoard of analogies that possess universally applicable significance has often thus led commentators to treat the poem as a series of emblems. Frequently, creative misinterpretation seems the guiding rule when poets and polemicists alike interpret the great hero for their own ends. For example, when Bocaccio defends poetry in the Genealogia deorum gentilium against the charge that its beauties perniciously lead men from virtue, he makes a traditional, If somewhat bizarre, reference to the episode with the Sirens, arguing that "Ulysses, noble soul, spurned the sound, not of songs read in the closet, but the dulcet music of the Sirens, whom he passed by for fear of harm at their hands" (ch. 14, trans. C. S. Osgood). This episode, in other words, is supposed to show us the way the wise man resists the temptations of false beauty and art — as in a sense it does. But having truncated the original episode by removing the major element of the hero's insatiable curiosity, Boccaccio produces a quite un-Homeric Odysseus.
Clearly, some of the post-Homeric versions of Odysseus present a less than heroic figure simply because they remove him from his original context and surround him with alien ideologies. The Odyssey, which draws a picture of a man possessing almost all human virtue, portrays the much suffering, brave wanderer as not only steadfast and courageous but also actively heroic. Odysseus, who is a great athlete and a great warrior, is also intellectually curious, cunning, and eloquent. At the same time, he is pious, for even in times and places of great scarcity he sacrifices to the Gods. He is also masterful, and in book 18 he warns the suitor Amphinomos, hoping to save him, but Athena clouds the fated man's mind and Odysseus' mercy is of no avail. Later, after he has destroyed the suitors, he tells Eurykleia, his old nurse,
No crowing aloud, old woman.
To glory over slain men is no piety. [147/148]
Destiny and the gods' will vanquished these, and their own hardness. [bk 22]
Nonetheless, although Homer is careful to emphasize that Odysseus knows the proper role and limitations of human beings he does present his hero as a daring, deceptive man who comes close to being a Faustian figure. In the famous scene in the thirteenth book when he dissembles with the disguised Athena, the goddess comments upon his powers of deception with admiration impossible for Vergil and Dante:
Whoever gets around you must be sharp and guileful as a snake; even a god
might bow to you in ways of dissimulation. You! You chameleon!
Bottomless bag of tricks!
Here in your own country would you not give your stratagems a rest or stop spellbinding for an instant!
You play a part as if it were your own tough skin. [trans. Robert Fitzgerald]
In the English Renaissance, when men regarded the Faustian quester with horrified fascination, George Chapman's translation (1614-15) appropriately has Athena address Odysseus as "insatiate/ in overreaches!" Chapman, however, goes beyond the original text, for Homer makes it clear that, while his hero might come dangerously close to such prideful trespass, his actions do remain within proper limits. Indeed, Homer provides Odysseus with divine approbation since Athena joys in his deceptions:
Two of a kind, we are, contrivers, both.
Of all men now alive
you are the best in plots and story telling
My own name is for wisdom among the gods deceptions, too. [trans. Robert Fitzgerald]
Vergil, who did much to disseminate the darker version of Odysseus as the betrayer, clearly could not find such qualities either amusing or admirable. Such "godlike" cunning did not seem godlike to him because he had an un-Homeric view of both the gods and morality. Moreover, since such cunning created the wooden horse that led directly to the destruction of Troy, Vergil has a particular reason for [148/149] detesting Odysseus' deviousness. In the age of Augustus, Homeric virtues become impious viciousness.
Odysseus, skilled in words, has occasionally also been used as a figure for the poet. Since classical times authors have described writing a poem in terms of the sea voyage, and therefore the paradigmatic ocean wanderings of the hero naturally are available for such analogies. Equally important, Odysseus who knows the proper respect due to bards — he excuses Phemios from the general slaughter — is himself something of a poet. He is not only a teller of tall tales and a creator of false identities that enable him to survive, he is also a truthful bard who preserves the deeds of the past. As Alkinoos tells him, "You speak with art, but your intent is honest. The Argive troubles, and your own troubles, you told as a poet would, a man who knows the world" [bk 11, trans. Robert Fitzgerald]. George Chapman's translation expands upon this praise with characteristic exuberance, thus making Odysseus into a complete poet, for according to this Renaissance version his royal lost lavishes this more detailed praise on him:
You move our eies
With forme, our minds with matter, and our eares
With elegant oration, such as beares
A musicke in the orderd isistorie
It layes before us. Not Demodocus
With sweeter strains hath usde to sing to us
All the Greeke sorrowes, wept out in your owne.
