In human life the idea if home occupies one of the leading positions in the hierarchy of traditional values. The famous proverb “There is no place like home” reflects the uniqueness and importance of the place to human heart. The emotional value of home becomes especially apparent in situations when due to circumstances of life one has been forced to stay away from home — then, the more precious becomes the idea of homecoming. The adventures of wanderers striving for their homeland have been among the frequently occurring topics in arts, inter alia in literature. One of the bright examples of such wander is Homer’s Odysseus, a triumphant character coming home, who inspired poets’ reflections for centuries onwards. Inspired by the contemporary feelings of restlessness and disquiet characteristic of the epoch, W. S. Merwin’s “Odysseus” diverges from the traditional view of the legend and represents yet another interpretation of the story — a pessimistic approach based on the idea that homecoming is impossible for the wanderer as in his multiple travels he has lost the true idea of homeland.
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The breakup with the tradition becomes obvious from the very first lines of the poem. While in Homer’s epic Odysseus’ adventures appear as a colorful sequence of captivating developments happening at diverse and exotic places, Merwin represents the hero’s journey as a series of recurrent events lacking in variety and reminding more of everyday routine than of fascinating journey. This effect is achieved by means of anadiplosis in the first two lines of the poem: “Always the setting forth was the same,/ Same sea, same dangers waiting for him “. Further on, the idea of ‘sameness’ deploys throughout the whole poem, echoing in lines 5, 8 and 11 in words ‘identical’, ‘each’, and ‘same’ correspondingly.
Time goes, but in his wanders Odysseus gets nowhere: unlike Homerian character, who strives to his home as his family awaits for him there, Merwin’s Odysseus is married not to Penelope but to patience, who becomes his constant companion on the endless way to home (line 7). By personifying abstract phenomena with the help of epithets — “dangers waiting”, “receding shore”, “unraveling patience”, “twining welcome” — Merwin enlarges and emphasizes their significance for Odysseus, as not his home and family, but dangers and parting are characteristic of his disquieted existence (lines 2, 4, 6, 8). Alluding to the islands Odysseus visited, and to the women who met and greeted him there, Merwin condenses the hostile atmosphere of the hero’s life as the latter gets nothing but reproaches and wishes of “perils that he could never sail through” — a hopeless perspective far from the positive attitude of Homerian character.
Entangled in the endless roundabout of disembarking at places which one after another fail to become a home for him, Odysseus finds himself lost between his past and future, living in the present which does not bring any satisfaction or answer to his rhetoric question on which is the right place for him (lines 14-17). Unlike Homerian hero, who confidently proclaimed “Ithaka, bright in the sun, is my home” (Homer 190), Merwin’s Odysseus struggles for regaining the meaning of true home which he lost during the multiple occurrences of his betrayals of home and family with other women. Here a parallel emerges between Odysseus’ meaningless existence and the sensations of people subsequently involved in the Vietnam War: fighting for somebody else’s case, they came back emotionally exhausted and forfeited the meaning of peaceful life during the horrors of war (Hix 40).
Considering the social attitudes of the time, Merwin’s “Odysseus” represents a reflection on the tragedy of lack in traditional values by people who are involved into meaningless activities which are imposed on them and bring about confusion as to what people really need and appreciate.
Hix, Harvey Lee. Understanding W. S. Merwin. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Rodney Merrill. Eds. Thomas R. Walsh, and Rodney Merrill. 4th ed. MI: University of Michigan Press, 2005.
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Merwin, William Stanley. “Odysseus”. 2009. Web.