When we returned from Hell, that sorceress
Who so loved our captain she set him free,
Feasted us with meat and bread and wine,
Praising us for our great-heartedness:
“In going down alive to the House of Hades,
You will have died twice instead of once—
Which is enough for any man to bear.”
Sunset. And we sailors all lay down
To sleep by the stern cables of our ship.
But shapely Circe kept Odysseus up
Making love to him for the last time, again
And again, an infinity of kisses, and then
Warned him of the dangers that lay ahead.
Of Scylla and Charybdis I shall not speak,
For there are horrors memory consumes
With the men who are consumed by them.
Six comrades of my youth were plucked aloft
By that she-monster with six grinding mouths.
No mercy there, except their death was quick.
The Sirens cut the wound that would not heal.
Circe warned us of these cruel daughters
Of a sea-god, with the heads of lovely women,
And wings and feet of birds. They dwell
On an island near the whirlpool of Charybdis
Where they loll in a flowering meadow, waiting
For ships to pass. They know when to spring
For Zeus has given them knowledge of everything.
Circe warned us not to sheer too close
To these harpies, or eavesdrop on their singing.
Wives and children will not welcome home
Men who’ve heard those voices clear and true.
Sirens perch on masts like cypress boughs
Of their island home where dead men’s bones
Lie scattered, with flesh still clinging to them.
Circe bid us fill our ears with beeswax
To deafen us—all but Odysseus.
Why did she make exception for the man
She loved, why did she think he might
Listen harmlessly to what would kill us?
“Lash him to the crosspiece on the mast.
And when he begs and prays that you release him,
Tie him all the tighter the more he pleads.”
The sorceress conjured up a favoring breeze
That swept us toward Sorrento and our fate.
Suddenly the bowl of the sea grew calm
As if it were a pond on a summer day,
And not a breath of wind to strum the water.
So we stowed the sails and set to rowing
While our captain carved a wheel of wax
Into wedges with his knife. In sunlight
He kneaded the wax and gently sealed our ears.
We tied him to the mast, and went on rowing.
Soon the Sirens mulled the air with music
Soft at first like a maiden’s secret humming,
A serenade, or young mother’s lullaby:
“Come, come, famous Odysseus, whose name
Brings eternal glory to the Achaeans,
Come listen to our ethereal harmonies.
No man with ears to hear can pass us by,
For wisdom sings the counterpoint to pleasure;
By Zeus, you shall know the past and future.”
If the stars could sing in their heavenly courses;
If the wind could intone the harp of branches;
If nightingales had accompanied Orpheus,
After the Sirens, they would seem like noise.
The maiden’s chorale, the lady’s serenade,
At last the rainbow of the coloratura
Pierced the melting beeswax of my ear:
So sad a beauty steeped in tragedy,
The melting minor strain of a threnody.
I heard little yet I heard too much.
Meanwhile Odysseus, the honored guest
Screamed at us, cursed, and chafed and writhed
As if he would tear free of his own skin,
Cried “Mutiny!” commanding we let him go.
I must say this was a vexing test,
As we were duty-bound to serve our captain.
But a voice inside us or above,
Made us true to more than the moment;
And so we tied him faster to the mast,
And bent our oars to escape the Sirens’ sound.
So that curious danger, at least, was past.
Many a good man’s death I have forgotten,
But not the Siren’s song. It seemed to pass
Into my heart although my ears were sealed.
I have no gift to set the melody
To words, but know the theme right well:
Of love lost, anguish, and the future gone.
Sometimes I hear the exquisite refrain,
Though kindly it grows fainter every day,
As if time and distance from the isle were one.
I welcome the hour that echo will die away.
As for our captain: Circe must have known
Her hero was not like the rest of us—
He could hear that tune with an open ear,
Banish it from his mind and not go mad.
Perhaps it was by grace of the Goddess
Athena, who dearly loved Odysseus,
And served him night and day as guardian.
As for me, I am a simple man
And welcome our voyage into the dark silence.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 24 Number 4, on page 53
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