The Odyssey of Homer (Cowper)/Book XX

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BOOK XX

ARGUMENT

Ulysses, doubting whether he shall destroy or not the women servants who commit lewdness with the suitors, resolves at length to spare them for the present. He asks an omen from Jupiter, and that he would grant him also to hear some propitious words from the lips of one in the family. His petitions are both answered. Preparation is made for the feast. Whilst the suitors sit at table, Pallas smites them with a horrid frenzy. Theoclymenus, observing the strange effects of it, prophesies their destruction, and they deride his prophecy.

But in the vestibule the Hero lay
On a bull’s-hide undress’d, o’er which he spread
The fleece of many a sheep slain by the Greeks,
And, cover’d by the household’s governess
With a wide cloak, composed himself to rest.
Yet slept he not, but meditating lay
Woe to his enemies. Meantime, the train
Of women, wonted to the suitors’ arms,
Issuing all mirth and laughter, in his soul
A tempest raised of doubts, whether at once
To slay, or to permit them yet to give
Their lusty paramours one last embrace.
As growls the mastiff standing on the start
For battle, if a stranger’s foot approach
Her cubs new-whelp’d—so growl’d Ulysses’ heart,
While wonder fill’d him at their impious deeds.
But, smiting on his breast, thus he reproved
The mutinous inhabitant within.
  Heart! bear it. Worse than this thou didst endure
When, uncontroulable by force of man,
The Cyclops thy illustrious friends devour’d.
Thy patience then fail’d not, till prudence found
Deliv’rance for thee on the brink of fate.
  So disciplined the Hero his own heart,
Which, tractable, endured the rigorous curb,
And patient; yet he turn’d from side to side.
As when some hungry swain turns oft a maw
Unctuous and sav’ry on the burning coals,
Quick expediting his desired repast,
So he from side to side roll’d, pond’ring deep
How likeliest with success he might assail
Those shameless suitors; one to many opposed.
Then, sudden from the skies descending, came
Minerva in a female form; her stand
Above his head she took, and thus she spake.
  Why sleep’st thou not, unhappiest of mankind?
Thou art at home; here dwells thy wife, and here
Thy son; a son, whom all might wish their own.
  Then her Ulysses answer’d, ever-wise.
O Goddess! true is all that thou hast said,
But, not without anxiety, I muse
How, single as I am, I shall assail
Those shameless suitors who frequent my courts
Daily; and always their whole multitude.
This weightier theme I meditate beside;
Should I, with Jove’s concurrence and with thine
Prevail to slay them, how shall I escape,
Myself, at last?88 oh Goddess, weigh it well.
  Him answer’d then Pallas cærulean-eyed.
Oh faithless man! a man will in his friend
Confide, though mortal, and in valour less
And wisdom than himself; but I who keep
Thee in all difficulties, am divine.
I tell thee plainly. Were we hemm’d around
By fifty troops of shouting warriors bent
To slay thee, thou should’st yet securely drive
The flocks away and cattle of them all.
But yield to sleep’s soft influence; for to lie
All night thus watchful, is, itself, distress.
Fear not. Deliv’rance waits, not far remote.
  So saying, she o’er Ulysses’ eyes diffused
Soft slumbers, and when sleep that sooths the mind
And nerves the limbs afresh had seized him once,
To the Olympian summit swift return’d.
But his chaste spouse awoke; she weeping sat
On her soft couch, and, noblest of her sex,
Satiate at length with tears, her pray’r address’d
First to Diana of the Pow’rs above.
  Diana, awful progeny of Jove!
I would that with a shaft this moment sped
Into my bosom, thou would’st here conclude
My mournful life! or, oh that, as it flies,
Snatching me through the pathless air, a storm
Would whelm me deep in Ocean’s restless tide!
So, when the Gods their parents had destroy’d,
Storms suddenly the beauteous daughters snatch’d89
Of Pandarus away; them left forlorn
Venus with curds, with honey and with wine
Fed duly; Juno gave them to surpass
All women in the charms of face and mind,
With graceful stature eminent the chaste
Diana bless’d them, and in works of art
Illustrious, Pallas taught them to excel.
