Close Reading: A Passage from Homer's Odyssey

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The passage selected for close reading is the excerpt in book eleven of Homer’s Odyssey as translated by Stanley Lombardo:

When we reached our black ship

We hauled her into the bright saltwater,

Set up the mast and sail, loaded on

The sheep, and boarded her ourselves,

Heartsick and weeping openly by now.

The dark prow cut through the waves

And a following wind bellied the canvas,

A good sailing breeze sent by Circe,

The dread goddess with a human voice.

We lashed everything down and sat tight,

Leaving the ship to the wind and helmsman.

All day long she surged on with taut sail;

Then the sun set, and the sea grew dark.

The ship took us to the deep, outermost Ocean

And the land of the Cimmerians, a people

Shrouded in mist. The sun never shines there

Never climbs the starry sky to beam down at them,

Nor bathes them in the glow of its last golden rays;

Their wretched sky is always racked with night’s gloom

We beached our ship there, unloaded the sheep

And went along the stream of Ocean

Until we came to the place spoken of by Circe

A prevalent message in the passage is achieved via the use of adjectives and adverbs to vividly create images that conjure beautiful scenes from the reader’s imagination. The adjectives and adverbs used to modify nouns in the passage also make it more poetic and dramatic: “black ship”, “bright saltwater”, “weeping openly”, “dark prow”, “good sailing breeze”, “dread goddess with a human voice”, “taut sail”, “deep, outermost Ocean”, “shrouded in mist”, “starry sky,” “golden rays”, “wretched sky”, and “racked with night’s gloom”. The adjectives and adverbs make a significant difference on how the passage was delivered no matter how simple the descriptive words are. The descriptions bring the readers to the scenes, and they are deep and dramatic enough to compel readers into imagining the surroundings or landscape described in the passage. Aside from the adjectives and the adverbs, the tense – first person, past tense – used in the passage also sways the readers into following the speaker in the passage as if they were a part of the story. The tense makes the passage seem like a “walk-through” allowing the readers to follow the scenes as they happen: “We hauled her into the bright saltwater, set up the mast and sail, loaded on the sheep, and boarded her ourselves”, “The dark prow cut through the waves and a following wind bellied the canvas”, “We lashed everything down and sat tight”, and “The ship took us to the deep, outermost Ocean.”

The capitalization of letters in the passage also signals the prevalent use of personification in the passage. In the passage, the first letter of the word “Ocean” is capitalized, which indicates that the word refers to a proper noun. As previously discussed, the literary technique used is personification, where human characteristics are attached to inanimate objects. In the passage, the use of capitalization to signify an inanimate object may be interpreted as a means by which the author acknowledges the Ocean as a powerful entity or as a region ruled by the sea god, Poseidon. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus travels the seas and faces challenges and difficulties along the way throughout his journey to go home. The Ocean is Odysseus’ “playground”, so to speak, the power of the ocean to change Odysseus’ destiny – to change Odysseus’ direction, for instance, may be the reason for capitalization in the passage. Moreover, the Ocean in the passage changes tides and currents. The flow of the Ocean changes and is based on the direction of the wind, and therefore it changes Odysseus’ course. For this reason, the influence that the Ocean has over Odysseus’ destiny may be the reason for Homer’s acknowledgment of the body of water as a proper noun in the passage.

Aside from the Ocean, the ship that Odysseus sails is also acknowledged as a proper noun. The ship is referred to as a “she” or a “her” in the passage: “We hauled her into the bright saltwater… and boarded her ourselves”, and “All day long she surged on with taut sails”. Overall, personification is the most dominant literary device used in the passage: the prow exhibiting human emotions (“Heartsick and weeping by now the dark prow cut through the waves”), the ship moving and changing direction to take Odysseus and his men in a different place (“The ship took us to the deep, outermost Ocean”), the sun moving like human beings.

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