Odysseus to Telemachus

Joseph Brodsky

‘Odysseus to Telemachus’ by Joseph Brodsky is told from the perspective of the epic hero, Odysseus, while he is stranded on Circe’s island. 

Joseph Brodsky

Nationality: American, Russian

Joseph Brodsky was a Russian-American poet.

He was persecuted in the Soviet Union and lauded as an important writer in the west.

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: It's hard for fathers to be separated from their homes and children.

Themes: Dreams, Love, War

Speaker: Odysseus

Emotions Evoked: Missing Someone, Sadness

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

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. 

Odysseus to Telemachus by Joseph Brodsky



Odysseus to Telemachus‘ by Joseph Brodsky is told from the perspective of the epic hero, Odysseus while he is stranded on Circe’s island.

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

Stanza One

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. 


Stanza Two

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. 


Stanza Three

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. 

Poetry+ Review Corner

Odysseus to Telemachus

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Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky's poetry, including this poem, reflects his profound ability to capture the essence of human experiences and emotions in a concise and evocative manner. As a prominent figure in 20th-century poetry, his works delve into the complexities of life, history, and personal relationships. This specific poem also skillfully engages with mythology. This poem is one of his best and is well-loved by readers around the world.
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20th Century

This is a 20th century poem by a well-known poet of the period. Brodsky's poem reflects the evolving themes and styles of the era, exploring the human condition, history, and personal connections in a way that is still highly relatable today.
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Brodsky's experiences as an American poet bring a cross-cultural influence to his work, bridging the gap between Russian and American poetic traditions. His exploration of universal themes through the lens of diverse cultural perspectives adds a layer of richness and complexity to his poetry, making it resonate with readers from various backgrounds.
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Brodsky's contribution to Russian poetry is significant, as his works carry on the rich tradition of Russian literary giants. Influenced by the likes of Pushkin, Akhmatova, and Pasternak, Brodsky adds his own unique voice, blending intellectual depth, emotional intensity, and a keen awareness of the historical and cultural context of Russian poetry.
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Dreams serve as a backdrop in the poem, representing a realm of longing, disorientation, and emotional exploration, providing insight into the subconscious desires and struggles of the narrator. The speaker longs to get home and spends a great deal of time thinking about it.
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Love, in this poem, is expressed through the yearning and longing of Odysseus for his son, Telemachus, showcasing the depth of a father's affection and the ache of separation. The poet alludes to all the struggles that Odysseus endures in an effort to get home to his family.
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The poem alludes to the aftermath of war, conveying the disorienting and traumatic experiences of conflict, highlighting the sorrow and loss left in its wake. Specifically, the poet alludes to the Trojan War and Odysseus' attempts to get home.
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Missing Someone

The poem embodies the poignant sentiment of missing someone, as the narrator yearns for their son and the possibility of reunion. It explores the universal experience of longing for a loved one who is physically distant, emphasizing the ache and emotional impact of separation, as well as the hope for future connection.
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The poem carries a sense of sadness as Odysseus reflects on his long and arduous journey, expressing his weariness, disorientation, and longing for home and loved ones. There is still a long way to go and Odysseus is somewhat overwhelmed by this thought.
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The poem delves into the complexities of fatherhood, portraying the narrator's love, concern, and longing for their son. It explores the bond between a father and child, the sense of responsibility, and the longing to protect and guide one's offspring, emphasizing the enduring power of familial connections and the emotional weight of parenthood.
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History is intertwined within the poem as the narrator reflects on the aftermath of the Trojan War. The references to historical events add depth and context to the narrative, highlighting the cyclical nature of human experiences and the enduring impact of past events on the present.
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Islands symbolize a sense of isolation, longing, and the quest for home. The depiction of islands as similar and interchangeable reflects the narrator's disorientation and longing for a specific place, while also evoking a universal sense of searching and the desire for stability amidst the vastness of the sea.
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Mythological references imbue the poem with a sense of timeless grandeur and metaphorical resonance. Drawing upon ancient Greek mythology, the poem explores themes of heroism, fate, and the influence of the gods, weaving these mythic elements into the narrative to illuminate the human struggles and desires at play.
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Free Verse

Written in free verse, the poem allows Brodsky to experiment with form and structure, enabling a natural flow and rhythm that enhances the emotional resonance of the words. The absence of strict rhyme or meter gives the poem a sense of spontaneity and authenticity, allowing the thoughts and emotions to unfold in a fluid and unrestricted manner.
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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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