“The Return to Ithaca”
The theme of home is one of the oldest in literature. Homer’s Odyssey for example explores the attempt of the hero, Ulysses, to return home to Ithaca to his wife and family. After many years he does return home, not quite to the welcome he expected, but in the meantime he literally has many adventures.
Ulysses Slaying the Suitors
The Greeks called this the periplus. The periplus, like many Greek terms, has a humble origin. It designates, basically, a fishing journey where you return to the very place you set out from. However, on return to your home due to your experiences, either you are not the same or your home has altered.
Do not underestimate the influence of this basic model or its universal quality. It describes both the circular, recurrent nature of poems and the narrative structures of most novels and films. At its heart is a complex idea of home as that which is familiar and unchanging, yet from which you willing choose to depart so that you can return as a changed person with a changed sense of home.
Studies of narrative and folk-tales from many different cultures in the last century discovered a common element in most stories composed by oral communities, even if they have never had any contact with each other.
Most narratives are composed of a happy state (we will call this the home state). Something that happens that means you have to leave this state. A series of adventures or tests as you travel abroad. Finally there is the return to the happy state.
During the period that Thomas is writing the influence of these mythic narratives on British Cultural life through such publications as Frazer’s Golden Bough (1890) was strong. Eliot’s ‘war poem’ The Waste Land (1922) will make extensive use of the mythic structures of ancient and differing societies. Joyce’s Ulysses will use the periplus of Homer’s epic and so on.
On a deeper level the philosopher Martin Heidegger, in writing about poetry and its relation to rivers, speaks of the two values of errancy and rest intrinsic to all human experience, and most poetic structures. If the writer finds herself at rest, she longs to travel abroad. If they are errant, moving about, they look to return home. More than this he points out that to understand what is new to you, exciting and challenging, you compare it to what is familiar, your ‘home’. By the same gesture when you experience the new, your sense of home will often be constructed from your reaction to what is not home to you.
This raises the very real possibility that home, as you remember it and long for it, Thomas’ homesickness, is a false sense of home that you create when you are abroad. Home then is not what you know and remember, but what you make home out to be when faced with the difficulties of not being at home.
This double relation between home and abroad is central to perhaps one of the most important concepts of the last century, Sigmund Freud’s theories of the unconscious. In “The Uncanny”, one of the most influential works of psychoanalysis which is also the basis for the modern study of literature, specifically those forms called gothic, fantasy and so on, Freud notes that the German for the uncanny, unheimlich, contains the German word for home, Heimat. More than this, things which German’s call uncanny are those which are most scary, un-homelike, because they relate to something very close to home that appears in different format. In particular something that happened in your home that you repressed.
Modern horror films like Halloween, Poltergeist and I know what you did last summer all use this structure of something from your past you have repressed, returning to haunt you in a different form.
Another direction to take as regards the concept of home is in terms of the creation of a British identity in the 19th century. As we know very well from contemporary events, the union of the four nations that make up Great Britain is fragile and to some degree constructed through a mixture of violence and ideology. In the 19th century when the British Empire was at its most extended the concept of Britain as a nation was still relatively novel and seen as under threat.
What was Britian, were her subjects British, what effect did the empire have on an already rather fractious alliance at home where even in England areas of the north had nothing in common with the south?
The first world war was to have a dramatic impact on the self-image of Britain. On the one hand it brought together communities that would never normally mix, and would perform the horrendous miracle of convincing millions of men to die for an idea of nation as home which in reality might have meant little to them. On the other it was seen as a turning point in the nature of Great Britain.
The empire would be lost, and the faith that its subjects had in the power structures and ancient rituals of British life would be tainted forever. You might even consider how due to the war women, keepers of the home in Victorian ideology, were forced out of the house to work never to return again in quite the same fashion.
All these topics bring us back to our original conception of the work of art as something which sets out from a point it returns to. We saw that in narrative this is very common. Ask you students for some of their favourite blockbusters and you will see how many follow this basic structure. Yet what about poems?
Well, most poems are mini-stories with beginnings, middles and ends. Beginnings set out the situation. Middles develop them. And ends resolve them. That said it has been remarked upon by numerous thinkers that poems are cyclical in nature. Not only do they often depend on cyclical time sequences such as nature or memory, but they demand a reading strategy from us that means at the end of the poem we must return to the beginning to fully grasp all the imagery, changes in structure and tone, uses of language and so on that we dense, perhaps impenetrable before.
Thus the structure of the poem is always a periplus, a journey to nowhere where what was familiar now takes on a different quality. Even a simple thing like rhyme makes you take a common word and relate it to another because they sound the same making you think again about how those simple words work.
Note how many poems are about the same topics, or use the same natural imagery, or are ‘about’ nothing in particular. In the dense language that the students at first might struggle with, they experience the classic early twentieth century idea of estrangement where the familiar, your home, is represented to you as if from the outside, like a stranger might see you, so that you can see your own home as if with fresh eyes.
Isn’t this, in the end, all that literature is? And why we still study it, so that we can find out way back home to that which we had forgotten was our own?