But when the foam-sprung Goddess to the skies
A suitress went on their behalf, to obtain
Blest nuptials for them from the Thund’rer Jove,
(For Jove the happiness, himself, appoints,
And the unhappiness of all below)
Meantime, the Harpies ravishing away
Those virgins, gave them to the Furies Three,
That they might serve them. O that me the Gods
Inhabiting Olympus so would hide
From human eyes for ever, or bright-hair’d
Diana pierce me with a shaft, that while
Ulysses yet engages all my thoughts,
My days concluded, I might ’scape the pain
Of gratifying some inferior Chief!
This is supportable, when (all the day
To sorrow giv’n) the mourner sleeps at night;
For sleep, when it hath once the eyelids veil’d,
All reminiscence blots of all alike,
Both good and ill; but me the Gods afflict
Not seldom ev’n in dreams, and at my side,
This night again, one lay resembling him;
Such as my own Ulysses when he join’d
Achaia’s warriors; my exulting heart
No airy dream believed it, but a truth.
  While thus she spake, in orient gold enthroned
Came forth the morn; Ulysses, as she wept,
Heard plain her lamentation; him that sound
Alarm’d; he thought her present, and himself
Known to her. Gath’ring hastily the cloak
His cov’ring, and the fleeces, them he placed
Together on a throne within the hall,
But bore the bull’s-hide forth into the air.
Then, lifting high his hands to Jove, he pray’d.
  Eternal Sire! if over moist and dry
Ye have with good-will sped me to my home
After much suff’ring, grant me from the lips
Of some domestic now awake, to hear
Words of propitious omen, and thyself
Vouchsafe me still some other sign abroad.
  Such pray’r he made, and Jove omniscient heard.
Sudden he thunder’d from the radiant heights
Olympian; glad, Ulysses heard the sound.
A woman, next, a labourer at the mill
Hard by, where all the palace-mills were wrought,
Gave him the omen of propitious sound.
Twelve maidens, day by day, toil’d at the mills,
Meal grinding, some, of barley, some, of wheat,
Marrow of man.90 The rest (their portion ground)
All slept; she only from her task as yet
Ceas’d not, for she was feeblest of them all;
She rested on her mill, and thus pronounced
The happy omen by her Lord desired.
  Jove, Father, Governor of heav’n and earth!
Loud thou hast thunder’d from the starry skies
By no cloud veil’d; a sign propitious, giv’n
To whom I know not; but oh grant the pray’r
Of a poor bond-woman! appoint their feast
This day, the last that in Ulysses’ house
The suitors shall enjoy, for whom I drudge,
With aching heart and trembling knees their meal
Grinding continual. Feast they here no more!
  She ended, and the list’ning Chief received
With equal joy both signs; for well he hoped
That he should punish soon those guilty men.
And now the other maidens in the hall
Assembling, kindled on the hearth again
Th’ unwearied blaze; then, godlike from his couch
Arose Telemachus, and, fresh-attired,
Athwart his shoulders his bright faulchion slung,
Bound his fair sandals to his feet, and took
His sturdy spear pointed with glitt’ring brass;
Advancing to the portal, there he stood,
And Euryclea thus, his nurse, bespake.
  Nurse! have ye with respectful notice serv’d
Our guest? or hath he found a sordid couch
E’en where he might? for, prudent though she be,
My mother, inattentive oft, the worse
Treats kindly, and the better sends away.
  Whom Euryclea answer’d, thus, discrete.
Blame not, my son! who merits not thy blame.
The guest sat drinking till he would no more,
And ate, till, question’d, he replied—Enough.
But when the hour of sleep call’d him to rest,
She gave commandment to her female train
To spread his couch. Yet he, like one forlorn,
And, through despair, indiff’rent to himself,
Both bed and rugs refused, and in the porch
On skins of sheep and on an undress’d hide
Reposed, where we threw cov’ring over him.
  She ceas’d, and, grasping his bright-headed spear,
Forth went the Prince attended, as he went,
By his fleet hounds; to the assembled Greeks
In council with majestic gait he moved,
And Euryclea, daughter wise of Ops,
Pisenor’s son, call’d to the serving-maids.
