Volume 7, Issue 4: Poetics
Of Heroes and Kings
Why, as I said in the last installment of this column, have people always found
Homer such a delight to read? Achilleus delights in song, war, and glory
(though he would have prioritized those items in reverse order). But our tastes
are not his; we have changed over three thousand years, and yet we still love
Alexander the Great carried the Iliad with him everywhere, saying that
Achilleus was fortunate to have had a Homer to hymn his glory. Aristotle, in
his works on rhetoric and on poetics, quotes Homer more than anyone else.
Horace, the great Latin lyric poet, said that Homer was a better teacher than
the philosophers. Quintilian, the Roman professor of rhetoric under Vespasian,
said that Homer was the ocean from which all fountains derive their waters. And
these ancient worthies represent a myriad others who bestow on Homer the
highest praise as a poet.
It is easy to find the same sort of praise in medieval, renaissance, and
modern men. As recently as this century, a popular author said "to love
Homer is a liberal education," and the head of an Oxford college said that
"the purpose of education is to read Homer in the original."
It is superficial, though easy, to point out that all this praise is
exaggerated. While that may be so, it is far more instructive to observe that
no other author in the secular realm has been praised on this scale in the
western world. None.
Again we ask, why? You cannot answer the question until you have read the
poems. But some things stand out clearly and are as worth noting now as
they have been for millennia as particularly outstanding features of the poems.
To begin with, the Iliad -
The theme of the poem, we discover in the first seven lines, is the Wrath of
Achilleus over his dishonor by Agamemnon, leader of the Achaian (Greek) armies
against Troy. But this theme is worked out leisurely, by modern standards,
giving the poet time first of all to develop the sub-theme of Zeus's will
as it works through the action, bringing everything to pass as he wants it;
second, to develop fully the characters of important people of both the
Achaians and the Trojans; and third, to develop an undercurrent of contrast
between the ancient (even from Homer's perspective) heroic war in the
foreground of the story and the everyday life of normal people in Homers
First, Zeus does little to further the action of the story in the first third
of the book, but he becomes actively involved in fulfilling Achilleus's
and the Achaians' destiny in the middle third, and the last third is the
final outworking of all the things he sets in motion. Zeus intends to fulfill a
promise he makes to Achilleus's mother to restore honor to Achilleus by
making the Achaians suffer loss in battle against the Trojans while Achilleus
himself withdraws from fighting. When the Achaians realize how badly they need
him, they come begging. Zeus fulfills this promise, but because Achilleus has
become too bitter to let go of his wrath, his best friend dies and Achilleus
has now become the sufferer.
Second, the characters Homer develops are among the most fascinating in the
history of literature. Some, like Achilleus, develop over the span of the poem
as we watch him act and react to fate and the choices of men. Others, like the
great Trojan prince, Hektor, we come to know more quickly because we see more
of him than of Achilleus early in the poem. Yet again, some, like Hektor's
wife Andromache, we come to know and love very quickly. In her case this
results from just one touching scene in which she brings their baby son to the
city walls to see Hektor before he goes out to fight for the last time, knowing
he will never return. The mighty Achaian, Aias, we learn to appreciate quickly,
for he of all the heroes has no particular god watching over him; all his deeds
are done in his own strength.
Third, the undercurrent of contrast between the heroic age battle at Troy and
everyday life in Homer's time comes from the epic similes Homer uses to
illustrate episodes he describes. These similes are all drawn from daily life
in Homer's own time. In the most famous simile, he likens an Achaian
assembly to a swarm of bees clustering around a hive in spring, some flying out
to the meadows to gather honey, some having just returned, and so on. Homer
develops the picture and gives it a life of its own until the reader has almost
forgotten what it is in the story that is being illustrated by this lengthy
simile. But the effect is positive, leaving an impression of energy and
reality, which might be difficult to convey were the constant pressure of the
heroic narrative unrelieved by these delightful sidelong glances at such
everyday activities as beekeeping, hunting, horse-racing, shepherding, plowing,
harvesting, and sailing.
In one of the most remarkable and wonderful episodes in the Iliad, this
digressive tendency completely takes over the narrative for several pages.
Achilleus' armor has been taken when his friend, who was wearing it, is
killed. The smith god, Hephaestus, makes him new armor and works in metal, upon
the shield, an elaborate picture of the whole world. The sun, moon, and
constellations are on it, the ocean runs around the rim, and over the shield
are distributed scenes of a marriage and a lawsuit in a city, a war in the
countryside, sheep-tending and cattle herding, plowing, harvesting, vineyard
work, and a dance of young men and women. There is not a finer picture of life
in ancient Greece.
Quintilian said that Homer, like the ocean, is the source of all poetic
inspiration. In a sense he is. But he is also like the Shield of Achilleus, a
picture of the world he knew, and a very beautiful one.