“Icarius’s Daughter” celebrates Penelope, Odysseus’s wife and heroine of Homer’s Odyssey.
In the Odyssey, two narratives are woven together by means of changes of scene and frequent flashbacks. In the first strand of the plot, Odysseus has many dire adventures as he makes his way home to Ithaca from the siege of Troy. In the second strand, covering events on Ithaca, Odysseus returns in secret, reveals his identity, and overcomes the Suitors. In the very last four lines of the epic (24.545–548), the goddess Athene reconciles the factions on Ithaca and restores peace.
The Suitors are wealthy hereditary lords. They mix competition and cooperation as they pursue Odysseus’s wife, waste his resources, exploit his workers, and plot against his son Telemachus. Unlike Odysseus, who was a good king, the Suitors have nothing to offer the people of Ithaca.
Today we might describe their regime using two Greek words: oligarchy and kleptocracy. That Odysseus has a home, an estate, and a kingdom to return to, and that a path remains open to legitimate government, is thanks to the role played by his wife Penelope. In a striking passage in the Odyssey, Penelope is compared to a good king. In a roundabout way, she becomes an icon of good governance (19. 107 – 114).
At the centre of the story is that Penelope, under tremendous pressure, has promised to marry one of the Suitors as soon as she finishes weaving a burial shroud for her father–in–law Laertes. Her plan is to keep unravelling her own work by night, thereby keeping everything open for a while longer. This ruse is finally exposed as the epic moves towards its climax.
Penelope’s courage through the years of uncertainty and despair is rooted in her love of Odysseus – and also in her loyalty to the values of her upbringing.
The Odyssey was composed (possibly) around the year 700 BCE. Penelope, a Spartan princess, reminds me of the epitaph for the Spartan “300” who went to their deaths at Thermopylae in 480: “Go, stranger, and tell them in Sparta that we lie here having kept faith with their laws” (my translation of Simonides).
The Bible was rendered into Greek in the 3rd century BCE. The New Testament is written in Greek. The early followers of the “way” of Jesus needed to make sense of the Greek literary tradition. A view emerged that in Greek literature we find seeds of a fuller truth revealed subsequently in the New Testament.
The present poem tries to take this insight further. I assume that there are “structural” questions about human life that arise independently within all traditions. A reasoned examination of these questions is part of what we call “revelation”. Homer’s portrayal of Penelope’s faithfulness anticipates in important respects a Christian conception of vocation.
“Icarius’s Daughter” is constructed out of building blocks of three kinds: a single, brief proem or introduction; “real–life” scenes based on incidents or images in Homer; and sequences in which we hear the inner voice of Penelope. Penelope is intended to represent any woman who acquires a coherent view of life through long experience.
The proem has eight lines. Each of the ten stanzas that follow is in sonnet form. I leave it to the reader to discover where scenes from life segue into the meditations of Penelope. In many stanzas, the octet is the scene from life, the sestet a soliloquy. In stanzas VII, VIII, and IX, we hear Penelope’s voice throughout. In stanza X, the scene and the soliloquy merge.
At the end of this document, I offer some notes on the background to each part. Readers may wish to review these notes briefly before reading the poem itself.
For Darine on her 60th birthday
Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore:
The women who have come to know love’s meaning
Were Dante’s team. They helped him to ignore
Some things and do others. And so, Darine,
To mark your birthday, a wise, loyal wife
Inhabits this verse; famous, too, for coping
With crises patiently. Dante’s New Life
Depends on the women–artisans of hope.
Those powerful men, grim in their cross–purposes,
View and review her. Their adulterate eyes
Fix on a face and figure. Who she is,
Where she will turn – this she can dramatize,
Acting her chosen part. They imagine her theirs.
They bond, amid the clattering cups and cheers.
A fold falls by her cheek. She climbs the stairs;
Collapses, an unwanted puppet, in tears.
So many things are matters of the will:
That put–up job, night after night; forgiveness;
How even today, each day, I’m scheming still:
I shelve the toys of memory, to live.
