A Thousand Ships

Natalie Haynes | 2 mins



Sing, Muse, he says, and the edge in his voice makes it clear that this is not a request. If I were minded to accede to his wish, I might say that he sharpens his tone on my name, like a warrior drawing his dagger across a whetstone, preparing for the morning’s battle. But I am not in the mood to be a muse today. Perhaps he hasn’t thought of what it is like to be me. Certainly he hasn’t: like all poets, he thinks only of himself. But it is surprising that he hasn’t considered how many other men there are like him, every day, all demanding my unwavering attention and support. How much epic poetry does the world really need?

Every conflict joined, every war fought, every city besieged, every town sacked, every village destroyed. Every impossible journey, every shipwreck, every homecoming: these stories have all been told, and countless times. Can he really believe he has something new to say? And does he think he might need me to help him keep track of all his characters, or to fill those empty moments where the metre doesn’t fit the tale?

I look down and see that his head is bowed and his shoulders, though broad, are sloped. His spine has begun to curve at the top. He is old, this man. Older than his hard-edged voice suggests. I’m curious. It’s usually the young for whom poetry is such an urgent matter. I crouch down to see his eyes, closed for a moment with the intensity of his prayer. I cannot recognize him while they are shut.

He is wearing a beautiful gold brooch, tiny leaves wrought into a gleaming knot. So someone has rewarded him handsomely for his poetry in the past. He has talent and he has prospered, no doubt with my assistance. But still he wants more, and I wish I could see his face properly, in the light.

I wait for him to open his eyes, but I have already made up my mind. If he wants my help, he will make an offering for it. That is what mortals do: first they ask, then they beg, finally they bargain. So I will give him his words when he gives me that brooch.