Louise Glück's 1996 poem, "Circe's Power," captures the voice of the mythological sorceress, Circe, who falls in love with and loses Odysseus in Homer's epic poem The Odyssey. We find Circe talking to Odysseus, or to the memory of Odysseus, after he has decided to leave her. While we meet Circe in The Odyssey via Odysseus recounting his story, we actually get to know Circe and to hear her own perspective in "Circe's Power."
"Circe's Power" is part of Glück's book of poetry called Meadowlands. This book weaves together two stories through a series of 46 poems. The first story retells Odysseus' journey through the point of view of those that have lost him: his wife (Penelope), his son (Telemachus), and his lover (Circe). The second story is about a modern-day, crumbling marriage. The voices of the classic characters blend with the voices of the contemporary characters like milk in tea.
Before you dive into "Circe's Power," we highly recommend that you check out Shmoop's guide to Homer's The Odyssey, but we'll do our best to get you rolling. Circe (whose name is sometimes spelled "Kirkê") appears in Book X of the Odyssey. She is a beautiful sorceress who lives on the island of Aiaia. From his ship, Odysseus spots a stream of smoke rising from somewhere on the island. He sends a group of men before him to scout out the island and to discover what goes on there. The men find a beautiful woman who lives in a stone mansion surrounded by a dense forest. Friendly lions and wolves roam the grounds around her house. She invites the men in and prepares a huge, delicious feast. Little do they know that she has slipped a magical potion into their dinners. Before dessert rolls around, all of the men have magically transformed into pigs, and Circe herds them into a pigsty.
Upon discovering that his men have been turned into barnyard animals, Odysseus prepares to rescue them; but not before Hermes (the messenger of the Greek gods) gives him some help. Hermes warns Odysseus of Circe's magical powers and tells him to find and eat an herb called molü, which will protect him against Circe's sorcery. Odysseus does so, and when he meets up with Circe, she is stumped as to why her magic won't work on him.
In fact, Circe falls in love with Odysseus, and the two live happily together on Aiaia for one year. At that point, Odysseus' men start to really hanker for home, and they remind Odysseus that he's trying to get home too ("Um, Odysseus, you have a wife in Ithaca, remember?"). Circe looks into the future and sees that Odysseus must travel to the Underworld (the land of the dead) to meet a prophet before he can advance further on his journey home. She disappears suddenly, without a trace, leaving only a black ewe and ram for Odysseus to sacrifice to the prophet he will soon encounter.
Now you're ready to jump into "Circe's Power." This poem will set your heart thundering when you read it on its own, but we highly recommend that you read Meadowlands in its entirety. You'll notice how seamlessly stories from the The Odyssey and the modern era blend together, united by universal themes like love, grief, and loss. Fireworks will ensue. We guarantee it.
Louise Glück was the 12th Poet Laureate of the United States from 2003 to 2004. She was the recipient of the 2008 Academy of American Poets Wallace Stevens Award for poetry. She's also the judge of the Yale Series of Younger Poets competition.
What could we possibly have in common with a sorceress living on a tiny island over 2,600 years ago when Zeus and Aphrodite were still kickin' it on Mount Olympus? "Truckloads," replies Louise Glück. Even though we are separated from Circe's time by thousands of years (and by the fact that she's a fictional character), we can still connect with her.
The cool thing about being human is that we have imaginations. And imaginations are amazing, because with them we can imagine what Circe must have felt like upon losing Odysseus. We can sympathize with her, and suddenly, she doesn't seem like some statue of a goddess anymore. She's flesh and blood. Louise Glück argues that humans across time are connected by their ability to feel. While the world around us changes quickly and in big ways, there are certain emotions within us that never change.