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Encounter with the Sirens by Alamgir Hashmi Summary and Analysis


Before beginning the interpretation of the poem, we need to understand the title of the poem. Two lexical words can be seen in the title, the first one; encounter, a lexical verb, which generally means coming across or facing something. The second one is 'sirens' which generally means a device that makes loud warning sounds but in the poem it refers to Greek mythology. In his famous epic poem Odyssey, Homer the blind Greek poet has talked about the dangerous creatures called sirens. When some explorer enters the sea, they are distracted from their path through the songs sung by sirens. The explorers are led to those parts of the sea where the ships are trapped and wrecked. The songs of sirens are devastating for explorers journeying through the sea. Many poets use this Greek mythology in their poems and the same is done by Alamgir Hashmi in his poem which is a clear case of mythical versus physical. Hashmi through the employment of the Sirens has created a new space for Greek mythology in the English literary canon of Pakistan. Overall the title Encounter with the Sirens has successfully contemporized the old Greek mythology. 

The poem is an epic in miniature. It has three parts, in the form of three books. Each book is not more than a couple of stanzas with its own distinct thought. Book I opens the poem as:

The song of the Sirens could pierce

through everything, and the longing

of those they seduced

would have broken far stronger bonds

than chains and masts.


But Ulysses trusted absolutely

the handful of wax and his fathom

of chain, and in innocent elation

over his little stratagem

sailed out to meet the Sirens.

          In the first stanza, the poet talks about the power of the song of Sirens. It can pierce anything and nothing can stop it. Mariners knew about this deadly ecstatic song, so they made prior arrangements to save themselves from the effects of the song. Some would tie themselves with masts through chains to deny themselves from heading the deceptive way. They wish to run away from its spell but the trance of the song is so strong that they wouldn't be able to do so. No chains or masts can overcome the power of the song. In the second stanza, Ulysses is mentioned who has made strategy for not hearing the song and who embarks on a journey through the sea, ready to meet the Sirens on the way. He has wax for stopping the song from entering his ears and chains to tie him to his boat. The wax would make him deaf to every sound. He would be observing everything in silence.

The two stanzas are opposite of each other in meaning. While the first stanza talks about the ultimate power of the song of Sirens, the second stanza tells about the preparation of Ulysses to counter it. In both the stanzas, there is no rhythm or rhyme scheme. In blank verse with varying meter, the stanzas display enjambment in lines. Each stanza conveys one complete talk.

Book II says:

Now the Sirens have a weapon more

fatal than song. And though such a thing

has never happened, someone might possibly

have escaped their singing; but

from their silence, never.


When Ulysses approached them,

the potent songstresses did not care

to sing. Surprised no doubt

they were by the bliss on his face,

thinking of nothing but his wax, and his chains.

          In the third stanza, the narrator talks about the power of the Sirens which is unknown to Ulysses. His effort not listening to their song is futile, because now the Sirens have a source more lethal than singing and that is silence. Although it has never happened yet there might be someone who escaped their song but escaping their silence is not possible. Here the poet has used a weapon as a metaphor for silence. The power of silence is stressed in these lines. The narration continues in the next stanza; when Ulysses reaches the Sirens, the leader of the Sirens does not sing at all. They are all surprised by the facial expression of Ulysses because he is not terrified. Normally the visitors are nervous or pale on discovering that they are facing the Sirens and that they will be wiped out shortly. But Ulysses is not afraid and his expressions display his joy. He is thinking only about his wax and his chains. The purpose of using the wax and chains is fulfilled and Ulysses so far succeeded in facing the Sirens. His encounter with them is an overwhelming and dominant one.

In the second book, the first stanza, like the first book talks about the power of the Sirens, their strength not only in singing but in silence as well. The Sirens dominate the first part of each book in terms of strength, might, and destruction. The second stanza again goes opposite to the first and explains how Ulysses despite all odds succeeded in his little stratagem. He faces the Sirens with joy and without fear of what they can do.

Book III includes:

Ulysses could not hear their silence,

and though he alone did not hear them.

When for a fleeting moment he saw

their throats rising and falling,

their breasts lifting,

their eyes in tears,

and their lips half parted,

he believed

they were accompaniments to the air

which died unheard around them.



So waving to them,

triumphantly he turned and sailed on.

          The fifth stanza is more detailed than the previous ones, briefly concluding the whole story. Ulysses at this moment thinks that he cannot hear their silence, he is not appalled by their silence and that he is alone who cannot hear them. For a short moment, he notices their gestures like those of singing. Their throats rising and falling, their breasts lifting and their lips half parted, all the indications confirming that they are singing. He can also see their pain in their eyes full of tears. He believes that all the gestures of singing are nothing more than air that cannot reach him. In the Codicil part, while his departure, he waves at them in a triumphant manner and sails away unharmed. Apparently succeeding in his plan, the power of silence is in his memory and he can never forget what he has witnessed.

          The poet has come up with a poem that bridges the present to the past. Man who could not overcome many impediments in the past has overcome them now and he is moving ahead. The whole poem is in three parts and Hashmi has taken the opportunity of rewriting the epic of Homer in miniature. Names in the poems are Greek and it can be interpreted as man versus nature. The struggle between man and nature is going on. Initially, nature succeeds and later man overcomes it, this has been happening for centuries. The poem is simply a temporization of mythical stories in a modern way.


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