Wild migrating geese are mentioned casually twice by Homer, and once he likens a warrior among enemies to a vulture among geese (Iliad 17.460). Domestic barnyard geese, however, play a significant symbolic part in the Odyssey. While visiting Menelaus and Helen, Telemachus sees a mountain eagle carrying a white goose from a yard; Helen interprets the omen to mean that Odysseus will return home and take revenge on the suitors (15.160–78). The same meanings are elaborated in Penelope’s dream, in which twenty tame geese are killed by a mountain eagle, who then speaks, telling her he is her husband and the geese her suitors (19.535–53). The suitors have been fattening themselves idly in Odysseus’ house; they will be no match for the eagle.

 Geese may seem foolish, hapless, or helpless. ‘‘Goose’’ means ‘‘fool’’ or ‘‘silly one’’ in several modern languages, and Chaucer uses the adjective ‘‘goosish’’ of people who dream things that never were (Troilus 3.583). But the Romans were grateful to the geese of the Capitol, whose honking warned the citizens of a surreptitious attack by the Gauls in 390 bc. The event is alluded to in Virgil’s Aeneid 8.655; Ovid mentions it in Metamorphoses 2.539 and Fasti 1.453. Ovid also refers to geese as good guards: they are ‘‘more sagacious than dogs’’ (Met. 11.599; see also 8.684). In his catalogue of birds Chaucer lists ‘‘The waker goos’’ (Parliament of Fowls 358); and Sidney may suggest this virtue when he names ‘‘the Goose’s good intent’’ as characteristic (First Eclogues 10.80). Since at least the seventeenth century the phrase ‘‘all his geese are swans’’ has meant ‘‘he sees his things or deeds as greater than they are.’’ It lies behind Byron’s quip about the poet Landor, who ‘‘has taken for a swan rogue Southey’s gander’’ (Don Juan 11.472), and perhaps behind Stevens’ ‘‘Invective against Swans,’’ which begins, ‘‘The soul, O ganders, flies beyond the parks.’’

The source of nursery rhymes called ‘‘Mother Goose’’ can be traced to seventeenth-century France (‘‘Mère Oye’’) and perhaps farther back to a German ‘‘Fru Gosen.’’ When Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus muses on his time in France he recalls a young Irishman who was a ‘‘Son of a wild goose’’ (Ulysses, ‘‘Proteus’’). The wild geese were Irishmen who emigrated to France or Spain after defeats by the English, especially the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

Mother Goose

 

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