August 2007

Arts & Letters

The nymph Calypso

By Clive James

Planning to leave Calypso in the lurch,

Odysseus snuck off to build a ship.

He found the right-shaped boughs of larch or birch

Or spruce, for all I know, from which to strip

The bark, and ... but the details we can skip.

I won't pretend that I've done much research.

He had to build a ship and he knew how.

Just how he did it hardly matters now:


Enough to say he juggled rib and spar.

Calypso came to him and said, "I see

That duty calls. Will you be going far?

You wouldn't have your mind on leaving me,

By any chance? Forget the trickery

For once, and if you're following your star

Just say so. Circe lured you with a song.

At least I wasn't stringing you along."


"It's time," he said. "I'm an adventurer.

I sail in search of things. It's what I do.

I'd heard about how beautiful you were,

So lovely that I came in search of you.

But now I know you and need something new

To challenge me." He wryly smiled at her

To show he knew he sounded like a ham.

"You wanted me. Well, this is what I am."


"All very well," Calypso said, "but I

Have an investment here. You had to quit

Sometime, and I gave you a reason why.

Old studs like you need youth to love. I'm it.

I'm always eager, and you're still quite fit:

A last adventure to light up the sky.

I'll tell my tale forever, don't forget:

The greatest lover that I ever met."


Odysseus could see the point, but still

He stood his ground, a man of destiny

Proclaiming his ungovernable will

To follow the unknown out to the sea

Beyond the sea, and solve the mystery

Of where the world went next, and not until

He had would he find rest. Calypso said,

"No wonder that you turned up here half dead."


That night the two of them made love again.

She slapped herself against him when she came

The way she always did, but even then

She let him know she knew things weren't the same.

She cried out his polysyllabic name -

Something she'd never done for other men -

As if, this time, he was no longer there.

But though she flattered him with her despair,


Already he had made the break. His mind

Was elsewhere, on a course she could not guess.

She thought her hero had new worlds to find

Out on the edge of the blue wilderness,

But he had lied, to cause her less distress.

We needn't think of him as being kind:

He simply knew the truth would drive her mad

And make her fight with everything she had.


After he left, she let the world believe

She'd given him the boat: a likely tale

That Homer swallowed whole. Keen to deceive

Even herself, for no nymph likes to fail -

The Miss World of the Early Age of Sail

Had never yet known such a cause to grieve -

She spread the story that he'd only gone

Because she told him legends must go on.


But he was going home. There, in the end,

Lay the departure point for his last quest.

Age was a wound that time indeed would mend

But only one way, with a long, long rest.

For that, familiar territory is best.

As for Penelope, he could depend

On her care for the time he had to live.

Calypso wanted more than he could give,


And it was time to take, time to accept

The quiet bounty of domestic peace.

After he killed the suitors who had kept

His wife glued to the loom, she spread the fleece

Of their first blanket and they found release

Together as they once had. Though she wept

For their lost years, she gave him her embrace,

And he looked down into her ageing face


And saw Calypso. What the nymph would be,

Given the gift of time, was there made plain,

Yet still more beautiful. Penelope,

Because she knew that we grow old in pain

And learn to laugh or else we go insane,

Had life unknown to immortality,

Which never gets the point. "Well, quite the boy,"

She murmured. "And now tell me about Troy."


Later the poets said he met his fate

In the Atlantic, or perhaps he went

Around the Horn and reached the Golden Gate.

Space vehicles named after him were sent

Into infinity. His testament,

However, and what truly made him great,

Was in the untold story of the day

He died, and, more or less, had this to say:


"Penelope, in case you ever hear

The nymph Calypso loved me, it was so:

And she tried everything to keep me near

But finally she had to let me go

Because she knew I loved you. Now you know,

And I can move on, having made that clear."

And so he did, while she knelt by his side,

Not knowing, as he sailed on the last tide,


That just this once he almost hadn't lied.

Clive James

Clive James was an author, critic, broadcaster and poet. He wrote more than 20 books, including his memoir, The Blaze of Obscurity, and a collection of essays, The Revolt of the Pendulum.

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