The Odyssey of Homer (Cowper)/Book XXIII

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BOOK XXIII

ARGUMENT

Ulysses with some difficulty, convinces Penelope of his identity, who at length, overcome by force of evidence, receives him to her arms with transport. He entertains her with a recital of his adventures, and in his narration the principal events of the poem are recapitulated. In the morning, Ulysses, Telemachus, the herdsman and the swine-herd depart into the country.

And now, with exultation loud the nurse
Again ascended, eager to apprize
The Queen of her Ulysses’ safe return;
Joy braced her knees, with nimbleness of youth
She stepp’d, and at her ear, her thus bespake.
  Arise, Penelope! dear daughter, see
With thy own eyes thy daily wish fulfill’d.
Ulysses is arrived; hath reach’d at last
His native home, and all those suitors proud
Hath slaughter’d, who his family distress’d,
His substance wasted, and controul’d his son.
  To whom Penelope discrete replied.
Dear nurse! the Gods have surely ta’en away
Thy judgment; they transform the wise to fools,
And fools conduct to wisdom, and have marr’d
Thy intellect, who wast discrete before.
Why wilt thou mock me, wretched as I am,
With tales extravagant? and why disturb
Those slumbers sweet that seal’d so fast mine eyes?
For such sweet slumbers have I never known
Since my Ulysses on his voyage sail’d
To that bad city never to be named.
Down instant to thy place again—begone—
For had another of my maidens dared
Disturb my sleep with tidings wild as these,
I had dismiss’d her down into the house
More roughly; but thine age excuses thee.
  To whom the venerable matron thus.
I mock thee not, my child; no—he is come—
Himself, Ulysses, even as I say,
That stranger, object of the scorn of all.
Telemachus well knew his sire arrived,
But prudently conceal’d the tidings, so
To insure the more the suitors’ punishment.
  So Euryclea she transported heard,
And springing from the bed, wrapp’d in her arms
The ancient woman shedding tears of joy,
And in wing’d accents ardent thus replied.
  Ah then, dear nurse inform me! tell me true!
Hath he indeed arriv’d as thou declar’st?
How dared he to assail alone that band
Of shameless ones, for ever swarming here?
  Then Euryclea, thus, matron belov’d.
I nothing saw or knew; but only heard
Groans of the wounded; in th’ interior house
We trembling sat, and ev’ry door was fast.
Thus all remain’d till by his father sent,
Thy own son call’d me forth. Going, I found
Ulysses compass’d by the slaughter’d dead.
They cover’d wide the pavement, heaps on heaps.
It would have cheer’d thy heart to have beheld
Thy husband lion-like with crimson stains
Of slaughter and of dust all dappled o’er;
Heap’d in the portal, at this moment, lie
Their bodies, and he fumigates, meantime,
The house with sulphur and with flames of fire,
And hath, himself, sent me to bid thee down.
Follow me, then, that ye may give your hearts
To gladness, both, for ye have much endured;
But the event, so long your soul’s desire,
Is come; himself hath to his household Gods
Alive return’d, thee and his son he finds
Unharm’d and at your home, nor hath he left
Unpunish’d one of all his enemies.
  Her answer’d, then, Penelope discrete.
Ah dearest nurse! indulge not to excess
This dang’rous triumph. Thou art well apprized
How welcome his appearance here would prove
To all, but chief, to me, and to his son,
Fruit of our love. But these things are not so;
Some God, resentful of their evil deeds,
And of their biting contumely severe,
Hath slain those proud; for whether noble guest
Arrived or base, alike they scoff’d at all,
And for their wickedness have therefore died.
But my Ulysses distant far, I know,
From Greece hath perish’d, and returns no more.
  To whom thus Euryclea, nurse belov’d.
What word my daughter had escaped thy lips,
Who thus affirm’st thy husband, now within
And at his own hearth-side, for ever lost?
Canst thou be thus incredulous? Hear again—
I give thee yet proof past dispute, his scar
Imprinted by a wild-boar’s iv’ry tusk.
