Illustration of Odysseus tied to a ship's mast

The Odyssey

by Homer

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"A Twice-told Tale"

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Context: On the eve of his departure for Ithaca, after nearly ten years of wandering, Odysseus finishes telling his hosts, King Alcinous and Queen Arete, his many adventures. He recalls that he visited Hades in order to discover what lay ahead for him, that he escaped both Scylla and Charybdis, that his men ate of the forbidden cattle of the Sun and then perished at sea, that he finally stayed with Calypso who then helped him get to the land of the seafaring Phaeacians. Perhaps Homer, thought to be a minstrel himself, intrudes here by suggesting that sometimes retold stories bore the listener. Hawthorne felt otherwise in naming a book so, although Shakespeare agreed in King John: "Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale,/ Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man."

"My following fates to thee, O king, are known,
And the bright partner of thy royal throne.
Enough: in misery can words avail?
And what so tedious as a twice-told tale?"

"An Honest Business Never Blush To Tell"

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Context: Telemachus, son of Odysseus or Ulysses, wanders in search of his father, and the goddess Athene, disguised as Mentor, the trusted family friend, accompanies him. They come upon Nestor, horseman of the Greeks and wise counselor, and his sons making sacrifices near the sea at Pylos. Telemachus does not know how to approach the old man for news of his father: "How shall I meet, or how accost the sage/ Unskill'd of speech nor yet mature of age?" But Athene, the family goddess and divine protectress of father and son, had, in the guise of Mentor, already advised him:

"Proceed, my son! this youthful shame expel;
An honest business never blush to tell.
To learn what fates thy wretched sire detain
We passed the wide immeasurable main."

"Gates Of Ivory"

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Context: Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, finally returns to his home in Ithaca after his long absence in the Trojan War and his subsequent travels. Penelope, his wife, in questioning the dirty man before her concerning her husband's chances of returning, asks for an interpretation of a dream that she has had in which an eagle kills her twenty geese. Odysseus explains that the eagle clearly represents her husband and the geese the suitors who have plagued the seeming widow. Penelope, however, doubts the optimism of the interpretation and comments on dreams that issue from the gate of ivory and those from the gate of horn:

Hard is the task, and rare, the queen rejoin'd,
Impending destinies in dreams to find;
Immured within the silent bower of sleep,
Two portals firm the various phantoms keep:
Of ivory one; whence flit, to mock the brain,
Of winged lies a light fantastic train:
The gate opposed pellucid valves adorn,
And columns fair incased with polish'd horn:
Where images of truth for passage wait,
With visions manifest of future fate.
Not to this troop, I fear, that phantom soar'd,
Which spoke Ulysses to his realm restored:
Delusive semblance!

"In The Lap Of The Gods"

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Context: Nearly ten years after the Trojan War, the hero Odysseus is still en route, which condition was prophesied and is maintained by the gods. Still, Athene feels he has suffered more than he deserves, largely at the hands of Poseidon for the blinding of his son Cyclops. In order to prepare Ithaca for the return of the warrior, Athene comes to earth disguised as a friend of the absent chieftain. She consoles Telemachus, Odysseus' son, who has had to support for a number of years the suitors to the hand of his mother, the faithful Penelope. The goddess tells of Odysseus' daring in former times, and she wishes him home to dispose of...

(This entire section contains 186 words.)

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the gluttonous suitors.

". . . Would, I say, that in such strength Odysseus might come amongst the wooers; then should they all find swift destruction and bitterness in their wooing. Yet these things verily lie on the knees of the gods, whether he shall return and wreak vengeance in his halls, or whether he shall not; but for myself, I bid thee take thought how thou mayest thrust forth the wooers from the hall. . . ."

"Pile Pelion On Ossa"

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Context: Calypso, commanded by the gods, permits Ulysses to build a small boat and leave her island. Although Neptune sends a terrible storm to torment him, Ulysses, with the help of Leucothea, a sea-goddess, arrives, shipwrecked but alive, on the beach in the land of Phaeacia. There he is found by Nausicaa, the daughter of King Alcinoüs of Phaeacia. The princess clothes the castaway and sends him to her father's court. Asked by Alcinoüs, after a banquet, to tell his story, Ulysses relates his adventures since the fall of Troy, years before. In Book XI of The Odyssey he tells of his arrival in Cimmeria and his descent below the surface of the earth to the land of the dead. In Hades he meets Tiresias, the blind seer, who informs him of the future, and he meets Anticlea, his mother, who gives him news of his wife and son. He also sees the shades, or spirits, of many of the ancient heroines of Greek legend: Tyro, beloved of Neptune; Antiope, beloved of Zeus; Alcmena, another woman loved by Zeus; Megara, the mother of Hercules; Jocasta, the mother-wife of Oedipus; and others, including Ephimedia. Homer puts a commentary about each woman into Ulysses' mouth; and Ulysses relates how the sons of Ephimedia, Ephialtes and Otus, grew tall and strong, and challenged the gods themselves. Proud of their strength, they heaved one mountain, Ossa, upon Mount Olympus, and then threw Mount Pelion on top of both. The words of the proverbial version are not quite the same as in Pope's translation:

The wondrous youths had scarce nine winters told,When high in air, tremendous to behold,Nine ells aloft they rear'd their towering head,And full nine cubits broad their shoulders spread.Proud of their strength, and more than mortal size,The gods they challenge, and affect the skies:Heaved on Olympus tottering Ossa stood;On Ossa, Pelion nods with all his wood.

