A new perspective on a story can change everything. In “Circe’s Grief,” poet Louise Gluck has Circe speak, replacing not only Odysseus as a narrator, but as the filter through which the events on Circe’s island are viewed. By changing the perspective of the story, Gluck changes who is evil and who is a hero.
Odysseus’ tells his own story in the Odyssey, and impresses his hosts the Phaeacians. His travels are told through the lens of a hero and adventurer, not as a husband and father. Odysseus is looking to impress the Phaeacians, and perhaps get some gifts along with a ride home. He begins his tale by boasting: “I am Odysseus, great Laertes’ son, / Known for my cunning throughout the world, / and my fame reaches even to heaven” (IX, 21-23). The stories that follow, the Cyclopes, Aeolus’ winds, the Laestrygonians, all make Odysseus seem like a smart, noble leader. His verison of what happens on Circe's island also makes him look good.
Odysseus’ version of the story portrays Circe as the typical female villain: beautiful, but deceitful and sensual. The reader’s first impression of Circe is the vision of her house: “It was built of polished stone / And surrounded by mountain lions and wolves, / Creatures Circe had drugged and bewitched” (X, 226-228). This vision of savagery depicts Circe as mysterious and dangerous to a culture that is agricultural and herded goats. This savagery is followed by trickery when she feeds Odysseus’ men wine with “insidious drugs” (X, 253) that turn them into pigs.
This version of Circe portrays her as deceitful, while Odysseus was infallable and blessed by the gods. Not only does Odysseus get his herbal immunisation from Hermes to foil Circe's plan, he shows his concern for his crew by allowing Eurylochus to stay at the ship while he went with his “silver-studded sword” (X, 281) to save his naïve men.
The most important part of Odysseus’ story is his excuse for sleeping with Circe after threatening her life. Odysseus was not the creator of this idea, but Hermes, who allowed him to thwart her potion with an herb. Hermes warned Odysseus: “rush at her with murder in her eye. / She’ll be afraid and invite you to bed. / Don’t turn her down- that’s how you’ll get / your comrades free and yourself well loved” (X, 316-319). With this part of the story, Odysseus has the perfect alibi: not only does he have a reason for cheating on his wife, but he can impress the Phaeacians by telling them he slept with a beautiful goddess. Odysseus fails to mention this to Penelope, however, and gets away with it. Homer defends his hero by paralleling his story to Helen's who "Would have never slept with a foreigner had she known / The Greeks would go to war to bring her back home. / It was a god who drove her to that dreadful act," (XXIII, 227-229). Since Helen was forced to have sex with Paris by a god, and Menelaos too her back as his wife, it must be okay for Odysseus to have slept with Circe, since Hermes told him to and it was to save his crew.
“Circe’s Grief” changes the perspective of the same story, but adds one plot twist: Circe tells Penelope that she slept with Odysseus. With this telling of the story, Circe has all the power, and Odysseus is the one who loses in the end.
Gluck opens the poem by reminding the reader that Circe is a goddess, not just a deceitful witch: “In the end, I made myself / Known to you wife as / A God would” (1-3). This reminder that Circe is a goddess, and therefore has incredible powers, immediately puts Odysseus’ version of the story into question. If Circe could simply appear to Penelope whenever she wants, how could Odysseus threaten her with a man-made sword? Gluck ends by reasserting that power: “This is how a God says goodbye: / If I am in her head forever, / I am in your life forever” (14-16). Though Odysseus got off the island, he can never forget Circe, because his wife will never forget that Odysseus cheated on her. This different perspective reminds the reader just how powerful the Greek gods were, and how pathetic Odysseus must have been in comparison, no matter how strong and wise.
Gluck points out Odyseus' glaring omission, and creates a more realistic senario. Since Odysseus not only cheated on his wife, but upset a goddess, it makes sense that trouble would ensue from his actions. After all, Poseidon cursed Odysseus to a life at sea after he blinded the Cyclops. Why should an angry Circe not get her revenge as well? Gluck allows Circe to enact her revenge by having her tell Penelope the true story of what happened on her island.
It is not important that the readers never hear what really happened on Circe’s island; it’s Penelope’s reaction that’s important: “she / Paused in her weaving, her head turning / First to the right, then left / Though it was hopeless of course / To trace that sound to any / Objective source: I doubt / She will return to her loom / With what she knows now” (5-12). Penelope is devastated, so she gives up her only defense against her suitors: her weaving. The readers are never told when Circe gives the true story to Penelope, but either way the effects are devastating. If Odysseus is already home, then Penelope knows Odysseus lied to her, and their marriage is ruined. If Odysseus is still trying to make his way him, Penelope gives up her weaving and remarries one of the suitors, handing over Odysseus’ kingdom.
Gluck’s version of this tale has important ramifications. Not only does it point out the glaring flaws in Odysseus’ story, it reminds us of the real moral ramifications of him sleeping with Circe, a part of the Odyssey most readers ignore because of who is telling the story. The Odyssey is told primarily through Odysseus’ eyes, and therefore the entire story is colored by his morality and the important points he wants to impress on the reader. Gluck reminds us to step back from a narrative and not just analyze what happened, but what effect the narrator has on the heroes and villains in the story.
Odyssey. Homer. Trans. Stanley Lombardo. New York: Hackett, 2000.
“Circe’s Grief.” Louise Gluck. http://www.poemhunter.com/p/m/poem.asp?poet=38566&poem=476838.