The poem ‘Ithaca’ by Carol Ann Duffy is an unrhymed poem of five stanzas that makes use of a conversational and everyday language. The narrator, probably a man who has travelled a lot, addresses either Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, or an imaginary modern traveller or reader. The narrator tells the traveller that what is really important is not Ithaca, the island home that was the goal of Odysseus’s years of wandering, but the journey itself. It is the journey that must be fully enjoyed at every moment, using all the resources of senses and intellect, because the goal itself is likely to be disappointing.
Carol Ann Duffy has always been perceptive and sensitive to the nuances of human moods and whims. She adroitly captures moments and portraits of humanity through her refreshing use of imagery.
One such poem that will strike your eyes is ‘Ithaca’. The very title of the poem suggests itself what it is going to be about. Ithaca has both homecoming as well as the loss of the home. The poem talks about the return of Odysseus who returns to his home after a long period of 20 years, due to being away at sea after the Trojan War.
However, Odysseus, instead of coming back to his tranquil and idyllic kingdom to idle away autumn years, discovers the kingdom under invasion by Penelope’s suitors, who were disguised as guests at his home so that they could marry the “widowed” Penelope and capture his kingdom. Therefore, with a view to regaining his wife, son and kingdom, Odysseus decides to slaughter Penelope’s suitors.
However, Duffy’s ‘Ithaca’ is nostalgic, instead of homecoming that ends in triumph. In the poem the persona is shattered when she comes to know that her affections are not returned. The home, the centre of her affections, ceases to exist. There is a use of past tense, which denotes the persona’s relationship to her lover. The persona’s hope to meet her lover is profound. As she moves closer to Ithaca, she “traces” her memory of his skin and hair, “tracking the scents of rosemary, lemon and thyme” which reminds her of “the fragrance of his name”.
The herbs which evoke the image of cooking highlight her dependence on her lover for sustenance. However, her idealized imagination of her lover is torn down by his insensitive behaviour, leaving her stranded, “waist-high, from the shallows at dusk, /dragging my small white boat.” It is an ironic return to “the girl I was”—she becomes girl like not through the rejuvenation of young love, but as a result of being belittled by her lover’s hurtful words.
While researching online to gain some information related to Duffy’s Ithaca, I came across a few poets who too wrote about Odysseus homeward journey from Ithaca, but no poet’s descriptions impressed me as much as the poem, ‘Ithaca’ by Carol Ann Duffy. Most of the details I found were exactly related to actual journey of Odysseus from Ithaca.
But there was no such poem that took the journey in other way round and gave it a new direction with the depiction of a girl lover’s bereavement for her lover, who the former is remembering and sharing her past experience. It is true that when the name of Ithaca comes, most of the poems’ lovers think of Odysseus homeward journey from Ithaca, but when you are reading Duffy’s poem, you must be ready for something new, and that newness can also be seen this poem, wherein the speaker is shown shattered when she comes to know that her affections are not returned.
In this first stanza, the narrator is shown returning, and getting ready for a visit to Ithaca, and anchoring her boat just a mile from Ithaca. Here, the narrator is shown pulling off her stiff and salty sailor’s clothes, and slipping on the dress of the girl to meet her lover. She is shown nostalgic, but not for her home, rather for her lover, who has left her in lurch and stranded.
In this second stanza, the narrator is shown remembering her lover and her experience with the lover. Anchoring her boat just a mile away from Ithaca, she remembers how the evening was softening and spreading, “the turquoise water mentioning its silver fish,” the sky was stooping to her.” How she was moving her hands in the water and feeling the air.
She remembers that I am the lover who can still trace your skin, your hair, – meaning the narrator is so much in love with her lover that she can still feel the skin and hair of her lover. She has not forgotten the time they spend together. In the poem, the narrator is shown getting too much nostalgic towards the natural things that have been on this earth planet for unknown time.
She can still experience those beautiful moments, but also feels sad for the absence of her lover who is now nowhere to see. But she can still feel and trace what she experienced earlier with her lover.
Where in the second stanza, the narrator is shown remembering her meeting with her lover, in this stanza; she is expressing her sad feeling, and talking about it when she says: “the olive trees ripening their tears in our pale fields. Pointing at Ithaca, she says: the bronze mountains, shouldered like rough shields, the caves, where dolphins hid, dark pouches for jewels.” The bronze mountains in front her are shouldering like rough shields, the caves where dolphins are hidden. But the olive trees are ripening their tears in their pale fields, meaning the fields that once used to be green with their love have now turned pale, and lost the greenery of their love.
Narrator’s hope to meet her lover is very intense, which is well depicted by this stanza, wherein she is shown remembering and comparing her present and past relationship with her lover. She says when she moves closer to Ithaca: She drifted in on a ribbon of light, and started tracking the scents of rosemary, lemon and thyme. She began to feel her memory of his skin and hair in “the scents of rosemary, lemon and thyme.
She could also remember and feel “the fragrances of your name, which she chanted in my heart. The herbs which evoke the image of cooking highlight her dependence on her lover for sustenance. Only these are the charms of these beautiful objects of nature that bring her back to Ithaca. All these things have been a driving for her, and they all make her feel the existence of her lover and her relationship with him.
However, in this final stanza of the poem, the narrator is shown feeling dejected and resented. When she says: “all hurt zeroed now by the harm you could do with a word.” The lover is totally broken at last, and deeply broken by the insensitive behaviour of her lover, and his better and hurtful words.
She says that he has left her stranded, without any hope of love from him. She is “waist-high, from the shallows at dusk, /dragging my small white boat.” It is an ironic return to “the girl I was”—she becomes girl like not through the rejuvenation of young love, but due to being demeaned by her lover’s hurtful and unkind words, which hurt her too much.
About Carol Ann Duffy
Carol Ann Duffy is regarded as one of the most important voices in contemporary British poetry. She belongs to a generation of women poets which includes Michele Roberts, Alison Fell, Michelene Wander, Judith Kazantzis, Fleur Adcock, Carol Rumens, Elaine Feinstein, Liz Lochhead, Grace Nicholas and several other famous women poet who carved a niche in the world of poetry. Despite their disparate social, political and cultural characteristics they all exhibit the recognizable lineaments of their foremothers – the women of the feminist movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Immensely concerned with the interrogation of certain accepted gender norms, Duffy’s work also had to confront a lot of racial intolerance, religious bigotry, the nuclear nightmare, the political indifference exuded by the Thatcher administration towards the unemployed and the under-privileged.
Born in Glasgow, brought up in Staffordshire and educated in Liverpool, she now lives in London and retains a clear identification with the impoverished regions of Britain in which she grew up. Although she is a lesbian and a feminist she displays none of the self-congratulatory essentialism commonly associated with such a stance. Her work is analytical, deeply disturbing and committed to posing far more questions than it answers. It is also at times deeply humorous.