In thus turning Odysseus into a classical poet and rhetorician, Chapman may be following an ancient tradition, for as far back as Plato's Phaedrus the hero is credited with composing a manual of oratory during his leisure before Troy.
Since Odysseus would seem to have much in common with Ishmael, Cain, the Wandering Jew, and other common Romantic and post-Romantic images of the artist-poet, one is surprised not to find him employed more frequently in this way. Ruskin, it is true, does argue that in Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (1829) Turner created an image of his relation to the English art public [149/150]:
He had been himself shut up by one-eyed people, in a cave "darkened by laurels" (getting no good, but only evil, from all the fame of the great of long ago) — he had seen his companions eaten in the cave by the one-eyed people — (many a painter of good promise had fallen by Turner's side in those early toils of his); at last, where his own time had like to have come, he thrust the rugged pine-trunk — all ablaze — (rough nature, and the light of it) — into the faces of the one-eyed people, left them tearing their hair in the cloud-banks — got out of the cave in a humble way, under a sheep's belly — (helped by the lowliness and gentleness of nature, as well as by her ruggedness and flame) — and got away lo the open sea as the dawn broke over the Enchanted lslands. [The Turner Bequest, item 508]
Ruskin, who does not hold that the artist intended his picture to communicate such experiences, is of course merely employing the Odyssean confrontation with a blind one-eyed monster as a satiric analogy with which to lambast the British public. One of the rare uses of the Homeric figure as an image of the poet appears, perhaps expectedly, in Wallace Stevens, who frequently envisages the modern creator as a heroic quester. In both "The Sail of Ulysses" and its briefer version, "Presence of an External Master of Knowledge," Stevens presents the soliloquy. Symbol of the seeker, crossing by night/ the giant sea' (italics in original) in which his hero claims
A freedom at last from the mystical,
The beginnings of a final order,
The order of a man's right to be
As he is, the discipline of his scope
Observed as an absolute, himself. . . .
There is no map of paradise.
Heroically living and questing without the comforts of religious belief, this symbol of the seeker, as Stevens terms him, knows that his only source of truth must be 'the sibyl of the self . . . whose diamond . . . IS poverty' ('The Sail of Ulysses'). Such confident presentations of the poet as voyaging hero are rare in Romantic and post-Romantic art and literature. In fact, modern intonations of the Odysseus story, like those of the Pisgah sight, tend to emphasize irony and failure. In "Ithaka" [150/151] C. P. Cavafy urges that, since all goals are illusory, we must gain our rewards from the journey itself:
Have Ithaka always in your mind. Your arrival there is what you are destined for. But do not in the least hurry the journey. Better that it last for years, So that when you reach the island and are old, rich with all you have gained on the way, not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth. Ithaka gave you the splendid journey. Without her you would not have set out. She hasn't anything else to give you. [trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard]
In contrast to Cavafy, who explicitly takes the voyage of Odysseus as an image of human life, A. D. Hope in "The End of a Journey" focuses specifically upon the hero's return home. Odysseus' arrival in Ithaka turns out to be not, as Homer has it, a return to the hero's full nature as father, son, husband, householder, and king, but rather an encounter with disillusionment and emptiness, for he is now but an "old man sleeping with his housekeeper."
He prayed but knew Athene would not come.
The gods at last had left him, and the day
Darkened about him. Then from far away
And long ago, he seemed once more to be
Roped to a mast and through the breaker's roar
Sweet voices mocked him on his reeling deck:
"Son of Laertes, what delusive song
Turned your swift keel and brought you to this wreck,
In age and disenchantment to prolong
Stale years and chew the cud of ancient wrong,
A castaway upon so cruel a shore?"
The appearance of the word "castaway" in this final line of the poem brings about, or crystallizes, the recognition to which we — and the now-failed hero — have been led. Whereas Cavafy views the possibility of a triumphant return in much the same manner [151/152] Hope, his concentration upon the experiences of the voyage makes his poem far more optimistic. His poem which is meant to console men for the fact that there are no true Ithakas, tries to come to terms With things as they are, while Hope, who savagely reinterprets the ancient narrative itself, concentrates upon the moment of failure.
