This piece was written as an entry for a CBC radio call for poetry fragments and the story associated with them. It was read last Sunday morning on the program ‘North by North-West’.
The melancholy Lotos Eaters of Tennyson`s poem (and The Odyssey) were a race of people who used drugs to dull the pain of living rather than feel the pain, (and vivid beauty,) of the kind of life that Odysseus exemplified. As in the times of Homer and Tennyson, the problem of facing reality squarely or fuzzing it over with philosophy or life style is still very much with us.
“Courage!” he said, and pointed to the land.
“This mounting wave will roll us shoreward soon”.
From The Lotos Eaters. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
This bit of poetry has accompanied me since high school . They are the words Tennyson gives to Odysseus when he sights the shores of Africa at dawn after days of drifting across the Mediterranean in a great storm. He calls on his companions to rise up from their despair on the bottom of the galley, take heart and smite the billows once again. It is an extended rowing story.
Less than a month ago this scrap of poetry came to me again as I was rowing my canoe, ‘Tillikum,’ in a circumnavigation of Saltspring Island. I was attempting to cover some eighty kilometers between dawn and dusk, it was now approaching sunset and I still needed three more hours to round the southern shores back to my dawn starting point -Fulford Harbour. As we say in rower`s language, I was plumb tuckered out! I had already gone through my first and second winds and was scraping the barrel for the will to continue.
“Courage”, he said.... This poetry is an old friend that has pulled me onward in difficult times in the past, both in those of extreme physical stress at sea and other hopeless seeming times of personal exhaustion. This time I did have the choice of not completing what was simply a personal challenge, but I could hear Odyssius` familiar words urging me on to higher effort. I felt the pain of my tired self shift to the background as I picked up the pace, stroking onward through sunset, through the afterglow and into the cool light of a half moon. The lights of the ferries twinkled and danced across the channel at Swartz Bay. The dark shadows of Mt. Tuam`s high forested shore enfolded me. I was so glad that I had not given up when tempted because I had now reached my third wind, a special state of mind more of spirit than body alone. I rounded Isabella Point and rowed onward, splashing phosphorescence from my oars, along the dark shores of Fulford Harbour to home.
I had left home that morning planning to accomplish a physical goal and arrived back again having achieved a spiritual one as well. I would guess that too was what the story of Odysseus was really all about.