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Close Reading of Merwin’s Odysseus Essay

The subject in W.S. Merwin’s poem “Odysseus” feels comfortable only at sea, and, because such a notion is atypical, he cannot articulate or understand where his true home actually is. oAt peace at sea: “patience / He has wedded to”

Numerous islands, but “one to call ‘home’,” even though he Merwin never specifies which island Odysseus really calls home  “which … / Was the one he kept sailing home to?” •W.S. Merwin’s speaker in “Odysseus” is concerned about his romantic interests. “Wedded” to his adventures, he experiences a schism when interacting with the women he meets on various islands. o“Put before him, the unraveling patience / He was wedded to” “There were the islands / Each with its woman” Odysseus seems to have a woman on each island, and, not knowing which island is home, seems not to be particularly loyal to any one of them. oIndeed, Odysseus later even says that “The knowledge of all that he betrayed / Grew till it was the same whether he stayed / Or went.” The only constant in his life is, certainly, his oceanic adventure, which, while there may be many, never change noticeably in content.

•A world-weary Odysseus relives his adventures in a repetitive, never-changing cycle, losing sight of the difference between ill-wishers and home. oJaded tone: “always the setting forth was the same,” “he had got nowhere but older,” “identical reproaches,” “it was the same whether he stayed or went” •The speaker in “Odysseus” roams the world, traveling in repetitive circles, hoping to allay the guilt that plagues him for “betray[ing]” so many women. oClaiming that “The knowledge of all that he betrayed / Grew till it was the same whether he stayed / Or went,” Odysseus looks for solace from the guilt he experiences from not staying true to any one woman. oWhile his days are repetitive and unchanging, his adventures are a constant, and Odysseus is able to consider himself “wedded” to that “unraveling patience” he can keep coming back to after days on land.

•While Merwin’s speaker in Odysseus at times is unable to differentiate between those who wish him perils and those who remain remote and true, he continuously sails “home,” even while unable to define where home really is. “What wonder / If sometimes he could not remember / Which was the one who wished on his departure / Perils that he could never sail through, / And which, improbable, remote, and true, / Was the one he kept sailing home to?”

Merwin rhetorically asks the listener to judge whether it really is Odysseus’s fault that he cannot distinguish between his ill-wishers and his home community. oWho is wishing Odysseus perils? Quite possible one of the women to which he was disloyal, and because there have been so many (every island, apparently), he now knows not which women still love him and which do not.

•W.S. Merwin describes in his poem “Odysseus” the rift many experience when separating themselves from their interpretations of the norm. oOdysseus is accustomed to life as a traveler, with no real home on land. He also does not appear to be married to a woman; rather, he claims to be “wedded to” an “unraveling patience.” However, while he is habituated to his daily life, to an outsider, Odysseus lives atypically. oOdysseus recognizes this fissure, but instead of living comfortably without regards to how others perceive him, he questions himself and attempts to shape his world into a way that outsiders would understand.

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