Laving him I remark’d it, and desired,
Myself, to tell thee, but he, ever-wise,
Compressing with both hands my lips, forbad.
Come, follow me. My life shall be the pledge.
If I deceive thee, kill me as thou wilt.
  To whom Penelope, discrete, replied.
Ah, dearest nurse, sagacious as thou art,
Thou little know’st to scan the counsels wise
Of the eternal Gods. But let us seek
My son, however, that I may behold
The suitors dead, and him by whom they died.
  So saying, she left her chamber, musing much
In her descent, whether to interrogate
Her Lord apart, or whether to imprint,
At once, his hands with kisses and his brows.
O’erpassing light the portal-step of stone
She enter’d. He sat opposite, illumed
By the hearth’s sprightly blaze, and close before
A pillar of the dome, waiting with eyes
Downcast, till viewing him, his noble spouse
Should speak to him; but she sat silent long,
Her faculties in mute amazement held.
By turns she riveted her eyes on his,
And, seeing him so foul attired, by turns
She recognized him not; then spake her son
Telemachus, and her silence thus reprov’d.
  My mother! ah my hapless and my most
Obdurate mother! wherefore thus aloof
Shunn’st thou my father, neither at his side
Sitting affectionate, nor utt’ring word?
Another wife lives not who could endure
Such distance from her husband new-return’d
To his own country in the twentieth year,
After much hardship; but thy heart is still
As ever, less impressible than stone,
  To whom Penelope, discrete, replied.
I am all wonder, O my son; my soul
Is stunn’d within me; pow’r to speak to him
Or to interrogate him have I none,
Or ev’n to look on him; but if indeed
He be Ulysses, and have reach’d his home,
I shall believe it soon, by proof convinced
Of signs known only to himself and me.
  She said; then smiled the Hero toil-inured,
And in wing’d accents thus spake to his son.
  Leave thou, Telemachus, thy mother here
To sift and prove me; she will know me soon
More certainly; she sees me ill-attired
And squalid now; therefore she shews me scorn,
And no belief hath yet that I am he.
But we have need, thou and myself, of deep
Deliberation. If a man have slain
One only citizen, who leaves behind
Few interested to avenge his death,
Yet, flying, he forsakes both friends and home;
But we have slain the noblest Princes far
Of Ithaca, on whom our city most
Depended; therefore, I advise thee, think!
  Him, prudent, then answer’d Telemachus.
  Be that thy care, my father! for report
Proclaims thee shrewdest of mankind, with whom
In ingenuity may none compare.
Lead thou; to follow thee shall be our part
With prompt alacrity; nor shall, I judge,
Courage be wanting to our utmost force.
  Thus then replied Ulysses, ever-wise.
To me the safest counsel and the best
Seems this. First wash yourselves, and put ye on
Your tunics; bid ye, next, the maidens take
Their best attire, and let the bard divine
Harping melodious play a sportive dance,
That, whether passenger or neighbour near,
All may imagine nuptials held within.
So shall not loud report that we have slain
All those, alarm the city, till we gain
Our woods and fields, where, once arriv’d, such plans
We will devise, as Jove shall deign to inspire.
  He spake, and all, obedient, in the bath
First laved themselves, then put their tunics on;
The damsels also dress’d, and the sweet bard,
Harping melodious, kindled strong desire
In all, of jocund song and graceful dance.
The palace under all its vaulted roof
Remurmur’d to the feet of sportive youths
And cinctured maidens, while no few abroad,
Hearing such revelry within, remark’d—
  The Queen with many wooers, weds at last.
Ah fickle and unworthy fair! too frail
Always to keep inviolate the house
Of her first Lord, and wait for his return.
  So spake the people; but they little knew
What had befall’n. Eurynome, meantime,
With bath and unction serv’d the illustrious Chief
Ulysses, and he saw himself attired
Royally once again in his own house.