"Reigned The Sceptered Monarch Of The Dead"

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Context: Odysseus, the wily one, wandering nearly ten years since the ten-year seige of Troy, is finally to discover his fate. Circe, the sorceress, has directed him to the land of the Cimmerians, so that he can summon from Hades Teiresias, the blind soothsayer of great fame. While there the hero speaks to his dead mother, and to his friends, among them the great warrior Achilles. Trying to comfort the slain hero, Odysseus pays him a compliment: "Alive we hail'd thee with our guardian gods,/ And dead thou rulest a king in these abodes." Achilles replies with the oftquoted passage celebrating life:

"Talk not of ruling in this dolorous gloom,Nor think vain words (he cried) can ease my doom.Rather I'd choose laboriously to bearA weight of woes, and breathe the vital airA slave to some poor hind that toils for bread,Than reign the sceptred monarch of the dead!"

"The Human Form Divine"

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Context: Odysseus has been almost twenty years away from his home, his wife, and his son–ten during the seige of Troy and the rest wandering the earth as the gods willed. Finally, he comes to rest in the land of the Phaeacians, who will see him safely to Ithaca. But first they show him hospitality, while he in turn relates his adventures. One of these, the sixth, takes place on the Island of Circe, the enchantress, who welcomes Odysseus' men into her halls only to change them into pigs. (Milton in Paradise Lost speaks of the "human face divine," while Blake in Songs of Experience, "A Divine Image," writes "Cruelty has a human heart,/ and jealousy a human face;/ Terror the human form divine,/ And secrecy the human dress.")

Soon in the luscious feast themselves they lost,And drank oblivion of their native coast.Instant her circling wand the goddess waves,To hogs transforms them, and the sty receives.No more was seen the human form divine;Head, face, and members, bristle into swine . . .

"The Lot Of Man; To Suffer, And To Die"

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Context: Accompanied by the goddess Minerva, who is disguised in the shape of Mentor, Telemachus ventures forth from his native Ithaca to search for Ulysses, his father, who has failed to return to Ithaca after the Trojan War, years before. At the opening of Book III, Telemachus' ship nears the shore of Pylos early one morning, as King Nestor and his sons, "At nine green theaters," prepare to sacrifice to Neptune. Telemachus lands, though he is unsure of himself in meeting the elderly and very wise Nestor. Minerva counsels him, however, to have no fear; she advises him to speak up courageously, for the gods will give him help. Telemachus and the disguised Minerva are greeted by Pisistratus, and they are led to Nestor, whom they join in the Pylian sacrifice. Following the ceremonial rites, Nestor invites Telemachus and his companion to join in the feasting. The banquet done, Nestor asks his guests from whence they come, their identity, and the reasons for their adventuring upon the seas. Responding as he was advised to do, Telemachus speaks, inspired by the gods; he tells Nestor that he is the son of King Ulysses of Ithaca, and that he seeks his father, a famous leader in the Trojan War, who has failed to return to his home. Telemachus asks Nestor to tell him what he can, for he knows that Nestor, too, was at the Trojan War. The young man asks for the truth, even if it means word of Ulysses' death:

Of all the chiefs, this hero's fate aloneHas Jove reserv'd, unheard of, and unknown;Whether in fields by hostile fury slain,Or sunk by tempests in the gulfy main?Of this to learn, oppress'd with tender fears,Lo, at thy knee his suppliant son appears.If or thy certain eye, or curious ear,Have learnt his fate, the whole dark story clear.And, oh! whate'er Heaven destined to betide,Let neither flattery soothe, nor pity hide.Prepared I stand: he was but born to tryThe lot of man; to suffer, and to die.

"The Surge And Thunder Of The Odyssey"

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Context: Andrew Lang's sonnet appeared as the prefatory poem to a prose translation of Homer's Odyssey by Lang and S. H. Butcher. The sonnet expresses Lang's immense admiration for the Greek epic. The poet compares men of today to Ulysses and his sailors who were entertained so hospitably by Circe on her Aegean island that Ulysses seemed finally to have forgotten his original aim to return to his homeland. The enticements of Circe's island were many; it was a place where "only the low lutes of love complain,/ And only shadows of wan lovers pine . . ." Ulysses' followers finally succeeded in persuading their leader to pursue the original course. Like these men who were tired of idleness and wanted to go to sea again, modern man sees beyond the petty poetry and music of today and feels the intense power of a composition like the Greek epic. The sonnet ends with the following sestet:

So gladly, from the songs of modern speechMen turn, and see the stars, and feel the freeShrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers,And through the music of the languid hours,They hear like ocean on a western beachThe surge and thunder of the Odyssey.

"Welcome The Coming, Speed The Parting Guest"

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Context: At the suggestion of Athene, disguised as Mentes and later Mentor, Telemachus goes forth from Ithaca to seek news of his father Odysseus who has been gone nearly twenty years, ten years after the Trojan War is over. He visits in the palace of Menelaus and Helen, the latter the cause of the war, albeit unwittingly since she was the tool of the gods. The youth so resembles his father that the host wishes to hear all about him, and to tell all he knows of Odysseus since the war. Yet the king knows that Telemachus wants to continue his search for his father, so he does not insist that the young man tarry. After the following speech, Menelaus sends Telemachus on his way.

"If with desire so strong thy bosom glows,Ill (said the king) should I thy wish oppose;For oft in others freely I reproveThe ill-timed efforts of officious love;Who loves too much, hate in the like extreme,And both the golden mean alike condemn.Alike he thwarts the hospitable end,Who drives the free, or stays the hasty friend:True friendship's laws are by this rule express'd,Welcome the coming, speed the parting guest."


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