14 June 2012

Enacting Hell: Comments on the Iliad

I am ashamed to admit it, but there was a time that I was not interested in Homer. Fortunately, at some point during that time, I came across the following passage in Dame Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon—a passage that, as far as I can remember, was the first thing to awaken that interest. Speaking of a little girl socking away some cakes in order to preserve ‘the grand classical emotions’, West’s husband says:

Exactly similar movements must have been made a million million million times since the world began, yet the thrust of her arm seemed absolutely fresh. Well, it is so in the Iliad. When one reads of a man drawing a bow or raising a shield it is as if the dew of the world’s morning lay undisturbed on what he did. The primal stuff of humanity is very attractive. [1]

Whether I would have seen it there or not if I had not read these words in West, the ‘dew of the world’s morning’ was certainly there when finally the magnitude of my own folly was revealed to me in a blinding flash and I did read the Iliad through at last. Furthermore, something of this sense that we are coming into contact with the ‘primal stuff of humanity’ is present in some memorable words on the Iliad from two of my favourite 20th-c. English writers: GKC and CSL. Nevertheless, their perspective on the poem is a bit darker than what we see in West’s reference. Take for instance Chesterton’s application of what one might call his typical ‘defamiliarisation’ technique [2] to a description of the Iliad in The Everlasting Man:

Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. [3] A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die. [4]

Lewis delves more deeply into the actual language and themes of the poem, and in doing so, seems to me to justify Chesterton’s final judgement as quoted above. First, Lewis begins with the diction:

The actual operation of the Homeric diction is remarkable. The unchanging recurrence of his wine-dark sea, his rosy-fingered dawn, his ships launched into the holy brine, his Poseidon shaker of earth, produce an effect which modern poetry, except where it has learned from Homer himself, cannot attain. They emphasize the unchanging human environment. They express a feeling very profound and very frequent in real life, but elsewhere ill represented in literature....The permanence, the indifference, the heartrending or consoling fact that whether we laugh or weep the world is what it is, always enters into our experience and plays no small part in that pressure of reality which is one of the difference between life and imagined life. But in Homer the pressure is there. The sonorous syllables in which he has stereotyped the sea, the gods, the morning, or the mountains, make it appear that we are dealing not with poetry about the things, but almost with the things themselves. [5]

Already there is that sense of the repetition of timeless actions, not merely as a Romanticised dewyness, but as a ‘heartrending...fact’, a sense that Lewis develops further—‘Homeric pathos strikes hard precisely because it seems unintended and inevitable like the pathos of real life. It comes from the clash between human emotions and the large, indifferent background which the conventional epithets represent.’ [6] But then the emotional effect of all of this is described in positively infernal terms:

Much has been talked of the melancholy of Virgil; but an inch beneath the bright surface of Homer we find not melancholy but despair. ‘Hell’ was the word Goethe used of it. It is all the more terrible because the poet takes it all for granted, makes no complaint. It comes out casually, in similes.

As when the smoke ascends to the sky from a city afar
Set in an isle, which foes have compassed round in war,
And all day long they struggle as hateful Ares birds. (IL. XVIII, 207.)


Notice how different this is from the sack of Troy in Aeneid II. This is a mere simile—the sort of thing that happens every day. [7]

Finally, Lewis punches us in the gut with a reference to a telling line from Book XII and the use of the full quote from Goethe, before reminding us of what we love about Homer after all:

Primary Epic is great, but not with the greatness of the later kind. In Homer, its greatness lies in the human and personal tragedy built up against this background of meaningless flux. It is all the more tragic because there hangs over the heroic world a certain futility. ‘And here I sit in Troy,’ says Achilles to Priam, ‘afflicting you and your children.’ Not ‘protecting Greece’, not even ‘winning glory’, not called by any vocation to afflict Priam, but just doing it because that is the way things come about....Perhaps this was in Goethe’s mind when he said, ‘The lesson of the Iliad  is that on this earth we must enact Hell.’ [8] Only the style—the unwearying, unmoved, angelic speech of Homer—makes it endurable. Without that the Iliad would be a poem beside which the grimmest modern realism is child’s play. [9]