My glory was never the shine in others’ eyes.
Nor in my own. Mine is a greater prize.
There in the harbour, an apron of dressed stone.
Odysseus is tossing orders to his men.
The urgency of doing has outgrown
All the old doubts. “They may come not again
From Troy, these long–oared ships.” She could have died
Right on the spot. “Await me until the day
The beard has come to that child’s cheek.” That child.
“Then marry well.” And still he’s looking away.
Waiting for sleep, my thoughts were numerous
As notes the nightingale produces, lonely
In darkness. Laneways near my father’s house
Entered my dreams. Each morning there was only
Ithaca. The vague mist, the barren scree.
I too have wandered a weather–beaten sea.
“Others besides Odysseus were lost in Troy.”
As if the memories his mother stored
For all their sakes stood in his way. A boy
Essaying the sharp impatience of a lord.
An instant destiny, to have a son.
Abyss of love and dread, all your life through.
The nothing you would ever leave undone,
Weighing against the nothing you can do.
Sometimes, you smile. One day, a meowing sends me
Into the yard. The trough. More wild contortions.
Knowing that seconds count, I move. A frenzy
Of mother–love surrounds a half–drowned morsel.
A cleavage in the clouds. A quick reaction
Wrenching the wheel of nature off its axle.
Hours given to her son were never wrong.
Like this, as a young girl, she would sit and spin,
Delving in the unwoven stuff of longing,
Trusting in life. Like this, as years close in,
Ageing, unkempt Laertes is content.
His vines and orchards give him a new prime,
Far from the palace and old arguments.
A mind at play knows no hard edge of time.
That his lost father would come back to us,
Here to our home, away from the world’s harms,
Is what I was praying for, for Telemachus.
Acting the hero in a goddess’ arms,
Odysseus yearned for this hearth, mortal embers:
That brush with human love a man remembers.
So deep is their embrace, it seems that Dawn,
collusively, holds back. “Our wedding gifts,
I polished them last year until they shone,
Which pleased the older servants.” Her man shifts
To face her. “Look, we’re winning. That’s why
Tomorrow I move inland to find support.
Later, we know it from a prophesy,
There’s one more journey. Of a trickier sort.”
Daybreak. I stir myself in the chill air.
The maids and I are getting his trunk ready,
His practised voice is carrying everywhere.
I think of our immoveable carved bed.
Here will I lie. Wherever the wind blows,
It starts from here, this life that I have chosen.
“The junction of this world with the unreal
Or real world of life after death. The queen
All empathy as I deliver my spiel.
Achilles, a shadow of what he once had been.
Ajax, with whom I clashed in life, estranged,
Unwilling to accept a simple hug,
Once, twice, three times. No gleam, even of danger,
For thwarted Sisyphus. Eternal fug.”
Odysseus bounces back to his round of tasks.
“As long as the sun shines, I must be active.”
Within, like a sustaining loaf and flask,
I hear a softer voice. Your gifts are intact.
Now take your way towards measurable good
And testify to all you have understood.
I often think back on my hard departure
From home and my poor father, Icarius.
Once that idea of our living in Sparta
Failed, as I knew it had to, he would fuss
Endlessly over our going; day by day,
And almost hour by hour, he would alight
On gifts or tokens for my going away.
If candles could bewitch the encroaching night!
Inevitable that Antinoē,
My maid, should quit her outhouse in the palace,
Not for a man, but to accompany me.
This was our law, which we termed “natural”.
Ordained for servants by all–seeing Zeus.
Or un–thought out, impersonal, abusive?
Eumaeus would point out that they dispensed
With everyday skills: building, ploughing, planting.
This he compared to their indifference
To children and the homes they took for granted.
The suitors had been lifelong specialists
In power and unearned income. Towards the poor,
Their laws on property were like closed fists.
All eyes were dazzled by the cult of war.
Odysseus facing Scylla. Long acquainted
With conflict, his one tactic was to fling
Spears even at ogres. Our wide planet painted
By poets is hungry for a homecoming.