Then, Pallas over all his features shed
Superior beauty, dignified his form
With added amplitude, and pour’d his curls
Like hyacinthine flow’rs down from his brows.
As when some artist by Minerva made
And Vulcan, wise to execute all tasks
Ingenious, borders silver with a wreath
Of gold, accomplishing a graceful work,
Such grace the Goddess o’er his ample chest
Copious diffused, and o’er his manly brows.
He, godlike, stepping from the bath, resumed
His former seat magnificent, and sat
Opposite to the Queen, to whom he said.
  Penelope! the Gods to thee have giv’n
Of all thy sex, the most obdurate heart.
Another wife lives not who could endure
Such distance from her husband new-return’d
To his own country in the twentieth year,
After such hardship. But prepare me, nurse,
A bed, for solitary I must sleep,
Since she is iron, and feels not for me.
  Him answer’d then prudent Penelope.
I neither magnify thee, sir! nor yet
Depreciate thee, nor is my wonder such
As hurries me at once into thy arms,
Though my remembrance perfectly retains,
Such as he was, Ulysses, when he sail’d
On board his bark from Ithaca—Go, nurse,
Prepare his bed, but not within the walls
Of his own chamber built with his own bands.
Spread it without, and spread it well with warm
Mantles, with fleeces, and with richest rugs.
  So spake she, proving him,108 and not untouch’d
With anger at that word, thus he replied.
  Penelope, that order grates my ear.
Who hath displaced my bed? The task were hard
E’en to an artist; other than a God
None might with ease remove it; as for man,
It might defy the stoutest in his prime
Of youth, to heave it to a different spot.
For in that bed elaborate, a sign,
A special sign consists; I was myself
The artificer; I fashion’d it alone.
Within the court a leafy olive grew
Lofty, luxuriant, pillar-like in girth.
Around this tree I built, with massy stones
Cemented close, my chamber, roof’d it o’er,
And hung the glutinated portals on.
I lopp’d the ample foliage and the boughs,
And sev’ring near the root its solid bole,
Smooth’d all the rugged stump with skilful hand,
And wrought it to a pedestal well squared
And modell’d by the line. I wimbled, next,
The frame throughout, and from the olive-stump
Beginning, fashion’d the whole bed above
Till all was finish’d, plated o’er with gold,
With silver, and with ivory, and beneath
Close interlaced with purple cordage strong.
Such sign I give thee. But if still it stand
Unmoved, or if some other, sev’ring sheer
The olive from its bottom, have displaced
My bed—that matter is best known to thee.
  He ceas’d; she, conscious of the sign so plain
Giv’n by Ulysses, heard with flutt’ring heart
And fault’ring knees that proof. Weeping she ran
Direct toward him, threw her arms around
The Hero, kiss’d his forehead, and replied.
  Ah my Ulysses! pardon me—frown not—
Thou, who at other times hast ever shewn
Superior wisdom! all our griefs have flow’d
From the Gods’ will; they envied us the bliss
Of undivided union sweet enjoy’d
Through life, from early youth to latest age.
No. Be not angry now; pardon the fault
That I embraced thee not as soon as seen,
For horror hath not ceased to overwhelm
My soul, lest some false alien should, perchance,
Beguile me, for our house draws num’rous such.
Jove’s daughter, Argive Helen, ne’er had given
Free entertainment to a stranger’s love,
Had she foreknown that the heroic sons
Of Greece would bring her to her home again.
But heav’n incited her to that offence,
Who never, else, had even in her thought
Harbour’d the foul enormity, from which
Originated even our distress.
But now, since evident thou hast described
Our bed, which never mortal yet beheld,
Ourselves except and Actoris my own
Attendant, giv’n me when I left my home
By good Icarius, and who kept the door,
Though hard to be convinced, at last I yield.
  So saying, she awaken’d in his soul
Pity and grief; and folding in his arms
His blameless consort beautiful, he wept.