I have mused upon these ideas for some years now, and have found them to be more and more true, not simply as statements about Homer, but as a way of speaking about the fallen world. The deep pain we experience when, for instance, we are grieving after a death or simply the loss of a friend, seems to be mocked by the ‘rosy-fingered dawn’, by the interminable cycles of life around us. I cannot help but think of this every time I read the opening words of ‘The Waste Land’—‘April is the cruelest month’. [10] But it is really no less true of bad weather or darker months. However much the falling rain or snow may seem to mirror the pain inside of us, we soon realise that as Lewis says ‘the world is what it is’. Nature has no sympathy for us. It is thus that the Muse sings, ‘But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world / they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears’. [11] The Dawn brings light, but the Trojans are weeping. It will not be the last time that they do so.

[1] Dame Rebecca West, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia (NY: Viking, 1943), p. 1044.

[2] A technique which for him is of course very different in intent and effect than it is for Tolstoy.

[3] GKC appears to have the matter of the name not quite straight. Stephen Scully quotes Carl Blegen—‘Troy was perhaps originally the more general name, applying to the countryside—the Troad—while Ilios more specifically designated the actual city. In the Homeric poems, however, this distinction is not maintained, and either name is used without prejudice to mean the city.’ Furthermore, according to Scully himself, ‘The neuter Ilion occurs only once in Homer (Il. 15.70-71), leading Aristarchus to consider it a later interpolation.’ See Stephen Scully, Homer & the Sacred City (Ithaca, NY: Cornell, 1994), p. 7.

[4] G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man (SF: Ignatius, 2008), pp. 79-80.

[5] C.S. Lewis, A Preface to Paradise Lost (NY: Oxford, ), p. 23.

[6] Ibid., p. 24.

[7] Ibid., p. 30.

[8] The line is from Goethe’s notebook for 1860, and was famously quoted by Matthew Arnold in his essay On Translating Homer.

[9] Lewis, p. 31.

[10] T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems & Plays, 1909-1950 (NY: Harcourt, 1971), p. 37. I actually felt that I simply hadn’t yet quoted enough authors remembered for their first two initials + surname.

[11] Il. 922-3; Robert Fagles, tr., The Iliad, by Homer (NY: Penguin, 1990), p. 614.


Benjamin said...

"The sonorous syllables in which he has stereotyped the sea, the gods, the morning, or the mountains, make it appear that we are dealing not with poetry about the things, but almost with the things themselves."

Striking the nail on the head, here. One thing I've noticed in Homer is the sheer physicality of the mental and emotional actions of his characters. No one merely "thinks" or "feels," rather each player is always "thinking in his head" and "feeling in his heart" and "considering in his breast." As a rule, there is a specific physical arena assigned for the action of the abstract, thus rendering each action less abstract - far less abstract than the language and mindset of today.

I'm actually re-reading the Iliad right now (Lattimore's version). I've gotten through The Odyssey about three times in the English, with some substantial chunks in the Greek. As much as the Iliad has been neglected in my studies, I must admit I find it by far the more compelling and important of the two.

aaronandbrighid said...

I like your observations about the physicality of mental & emotional actions. It seems to me that this is something we see in the Fathers as well. There is a very concrete sense of the human faculties.

Is Lattimore's a prose translation?

little bird said...

No, Richmond Lattimore does verse, and my God, what fantastic verse does he do! Hands down, he is the best Homer in the English language (a controversial statement, I know.) Oddly, he manages to follow very, very closely Homer's meter, and yet pulls it off in really wonderful and stately English.

little bird said...

By the way, "littlebird" is me, Benjamin - my wife was logged in. Ah, the humiliation!

aaronandbrighid said...

Thank you, 'little bird'! ;-) I'll have to pick up Lattimore's translations at some point.