Instructor: Professor Doten
December 16, 2013
An Essay About Calypso's Island
Calypso's Island, written by Archibald MacLeish, a modernist poet, answers the “Make It New” slogan of Ezra Pound's modernist calling with the art of a Statesman and sophistication of a Librarian of Congress. Calypso's Island a love poem by an acclaimed public figure comes from the mind of one of the world's most eloquent orators.
The content of the poem may be surmised in the three sentences that make up its 33 lines.
In the first sentence, stanzas 1-5, Odysseus tells Calypso that the woman he is speaking of, (Penelope; implied by myth), can't match her god-like qualities. Odysseus then asks the goddess to make him whole and keep him in protection on her island. In the second sentence, stanzas 6-8, Odysseus tells Calypso of the beauty of her island; that it is especially so without the pain of the heart. In the third sentence, stanzas 9-11, Odysseus tells Calypso how her island converts the storms of the corporeal world into forever new, cool, moistness. He becomes startled when he realizes that the woman, that he compares Calypso to, will die from change.
Readers may gain a truer interpretation of Calypso's Island when an association of Odysseus is made with the context of Macleish's life, and then, with the context of the reader's own life. In World War I, MacLeish served as an ambulance driver, not unlike, the psycho-pompous conveyor of souls, Hermes. MacLeish has characteristics that match both Hemes as trickster and Odysseus as the intelligently cunning one. MacLeish served the Office of War Information and became heavily involved with creating propaganda during WWII. MacLeish also maintained friendships with contemporary modernists and was the person ultimately responsible for the release, from prison, of Ezra Pound. His
soul like Odysseus's and Hermes's wore many hats.
After the war, MacLeish became instrumental in the creation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. His devotion to UNESCO may be likened to being stranded on Ogygia. Some have identified Ogygia with the lost city of Plato's Atlantis—an ideal state.
In the Odyssey, the island of Ogygia is where the nymph Calypso, daughter of Atlas (Atlantis), held Odysseus as her love and kept him from returning to his home in Ithaca. Calypso's Island is a place of the gods, not humans. The island is a refuge where the chaotic forces of the world are brought into harmony with existence. In the poem, we read, “keep me from those dogging dangers-- \ Ships and the wars–in this green, far-off island” (12). And, “Your poplars where the storms are turned to dances” (27). Ogygia is an ideal state and Macleish, as Odysseus, laments subversively throughout the poem. He compares his mortal inferior “other half” to Calypso; an apparent wrongful justification of his devotion to Calypso (his godly ideal) instead of to his earthly family, his poetry, and, his individual life.
On the surface, the poem appears to be of Odysseus, as a trickster, flattering Calypso so she will allow him to leave Ogygia. But, he does not hate Calypso. Odysseus seems to honestly be in praise of her, while at the same time he wishes to return home—to his individual life. The poem is an extended metaphor for the irreconcilable conditions, in Macleish's life--between his collective duty and his individual development.
Psychologically the poem refers to two aspects of the feminine side of Macleish's personality; the side that links him to the greater collective unconscious—the underworld's birthplace of socially transforming ideas and the side that provides personal psychological development. Calypso holds him captive; communicates with him in caves; romantically she seduces him and prevents him from his personal life. The island is his goddess’s; not Odysseus's. Odysseus praises Calypso and asks her to make him immortal and strange. The world of the gods, the archetypes, is strange; not the place of mortals. After years, of devoting life to Calypso, Odysseus recognizes what he has sacrificed. He
expresses in the last lines of the poem his realization that his feminine side, his connection to personal development, as represented in the poem by his comparison to his mortal wife, will die: “she is a woman with that fault \ of change that will be death in her at last!” (33).
Odysseus professed and acknowledged his respect and devotion to Calypso. At the same time, he recognized his opposing feelings for the love of his other half. A dynamism arose, from his realization, enough to activate the gods on high, Athena and Zeus, to change the world about him. The world changes when Odysseus's situation in life is brought to consciousness. A raft for the newly prepared mind to cross the ocean of uncertainties becomes available for Odysseus. He will travel across the dangerous sea, in spite of his adversary Poseidon, and return home.
Calypso's Island, like the myth, relates to some common, archetypal, psychological condition. Each person has at one time become stuck, stranded in life, without the ability to determine the way out. By recognizing the situation and then coming to terms through acceptance of, perhaps even through honoring, it--by bringing it to consciousness—and then making oneself ready to move on, the gods, that have often been prayed to during this personal struggle, respond in a ways not unlike the “deus ex machina” within Greek drama. Doors open where there were none and external challenges to match the maturity and capacity of the individual arise. In this way, life mysteriously leads us all through an Odyssey toward a higher self.
Modernist works of art typically invoked the participation of the viewer/reader; to become one with their jazz that they should know it. Pablo Picasso, Matisse, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, James, Joyce, Djurna Barnes all produced works through which the interpreter of their works was led to a greater understanding of themselves. Through individual interaction, the beauty hidden in their medium became known.
The subjective interpretation of Calypso's Island I have offered may be valid, or not, but Macleish's art, within the poem, attains its classification of being “modernist.” The subtle rhyming
pattern of the second line of the stanza, with the first line of the following stanza, the alliteration, repetition from the end of one line to the beginning of the next, similes, metaphors and the allusions within Calypso's Island, as well as, the myth of the archetypal psychological process that the poem is based on, all draw the reader to become one with the poem. Calypso's Island is a song sung by a nymph.
In 1937, in Germany, modernist art was forced underground and classified as “degenerate art.” Djurna Barnes's novel, Nightwood, was published in America that same year. MacLeish as a modernist poet, with political and cultural influence, would certainly have been motivated to confront the fascist subjugation of individuals and the repression of individuality inspired by the modernist's works.
Calypso's Island concerns a problem central to the maturation of the individual. Psychological development is thwarted when the individual gets lured into the collective. The power of identification with the ideals of the gods crushes the only salvation for society--the morality and creativity of the individual. Whether or not MacLeish's personal involvement with the military or UNESCO had an influence on this poem, I do not know. In MacLeish's own words, "A poem should not mean / But be." Whatever, if any, reason behind the writing of Calypso's Island, the poem reveals the importance of myth in the lives of people today.