Welcome as land appears to those who swim,
Whose gallant bark Neptune with rolling waves
And stormy winds hath sunk in the wide sea,
A mariner or two, perchance, escape
The foamy flood, and, swimming, reach the land,
Weary indeed, and with incrusted brine
All rough, but oh, how glad to climb the coast!
So welcome in her eyes Ulysses seem’d,
Around whose neck winding her snowy arms,
She clung as she would loose him never more.
Thus had they wept till rosy-finger’d morn
Had found them weeping, but Minerva check’d
Night’s almost finish’d course, and held, meantime,
The golden dawn close pris’ner in the Deep,
Forbidding her to lead her coursers forth,
Lampus and Phaëton that furnish light
To all the earth, and join them to the yoke.
Then thus, Ulysses to Penelope.
  My love; we have not yet attain’d the close
Of all our sufferings, but unmeasured toil
Arduous remains, which I must still atchieve.
For so the spirit of the Theban seer
Inform’d me, on that day, when to enquire
Of mine and of my people’s safe return
I journey’d down to Pluto’s drear abode.
But let us hence to bed, there to enjoy
Tranquil repose. My love, make no delay.
  Him answer’d then prudent Penelope.
Thou shalt to bed at whatsoever time
Thy soul desires, since the immortal Gods
Give thee to me and to thy home again.
But, thou hast spoken from the seer of Thebes
Of arduous toils yet unperform’d; declare
What toils? Thou wilt disclose them, as I judge,
Hereafter, and why not disclose them now?
  To whom Ulysses, ever-wise, replied.
Ah conversant with woe! why would’st thou learn
That tale? but I will tell it thee at large.
Thou wilt not hear with joy, nor shall myself
With joy rehearse it; for he bade me seek
City after city, bearing, as I go,
A shapely oar, till I shall find, at length,
A people who the sea know not, nor eat
Food salted; they trim galley crimson-prow’d
Have ne’er beheld, nor yet smooth-shaven oar
With which the vessel wing’d scuds o’er the waves.
He gave me also this authentic sign,
Which I will tell thee. In what place soe’er
I chance to meet a trav’ler who shall name
The oar on my broad shoulder borne, a van;109
He bade me, planting it on the same spot,
Worship the King of Ocean with a bull,
A ram, and a lascivious boar, then seek
My home again, and sacrifice at home
An hecatomb to the immortal Gods
Inhabitants of the expanse above.
So shall I die, at length, the gentlest death
Remote from Ocean; it shall find me late,
In soft serenity of age, the Chief
Of a blest people.—Thus he prophesied.
  Him answer’d then Penelope discrete.
If heav’n appoint thee in old age a lot
More tranquil, hope thence springs of thy escape
Some future day from all thy threaten’d woes.
  Such was their mutual conf’rence sweet; meantime
Eurynome and Euryclea dress’d
Their bed by light of the clear torch, and when
Dispatchful they had spread it broad and deep,
The ancient nurse to her own bed retired.
Then came Eurynome, to whom in trust
The chambers appertain’d, and with a torch
Conducted them to rest; she introduced
The happy pair, and went; transported they
To rites connubial intermitted long,
And now recover’d, gave themselves again.110
Meantime, the Prince, the herdsman, and the good
Eumæus, giving rest each to his feet,
Ceased from the dance; they made the women cease
Also, and to their sev’ral chambers all
Within the twilight edifice repair’d.
  At length, with conjugal endearment both
Satiate, Ulysses tasted and his spouse
The sweets of mutual converse. She rehearsed,
Noblest of women, all her num’rous woes
Beneath that roof sustain’d, while she beheld
The profligacy of the suitor-throng,
Who in their wooing had consumed his herds
And fatted flocks, and drawn his vessels dry;
While brave Ulysses, in his turn, to her
Related his successes and escapes,
And his afflictions also; he told her all;
She listen’d charm’d, nor slumber on his eyes
Fell once, or ere he had rehearsed the whole.
