THE ADVENTURES OF ULYSSES
BY CHARLES LAMB
The Songs of Demodocus.—The Convoy Home.—The Mariners Transformed to
Stone.—The Young Shepherd.
When it was daylight, Alcinous caused it to be proclaimed by the heralds about the town that there was come to the palace a stranger, shipwrecked on their coast, that in mien and person resembled a god; and inviting all the chief people of the city to come and do honour to the stranger.
The palace was quickly filled with guests, old and young, for whose cheer, and to grace Ulysses more, Alcinous made a kingly feast with banquetings and music. Then, Ulysses being seated at a table next the king and queen, in all men’s view, after they had feasted Alcinous ordered Demodocus, the court-singer, to be called to sing some song of the deeds of heroes, to charm the ear of his guest. Demodocus came and reached his harp, where it hung between two pillars of silver; and then the blind singer, to whom, in recompense of his lost sight, the muses had given an inward discernment, a soul and a voice to excite the hearts of men and gods to delight, began in grave and solemn strains to sing the glories of men highliest famed. He chose a poem whose subject was The Stern Strife stirred up between Ulysses and Great Achilles, as at a banquet sacred to the gods, in dreadful language, they expressed their difference; while Agamemnon sat rejoiced in soul to hear those Grecians jar; for the oracle in Pytho had told him that the period of their wars in Troy should then be, when the kings of Greece, anxious to arrive at the wished conclusion, should fall to strife, and contend which must end the war, force or stratagem.
This brave contention he expressed so to the life, in the very words which they both used in the quarrel, as brought tears into the eyes of Ulysses at the remembrance of past passages of his life, and he held his large purple weed before his face to conceal it. Then craving a cup of wine, he poured it out in secret libation to the gods, who had put into the mind of Demodocus unknowingly to do him so much honour. But when the moving poet began to tell of other occurrences where Ulysses had been present, the memory of his brave followers who had been with him in all difficulties, now swallowed up and lost in the ocean, and of those kings that had fought with him at Troy, some of whom were dead, some exiles like himself, forced itself so strongly upon his mind that forgetful where he was he sobbed outright with passion: which yet he restrained, but not so cunningly but Alcinous perceived it and without taking notice of it to Ulysses, privately gave signs that Demodocus should cease from his singing.
Next followed dancing in the Phaeacian fashion, when they would show respect to their guests; which was succeeded by trials of skill, games of strength, running, racing, hurling of the quoit, mock fights, hurling of the javelin, shooting with the bow: in some of which Ulysses modestly challenging his entertainers, performed such feats of strength and prowess as gave the admiring Phaeacians fresh reason to imagine that he was either some god, or hero of the race of the gods.
These solemn shows and pageants in honour of his guest king Alcinous continued for the space of many days, as if he could never be weary of showing courtesies to so worthy a stranger. In all this time he never asked him his name, nor sought to know more of him than he of his own accord disclosed; till on a day as they were seated feasting, after the feast was ended, Demodocus being called, as was the custom, to sing some grave matter, sang how Ulysses, on that night when Troy was fired, made dreadful proof of his valour, maintaining singly a combat against the whole household of Deiphobus, to which the divine expresser gave both act and passion, and breathed such a fire into Ulysses’s deeds that it inspired old death with life in the lively expressing of slaughters, and rendered life so sweet and passionate in the hearers that all who heard felt it fleet from them in the narration: which made Ulysses even pity his own slaughterous deeds, and feel touches of remorse, to see how song can revive a dead man from the grave, yet no way can it defend a living man from death; and in imagination he underwent some part of death’s horrors, and felt in his living body a taste of those dying pangs which he had dealt to others; that with the strong conceit, tears (the true interpreters of unutterable emotion) stood in his eyes.
Which king Alcinous noting, and that this was now the second time that he had perceived him to be moved at the mention of events touching the Trojan wars, he took occasion to ask whether his guest had lost any friend or kinsman at Troy, that Demodocus’s singing had brought into his mind. Then Ulysses, drying the tears with his cloak, and observing that the eyes of all the company were upon him, desirous to give them satisfaction in what he could, and thinking this a fit time to reveal his true name and destination, spake as follows:
“The courtesies which ye all have shown me, and in particular yourself and princely daughter, O king Alcinous, demand from me that I should no longer keep you in ignorance of what or who I am; for to reserve any secret from you, who have with such openness of friendship embraced my love, would argue either a pusillanimous or an ungrateful mind in me. Know, then, that I am that Ulysses, of whom I perceive ye have heard something; who heretofore have filled the world with the renown of my policies. I am he by whose counsels, if Fame is to be believed at all, more than by the united valour of all the Grecians, Troy fell. I am that unhappy man whom the heavens and angry gods have conspired to keep an exile on the seas, wandering to seek my home, which still flies from me. The land which I am in quest of is Ithaca; in whose ports some ship belonging to your navigation-famed Phaeacian state may haply at some time have found a refuge from tempests. If ever you have experienced such kindness, requite it now, by granting to me, who am the king of that land, a passport to that land.”
