Chapter 4 Adventures of Ulysses by Lamb




The Island of Calypso.—Immortality Refused.

Athena's head is depicted on this Greek silver coin dating from 335-330 BC.

“Athena” [Minerva] by unknown Greek artist
silver coin, 335-330 BC
The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore
Creative Commons License

Henceforth the adventures of the single Ulysses must be pursued. Of all those faithful partakers of his toil, who with him left Asia, laden with the spoils of Troy, now not one remains, but all a prey to the remorseless waves, and food for some great fish; their gallant navy reduced to one ship, and that finally swallowed up and lost. Where now are all their anxious thoughts of home? that perseverance with which they went through the severest sufferings and the hardest labours to which poor seafarers were ever exposed, that their toils at last might be crowned with the sight of their native shores and wives at Ithaca! Ulysses is now in the isle Ogygia, called the Delightful Island. The poor shipwrecked chief, the slave of all the elements, is once again raised by the caprice of fortune into a shadow of prosperity. He that was cast naked upon the shore, bereft of all his companions, has now a goddess to attend upon him, and his companions are the nymphs which never die. Who has not heard of Calypso? her grove crowned with alders and poplars; her grotto, against which the luxuriant vine laid forth his purple grapes; her ever new delights, crystal fountains, running brooks, meadows flowering with sweet balm-gentle and with violet; blue violets which like veins enamelled the smooth breasts of each fragrant mead! It were useless to describe over again what has been so well told already; or to relate those soft arts of courtship which the goddess used to detain Ulysses; the same in kind which she afterwards practised upon his less wary son, whom Minerva, in the shape of Mentor, hardly preserved from her snares, when they came to the Delightful Island together in search of the scarce departed Ulysses.

A memorable example of married love, and a worthy instance how dear to every good man his country is, was exhibited by Ulysses. If Circe loved him sincerely, Calypso loves him with tenfold more warmth and passion: she can deny him nothing, but his departure; she offers him everything, even to a participation of her immortality—if he will stay and share in her pleasures, he shall never die. But death with glory has greater charms for a mind heroic than a life that shall never die with shame; and when he pledged his vows to his Penelope, he reserved no stipulation that he would forsake her whenever a goddess should think him worthy of her bed, but they had sworn to live and grow old together; and he would not survive her if he could, no meanly share in immortality itself, from which she was excluded.

These thoughts kept him pensive and melancholy in the midst of pleasure. His heart was on the seas, making voyages to Ithaca. Twelve months had worn away, when Minerva from heaven saw her favourite, how he sat still pining on the seashores (his daily custom), wishing for a ship to carry him home. She (who is wisdom herself) was indignant that so wise and brave a man as Ulysses should be held in effeminate bondage by an unworthy goddess; and at her request her father Jove ordered Mercury to go down to the earth to command Calypso to dismiss her guest. The divine messenger tied fast to his feet his winged shoes, which bear him over land and seas, and took in his hand his golden rod, the ensign of his authority. Then wheeling in many an airy round, he stayed not till he alighted on the firm top of the mountain Pieria; thence he fetched a second circuit over the seas, kissing the waves in his flight with his feet, as light as any sea-mew fishing dips her wings, till he touched the isle Ogygia, and soared up from the blue sea to the grotto of the goddess to whom his errand was ordained.

His message struck a horror, checked by love, through all the faculties of Calypso. She replied to it, incensed: “You gods are insatiate, past all that live, in all things which you affect; which makes you so envious and grudging. It afflicts you to the heart when any goddess seeks the love of a mortal man in marriage, though you yourselves without scruple link yourselves to women of the earth. So it fared with you, when the delicious-fingered Morning shared Orion’s bed; you could never satisfy your hate and your jealousy till you had incensed the chastity-loving dame, Diana, who leads the precise life, to come upon him by stealth in Ortygia, and pierce him through with her arrows. And when rich-haired Ceres gave the reins to her affections, and took Iasion (well worthy) to her arms, the secret was not so cunningly kept but Jove had soon notice of it, and the poor mortal paid for his felicity with death, struck through with lightnings. And now you envy me the possession of a wretched man whom tempests have cast upon my shores, making him lawfully mine; whose ship Jove rent in pieces with his hot thunderbolts, killing all his friends. Him I have preserved, loved, nourished; made him mine by protection, my creature; by every tie of gratitude, mine; have vowed to make him deathless like myself; him you will take from me. But I know your power, and that it is vain for me to resist. Tell your king that I obey his mandates.”

With an ill grace Calypso promised to fulfil the commands of Jove; and, Mercury departing, she went to find Ulysses, where he sat outside the grotto, not knowing of the heavenly message, drowned in discontent, not seeing any human probability of his ever returning home.

She said to him: “Unhappy man, no longer afflict yourself with pining after your country, but build you a ship, with which you may return home, since it is the will of the gods; who, doubtless, as they are greater in power than I, are greater in skill, and best can tell what is fittest for man. But I call the gods and my inward conscience to witness that I have no thought but what stood with thy safety, nor would have done or counselled anything against thy good. I persuaded thee to nothing which I should not have followed myself in thy extremity; for my mind is innocent and simple. O, if thou knewest what dreadful sufferings thou must yet endure before ever thou reachest thy native land, thou wouldest not esteem so hardly of a goddess’s offer to share her immortality with thee; nor, for a few years’ enjoyment of a perishing Penelope, refuse an imperishable and never-dying life with Calypso.”

He replied: “Ever-honoured, great Calypso, let it not displease thee, that I a mortal man desire to see and converse again with a wife that is mortal: human objects are best fitted to human infirmities. I well know how far in wisdom, in feature, in stature, proportion, beauty, in all the gifts of the mind, thou exceedest my Penelope: she is a mortal, and subject to decay; thou immortal, ever growing, yet never old; yet in her sight all my desires terminate, all my wishes—in the sight of her, and of my country earth. If any god, envious of my return, shall lay his dreadful hand upon me as I pass the seas, I submit; for the same powers have given me a mind not to sink under oppression. In wars and waves my sufferings have not been small.”

She heard his pleaded reasons, and of force she must assent; so to her nymphs she gave in charge from her sacred woods to cut down timber, to make Ulysses a ship. They obeyed, though in a work unsuitable to their soft fingers, yet to obedience no sacrifice is hard; and Ulysses busily bestirred himself, labouring far more hard than they, as was fitting, till twenty tall trees, driest and fittest for timber, were felled. Then, like a skilful shipwright, he fell to joining the planks, using the plane, the axe, and the auger with such expedition that in four days’ time a ship was made, complete with all her decks, hatches, sideboards, yards. Calypso added linen for the sails, and tackling; and when she was finished, she was a goodly vessel for a man to sail in, alone or in company, over the wide seas. By the fifth morning she was launched; and Ulysses, furnished with store of provisions, rich garments, and gold and silver, given him by Calypso, took a last leave of her and of her nymphs, and of the isle Ogygia which had so befriended him.


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