Dipping a jam jar into the ocean…
Making sense of the Iliad in the twenty-first century offers its own unique challenges. True, we’ve had our own wars that seem to go on without end, and we’ve had patriots and traitors, brutality and self-sacrifice, heroic acts and ironic catastrophes and global clashes and localised quarrels that might find a place within twenty-four books of epic verse. But our means of understanding have changed over the millennia.
I was recently studying the opening of Michael Tippett’s great opera King Priam with a group of sixth form musicians. To give a context for the birth of Helen and the involvement of the gods in human affairs, and to point towards the Siege of Troy, I told them the story of Leda and Zeus and quoted Yeats’s great poem:
‘…A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead. …’
One of the girls in the class looked at me, and asked – not exactly belligerently but very sceptically – in a marked south London accent: ‘Excuse me – are you really telling me, right, that this woman had sex with a swan?’ My answer was copious and at the same time confused. How do you give an explanation of mythology which is not itself in need of explanation?
So every era needs to find its own way into Homer’s timeless and time-bound wonder-book. It’s impossible to do more than summarise a small selection of those attempts that have taken the form of poetry in English. Here are just seven; and of those, just a few lines. There could easily be seventy-seven.
Everyone has to start at the beginning, and even the very first word sets up difficult choices. ‘Menis’ – is it Greek for wrath, anger, rage or passion? Is that a question to put to etymologists, cultural historians or poets? Is it a concept to be illuminated by recourse to philosophy, theology, grammar, anthropology, psychology, ethics, or guesswork? Or to all of them? That’s just one word, and there are nearly sixteen thousand complete lines to go.
Shakespeare’s great contemporary George Chapman wrote the version that inspired Keats’s famous sonnet. Chapman uses rhyming fourteener lines – seven stresses instead of the more familiar five – and immediately catches our ear:
Achilles baneful wrath – resound, O Goddess – that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls loos’d
From breasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son…
Chapman makes it all sound strange but also as if – should we go on – we’ll begin to find some palpable sense in this seeming chaos. The lines have a springing energy that draws us forward, as Keats was drawn.
A century later Dryden writes:
The wrath of Peleus’ son, O Muse, resound;
Whose dire Effects the Grecian Army found,
And many a Heroe, King, and hardy Knight,
Were sent, in early Youth, to Shades of Night;
Their Limbs a Prey to Dogs and Vulturs made:
So was the Sov’reign Will of Jove obey’d:
From that ill-omened Hour when Strife begun,
Betwixt Atrides Great, and Thetis’ God-Like son…
This is verse with poise, with elegance, with a self-confident trust in the ultimate triumph of civility over barbarism. Each end-stopped line gives us a moment to pause, look around and take our bearings. As readers, we are complicit in the self-assured tone; the ill-omened hour, we hope, has safely passed.
Not more than a couple of decades later, Pope gives us this:
The Wrath of Peleus’ Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl’d to Pluto‘s gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury’d on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov’reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove…
We can hear that Pope has been reading and listening to his great fore-runner Dryden, but he’s added a stylish panache – look at that superb concluding alexandrine – that almost tempts our attention away from the Greek original to look admiringly on the polished skills of the English genius. The gods and heroes who are named here might soon re-appear wearing powdered wigs.
Nearly at the end of the eighteenth century, things had changed again. William Cowper, better known for his evangelical hymns, his mental illness and his domestic meditations, goes into blank verse:
Achilles sing, O Goddess! Peleus’ son;
His wrath pernicious, who ten thousand woes
Caused to Achaia’s host, sent many a soul
Illustrious into Ades premature,
And Heroes gave (so stood the will of Jove)
To dogs and to all ravening fowls a prey,
When fierce dispute had separated once
The noble Chief Achilles from the son
Of Atreus, Agamemnon, King of men.
You don’t need to know Greek to recognise that this has been filtered through the example of Paradise Lost and turned into Miltonics rather than natural English, the kind of poetic diction that makes everything – cups of tea and enemy corpses dragged through the dust – sound rather similar. That’s one reason why Keats, a generation later, responded so positively to the ancient example of Chapman.
Robert Graves was a learned if eccentric classical scholar as well as a poet; and he’d seen war so closely that he was expected to die after being wounded on the Somme. His opening is coolly modern without being modernist:
Sing, MOUNTAIN GODDESS, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus’ son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions — bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.
Graves then breaks boldly into prose for the narrative. The poetic invocation is linked to ancient tradition; the story itself needs to be told the way we might hear it in a memoir or a newspaper or a novel.
America in the twentieth century experienced long wars across the oceans, vast casualty lists, public protests and intense political debate about the nature and purpose of war. Robert Fitzgerald had served in the US navy throughout WWII before becoming a professor at Harvard and writing what became one of the standard translations for modern students:
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men — carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another –
the Lord Marshal
Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.
This is kept at a distance by the unusual archaic spellings; at the same time it brings modern irony into play to bring an ancient war into our own era. The gods who will this slaughter are being implicitly and fiercely questioned about their right to claim divinity; there’s nothing heroic or worshipful about ‘carrion’.
More recently, also in America, Robert Fagles added an Iliad and an Odyssey to his Sophocles:
Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles…
This is powerful and speaks in a contemporary voice. Soul and body are in contrast, perhaps even in conflict. Agamemnon and Achilles, enemies on the same side, stand at opposite ends of that final line, united and divided. Out of their internal quarrel the conflict can only grow worse.
After which, I’ll leave Christopher Logue to fight his own battles but add a marvellous footnote from Patrick Kavanagh:
I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting “Damn your soul!”
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
“Here is the march along these iron stones.”
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.
It’s good to listen to that ghost.
Tom Deveson, April 2016