Admiration seized all the court of Alcinous, to behold in their presence one of the number of those heroes who fought at Troy, whose divine story had been made known to them by songs and poems, but of the truth they had little known, or rather they had hitherto accounted those heroic exploits as fictions and exaggerations of poets; but having seen and made proof of the real Ulysses, they began to take those supposed inventions to be real verities, and the tale of Troy to be as true as it was delightful.
Then king Alcinous made answer: “Thrice fortunate ought we to esteem our lot, in having seen and conversed with a man of whom report hath spoken so loudly, but, as it seems, nothing beyond the truth. Though we could desire no felicity greater than to have you always among us, renowned Ulysses, yet your desire having been expressed so often and so deeply to return home, we can deny you nothing, though to our own loss. Our kingdom of Phaeacia, as you know, is chiefly rich in shipping. In all parts of the world, where there are navigable seas, or ships can pass, our vessels will be found. You cannot name a coast to which they do not resort. Every rock and every quicksand is known to them that lurks in the vast deep. They pass a bird in flight; and with such unerring certainty they make to their destination that some have said that they have no need of pilot or rudder, but that they move instinctively, self-directed, and know the minds of their voyagers. Thus much, that you may not fear to trust yourself in one of our Phaeacian ships. Tomorrow, if you please, you shall launch forth. To-day spend with us in feasting, who never can do enough when the gods send such visitors.”
Ulysses acknowledged king Alcinous’s bounty; and while these two royal personages stood interchanging courteous expressions, the heart of the princess Nausicaa was overcome: she had been gazing attentively upon her father’s guest as he delivered his speech; but when he came to that part where he declared himself to be Ulysses, she blessed herself and her fortune that in relieving a poor shipwrecked mariner, as he seemed no better, she had conferred a kindness on so divine a hero as he proved; and scarce waiting till her father had done speaking, with a cheerful countenance she addressed Ulysses, bidding him be cheerful, and when he returned home, as by her father’s means she trusted he would shortly, sometimes to remember to whom he owed his life, and who met him in the woods by the river Callicoe.
“Fair flower of Phaeacia,” he replied, “so may all the gods bless me with the strife of joys in that desired day, whenever I shall see it, as I shall always acknowledge to be indebted to your fair hand for the gift of life which I enjoy, and all the blessings which shall follow upon my home- return. The gods give thee, Nausicaa, a princely husband; and from you two spring blessings to this state.” So prayed Ulysses, his heart overflowing with admiration and grateful recollections of king Alcinous’s daughter.
Then at the king’s request he gave them a brief relation of all the adventures that had befallen him since he launched forth from Troy; during which the princess Nausicaa took great delight (as ladies are commonly taken with these kind of travellers’ stories) to hear of the monster Polyphemus, of the men that devour each other in Laestrygonia, of the enchantress Circe, of Scylla, and the rest; to which she listened with a breathless attention, letting fall a shower of tears from her fair eyes every now and then, when Ulysses told of some more than usual distressful passage in his travels; and all the rest of his auditors, if they had before entertained a high respect for their guest, now felt their veneration increased tenfold, when they learned from his own mouth what perils, what sufferance, what endurance, of evils beyond man’s strength to support, this much-sustaining, almost heavenly man, by the greatness of his mind, and by his invincible courage, had struggled through.
The night was far spent before Ulysses had ended his narrative, and with wishful glances he cast his eyes towards the eastern parts, which the sun had begun to flecker with his first red; for on the morrow Alcinous had promised that a bark should be in readiness to convoy him to Ithaca.
In the morning a vessel well manned and appointed was waiting for him; into which the king and queen heaped presents of gold and silver, massy plate, apparel, armour, and whatsoever things of cost or rarity they judged would be most acceptable to their guest; and the sails being set, Ulysses, embarking with expressions of regret, took his leave of his royal entertainers, of the fair princess (who had been his first friend), and of the peers of Phaeacia; who crowding down to the beach to have the last sight of their illustrious visitant, beheld the gallant ship with all her canvas spread, bounding and curveting over the waves, like a horse proud of his rider, or as if she knew that in her capacious womb’s rich freightage she bore Ulysses.