Such attractions to failure and the failed constitute a major use of the Odysseus narrative during the past century and a half. Thus in the Pisan Cantos Ezra Pound employs Elpenor, Odysseus' failed comrade, as narrator and hence as figure of the poet, while in The Suitors, Gustave Moreau's main interest is in the defeated and dying. Similarly, although critics disagree about the importance of the Homeric analogies in Joyce's Ulysses, the one clear example of such allusion seems to be the ironic use of Odysseus' encounter with Telemachus to emphasize that Bloom does not find his spiritual son nor Stephen his father. [Stanford's Ulysses Theme contains a bibliography of critical discussions of this problem].
These reinterpretations of The Odyssey suggest that well-known narratives do not serve as mere repositories of allusion and analogy for later authors, but rather that, like techniques such as point of view, these narratives themselves constitute a medium. In other words, these tales are as much a part of the artist's and the poet's means of conveying ideas and emotions as are colour, outline, and language. Artists like Moreau and poets like Hope and Cavafy convey their meanings by reshaping a pre-existent story.
Tennyson's "Ulysses" and "Enoch Arden" exemplify two different modes of thus employing the original Odyssean narrative and its accretions. "Ulysses," one of the Laureate's best-known poems, takes the form of a dramatic monologue delivered by the aging hero, who, bored with "an aged wife" and savage people, purposes to "sail beyond the sunset, and the baths/ Of all the western stars, until I die." For most of its critical history the poem has been interpreted as a rather straightforward expression of the idea that one must persevere with courage regardless of the difficulties. Such an interpretation places greatest emphasis upon the poem's famous closing lines in which Odysseus exhorts his mariners
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 [152/153]
This reading gains support from the poet's own statement that "The poem was written after Arthur Hallam's death, and it gives the feeling about the need of going forward and braving the struggle of life perhaps more simply than anything in In Memoriam." [Tennyson's statements and much other necessary information about the poem are conveniently assembled in Christopher Ricks's Longmans Annotated English Poets edition of the Poems (London, 1969), pp. 560-66.]
Despite such strong external testimony to the apparent validity of such a reading of the poem, several critics within the last quarter century have argued that "Ulysses" must be read as a dramatic monologue in which the speaker does not necessarily have Tennyson's approval. Pointing to the scorn that Ulysses seems to direct at his wife, son, and subjects, E.J . Chiasson argues that he unconsciously reveals an essential arrogance and irresponsibility quite in keeping with the poem's Dantean and Byronic sources but which are quite out of harmony with Tennysonian belief; see "Tennyson's 'Ulysses' — A Re-interpretation," Critical Essays on the Poetry of Tennyson, ed. John Killham (New York, l967), pp. 164-73. The argument that "Ulysses" was prompted by the death of Hallam does not in itself necessarily argue for the traditional interpretation since other poems, such as "Tithonus" and "The Lotos Eaters," which had similar origins, have speakers who clearly do not voice their author's own ideas. In fact, since the poet was trying to gain some emotional and aesthetic distance from the overwhelming fact of Hallam's death in these poems, he approaches his own beliefs only in the most indirect fashion. Perhaps it might be best to say that he is working these ideas out and often testing the validity or weakness of those that might have some appeal but to which he is in no way committed. According to such an argument, Tennyson, who admittedly drew upon Dante's Ulysses in Inferno 26: 90-142, might be experimentally imagining what it would be like to pursue his own quest without regard for the cost to others. "Ulysses," then, despite its supposedly Victorian optimism, would be read as embodying ethical attitudes like those espoused by the speakers in "The Lotos Eaters" and "The Palace of Art" (in the first part of the latter poem).
However appealing such a reading was in the 1950s when all critics seemed enthralled with literary irony, it does not finally find a means of discounting the poet's own statements about "Ulysses." It does, however, point to some apparent inconsistencies in the poem. A third possible reading, which sees it as a deathbed statement, receives support from the fact that the speaker is addressing
Souls that have toiled, and wrought, and thought with me [153/154],
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads.
Since the hero returned home alone and all his fellow mariners are dead, it is possible that Ulysses is here expressing a courageous willingness to voyage into the last unexplored land. His invitation "Come, my friends,/ 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world" — and much of the poem is quite in keeping with such an interpretation, which has the value of recognizing both the biographical genesis and the apparent inconsistencies Chiasson perceives. Of course, the major argument against reading "Ulysses" as a more positive version of something like Browning's "The Bishop Orders His Tomb" is that Hallam Tennyson, though not the poet himself, claimed that the mariners who are addressed in the poem are those of Ulysses' later voyages — and hence not dead. None the less, unlike many of the statements in the Memoirs, this one does not have the poet's own authority; and moreover, Tennyson has clearly departed far from the Dantean narrative in which the voyagers, who are not old, do not survive their first voyage. At any rate, whatever the reading one adopts, one perceives that Tennyson has characteristically attempted to use the ancient narrative and its medieval intonations to convey modern, personal themes.