  Haste ye! be diligent! sweep the palace-floor
And sprinkle it; then give the sumptuous seats
Their purple coverings. Let others cleanse
With sponges all the tables, wash and rince
The beakers well, and goblets rich-emboss’d;
Run others to the fountain, and bring thence
Water with speed. The suitors will not long
Be absent, but will early come to-day,
For this day is a public festival.91
  So she; whom all, obedient, heard; forth went
Together, twenty to the crystal fount,
While in their sev’ral provinces the rest
Bestirr’d them brisk at home. Then enter’d all
The suitors, and began cleaving the wood.
Meantime, the women from the fountain came,
Whom soon the swine-herd follow’d, driving three
His fattest brawns; them in the spacious court
He feeding left, and to Ulysses’ side
Approaching, courteously bespake the Chief.
  Guest! look the Greecians on thee with respect
At length, or still disdainful as before?
  Then, answer thus Ulysses wise return’d.
Yes—and I would that vengeance from the Gods
Might pay their insolence, who in a house
Not theirs, dominion exercise, and plan
Unseemly projects, shameless as they are!
  Thus they conferr’d; and now Melanthius came
The goat-herd, driving, with the aid of two
His fellow-swains, the fattest of his goats
To feast the suitors. In the sounding porch
The goats he tied, then, drawing near, in terms
Reproachful thus assail’d Ulysses’ ear.
  How, stranger? persever’st thou, begging, still
To vex the suitors? wilt thou not depart?
Scarce shall we settle this dispute, I judge,
Till we have tasted each the other’s fist;
Thou art unreasonable thus to beg
Here always—have the Greeks no feasts beside?
  He spake, to whom Ulysses answer none
Return’d, but shook his brows, and, silent, framed
Terrible purposes. Then, third, approach’d
Chief o’er the herds, Philœtius; fatted goats
He for the suitors brought, with which he drove
An heifer; (ferry-men had pass’d them o’er,
Carriers of all who on their coast arrive)
He tied them in the sounding porch, then stood
Beside the swine-herd, to whom thus he said.
  Who is this guest, Eumæus, here arrived
So lately? from what nation hath he come?
What parentage and country boasts the man?
I pity him, whose figure seems to speak
Royalty in him. Heav’n will surely plunge
The race of common wand’rers deep in woe,
If thus it destine even Kings to mourn.
  He ceas’d; and, with his right hand, drawing nigh,
Welcom’d Ulysses, whom he thus bespake.
  Hail venerable guest! and be thy lot
Prosp’rous at least hereafter, who art held
At present in the bonds of num’rous ills.
Thou, Jupiter, of all the Gods, art most
Severe, and spar’st not to inflict distress
Even on creatures from thyself derived.92
I had no sooner mark’d thee, than my eyes
Swam, and the sweat gush’d from me at the thought
Of dear Ulysses; for if yet he live
And see the sun, such tatters, I suppose,
He wears, a wand’rer among human-kind.
But if already with the dead he dwell
In Pluto’s drear abode, oh then, alas
For kind Ulysses! who consign’d to me,
While yet a boy, his Cephalenian herds,
And they have now encreas’d to such a store
Innumerable of broad-fronted beeves,
As only care like mine could have produced.
These, by command of others, I transport
For their regale, who neither heed his son,
Nor tremble at the anger of the Gods,
But long have wish’d ardently to divide
And share the substance of our absent Lord.
Me, therefore, this thought occupies, and haunts
My mind not seldom; while the heir survives
It were no small offence to drive his herds
Afar, and migrate to a foreign land;
Yet here to dwell, suff’ring oppressive wrongs
While I attend another’s beeves, appears
Still less supportable; and I had fled,
And I had served some other mighty Chief
Long since, (for patience fails me to endure
My present lot) but that I cherish still
Some hope of my ill-fated Lord’s return,
To rid his palace of those lawless guests.
  To whom Ulysses, ever-wise, replied.
Herdsman! since neither void of sense thou seem’st,
Nor yet dishonest, but myself am sure
That thou art owner of a mind discrete,
Hear therefore, for I swear! bold I attest
Jove and this hospitable board, and these
The Lares93 of the noble Chief, whose hearth
Protects me now, that, ere thy going hence,
Ulysses surely shall have reach’d his home,
And thou shalt see him, if thou wilt, thyself,
Slaying the suitors who now lord it here.
  Him answer’d then the keeper of his beeves.
Oh stranger! would but the Saturnian King
Perform that word, thou should’st be taught (thyself
Eye-witness of it) what an arm is mine.