Beginning, he discoursed, how, at the first
He conquer’d in Ciconia, and thence reach’d
The fruitful shores of the Lotophagi;
The Cyclops’ deeds he told her next, and how
He well avenged on him his slaughter’d friends
Whom, pitiless, the monster had devour’d.
How to the isle of Æolus he came,
Who welcom’d him and safe dismiss’d him thence,
Although not destin’d to regain so soon
His native land; for o’er the fishy deep
Loud tempests snatch’d him sighing back again.
How, also at Telepylus he arrived,
Town of the Læstrygonians, who destroyed
His ships with all their mariners, his own
Except, who in his sable bark escaped.
Of guileful Circe too he spake, deep-skill’d
In various artifice, and how he reach’d
With sails and oars the squalid realms of death,
Desirous to consult the prophet there
Theban Tiresias, and how there he view’d
All his companions, and the mother bland
Who bare him, nourisher of his infant years.
How, next he heard the Sirens in one strain
All chiming sweet, and how he reach’d the rocks
Erratic, Scylla and Charybdis dire,
Which none secure from injury may pass.
Then, how the partners of his voyage slew
The Sun’s own beeves, and how the Thund’rer Jove
Hurl’d down his smoky bolts into his bark,
Depriving him at once of all his crew,
Whose dreadful fate he yet, himself, escaped.
How to Ogygia’s isle he came, where dwelt
The nymph Calypso, who, enamour’d, wish’d
To espouse him, and within her spacious grot
Detain’d, and fed, and promis’d him a life
Exempt for ever from the sap of age,
But him moved not. How, also, he arrived
After much toil, on the Phæacian coast,
Where ev’ry heart revered him as a God,
And whence, enriching him with brass and gold,
And costly raiment first, they sent him home.
At this last word, oblivious slumber sweet
Fell on him, dissipating all his cares.
  Meantime, Minerva, Goddess azure-eyed,
On other thoughts intent, soon as she deem’d
Ulysses with connubial joys sufficed,
And with sweet sleep, at once from Ocean rous’d
The golden-axled chariot of the morn
To illumine earth. Then from his fleecy couch
The Hero sprang, and thus his spouse enjoined.
  Oh consort dear! already we have striv’n
Against our lot, till wearied with the toil,
My painful absence, thou with ceaseless tears
Deploring, and myself in deep distress
Withheld reluctant from my native shores
By Jove and by the other pow’rs of heav’n.
But since we have in this delightful bed
Met once again, watch thou and keep secure
All my domestic treasures, and ere long
I will replace my num’rous sheep destroy’d
By those imperious suitors, and the Greeks
Shall add yet others till my folds be fill’d.
But to the woodlands go I now—to see
My noble father, who for my sake mourns
Continual; as for thee, my love, although
I know thee wise, I give thee thus in charge.
The sun no sooner shall ascend, than fame
Shall wide divulge the deed that I have done,
Slaying the suitors under my own roof.
Thou, therefore, with thy maidens, sit retired
In thy own chamber at the palace-top,
Nor question ask, nor, curious, look abroad.
  He said, and cov’ring with his radiant arms
His shoulders, called Telemachus; he roused
Eumæus and the herdsman too, and bade
All take their martial weapons in their hand.
Not disobedient they, as he enjoin’d,
Put armour on, and issued from the gates
Ulysses at their head. The earth was now
Enlighten’d, but Minerva them in haste
Led forth into the fields, unseen by all.


  1. ^  The proof consisted in this—that the bed being attached to the stump of an olive tree still rooted, was immovable, and Ulysses having made it himself, no person present, he must needs be apprized of the impossibility of her orders, if he were indeed Ulysses; accordingly, this demonstration of his identity satisfies all her scruples.
  2. ^  See the note on the same passage, Book XI.
  3. ^  Aristophanes the grammarian and Aristarchus chose that the Odyssey should end here; but the story is not properly concluded till the tumult occasioned by the slaughter of so many Princes being composed, Ulysses finds himself once more in peaceful possession of his country.