Facing time’s monster, we unfriend our peers.
Angry and small and armoured, we wave spears.
So much was there on that one perfect morning
In Pylos. I remember the well–built
Citadel empty. A session on the shore
Of the whole populace. The ample, gilt
Wine–cups. The welcome. Joy, to have our fill
Of sunshine and good food. In this equation,
Prayers to the gods were ineliminable.
The way we shared our time was a libation;
In the dark forest of a leaden Age,
A glade of peace. No staked–out paradigm
Or single rule explains events. To gauge
What’s going on within some frame of time,
And where the meaning is gentle, to take part
Trustingly, equally, is the great art.
The walk to the old quay is getting too steep.
Besides, no ship will come now. She mutters,
Daylight is not forever, we fall asleep.
It’s time I gave my fine possessions to others.
Helen went out and came back. Calibrated
Poorly, in some dark hour, inscrutable signs,
For all it matters now. I wept and waited.
My modesty in presence of the Divine.
Beneath the landscape of our daily hurt,
All broken down into particulars,
There runs the constant river from which blurt
Fountain–like moments, juxtaposed like stars.
I am resolved, whatever the future brings,
To thank God for my being and for his things.
NOTES ON THE BACKGROUND TO “ICARIUS’S DAUGHTER”
Title and images
In Greek legend, Icarius was Penelope’s father. They lived in Sparta around the time of the Trojan War. Penelope’s relationship with her nymph–mother is less well defined in the stories than her relationship with Icarius.
Helen (“Helen of Troy”) was Penelope’s first cousin. In Homer, Penelope is aware of the very different trajectories of her life and Helen’s.
The first image (title) of Penelope is a painting by Domenico Beccafumi from c. 1514. Penelope contemplates her loom, as if to invite reflection on her character and capabilities. For nearly thirty years, Beccafiumi directed work on the pavement of the cathedral in Siena.
The second image is another early 16th century painting from Siena, Pinturicchio’s work of 1509 known as “The Return of Odysseus.” We see Penelope, the returning Odysseus and the displaced Suitors. As in Beccafiumi’s painting, Penelope’s use of the loom is a key to understanding her character. On the cathedral pavement, Pinturicchio’s representation of two Greek philosophers at the summit of the “Mountain of Wisdom” is a significant statement about the relationship between Christianity and classical culture..
A proem (Greek: pro–oimion) is the introduction to a song.
Donne che avete intelletto d’amore (which I translate in line 2 as “women who have come to know love’s meaning”) is a line from one of the poems woven into Dante’s short prose work Vita Nuova (“New Life”). The Vita Nuova is quasi–autobiographical. Dante comes to accept that his love for Beatrice will never lead to a relationship or to marriage. Instead, Dante is drawn, through Beatrice, towards a vision of human life in the round. Dante the troubadour becomes the philosophical poet of the Divina Commedia.
The “wise, loyal wife” referred to here is, of course, Penelope.
A fold falls by her cheek: “the daughter of Icarius, wise Penelope” makes her first appearance in the Odyssey (1. 329) when she descends from her upstairs room to face the suitors. With two maids in attendance, she takes her stand by a pillar, drawing a fold of her headscarf across her face. Finally, she returns to her room and collapses in tears (“she wept for Odysseus, her beloved husband …”). As we move with Penelope to the bed chamber, Homer notes the continuing noise from below, from the men who wanted to sleep with her (1. 365).
Await me until the day …: these eight lines are based on a flashback (18. 259) in which Penelope describes the circumstances of Odysseus’s departure many years before. In the sestet, the image of the suffering nightingale is borrowed from Homer (19. 518).
The urgency of doing has outgrown / All the old doubts. One tradition tells us that Odysseus initially tried to avoid joining the expedition to Troy. In the Iliad, the Greeks’ motives for fighting are ambivalent. This is brought out early in the poem when Thersites accuses the leaders of the expedition of being interested mainly in booty. There are misgivings on the Trojan side as well, centred on the never fully tested possibility of negotiating an end to the siege.
