“Proteus: Derived from Greek πρῶτος (protos) meaning “first”. In Greek mythology this was the name of a prophetic god of the sea.”
Howard Nemerov (1920-1991), Poet Laureate of the U.S. 1988–90:
“*In the fourth book of the Odyssey Homer tells the following strange tale. After the war at Troy, Menelaus wanted very much to get home but was held up in Egypt for want of a wind because, as he later told Telemachus, he had not sacrificed enough to the gods. “Ever jealous the Gods are,” he said, “that we men mind their dues.” But because the gods work both ways, it was on the advice of a goddess, Eidothea, that Menelaus went to consult Proteus, the old one of the sea, as one might consult a travel agency.
Proteus was not easy to consult. He was herding seals, and the seals stank even through the ambrosia Eidothea had provided. And when Menelaus crept up close, disguised as a seal, and grabbed him, Proteus turned into a lion, a dragon, a leopard, a boar, a film of water, and a high-branched tree. But Menelaus managed to hang on until Proteus gave up and was himself again; whereupon Menelaus asked him the one great question: How do I get home? And Proteus told him: You had better go back to Egypt and sacrifice to the gods some more.
This story may be taken as a parable about poetry. A man has an urgent question about his way in the world. He already knows the answer, but it fails to satisfy him. So at great inconvenience, hardship, and even peril, he consults a powerful and refractory spirit who tries to evade his question by turning into anything in the world. Then, when the spirit sees he cannot get free of the man, and only then, he answers the man’s question, not simply with a commonplace but with the same commonplace the man had been dissatisfied with before. Satisfied or not, however, the man now obeys the advice given him.
A foolish story? All the same, it is to be observed that Menelaus did get home. And it was a heroic thing to have hung onto Proteus through those terrifying changes and compelled him to be himself and answer up. Nor does it matter in the least to the story that Menelaus personally may have been a disagreeable old fool as well as a cuckold.
A poet also has one great and simple question, simple though it may take many forms indeed. Geoffrey Chaucer put it as well as anyone could, and in three lines at that:
What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
Allone, with-outen any companye.
(“The Knight’s Tale”)
…The last thing Proteus says to Menelaus is strange indeed:
You are not to die in Argos of the fair horse-pastures, not there to encounter death: rather will the Deathless Ones carry you to the Elysian plain, the place beyond the world…. There you will have Helen to yourself and will be deemed of the household of Zeus.
So the greatest of our poets have said, or not so much said, perhaps, as indicated by their fables, though nowadays people mostly sing a different tune. To be as the gods, to be rejoined with the beloved, the world forgotten…. Sacrament or con game? Homer, of course, is only telling an old story and promises humankind nothing; that is left to the priests to do; and in that respect poetry, as one critic puts it, must always be “a ship that is wrecked on entering the harbor.” And yet the greatest poetry sings always, at the end, of transcendence; while seeing clearly and saying plainly the wickedness and terror and beauty of the world, it is at the same time humming to itself, so that one overhears rather than hears: All will be well.”