The Poetry of Ellin Anderson

CIRCE AND ULYSSES

By John Gower (1330
1408)
The Poet Who Inspired Shakespeare

Modern English Version
by Richard Brodie and Ellin Anderson
 

Among the men found at Troy’s siege,
Ulysses, that great lord and liege,
Was one who bore a special name,
Of whom the memory and fame
Abides, for while our mouths intone,
Forever shall his name be known.
He was a worthy knight and king,
A scholar who knew everything;
And he was great at rhetoric,
At spells, and every magic trick;
As eloquent as Tullius,
Like Zoroaster, a Magus;
He knew the stars like Ptolemy,
And Plato’s wise philosophy;
Like Daniel, he deciphered dreams,
Like Neptune, sailed the ocean streams,
Of Solomon, wise proverbs knew,
Of Macer, every herb that grew;
The physick of Hippocrates,
And Pythagoras’ remedies
And surgery he knew, and cures.
But something of his adventures
With which my theme is in accord,
For you, my Son, I will record.
This king, of whom you’ve heard me tell,
Went home to Troy, where he did dwell,
By ship, and found the seas diverse,
With storms that put him in reverse.
But through wise deeds Ulysses shaped,
Full many great perils he escaped,
Of which I think to tell you now:
Despite his compass working, how
Wind-driven he was, suddenly
Upon the strands of Sicily,
Where he was forced to stay a while.
Two queens were living on that isle:
Calypso one was named, and Circe.
Hearing he was at their mercy,
Landed on their shores so white,
They sent for him, quick as they might.
And then, with such as he would name,
Unto their court Ulysses came.
These queens were like two goddesses
Of magic, each a sorceress,
So that whomever they’d engage,
They’d make him love with such mad rage,
And with their spells assault him so,
That they would have, before he’d go,
All that he had of worldly good.
Ulysses this well understood;
While they knew much, he knew far more;
They shaped and cast their spells full sore,
And wrought full many a subtle wile,
Yet him they never could beguile.
But of the men of his navy,
They transformed a great company,
For none withstood these queens’ behests.
Some were shaped into beasts, these guests,
Some were reshapen into fowls,
And bears and tigers, apes and owls,
Or else bewitched some other way:
So that no man could disobey;
Such craft they had, above our kind.
But still, no magic could they find
By which Ulysses was deceived;
Each one was of her might relieved.
He brought them into such a rout,
That on him they both laid their clout,
And through the science of his art,
So well he took of them his part,
That he made Circe great with child.
He stayed quite sober, made them wild,
And set himself so far above
Those two, that with their goods and love
And no regrets – like him or not –
Away into his ship he got.
With Circe swollen on both sides,
He left, and waited for the tides,
And sailing through the salty foam,
He set a course that took him home,
Where he would find Penelope:
A better wife there could not be,
Although enough of them are good.
But she, who goodness understood,
Since first her wifely vows she took:
How many lovers she forsook,
And how she barred herself about
At home, that time her lord was out;
He might well make the greatest boast,
Among the remnant of that host,
That she was overall the best.
Well might he set his heart at rest,
This king, who found her pure and whole;
What he knew, as to wisdom’s role,
So she knew, as to womanhood.
And when she saw Ulysses stood
Once more upon his native ground,
That he had come home, safe and sound,
In all this world, there might not be
More glad a woman than was she.
This news, which no man there could hide,
Throughout the land spread far and wide:
Their king had come back home again;
No man might to the full explain
To what degree it made them glad,
And how much joy in him they had.
New presents would each day begin,
With gifts, Ulysses was snowed in.
So glad of him were people made,
Though no one this decree had bade,
Taxation on themselves they set,
And, as if purely out of debt,
They gave their own goods to the king:
This was a joyous homecoming.
And so Ulysses had it good:
A wife who acted as she should,
His people’s loyalty, as his right,
So that he lacked for no delight.
But Fortune’s cunning is so sly,
When on her wheel a man rides high,
She’ll rashly make him take a fall:
There’s no one can foresee it all.
Events that hang above our heads
Are hanging by the thinnest threads;
Upon Ulysses this was proved,
For when he was at peace, there moved
Dame Fortune, come to make her point,
And put his fortunes out of joint.
On a day he was so merry
That no harm might make him wary,
When night came, he went to bed,
With sleep, his tired eyes he fed,
And while he slept, he had a dream:
He thought he saw a figure gleam
That shone more brightly than the sun;
A man it seemed, though it was none,
And yet it was, as to its figure,