Others besides Odysseus …: Telemachus rebukes his mother in this way in the first scene in which we see them together (1. 354). Telemachus’s coming–of–age (and growing assertiveness) is an important theme in the Odyssey. In this stanza, the “scene from life” occupies only four lines. The remaining ten lines of the stanza are devoted to Penelope’s memories and reflections.
The first eight lines picture three forms of contemplative or creative activity. The “young Penelope,” imagined in line 2, is based on the portrait of the princess Nausicaa in Odyssey, Book 6. The determined gardening of Laertes, Odysseus’s widowed father, is described in most detail in the last book of the Odyssey (24. 226).
We know from the Odyssey (23.333) that Odysseus spoke to Penelope about Calypso. At the beginning of the Odyssey, we find Odysseus entrapped by Calypso, a beautiful goddess, on her remote island. So far from taking advantage of Calypso’s promises, Odysseus longs to see again “even the threads of smoke rising from the homesteads of his own country” (1. 58).
Dawn,/ Collusively, holds back: in Homer, the surreal holding back of “rosy-fingered dawn” by the goddess Athene prolongs the great recognition scene in which Odysseus and Penelope fall into one another’s arms (23. 239). Odysseus almost immediately starts to talk about his future plans. These include a mysterious journey he must undertake before his old age. We first learn of this additional tasking of the hero in Book 11 when Odysseus meets the prophet Teiresias at the edge of the underworld.
Our immoveable carved bed: Odysseus’ and Penelope’s carved bed was immoveable because it had been constructed (by Odysseus himself) around a living olive tree (23. 190).
The queen/ All empathy as I deliver my spiel: the queen is Queen Arete of the Phaeacians. Odysseus is reliving for Penelope the presentation he had made at the Phaeacian court. The pinch of salt implied in the word “spiel” is already there, I feel, in Homer.
The junction of this world with the unreal/Or real world of life after death: as a prelude to making his way home and overthrowing the corrupt order that has developed in Ithaca in his absence, Odysseus is obliged to travel to the edge of the known world to a place where it is possible to meet with the souls of the dead. These encounters seem to me to shape the “existential” context of the whole story. There is life after death. The gods are concerned with justice. On the other hand, life in the “other world” is much inferior to life in this world. What happens after death is difficult to understand, interpret, or rely on. This sense of the inaccessibility of ultimate truth is reinforced by Homer’s technique. Odysseus’s experiences of the “beyond” or near “beyond” are narrated not by the inspired poet (“Tell me, Muse …”) but indirectly by Odysseus himself as a character in the poem.
Like a sustaining loaf and flask: when the prophet Elijah loses confidence in himself he awakes to find a loaf and a flask at his side. A voice instructs him to resume his work. In the Odyssey, a divine influence can help us get through what might otherwise be too hard (cf. the daimōn or spirit in 3.27). The sestet in the stanza reflects Penelope’s inner thoughts on hearing Odysseus talk about God.
In this stanza and stanzas VIII and IX, there is no observed event or scene from the Odyssey that triggers Penelope’s meditation. We hear her own voice throughout.
That idea of our living in Sparta: in the Greek literary tradition, Icarius was heartbroken that Penelope was leaving Sparta. However, his plan to persuade Odysseus to set up home in Sparta was unrealistic. Odysseus was an ambitious king whose base was in Ithaca.
Antinoē: Antinoē is one of several slaves mentioned by name in the Odyssey. Eurycleia, Odysseus’s old nurse, and Eumaeus, the swineherd, were born in freedom. They are victims of raids (like St. Patrick at a later period) and of the slave–trade. Laertes never exercises his prerogative, as master, to sleep with Eurycleia when she is a young woman (1.433). Eumaeus is cared for by Odysseus almost as if he were his own child (14.140). Neither Eurycleia nor Eumaeus fits the profile of the “natural slave,” whose limitations and unavoidable dependence on others supposedly justify the institution of slavery.
