A just expectation of life may include an expectation of moments that seem mysterious gifts from we know not where. These need not be full-scale epiphanies or blasts of revelation. As instances of what I mean, I may mention two incidents in my own life that were not hard to explain, in a way, but were at the same time teasing implications far from ordinary. Both occurred during the several years when I worked at putting Homer’s Odyssey into English verse. After I had lived with the poem for some time, I felt closely involved not only with Odysseus but with his patroness, the great goddess Athena, who now and then appeared to him in human guise to put heart into him in time of need. Once even appeared as a little girl with braided hair. Then, one October, I had a chance to visit Greece for the first time, for a week or so. Thirty years ago smog was not yet a problem in Attica. On the contrary, the tawny land, the brilliant sun, and limpid air at once seemed to me a divine brew, a medium from which a god might step at any moment.
While in Athens, I took it into my head to fly over to Crete for a night and see the reconstructed Minoan palace at Knossos. The flight in the late afternoon, at no great altitude, took me over the lovely islands of the Cyclades, their beaches like gold foil in the late sunlight. A fine three-masted schooner was moored in the round little port of Melos. At Heraklion, I found a room in a small hotel. I did not, and do not, understand modern Greek. They had no English at this hotel, so I had to get by in my poor French. I managed to have some dinner and then wandered out into the streets of Heraklion, where I felt more and more grievously that peculiar loneliness that comes of not knowing a soul and not speaking or understanding the local language. I found myself at last halted in front of a shoe shop, looking at the display, very disconsolate, when a voice said, “Good evening, sir!”
What a joy! My heart leaped with pleasure. I looked up and saw a little girl, eleven or twelve, with long pigtails, standing in the doorway and smiling. “Good evening to you!” said I. “How good it is to hear someone speak English! What’s your name?” And she said: “Oh, I’m Athena.”
Well. Of course, it turned out that she had grown up in Camden, New Jersey, and had come over to help her grandmother run the shop, and had thought me an American because of my suit, and so on—all perfectly plausible. But did not the goddess always have a good story too? That girl didn’t say her name was Athena—she said she was Athena. Just a few minutes of talk with her put heart into me again.
The second incident occurred some years later when I was engaged on the second part of The Odyssey, which is set, you remember, on Odysseus’ home island of Ithaca. I had contrived another brief visit to Greece in late July and decided to return to Italy by steamer from Piraeus, stopping over at Ithaca on the way. I stayed at a tiny hotel on the quay of the port of Vathi, run by a man who had worked for several years at one of the Horn & Hardart automats in New York. He introduced me to the mayor, with whom I got along in French, and the mayor produced an interpreter for me in the person of a fifteen year old boy who had grown up in South Africa. On the first day, I visited the frame house where the Ithacans carefully kept things from the British archeological digs before the war. Some of these votive offerings showed that during the classical centuries there had been on the island a cult of Odysseus as a demi-god. I had to think that over on the next day. On that day we took one of the decrepit Ithacan taxis to go up the island to the little cove where they say the Phaiakians put Odysseus ashore in his sleep. Here, near the water, there was a grove of tall eucalyptus trees with cicadas going like mad in the late July heat, and under the trees a few rickety tables at which some old locals sat in their shirtsleeves drinking soda pop. I walked up the shore a bit to take in the scene and then walked back toward the taxi. As I came abreast of the eucalyptus trees, one old fellow got up and shuffled toward me. He stopped and spoke in perfect English, Oxonian English. It might have been the voice of Sir Maurice Bowra. He said: “You know, we say that he never died. We say that he still turns up now and then, looking like a soldier or a sea captain… or… just a stranger.” He paused and looked serenely at me. And there in the burning sun I shivered from head to foot. I could not say a word. I bowed my head and walked on.
Just a coincidence, of course—that an old Ithacan capable of saying that to me in my language, without any preamble, should have been there on that particular afternoon when for the only time in my life I came to that spot, and came from years of companionship, almost of identification, with the hero whom he didn’t have to name… But that is how the gods used to appear to mortals out of the radiant Aegean air, or how the messengers of heaven appeared to men in another mythical landscape, and can we be so sure that these were dreams or fantasies? As I began with an outward glance at the larger world, let me conclude with a sentence by William James cautioning against presumption in our view of it. James said: “We may be in the universe as dogs and cats are in our libraries, seeing the books and hearing the conversation, but having no inkling of the meaning of it all.” Openness of expectation, at any rate, we can encourage in ourselves and in one another, so that the mysterious gifts of experience, strange exhilarations and wonders, gifts from we know not where, will not be lost on us.
This essay is an excerpt from his commencement address presented at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland, May, 1984.
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The featured image is “Athena appearing to Odysseus to reveal the Island of Ithaca” by Giuseppe Bottani (1717–1784) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.