The thoughts of my father, John Hale, Miltonist, Neo-Latinist, writer about language, fan of the Muppets, Tintin, and Arthur Mee. Since his ‘retirement’ in 2007, he has produced volume after volume of work on the great John Milton, including De Doctrina Christiana (Oxford Complete Works of John Milton, Vol. 8) Here, he turns his minds to the Antipodean connection to Odysseus (I will ask him to write about Arthur Mee, in due course).
— Elizabeth Hale
Odysseus, in Greek myth, died in several ways. His death is less vital than his life. In one account, he is killed by his son Telegonus, the son he had left unknown in Circe’s womb. He may have died by accident, from stingray poison which Telegonus had on his spear-point. In which case, we meet yet another of those ironic deaths beloved by Greek myth, tragedians, and the historian Herodotus. Sophocles’ Oedipus kills his father, Harmonia kills her son Pentheus, unbeknownst, so the recognition arouses more pity and fear.
Often enough, the final twist of such stories, the death, is an accident, without responsibility involved, and a bit trite; like an ending you can see coming, too soon. Not so the second death of Odysseus, the one foretold to the man himself in the Underworld, when he meets Tiresias (Odyssey Book XI). He is to return home late and with difficulty, after losing all his sailors and his ship, and must then fight off his wife’s rapacious suitors. But then, he will make one last journey, and die in peace, if he does what Tiresias is telling him— take an oar-blade in hand, go far from the sea, to “where no salt is,” till he meets a man who thinks his oar is a threshing-blade. There, and only there, shall he make the right sacrifice to his enemy, Poseidon, god of sea and earthquakes. Then, a “gentle death” will find him, still far far away from the sea.
Now, going by Homer himself, we would think the sea was his natural habitat. Or he would die at home, his long-sought home. But no, the opposite. This very striking death has Homer’s (or Tiresias’) authority. Does this, like the first death, mean something? About Odysseus’ character, or the gods, or what?
I read a magnificent explanation recently in Adam Nicolson’s book on Homer, The Mighty Dead. Odysseus ends up far away from mountainous, rocky, Greece, and the quarrelsome Mediterranaean too, that bullring of Eris. Instead, he ends his life where the Greeks themselves, and Greek, began life; far off on the Steppes, where the entire Indo-European family of languages began, that family which stretches from the west of Ireland to the desert edges of China, from Norway to Iran to India. All share words for father, brother, mother, visible and audible despite differences, and too many more for the connection to be accident. Tiresias in his blindness is seeing back, to the earliest origins, far back behind Homer himself. It’s a staggering speculation, with some evidence too; bold enough to be worthy of Homer, the mighty dead blind one who sees.
The third ending of Odysseus goes equally far in the opposite direction. Medieval writers who had no Greek or no text of Homer imagined Odysseus setting sail yet once more, out beyond the Mediterranean, but now westwards, past Gibraltar. One of those last voyages which tell of no return. Tennyson’s poem (1833) imagines the state of mind, and motives, of Odysseus’ final pep-talk, to his crew. It’s in the name of searching, discovery, experience, that restless energy which seeks out
“that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.” (Tennyson: Ulysses)
As much an interior world, or world of the mind. A great poem, a masterwork of dramatic monologue, wherein the poet himself (so prone to depression) is being given the pep-talk.
Its origin, however, is the much greater poet, Dante. Low down in the circles of the Inferno, Odysseus must pay for his lies and persuasion, for corrupting the souls of other people. Dante gives his greatest sinners a great speech, in which to say “this only once” to a visiting mortal, what made them do it. Every one of these speeches is a human aspiration and apologia, judged both by its effect on the visiting Dante — often the effect is pain and aberrant sympathy — and in the greater scheme of things. And in this way, Odysseus (“Ulisse”) expresses his own being to an absolute utmost; and is judged, for the good and evil he did, to himself and to other people. He speaks superbly for the quest of knowledge;
Considerate la vostra semenza:/ fatti non foste a viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza
(“Think about your origin: You were made not to live as animals but to follow after virtue and knowledge.”) (Dante: Inferno, Canto 26)
And his ship goes beyond any predecessor, into the southern ocean, and nears the Mount of Purgatory, until it was sunk; com’ altrui piacque… says Dante, “as it pleased another,” the infinity which sets the bounds, the waves closed over it: infin che’ l mar fu sovra noi richiuso. (Wonderful aural finality about “ree-ki-OOOzo,” last word of his self-narration.)
Neither Tiresias nor Dante foresaw nuclear winter, or global warming, or takeover by bacilli, or any other of the Science Fiction futures which over us loom. But Odysseus wanted to know them, and search has brought them nearer. Curious that his comeuppance should come at the antipodes of Jerusalem, the Holy City, which is placed not far from Auckland. I can draw no conclusion, except to marvel that Homer and Dante, the two greatest poets I know of, both composed such differently powerful final Odysseys.