The apparent simplicity of this twenty-line poem belies its mysterious subject and persona. Its short lines, straightforward diction, and compelling rhythms pull the reader forward through a series of striking images, but at the poem’s end, he or she is nowhere nearer to discovering the dramatic situation.
Most scholars agree that “The Return” is about the return of the ancient, pre-Judeo-Christian gods to earth, but others argue that the poem describes the retreat, the “anabasis,” of a once-mighty army. Either interpretation fits, although the “Gods of the winged shoe” in the third stanza suggest the former reading. In either case, “The Return” portrays the passage of a group of formerly heroic beings, now weary and worn out by their anxieties. The persona watches them pass and describes their slow, uncertain movement. He seems to be calling others to witness the defeated return of this godlike host.
Line 1 suggests that the persona was present when these hero-gods were at the zenith of their power or that he is at least knowledgeable about their former glory; the fact that they have “returned” implies an earlier journey. If these are indeed the ancient gods who held sway before the advent of modern religions, then the assumption is that monotheism has conquered but not yet destroyed them. The less mysterious interpretation—that these are warriors returning after years of hard campaigning—would also account for the...
(The entire section is 502 words.)