Eumaeus makes a couple of comments that are significant in this context. In book 17, he states that “all–seeing Zeus takes half the virtue out of a man on the day when he becomes a slave” (17.322) – in other words, what might be thought of as poor or dependent behaviour in a slave is shaped by the harsh treatment he has received. Eumaeus also states (13.59) that “it is the dikē of a serf to live in fear.” Dikē appears to mean something like “lot in life” or “place in nature.” Homer engages with the institution of slavery and understands the perspective of slaves, serfs, and the abject poor (ptōchoi, a word that recurs in the Sermon on the Mount).
The Odyssey provides a solid background, I would argue, to the last three lines I give Penelope in this stanza, including line 12: “This was our law, which we termed ‘natural’.”
They dispensed/ With everyday skills: this phrase is based on a conversation in Book 14 of the Odyssey between Eumaeus and Odysseus. Posing as a stranger (the scene is marked by dramatic irony), Odysseus describes a certain type of privileged person (male) who despises the skills and virtues necessary to create a good home. The central word is oikōpheliē (14.222), derived from two words meaning “household” and “help”. In Homer, perhaps the most attractive feature of Odysseus’s elusive personality is his mastery of all kinds of skills such as carpentry, agriculture, seafaring, and even public performance. In this, he is very different from the elite warriors of the Iliad, who do no work other than fighting. In lines 1 – 4 of the stanza, I imagine Eumaeus drawing on his conversation with the disguised Odysseus in a subsequent discussion with Penelope about the suitors.
Odysseus facing Scylla: in Book 12 of the Odyssey, Odysseus must sail past the whirlpool Charybdis and the monster Scylla. Scylla uses her six heads to seize six men (or given time, twice six) off every passing ship; she is violence personified, her mother’s name, Cratais, suggesting “force”. In common with some other dangers faced by Odysseus on his journey (the Sirens, the Cyclops), Scylla and Charybdis cannot be faced down by organised military strength. Circe is explicit in her advice to Odysseus: deeds of war (polemēia erga) will achieve nothing against Scylla (12. 116). Odysseus disregards this warning. He puts on full armour, grabs two spears, and stands on the forecastle deck as the ship sails between the whirlpool and the monster. Acting according to the instincts of a warrior, Odysseus is powerless. Scylla seizes and gobbles up six of his comrades.
We unfriend our peers. Odysseus fails to forewarn his comrades about Scylla (12.223). His guile has a purpose, to ensure that his men keep rowing and are not distracted by fear. Perhaps the posturing on deck with the spears is intended to serve a similar psychological purpose.
This stanza draws on two religious ceremonies in Pylos described in Book 3 of the Odyssey. The first takes place on a beach in the early morning and involves all or most of the citizens of several towns. (Did this inspire Keats? What little town by river or seashore …) The second ceremony, inside the palace, includes Nestor’s daughters and his sons’ wives. Women are not mentioned as being present in Homer’s account of the liturgy by the seashore. However, they are so obviously part of the second liturgy that I find it reasonable for the Penelope of my poem to recollect a ceremony by the sea. My account is intended to carry a small echo of the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
A leaden Age. In Hesiod, phases of history are identified, symbolically, with reference to metals. The Golden Age is the ideal.
In the final stanza, I take one last look at Penelope “from outside,” picturing her in old age, probably widowed, as she takes her regular walk to the pier in the bay from which Odysseus set out for Troy so many years before.
In some dark hour: for Penelope, Troy is the “unmentionable place.” Nevertheless, Penelope’s unjudgmental and even kindly attitude to Helen is true to Homer (23.218).
Modesty in presence of the Divine: according to a later author (Pausanias), Icarius, on Penelope’s leaving home, raised a shrine to Aidōs in her honour. Aidōs means “shame” or “modesty”. It refers to the disposition in a human person to respect the laws of God.
Constant river: the image of a “constant river” surfacing here and there is inspired by the Greek belief that the fountain Arethusa in Syracuse sprang from an underground river originating in Arcadia in the Peloponnese.