He whose life past had been a series of disquiets, in seas among rude waves, in battles amongst ruder foes, now slept securely, forgetting all; his eye-lids bound in such deep sleep as only yielded to death; and when they reached the nearest Ithacan port by the next morning, he was still asleep. The mariners, not willing to awake him, landed him softly, and laid him in a cave at the foot of an olive-tree, which made a shady recess in that narrow harbour, the haunt of almost none but the sea-nymphs, which are called Naiads; few ships before this Phaeacian vessel having put into that haven, by reason of the difficulty and narrowness of the entrance. Here leaving him asleep, and disposing in safe places near him the presents with which king Alcinous had dismissed him, they departed for Phaeacia; where these wretched mariners never again set foot; but just as they arrived, and thought to salute their country earth, in sight of their city’s turrets, and in open view of their friends who from the harbour with shouts greeted their return, their vessel and all the mariners which were in her were turned to stone, and stood transformed and fixed in sight of the whole Phaeacian city, where it yet stands, by Neptune’s vindictive wrath; who resented thus highly the contempt which those Phaeacians had shown in convoying home a man whom the god had destined to destruction. Whence it comes to pass that the Phaeacians at this day will at no price be induced to lend their ships to strangers, or to become the carriers for other nations, so highly do they still dread the displeasure of their sea- god, while they see that terrible monument ever in sight.
When Ulysses awoke, which was not till some time after the mariners had departed, he did not at first know his country again, either that long absence had made it strange, or that Minerva (which was more likely) had cast a cloud about his eyes, that he should have greater pleasure hereafter in discovering his mistake; but like a man suddenly awaking in some desert isle, to which his sea-mates have transported him in his sleep, he looked around, and discerning no known objects, he cast his hands to heaven for pity, and complained on those ruthless men who had beguiled him with a promise of conveying him home to this country, and perfidiously left him to perish in an unknown land. But then the rich presents of gold and silver given him by Alcinous, which he saw carefully laid up in secure places near him, staggered him: which seemed not like the act of wrongful or unjust men, such as turn pirates for gain, or land helpless passengers in remote coasts to possess themselves of their goods.
While he remained in this suspense, there came up to him a young shepherd, clad in the finer sort of apparel, such as kings’ sons wore in those days when princes did not disdain to tend sheep, who, accosting him, was saluted again by Ulysses, who asked him what country that was on which he had been just landed, and whether it were part of a continent, or an island. The young shepherd made show of wonder, to hear any one ask the name of that land; as country people are apt to esteem those for mainly ignorant and barbarous who do not know the names of places which are familiar to them, though perhaps they who ask have had no opportunities of knowing, and may have come from far countries.
“I had thought,” said he, “that all people knew our land. It is rocky and barren, to be sure; but well enough: it feeds a goat or an ox well; it is not wanting either in wine or in wheat; it has good springs of water, some fair rivers; and wood enough, as you may see: it is called Ithaca.”
Ulysses was joyed enough to find himself in his own country; but so prudently he carried his joy, that, dissembling his true name and quality, he pretended to the shepherd that he was only some foreigner who by stress of weather had put into that port; and framed on the sudden a story to make it plausible, how he had come from Crete in a ship of Phaeacia; when the young shepherd, laughing, and taking Ulysses’s hand in both his, said to him: “He must be cunning, I find, who thinks to overreach you. What, cannot you quit your wiles and your subtleties, now that you are in a state of security? must the first word with which you salute your native earth be an untruth? and think you that you are unknown?”
Ulysses looked again; and he saw, not a shepherd, but a beautiful woman, whom he immediately knew to be the goddess Minerva, that in the wars of Troy had frequently vouchsafed her sight to him; and had been with him since in perils, saving him unseen.
“Let not my ignorance offend thee, great Minerva,” he cried, “or move thy displeasure, that in that shape I knew thee not; since the skill of discerning of deities is not attainable by wit or study, but hard to be hit by the wisest of mortals. To know thee truly through all thy changes is only given to those whom thou art pleased to grace. To all men thou takest all likenesses. All men in their wits think that they know thee, and that they have thee. Thou art wisdom itself. But a semblance of thee, which is false wisdom, often is taken for thee, so thy counterfeit view appears to many, but thy true presence to few: those are they which, loving thee above all, are inspired with light from thee to know thee. But this I surely know, that all the time the sons of Greece waged war against Troy, I was sundry times graced with thy appearance; but since, I have never been able to set eyes upon thee till now; but have wandered at my own discretion, to myself a blind guide, erring up and down the world, wanting thee.”
Then Minerva cleared his eyes, and he knew the ground on which he stood to be Ithaca, and that cave to be the same which the people of Ithaca had in former times made sacred to the sea-nymphs, and where he himself had done sacrifices to them a thousand times; and full in his view stood Mount Nerytus with all his woods: so that now he knew for a certainty that he was arrived in his own country, and with the delight which he felt he could not forbear stooping down and kissing the soil.