Saturday, November 10, 2012

TWENTY SIX YEARS ON ONE POEM? What the H, Alfred, Lord Tennyson? It doesn't even rhyme! (Sundays With The Classics)

It was time to read The Odyssey again, and now, about 1/5 of the way through the story, stuff is really starting to happen -- and, ULYSSES finally shows up!

This portion opened with a meeting on Olympus, where Minerva, and I am still a little unclear about whether Minerva is the same person as Athena and Pallas because she seems like the same person but then sometimes doesn't.  (Wikipedia says Minerva is equated with Athena, but that Minerva wasn't necessarily as warlike.)  Anyway, Minerva tells Zeus about how Ulysses is being held captive by Calypso and Zeus gets mad at that and sends Hermes over to tell Calypso to let Ulysses go.

Hermes gets to Calypso's island, has a nice dinner with Calypso -- they really do; it's about a third of the chapter-- and then gets down to business, telling Calypso that Zeus says she has to let Ulysses go, and then Calypso gets really upset with Hermes and says that the male gods get all bent out of shape everytime one of the goddesses gets herself a mortal boytoy:

The gods are harsh and far too jealous—
more so than others. They are unhappy
if goddesses make mortal men their partners
and take them to bed for sex. That’s how it was                                     
when rose-fingered Dawn wanted Orion—                                   
you gods that live at ease were jealous of her,
until golden-throned sacred Artemis
came to Ortygia and murdered him
with her gentle arrows.1 In the same way,
when fair-haired Demeter was overcome
with passion and had sex with Iasion
in a thrice-ploughed fallow field, soon enough
Zeus heard of it and annihilated him
by throwing down his dazzling lightning bolt.

But, Calypso gives in and tells Ulysses he can go as soon as he makes himself a raft.  Ulysses then makes Calypso swear it's not a trick before telling Calypso that he's grateful because even though Calypso is beautiful and a goddess of some sort, Ulysses really loves his wife Penelope and wants to get back to her because he's really devoted to her.

Then Ulysses and Calypso have sex one more time before he heads out.

  “Mighty goddess,
do not be angry with me over this.
I myself know very well Penelope,
although intelligent, is not your match                                          
to look at, not in stature or in beauty.
But she’s a human being and you’re a god.
You’ll never die or age. But still I wish,
each and every day to get back home,                                                     
to see the day when I return. ...
                                                                          Odysseus finished.
Then the sun went down, and it grew dark. The two of them
went inside the inner chamber of the hollow cave
and lay down beside each other to make love.
What really strikes through this chapter, though, is how unpredictable the Gods are, and the limits on their powers that seem to be present.  When Hermes arrives at Calypso's island, he comments that the travel was hard because he had to go across so many lands where they aren't sacrificing stuff to the gods.  Then, Calypso allows Ulysses to leave but makes Ulysses build his own raft -- she lends him an axe and other tools-- instead of just poof-ing a ship into existence.

You'd think, though, that if Zeus says "Ulysses gets to leave" he could just go home, but no: Poseidon sees Ulysses on his raft 17 days into what Zeus had decreed to be a 20-day trip, and gets mad and summons every single storm in the world to focus on Ulysses, who tries to ride it out in his raft, and I kept thinking "How is Zeus not intervening to say, Hey, Poseidon, ease up, I've said this guy gets to go home," but then Minerva (I think it was her?) shows up again disguised as a cormorant and gives Ulysses a ribbon to tie around himself so that he can swim through the storm to shore, only Ulysses doesn't take her advice because who's going to listen to a talking cormorant when you're stuck in The Perfect Storm?

I assume that's why; I assume that Ulysses didn't realize the ribbon-giving talking seabird was a goddess, but maybe it's that Ulysses just doesn't trust the gods and feels like he can force them to prove stuff, because Ulysses made Calypso swear on the River Styx that she wasn't tricking him.

Eventually, Ulysses' raft breaks up and he has to swim and he gets to Phaecia, where he's stuck on the rocks outside a cliff for a while almost being killed, but he ultimately finds a river and prays to the river god to ease the current so he can go in there; the river god does it, Ulysses swims upstream a bit, finds a woods, digs a hole filled with leaves, and heads off to sleep.

This chapter also featured a bunch of mentions of Aurora, who is the goddess of the dawn. I had to go read about her to find out that she doesn't draw the sun across the sky; instead, her brother and sister are Sol and Luna, who appear to do all the heavy work in that family.  

What Homer doesn't mention about Aurora are two fascinating things: First, Wikipedia says she's mentioned in a lot of sexual poems, so this chapter was by far the dirtiest classic poem I've ever read, apparently.  I couldn't find any of those poems, but I did find this poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, :


The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes; I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair'd shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Alas! for this gray shadow, once a man--
So glorious in his beauty and thy choice,
Who madest him thy chosen, that he seem'd
To his great heart none other than a God!
I ask'd thee, "Give me immortality."
Then didst thou grant mine asking with a smile,
Like wealthy men who care not how they give.
But thy strong Hours indignant work'd their wills,
And beat me down and marr'd and wasted me,
And tho' they could not end me, left me maim'd
To dwell in presence of immortal youth,
Immortal age beside immortal youth,
And all I was in ashes. Can thy love
Thy beauty, make amends, tho' even now,
Close over us, the silver star, thy guide,
Shines in those tremulous eyes that fill with tears
To hear me? Let me go: take back thy gift:
Why should a man desire in any way
To vary from the kindly race of men,
Or pass beyond the goal of ordinance
Where all should pause, as is most meet for all?

A soft air fans the cloud apart; there comes
A glimpse of that dark world where I was born.
Once more the old mysterious glimmer steals
From any pure brows, and from thy shoulders pure,
And bosom beating with a heart renew'd.
Thy cheek begins to redden thro' the gloom,
Thy sweet eyes brighten slowly close to mine,
Ere yet they blind the stars, and the wild team
Which love thee, yearning for thy yoke, arise,
And shake the darkness from their loosen'd manes,
And beat the twilight into flakes of fire.
Lo! ever thus thou growest beautiful
In silence, then before thine answer given
Departest, and thy tears are on my cheek.

Why wilt thou ever scare me with thy tears,
And make me tremble lest a saying learnt,
In days far-off, on that dark earth, be true?
"The Gods themselves cannot recall their gifts."

Ay me! ay me! with what another heart
In days far-off, and with what other eyes
I used to watch if I be he that watch'd
The lucid outline forming round thee; saw
The dim curls kindle into sunny rings;
Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood
Glow with the glow that slowly crimson'd all
Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay,
Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm
With kisses balmier than half-opening buds
Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd
Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet,
Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing,
While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.

Yet hold me not for ever in thine East;
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.

 That poem took him 26 years to complete, so it's safe to say that Lord Tennyson works a little differently than I do.  

It's about Tithonus, who is the second fascinating thing.  That picture at the top of this post is Aurora and Tithonus and some other people.  Aurora fell in love with Tithonus, and so Aurora asked Zeus to make Tithonus immortal, which Zeus did, only because Aurora didn't ask Zeus to also make Tithonus eternally young, Tithonus just gets older and older and older, never dying, so again: The Gods are jerks, and the lesson is be really super careful what you ask them for because you will end up getting superold and becoming a grasshopper, which is what happened to Tithonus: He supposedly never stopped talking, and never stopped getting older, and so he was turned into a grasshopper and that is why grasshoppers chirp so much nowadays.  

True story.

And also things do not go very well for mortal men who become the object of desire for goddesses.  Keep that in mind, mortal men. Keep that in mind.


Andrew Leon said...

I have a poem I started 2 years ago that I need to get back to...

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