Very like a mannish creature,
But of beauty heavenly,
Most like an angel for to see:
And thus, between angel and man.
As he beheld it, he began
To take such rapture at the sight
That fain he would, if so he might,
That figure’s form rush to embrace;
And he went forth towards the place
Where he had seen the image there,
And took it in his two arms, where
It could embrace him the same way,
And to the king, this it did say:
“Ulysses, understand me thus:
This meeting’s token is, for us,
Hereafter, but the greatest grief:
The love between us two is brief,
Of which we now such joy do make:
But one of us cruel death shall take
When Time fulfills our destiny;
No other outcome can there be.”
Ulysses then began to pray
The figure would go on to say
What man it was that told him so.
Upon a spear, the wight did show
A pennant that was finely sewn,
Embroidered, as was further shown:
Three fishes of one color, bright
As flags flown from a tower’s height
Upon the pennant there were wrought.
Ulysses knew this token not,
And prayed to know, at least in part,
What it might signify at heart.
“It is a sign,” the wight replied,
“Of a far empire.” Forth he hied
All suddenly, when this he spake.
Ulysses started bolt awake,
And that was right about at day;
No longer sleeping could he stay.
Man’s knowledge may hold glimmerings
Save of himself, among all things;
His own fate he may never know,
Save hints that Fortune deigns to throw.
There never was so wise a clerk
That he might know of all God’s work;
And with the secrets God has set
Against man, none’s prevailed as yet.
Ulysses, though he was so wise,
With all that wisdom might advise,
The more he reckoned what he’s dreamed,
The less it added up, it seemed.
And so, for all his calculation,
He could see no demonstration
Plainly for to know an end,
But howsoever things might wend,
It gave him dread of his own son,
A thought that simply served to stun;
He made his plans thereby, withal,
So that within a castle wall
Telemachus his son he’d get,
And on him mighty guards he’d set.
The further truth, he never knew,
That man whom Fortune overthrew.
But for his safety, nonetheless,
Where he had sought to know, or guess,
What place was safest in the land,
There, he had made, of lime and sand,
A stronghold wherein he would dwell;
No man has ever yet heard tell
Of such another as it was.
And then to strengthen it, he does
Of all his land, the trustiest
Of servants, and the worthiest,
Command, to watch the castle yard,
And keep his body under guard;
And then he made an ordinance,
That not for love, nor acquaintance,
If it was early, or was late,
Should they let enter through the gate
No form of man, whatso betide,
Which he alone might override.
But this was all to no avail;
With those whom Fortune will assail,
There may no such resistance stand
That might make their defenses, and
All that shall be, befalls by fate.
Circe, of whom I spoke, of late,
On whom Ulysses did beget
A child, though this he did forget,
When the time came, as often done,
She was delivered of a son,
Called by the name Telegonus.
The child who had been born was thus
Raised by his mother, to the age
When he could reason like a sage,
And was of good estate, from birth,
Well bred, and of sufficient worth
That he could stand in manhood’s stead.
Circe his mother often said
That he should to his father go,
And told him all that he should know:
What man it was that him begat.
And when Telegonus of that
Was told, and had full reckoning
Of how his father was a king,
He prayed she would accomplish his
Wish to go where his father is,
And so she granted that he would,
And made him ready so he could.
It was the custom in that day
When any man should make his way
To some strange place, he’d take in hand
An emblem of his native land;
And thus was every man therefore
Well known, wherever this he bore;
Because of spying and mistrust
They did such things then, as they must,
That every man might others know.
As things befell, it happened so
Likewise, unto Telegonus;
His country’s sign, presented thus:
Three fishes, carried without fear
Upon the pennant of a spear.
When he was suitably arrayed,
In armor, brilliantly displayed,
Then he was ready as could be;
His mother bid farewell, and she
Said hasten, and, as in old rhymes,
His father greet a thousand times.
Telegonus did kiss her, too,
And took his leave, and where he knew
His father was, found that road’s name,
Until to Ithaca he came,
Which of that land the chief city
Was called, and when he reached it he
Asked where the King was, and some word
Of how he did; the truth he heard:
Where dwelt Ulysses, in what place.
Alone on horseback, at great pace
Of speed he rode, and in his hand,
He bore the sigil of his land
With fishes three, as I have told.
And thus he went to that stronghold
In which his father chose to dwell.
His cause for coming, he did tell
