The Old Boast
W. S. Merwin, born 1929, American
A Reading from Homer, 1885**
Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1836-1912, British born the Netherlands
Oil on canvas. Philadelphia Art Museum
Listen natives of a dry place
from the harpist’s fingers
** Robert Fagles’ 1996 translation of the first lines of The Odyssey:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return. . .
Siren, bronze, 1570-90, Italy (Rome). Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The Siren was the heraldic device of a powerful Roman family, the Colonna.
One of Odysseus’ temptations was the blandishment of the Sirens whose voices were even lovelier than their faces. And who killed male visitors to their island in the wine-dark sea.
Odysseus melted wax and filled the ears of his men with this so that they could not hear the songs of the Sirens.
He did not use this wax himself. But he had his men bind him to the mast of his ship so that he could not move. He struggled to free himself when he heard the Sirens. But failed.
And so they sailed on.