Enoch Arden as failed Ulysses and unrescued Robinson Cruisoe: Arthur Hughes's illustration to
Tennyson's Enoch Arden. [Click on thumbnail for larger image.]
"Enoch Arden," a very different poem because it is not a dramatic monologue, draws upon the narrative structures of both The Odyssey and Robinson Crusoe. Tennyson's story of a castaway's self-sacrifice also draws upon several nineteenth-century verse narratives (which include Thomas Woolner's "The Fisherman's Story" and George Crabbe's "The Parting Hour") in portraying the world of a man shipwrecked and castaway. Enoch, "a rough sailor's lad/ Made orphan by a winter shipwreck" (11. 14-15), himself three times saves other men from watery deaths. After seven happy years of marriage to Annie Lee, financial distress drives him to go as the boatswain on a China trader. He is marooned on an island and after more than a decade of awaiting his return, Annie accepts the offer of marriage from their mutual friend Philip. Ironically, she finally accepts his fervent offers of his hand only after she has misinterpreted an ambiguous dream. As she desperately seeks for a sign from the Bible, Annie
Suddenly put her finger on the text,
"Under the palm-tree." That was nothing to her:
No meaning there: she closed the Book and slept:
When lo! her Enoch sitting on a height,
Under a palm-tree, over him the Sun:
"He is gone," she thought, "he is happy, he is singing
Hosanna in the highest: yonder shines
The Sun of Righteousness, and these be palms
Whereof the happy people strowing cried
'Hosanna in the highest!'" Here she woke
Resolved, sent for him, and said wildly to him [Philip]
"There is no reason why we should not wed." [ll. 493-504]
Like Leodogrand in the "Coming of Arthur," Annie makes a decision about a crucial marriage after having an ambiguous dream. As it turns out, she misreads her visionary experience, because the unhappy Enoch is stranded on a tropical paradise, his "beauteous hateful isle" (l. 613). He finally returns to find that his Penelope, who has been living in poverty and not riches, has accepted her suitor; and since he does not wish to destroy the happiness of his friend, wife, and family, he resolves to continue his castaway existence. Knowing that he is about to die,
Enoch bore his weakness cheerfully.
For sure no gladlier does the stranded wreck
See through the gray skirts of a lifting squall
The boat that bears the hope of life approach
To save the life despair'd of, than he saw
Death dawning on him, and the close of all. [ll. 823-28]
He dies at last,
Crying with a loud voice "A sail! A sail
I am saved;" and so fell back and spoke no more. [ll. 906-7]
By this point Tennyson's narrative of a shipwrecked and castaway existence has included so many ironies that one begins to wonder if this last hope of rescue may not prove so deluded as his earlier ones. In fact, this bleak tale so continually inverts the patterns of Robinson Crusoe and The Odyssey, both of which it follows quite closely, that [155/156] is left, finally, not with an image of heroic endurance but one of inexplicable suffering and isolation. Like many of the equally bleak narratives in Crabbe's Village and Wordsworth's Excursion, "Enoch Arden" requires that one import a Christian perspective to provide the tale with meaning. Otherwise, it tends to seem a parable of a meaninglessly heroic, yet islanded and suffering, existence Tennyson does mention Enoch's own consolatory faith, and we know that Tennyson himself believed firmly in Christianity, but his poem — like Hopkins's "The Loss of the Eurydice" — seems to convey ideas and attitudes unintended by its author. Placing it in the historical context of similar work by Crabbe and Wordsworth suggests that this sentimental tale of sacrifice has a religious meaning, placing it in the context of its other literary forebears, The Odyssey and Robinson Crusoe suggests a very different meaning. As we have observed, the presence of the modern shipwreck situation in literature and art over the past two centuries has meant that an author can move his readers from an imaginative cosmos in which God is present to one in which He is absent. Even when the artist and writer are believers, this alternative universe — whether believing or unbelieving — hovers beneath the desired one. Occasionally, as in "Enoch Arden," it is difficult to ascertain in which one we are supposed to find ourselves.
Last modified 12 July 2007