  Eumæus also ev’ry power of heav’n
Entreated, that Ulysses might possess
His home again. Thus mutual they conferr’d.
  Meantime, in conf’rence close the suitors plann’d
Death for Telemachus; but while they sat
Consulting, on their left the bird of Jove
An eagle soar’d, grasping a tim’rous dove.
Then, thus, Amphinomus the rest bespake.
  Oh friends! our consultation how to slay
Telemachus, will never smoothly run
To its effect; but let us to the feast.
  So spake Amphinomus, whose counsel pleased.
Then, all into the royal house repaired,
And on the thrones and couches throwing off
Their mantles, slew the fatted goats, the brawns,
The sheep full-sized, and heifer of the herd.
The roasted entrails first they shared, then fill’d
The beakers, and the swine-herd placed the cups,
Philœtius, chief intendant of the beeves,
Served all with baskets elegant of bread,
While all their cups Melanthius charged with wine,
And they assail’d at once the ready feast.
Meantime Telemachus, with forecast shrewd,
Fast by the marble threshold, but within
The spacious hall his father placed, to whom
A sordid seat he gave and scanty board.
A portion of the entrails, next, he set
Before him, fill’d a golden goblet high,
And thus, in presence of them all, began.
  There seated now, drink as the suitors drink.
I will, myself, their biting taunts forbid,
And violence. This edifice is mine,
Not public property; my father first
Possess’d it, and my right from him descends.
Suitors! controul your tongues, nor with your hands
Offend, lest contest fierce and war ensue.
  He ceas’d: they gnawing, sat, their lips, aghast
With wonder that Telemachus in his speech
Such boldness used. Then spake Eupithes’ son,
Antinoüs, and the assembly thus address’d.
  Let pass, ye Greeks! the language of the Prince,
Harsh as it is, and big with threats to us.
Had Jove permitted, his orations here,
Although thus eloquent, ere now had ceased.
  So spake Antinoüs, whom Ulysses’ son
Heard unconcern’d. And now the heralds came
In solemn pomp, conducting through the streets
A sacred hecatomb, when in the grove
Umbrageous of Apollo, King shaft-arm’d,
The assembled Greecians met. The sav’ry roast
Finish’d, and from the spits withdrawn, each shared
His portion of the noble feast, and such
As they enjoy’d themselves the attendants placed
Before Ulysses, for the Hero’s son
Himself, Telemachus, had so enjoined.
But Pallas (that they might exasp’rate more
Ulysses) suffer’d not the suitor Chiefs
To banquet, guiltless of heart-piercing scoffs
Malign. There was a certain suitor named
Ctesippus, born in Samos; base of mind
Was he and profligate, but, in the wealth
Confiding of his father, woo’d the wife
Of long-exiled Ulysses. From his seat
The haughty suitors thus that man address’d.
  Ye noble suitors, I would speak; attend!
The guest is served; he hath already shared
Equal with us; nor less the laws demand
Of hospitality; for neither just
It were nor decent, that a guest, received
Here by Telemachus, should be denied
His portion of the feast. Come then—myself
Will give to him, that he may also give
To her who laved him in the bath, or else
To whatsoever menial here he will.
  So saying, he from a basket near at hand
Heav’d an ox-foot, and with a vig’rous arm
Hurl’d it. Ulysses gently bow’d his head,
Shunning the blow, but gratified his just
Resentment with a broad sardonic smile94
Of dread significance. He smote the wall.
Then thus Telemachus rebuked the deed.
  Ctesippus, thou art fortunate; the bone
Struck not the stranger, for he shunn’d the blow;
Else, I had surely thrust my glitt’ring lance
Right through thee; then, no hymenæal rites
Of thine should have employ’d thy father here,
But thy funereal. No man therefore treat
Me with indignity within these walls,
For though of late a child, I can discern
Now, and distinguish between good and ill.
Suffice it that we patiently endure
To be spectators daily of our sheep
Slaughter’d, our bread consumed, our stores of wine
Wasted; for what can one to all opposed?
Come then—persist no longer in offence
And hostile hate of me; or if ye wish
To slay me, pause not. It were better far
To die, and I had rather much be slain,
Than thus to witness your atrocious deeds
Day after day; to see our guests abused,
With blows insulted, and the women dragg’d
With a licentious violence obscene
From side to side of all this fair abode.