Unto the keepers of the gate.
He would have come in past the grate
But curtly they did say him nay:
Yet he spoke fair, as best he may,
Beseeched and told them often, how
His father was the king, but now
With proud words they confronted him,
And threats that menaced life and limb;
But he got through the gate so fast,
Their web of chains was never cast.
From words they came to blows, and thus
Blows fell, so that Telegonus
Was sorely hurt and well nigh dead;
But he, with his own spear’s sharp head
Defended, howso it might fall,
And gained the gate against them all,
And slew the five best of these foes;
And from the rest, a cry arose
Through all the castle, round about.
On every side, more men came out,
Which caused the king’s heart to take flight,
And he, with all the haste he might
Caught up a spear, and out he went,
Near mad with rage, his mind was rent.
He saw the gates, with blood besmeared,
Telegonus, where he appeared,
He did see also, but he knew
Not who he was, and at him threw
His spear, and made him jump aside.
But destiny did woe betide,
And made it at the same time so
Telegonus did not then know
What man it was that at him cast
His spear, and his own spear, at last,
With the fish pennant thereupon,
He threw right at the king, anon,
And smote him with a deadly wound.
Ulysses hit the ground, and swooned:
Then every man, “The king! The king!”
Began to cry, and at this thing,
The son knew what had come to pass,
Fell on his knees and cried, “Alas!”
“For I have mine own father slain;
To die myself now, I would fain.
Now slay me, anyone who will,
For certainly, it’s worth your skill.”
He cried, he wept, and said, forlorn,
“Alas, that ever I was born,
That this unhappy destiny
Should come so woefully through me.”
The king, though scarce alive, it’s true,
His heart again to him he drew,
And to that voice an ear he lent,
And understood all that was meant.
And so he spoke, and said with awe,
“Bring me this man.” And when he saw
Telegonus, his thought he set
On he whom in a dream he’d met,
And asked him if he might then see
His spear, on which the fishes three
He saw upon its pennant wrought.
He knew the dream had failed him not,
And prayed to know some part of why,
And what thing it might signify.
Telegonus, with woe full sore,
As best he might, told more and more
Unto Ulysses: thus he does
Tell how Circe his mother was,
And so on; told him all those things,
How that his mother sent greetings,
And for what purpose he was sent.
Ulysses then knew what it meant,
And hugged his son, which made hearts soften;
Through the blood, he kissed him often,
And he said, “Son, as I live,
This sad misfortune I forgive.”
And for his other son, in haste,
He sent, and to him this son raced,
And came unto his father’s sight.
But seeing him in such a plight,
He would have run upon the other,
Swiftly slaying his own brother.
Yet Ulysses bade him cease,
Between them made accord and peace,
And to his heir Telemachus,
He bade that he Telegonus
With all his power, close should keep,
Till he was of his wounds so deep
Made whole, and that to him he’d give
Some land, whereupon he might live.
Telemachus, when this he heard,
Unto his father then deferred,
And said that he would do his will.
And so they dwell together still,
These brethren, and the father died.
Lo, what did sorcery provide?
Through sorcery, his lust he won,
Through sorcery, his woe’s begun,
Through sorcery, his love did choose,
Through Sorcery, his life did lose.
This child was got by Sorcery,
A deed that was a felony,
A thing unnaturally wrought;
Unkindly was this baby bought,
The child that his own father slew:
Unkindnesses enough for two.
And therefore, take you heed of this:
To win love this way is amiss,
Which ended all his joy in woe:
For of this art, I find also
What has been done for love’s own sake
Where you might an example take:
A Chronicle imperial
Which ever a memorial
Among all men, howso it wend,
Shall dwell until the world’s at end.

NECTANEBUS

 

© 2010 by Ellin Anderson. All rights reserved.
No part of this work may be copied or used in any way
without written permission from the author.

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Seabrook
Tiger and Blue Jewel

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Maple-Key Song
November in Camelot

Wassail Song
Veleda
Cinderella
The Rooster at Midsummer
Liberty Enlightens the People

The Leap
The Goldfinch
Three Bears
Song of the Lily
White Tree at Twilight
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Song-Sparrow
Grand Bois du Nord
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Pear-Petals
Photographing the Moon
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Rose, Do You Know
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Lorelei
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Ghost Cardinal

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