Poems about Odysseus and Achilles

Achilles poems 5

Yesterday’s entry on Madeleine Miller’s Song of Achilles made me think of three of my favourite poems, vaguely related.

Tennyson’s Ulysses
 - speaks of the old warrior deciding what to do with the end of his life:
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
(That’s just the final lines: read the whole poem at the Poetry Foundation here – it’s not too long)

Achilles poems 3

Ithaka by CP Cavafy
-- refers to Odysseus’s voyages: Ithaka was his home:

 As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
 Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars 

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean

(translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

Achilles poems 2

Patrick Shaw-Stewart died in the First World War in 1917 at the age of 29. He stands for all the classically-educated young men, public school officers, who must have thought war would be much more like Homer and less like Gallipoli. The final lines of this poem describe Achilles’s response to Patroclus’s death:
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me
For me it is one of the abiding images of the war, one of the saddest and most memorable. When I first read the poem, many many years ago, I thought he was asking Achilles for encouragement, asking to be cheered on. But he is not. In Homer’s Iliad (Book 18), Achilles’ great love, Patroclus, has been killed by the Trojans. Achilles is devastated:
Fire wreathed round Achilles’ head, like that round burning ships, rising up towards Heaven. He came from the wall to the trench, and stood there and shouted: he cried aloud like a war trumpet, and the Trojans were dumbfounded and thunderstruck. The flames capped his head, and three times he roared and shouted, and three times the Trojans fell back in chaos, overwhelmed.
(translated – very loosely - from the Ancient Greek by me)

Achilles poems

Patrick Shaw-Stewart is asking for someone to mourn him, someone to care passionately if he dies.

I saw a man this morning

by Patrick Shaw-Stewart

I saw a man this morning
Who did not wish to die
I ask, and cannot answer,
If otherwise wish I.
Fair broke the day this morning
Against the Dardanelles;
The breeze blew soft, the morn's cheeks
Were cold as cold sea-shells.
But other shells are waiting
Across the Aegean sea,
Shrapnel and high explosive,
Shells and hells for me.
O hell of ships and cities,
Hell of men like me,
Fatal second Helen,
Why must I follow thee?
Achilles came to Troyland
And I to Chersonese:
He turned from wrath to battle,
And I from three days' peace.
Was it so hard, Achilles,
So very hard to die?
Thou knewest and I know not—
So much the happier I.
I will go back this morning
From Imbros over the sea;
Stand in the trench, Achilles,
Flame-capped, and shout for me.

The blog's very un-fancy Ancient Greek skills also came out when I translated a poem by Sappho for this entry.

Pictures from a children’s book via Flickr.

Picture of a wine cup:
By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany - Boetian black-figure pottery skyphos (wine-cup), found at Thebes, 4th century BC, Odysseus at sea on a raft of amphoras, Ashmolean MuseumUploaded by Marcus Cyron, CC BY-SA 2.0.


  1. I'm impressed with your translation skills, Moira. And these poems are all, in their way, so evocative. They make those ancient people really feel human and real.

    1. Hear, hear. To translate a poem from another language is an act of creativity, You can't just do a flat, word for word swap. You have to remake it into something different whilst still keeping the spirit of the original, and you have.

      I've known and loved the Tennyson poem for years, but never knew of the other two. I have now. Thanks.


    2. Thanks both for kind words. I don't often venture into translating, but I love doing it when I get the chance! With poetry you feel you have a little leeway, to try to make the feel resonate.
      And I was so happy to share three of my favourite poems.

    3. I almost skipped this entry, and now I am so glad I didn't. Wonderful. And now I'm a bit blurry-eyed. That Patrick Shaw-Stewart poem is devastating.

    4. Thank you for kind words. It is a wonderful poem and it is so nice to see it get a reaction.

  2. In some ways a reply to Tennyson, I think, A.D. Hope's ‘The End of a Journey’ is another interesting poem about Odysseus.
    And - of course - Christopher Logue's 'War Music' confirms that ignorance of the language concerned needn't deter a translator.

    1. I didn't know the Hope poem at all: I looked it up and read it quickly and must go back and read again more slowly: yes very interesting.
      Indeed, I think there are a few translators around who get someone else to do the word-for-word, then put it into poetical language.
      There is a poem I love by Ezra Pound, The River Merchant's Wife, a translation from the Chinese, and someone told me he didn't translate it at all, just made something up that looked to him like it might be the meaning of the Chinese script... but then I checked that out and it turns out not to be true at all! But then you start pondering philosophical questions about 'does it matter?', because I responded to Pound's English words in the first place.

  3. Although I am fond of some poetry, I would have said that this was not the type I would like. But as I read more of this post I found quite a lot to like. I liked the last one best, the middle poem by CP Cavafy also.

    1. AT least poems are short - you can read them quickly. And sometimes they do just sum up something you have thought.


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