  He said, and all sat silent, till at length
Thus Agelaüs spake, Diastor’s son.
  My friends! let none with contradiction thwart
And rude reply, words rational and just;
Assault no more the stranger, nor of all
The servants of renown’d Ulysses here
Harm any. My advice, both to the Queen
And to Telemachus, shall gentle be,
May it but please them. While the hope survived
Within your bosoms of the safe return
Of wise Ulysses to his native isle,
So long good reason was that she should use
Delay, and hold our wooing in suspence;
For had Ulysses come, that course had proved
Wisest and best; but that he comes no more
Appears, now, manifest. Thou, therefore, Prince!
Seeking thy mother, counsel her to wed
The noblest, and who offers richest dow’r,
That thou, for thy peculiar, may’st enjoy
Thy own inheritance in peace and ease,
And she, departing, find another home.
  To whom Telemachus, discrete, replied.
I swear by Jove, and by my father’s woes,
Who either hath deceased far from his home,
Or lives a wand’rer, that I interpose
No hindrance to her nuptials. Let her wed
Who offers most, and even whom she will.
But to dismiss her rudely were a deed
Unfilial—That I dare not—God forbid!
  So spake Telemachus. Then Pallas struck
The suitors with delirium; wide they stretch’d
Their jaws with unspontaneous laughter loud;
Their meat dripp’d blood; tears fill’d their eyes, and dire
Presages of approaching woe, their hearts.
Then thus the prophet Theoclymenus.95
  Ah miserable men! what curse is this
That takes you now? night wraps itself around
Your faces, bodies, limbs; the palace shakes
With peals of groans—and oh, what floods ye weep!
I see the walls and arches dappled thick
With gore; the vestibule is throng’d, the court
On all sides throng’d with apparitions grim
Of slaughter’d men sinking into the gloom
Of Erebus; the sun is blotted out
From heav’n, and midnight whelms you premature.
  He said, they, hearing, laugh’d; and thus the son
Of Polybus, Eurymachus replied.
  This wand’rer from a distant shore hath left
His wits behind. Hoa there! conduct him hence
Into the forum; since he dreams it night
Already, teach him there that it is day.
  Then answer’d godlike Theoclymenus.
I have no need, Eurymachus, of guides
To lead me hence, for I have eyes and ears,
The use of both my feet, and of a mind
In no respect irrational or wild.
These shall conduct me forth, for well I know
That evil threatens you, such, too, as none
Shall ’scape of all the suitors, whose delight
Is to insult the unoffending guest
Received beneath this hospitable roof.
  He said, and, issuing from the palace, sought
Piræus’ house, who gladly welcom’d him.
Then all the suitors on each other cast
A look significant, and, to provoke
Telemachus the more, fleer’d at his guests.
Of whom a youth thus, insolent began.
  No living wight, Telemachus, had e’er
Guests such as thine. Witness, we know not who,
This hungry vagabond, whose means of life
Are none, and who hath neither skill nor force
To earn them, a mere burthen on the ground.
Witness the other also, who upstarts
A prophet suddenly. Take my advice;
I counsel wisely; send them both on board
Some gallant bark to Sicily for sale;
Thus shall they somewhat profit thee at last.
  So spake the suitors, whom Telemachus
Heard unconcern’d, and, silent, look’d and look’d
Toward his father, watching still the time
When he should punish that licentious throng.
Meantime, Icarius’ daughter, who had placed
Her splendid seat opposite, heard distinct
Their taunting speeches. They, with noisy mirth,
Feasted deliciously, for they had slain
Many a fat victim; but a sadder feast
Than, soon, the Goddess and the warrior Chief
Should furnish for them, none shall ever share.
Of which their crimes had furnish’d first the cause.


  1. ^  That is, how shall I escape the vengeance of their kindred?
  2. ^  Aĕdon, Cleothera, Merope.
  3. ^  μυελον ανδρων.
  4. ^  The new moon.
  5. ^  He is often called—πατηρ ανδρων τε θεων τε.
  6. ^  Household Gods who presided over the hearth.
  7. ^  A smile of displeasure.
  8. ^  Who had sought refuge in the ship of Telemachus when he left Sparta, and came with him to Ithaca.