Odysseus to Telemachus by Joseph Brodsky is a three-stanza poem that does not follow any specific rhyming scheme. The lines all appear to be of a similar length but vary greatly in the number of syllables contained by each. This piece is unified by the cohesive and recognizable narrative it tells.
The poem tells of the end of the Trojan War, written about in Homer’s “Iliad,” and Odysseus’ journey back to Ithaca and his waiting wife, Penelope, and son, Telemachus.
The poem begins with Odysseus stating that the Trojan War is over, but that he does not know, or remember, who won it. It seems to be so far in the past, and so unimportant the victor is irrelevant. All the same, he speculates it was the Greeks, due to the sheer number of dead men left behind. The sea on which Odysseus now travels “almost seems’ to have been stretched out by the god Poseidon. It has taken Odysseus many years to get as far as he has and he is not yet home.
The poem continues, providing some hint about which part of the journey Odysseus is currently involved in. It becomes clear that he is on Circe’s island surrounded by his crew who have been turned into pigs. In the next lines of the piece, Odysseus speaks of his true inner turmoil, an emotional side of the character that is never revealed in “The Odyssey.” He is desperate to return home but knows that he will probably never get there.
Odysseus wishes his son well, figuring that they will never meet again. He remembers the time before the war when he attempted to escape his participation and the foiling of that plan. If only it had worked, he could have stayed with his son. In the last lines Odysseus tries to find a silver lining in the horrors he’s experienced, the fact that his son has been able to grow up and into his own man.
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
My dear Telemachus
While we were wasting time there, Old Poseidon,
it almost seems, stretched and extended space.
The poem begins with the speaker, the epic hero Odysseus, addressing his son, Telemachus. From the beginning of the poem, there is no doubting who the speaker is and who the listener is intended to be. This gives the poem a certain amount of clarity that will help the reader interpret the events as they are described.
Odysseus begins by telling his son that the Trojan War is now over. Although it was a history-defining war, the conclusion, and victor, seem unimportant to Odysseus. He came to the war against his will, stayed for its ten-year duration, and is finally on his way home. This piece, directed to his son, serves as a letter of sorts. It informs Telemachus of what happened to his father and how he has been changed by what he saw.
Odysseus speculates that it was most likely the Greeks who won the war as he does not believe the Trojans, or anyone else for that matter, would,
so many dead so far from their homeland.
He sees the abandonment of Greek soldiers, by their commanders, on the beaches of Troy as a travesty. This also gives further insight into how Odysseus really feels about his part in the war. He was an unwilling participant who did not believe in the Greek cause nor the methods used in battle.
In the final three lines of this stanza, it is made clear that Odysseus is currently on his way back to Ithaca. He is in the middle of his ten-year journey home, as detailed in “The Odyssey.” It seems to him that while they were at Troy fighting, the god of the sea, Poseidon, managed to stretch out the distance between there and home. This, he states, is the metaphorical reason it is taking him so long to return to his family.
I don’t know where I am or what this place
can be. It would appear some filthy island,
I cant remember how the war came out;
even how old you are–I can’t remember.
In the second stanza, which is the longest of the three, Odysseus gives voice to his concerns for his ship and crew. He states that he does not know, “where [he is] or what this place / can be.” Odysseus is not in the middle of the ocean as seemed to be the case in the first stanza, he is in the middle of one of the most memorable adventures detailed in “The Odyssey.” The men have become stranded on Circe’s island, Aeaea, where she turns a portion of the crew into, “great grunting pigs.” In the epic poem, the men remain on her island for over a year during which they spend their time feasting and drinking.
Odysseus remains unaffected by her spell and eventually compels Circe, through means provided to him by Hermes, to return the men to their original forms. This conclusion is yet to occur at this point in the poem and Odysseus seems to be close to desperation.
He passionately tells his son that he has been wandering so long that all the islands look the same. The monotony of his journey has numbed him and made his eyes sore from staring at the “sea horizons.” The final lines of this section show an intimate emotional side of Odysseus that is not shared in the epic poem.
He tells his son that he,
…can’t remember how the war came out;
even how old you are– I can’t remember.
It is as if his life previous to this return journey has been almost entirely erased. The trauma and brutal day to day sailing have changed Odysseus for the worse.
Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong.
Only the gods know if we’ll see each other
But maybe you was right; away from me
you are quite safe frmo all Oedipal passions,
and your dreams, my Telemachus, are blameless.
In the final stanza, Odysseus looks to the future by bidding his son farewell. He predicts that he will not be able to make it home and so as a way of saying goodbye he has crafted this narrative. He tells his son to “Grow up…grow strong.” He hopes that he will become a strong man and does not know if the gods will permit them to be together once more,
Only the gods know if we’ll see each other
Odysseus knows that his son does not need him now as much as he once did when he was “that babe / before whom I reined the plowing bullocks.” This line refers to the attempt Odysseus made to escape his enlistment in the Trojan War. He did not want to follow Agamemnon into battle and hoped to make the Greeks think that he was insane. When the Greeks came to fetch him for battle he was plowing his field ceaselessly. Telemachus, only a small child at the time, was tossed by another soldier, Palamedes, into the field in front of him, forcing Odysseus to stop plowing and reveal his ploy.
If he had not done this, Odysseus knows that they would all still be together. In an attempt to find a silver lining, or some purpose to all the loss he has seen, he states that maybe it was for the best they were separated. This has allowed Telemachus to grow into any kind of man he wanted to be, and dream “blameless” dreams of freedom.
About Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky was born in Leningrad, Russia in May of 1940. He grew up in the city, which is now known as St. Petersburg. Both of his parents were employed, his father as a member of the Soviet Navy, from which he had to retire due to his Jewish heritage, and his mother as a bookkeeper. This same Jewish heritage caused Brodsky to struggle in school. He was looked down on by his peers and teachers. He would leave school at the age of 15.
His education did not stop though, he continued to study on his own and taught himself Polish so he could read Polish literary works in their original form. He first began to write poetry in the 1950s and throughout the following two decades he struggled to find work and was often troubled by the government and media.
In 1964, Brodsky was put on trial by the Soviet government for “social parasitism;” he was sentenced to five years’ hard labor. He was eventually released after a successful campaign by Soviet and Western artists and writers. It was soon after his release that he began to publish works abroad. His first volume of Russian language poems was released in 1965; it was quickly followed by the English translation.
Throughout his literary life, he published a number of other collections of poems as well as volumes of essays. In 1986 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The time that he spent at the labor camp never fully left him and he suffered from heart problems all his life. He died in 1996 from heart disease.