Bereft was written after Ulysses, by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. And I mean “after” in two ways: “after” meaning “in the mode or manner of” (i.e., iambic pentameter, but in Penelope’s voice instead of Ulysses’) – and “after” meaning I imagined this poem occurring after Ulysses left again in the Tennyson poem – but that he died on that last voyage and she has just received the news of his death.
In this poem, upon hearing that news, Penelope goes through the stages of grief, after the Kübler-Ross model – with the inclusion of shock. The stanzas/verses each represent a stage of grief, though they aren’t named for them – the names of the stages of grief are in brackets (such as “[Shock]”) for reference.
Ulysses was gone originally for 20 years. His wife, Penelope, held off the suitors who were trying to woo her during the events of The Odyssey by weaving a burial shroud for Ulysses’ father, Laertes. Every night for several years she picked out the weaving. Melatho, a servant in the home, eventually betrayed Penelope’s trick. Ulysses returns home, and they have a few years together – but Tennyson imagines him leaving again. In this poem, Bereft, Penelope shows her shock of hearing that he died on this last voyage – that he will not be returning home this time – by pointing to the burial shroud she never finished, but had worked on for so many years, and saying “I cannot bear another.”
And because she cannot bear another, denial sets in. She insists he will in fact return, just as he did before, when she was surrounded by uncouth suitors. She recalls those suitors calling her “Weft face,” which references this point from wikipedia:
In folk etymology, Pēnelopē (Πηνελόπη) is usually understood to combine the Greek word pēnē (πήνη), “weft”, and ōps (ὤψ), “face”, which is considered the most appropriate for a cunning weaver whose motivation is hard to decipher.
Her weaving is referenced in most stanzas/verses in this poem. Here, she recollects unpicking that burial shroud night after night, waiting his return – and him finally returning and bringing vengeance. Then she recalls the olive tree. One of my favorite images in literature is of the marriage bed of Ulysses and Penelope – with one post carved or cut from a mature, planted olive tree, left rooted in the ground in their home, which was built around it. In fact, Ulysses finally reveals himself in his original homecoming in The Odyssey, when Penelope asks to have the bed moved for him (when he was in disguise) – and he ‘flips out’ because their bed can’t be moved – and she and he are the only two people who know it.
She insists that she will continue to keep the hearth, as she did for 20 years in his prior absence, despite having heard of his death. But her denial gives way to anger.
Several phrases are quoted in this stanza/verse that she recalls hearing Ulysses say – these phrases are from Tennyson: “Aged wife,” “to seek to find,” “the western baths,” “the siren song,” and ultimately “how dull to pause.” This poem, Bereft, imagines her recalling him saying these words, and growing angry at the memory. Angry that he would leave again after finally coming home after 20 years. Angry that he wouldn’t think that she also would like to go with him to see all that he had seen. Angry that he would find her dull and aged, when she had faithfully waited. Angry at her station in the world of the day. Knowing that they were not equally matched. And she realizes that though he had carelessly said “how dull to pause,” that at least he had been candid. And she says, in anger, “I am your equal. You were never mine.”
“Homophrosyne” is a Greek word that means “of one mind” or “of the same mind.” Penelope and Ulysses have been described as sharing this in their marriage. She says here in anger – “Homophrosyne? Had you known me you could not have left again.”
Here in this verse/stanza, Penelope wishes for the chance she will never have: to say farewell to her husband one last time. This is the stanza that most breaks the generally regular meter of the rest of the poem: the first three lines, which talk about breaking and being overrun, disrupt the meter. Penelope tries to bargain with Athena, who set events in motion in The Odyssey with the suitors, as described in Wikipedia:
But because Athena wants her “to show herself to the wooers, that she might set their hearts a-flutter and win greater honor from her husband and her son than heretofore”, Penelope does eventually appear before the suitors (xviii.160–162).
And she mentions the strings of Fate in her bargaining – asking them to be pulled for her. She, as Penelope, “weft face,” the weaver – knows thread, knows fraying, and knows she is already asking too much – but hopes for at least this in the bargain.
Of course, it is not to be. This verse/stanza is the most potent to me. She waited 20 years for Ulysses to return originally. Then he quickly left again (as imagined in Tennyson’s Ulysses) and died (as imagined in Bereft), robbing to some extent in her grief, her sacrifice and fidelity of its end: their marriage and their life together that they might have had. She says here that the weaving has gone fundamentally wrong – the fiber of the warp has lost its tension. What was the meaning of any of it? It’s not just the future that is wrecked, but the past – the 20 years of waiting were broken. She sees meaning destroyed both forwards and backwards. I know I wrote it, but that couplet shakes me and makes me sad: “With each element recast, not just the future broken, but the past.” I really feel for this character here when trying to think with her voice and imagine her.
I wrote another poem, Inquest, before I wrote Bereft. I am currently still hoping to have that other poem accepted for publication. In that poem I wrote in Ulysses’ voice – and Inquest imagines him wrongly condemned to death and wishing he hadn’t left home that last time. Inquest starts with the phrase, from Tennyson’s Ulysses, “That which we are, we are.” This poem, Bereft, is set in motion by the events of Inquest, and ends with a telling version of that line: “That which I am, I am.” Penelope has learned much about herself through her life. She knows her mettle.
She is strong. She can recall Ulysses honestly and even with some warmth, despite his perhaps childish departure, chasing one last sunset. She is proud of their son. But she knows that she has tremendous strength in herself. She knows that she is powerfully forged.
One last word about Tennyson’s Ulysses. I used to love that poem – who in high school or college didn’t? That whole “striving, seeking, and not yielding” thing was pretty potent stuff to a young mind.
As I got older, I came to see the Ulysses of that poem as adolescent. He comes home after being gone 20 years and basically says, “I’m bored. My wife is old. Things are slow. Remember those good old days? Come on, men! Let’s ride!” As a husband and father at a different stage of life than when I first read Ulysses, I just can’t sympathize with that the way I used to. I remember reading once of two kinds of heroes or two kinds of stories – about the adolescent heroes who ride off in the sunset, alone – and the mature heroes who settle into communities and build. As much as Heidi and I might sometimes want to go find somewhere remote, we keep coming back to community – choosing to build.
The original review received from The Esthetic Apostle.