“Ithaka”: A Villanelle and Reflection
(reposted gratefully from my latest All Nine blog)
Well, sometimes they come fairly easily.
At the start of this good year, this month’s challenge arrived: reflect on epic. And that proved pretty easy, for the idea leaped pretty fully-formed about something I’ve long wanted to do.
Ever since I taught Homer to college juniors and seniors, one scene in the Odyssey has always stuck out to me: Odysseus’ longing for his home: his father, his son, his throne, his bed–and most of all, his wife. Although he spent eight years (give or take) in the arms of a couple minor goddesses, Odysseus still got up each morning and strained his gaze seaward, searching through “hollow, salt-rimmed eyes” for Ithaka and the wife of his youth.
One translation of Homer puts it like this:
“. . .he was on the sea-shore as usual, looking out upon the barren ocean with tears in his eyes, groaning and breaking his heart for sorrow. . .‘Goddess,’ replied Ulysses, ‘do not be angry with me about this. I am quite aware that my wife Penelope is nothing like so tall or so beautiful as yourself. She is only a woman, whereas you are an immortal. Nevertheless, I want to get home, and can think of nothing else.’”
Other writers have famously imagined how Penelope must have suffered through her long fate of waiting. Ovid in the Heroides portrays her worry that her husband has been delayed with another, and her fears that he’ll find her an aged woman though he left her twenty years before as a young girl. Margaret Atwood in her excellent, intriguing Penelopiad has Penelope say, “I knew he was tricky and a liar, I just didn’t think he would play his tricks and try out his lies on me.” Nice.
But while the cynics and the world-weary roll their eyes at the King of Ithaka’s likely excuse (“But honey–I HAD to sleep with them–they were goddesses, and what mortal is allowed to resist, or capable?”), I cannot help finding this poetry very moving. Though he spends years with goddesses who do not change nor age in their supernatural beauty, Odysseus nonetheless keeps looking, keeps longing for his one wife, his true love, even as he must know that she grows greyer, older, deepening in her despair that he will ever arrive. Sigh. Yeah. I’m a sucker for a love story, however old and improbable.
And so those salt-rimmed tears quietly poured out by the salty seas while the nymphs still sleep set me pondering a poem. I started with a sonnet, but once you grow at all familiar or friendly with Malcolm Guite, well, the Muse will often nudge you to step your game up a notch or two. Careful readers may find some hymnsong as well as an Old English poem tossed in like flotsam. Here you have it.
And so: pace, cynics (and Erato). I’ve done what I could. And here’s to all of us who long for home, for a heart to hold us truly, long past decency and despair. Here’s to love making its sure way shoreward, whatever lies behind, whatever passed before. Here’s to home at long last.
He wanders like a pilgrim long lost years
through every danger, seeking home and wife.
Strains eyes on every shore through salty tears.
When siren song seduces weary ears,
he binds himself against each snare or strife.
and wanders like a pilgrim long lost years.
Though goddesses would solace his old fears,
dear longing drives him homeward like a knife;
he strains and scans each shore in salty tears.
He cheats each whirlpool, wise and safe he steers,
though others lose their heads, forsake their life,
that sad, seafaring pilgrim wanders years,
and shakes off every shipwreck, still he nears.
His heart still hopes, though his small raft is rife
with doubts, he glimpses home-shore now through tears
and lands, as strength and heaven’s help appears.
He finds his home, his throne, his bed, his wife,
then in her arms he ends long pilgrim years.
At last ashore, joy fills glad eyes with tears.