Set during the Trojan War, this poem describes “The Greeks sitting on the beach wondering what to do when the war ends.” The speaker states that they do not really want to go home to their relatively mundane lives after the excitement and unpredictability of fighting at Troy.
Still, the soldiers realize that their “excuse for absence” will not be accepted because fighting a war is considered a better reason to stay in a place away from home than is “exploring one’s capacity for diversion.” Nevertheless, they do miss their families “a little.” They begin to wonder: “What if war is just male version of dressing up, a game devised to avoid profound spiritual questions.”
The soldiers feel not only the call of war but also the call of the world and its beauty, like “an opera beginning with the war’s loud chords and ending with the floating aria of the sirens,” or mermaids, who, with their beautiful, haunting voices, lured men to their doom. The temptation to stay in Troy is so strong that they calculate ten years as the time needed to get back to Ithaca. Hopelessly, the Greeks are hostages, “already enthralled,” some by “dreams of pleasure, some by sleep, and some by music,” and the longer they delay their journey, the more tightly they are caught in the “insoluble dilemma” of “how to divide the world’s beauty into acceptable and unacceptable loves.”