Homer, The Iliad (translated by Robert Fagles, ©1990, Penguin 1998)
Book 17 line 50 to Book 19 line 161
For seven months now I’ve started most days reading two pages – roughly 70 lines – of The Iliad.
Reliably, I come across references to it during the rest of my days, the kind of passing remarks that would otherwise go unnoticed. This month, for instance, in Charmian Clift’s Mermaid Singing (blog post to come), Charmian and her husband George have just discovered the pleasures of seafood on the island of Kalymnos, especially palamethes, ‘a sort of mackerel plentiful off the Anatolian coast, sliced and grilled like steak and served hot with oil and lemon juice or cold with a
thick garlic sauce’. George says something ironic about British seafood, then:
Pass the palamethes, there’s a good girl, and I’ll write you an Iliad!
Last month’s reading ended with Hector killing Achilles’ comrade Patroclus. I was completely unprepared for what a big deal that is. First there’s the struggle over Patroclus’ body. For hundreds of lines the Trojans try to drag it from the field to strip it of the Achilles’ resplendent armour, and also to dishonour the corpse as a kind of trophy. The Greeks, led by Menelaus, fight them off, determined to protect the body of this much-loved comrade. It seems that everyone loved Patroclus. When word is finally sent to Achilles of his death, Achilles’ grief is epic, and he is joined, first by the women who have been given to the two of them as booty, and then by a stream of sea nymphs. We’re left in no doubt that this is no ordinary death.
Thetis, Achilles’ immortal mother, persuades him not to re-enter the battle immediately. She goes to the blacksmith god Hephaestus and asks him to make new armour for her son. Homer takes 150 lines to describe the impossibly complex imagery he embosses on the shield.
And now, in Book 19, Achilles has just addressed the Greeks. He and Agamemnon have come as close as they can to mutual apologies – which isn’t actually very close. Agamemnon in particular blames it all on the goddess Ruin who. after all, has deceived even Zeus. Meanwhile, the Trojans have rejected the wise advice of Polydamas to retreat to within the city walls, and been persuaded by Hector’s heroic posturing to stay near the Greek ships where – we know – they will be vulnerable when Achilles returns to the battle. The end is in sight.
This month’s reading has shown me what all the fuss is about. This piece of millennia-old writing still has tremendous emotional power. I could quote any number of passages, but here’s the moment when Achilles learns of Patroclus’ death (Book 18, lines 25–40):
A black cloud of grief came shrouding over Achilles. Both hands clawing the ground for soot and filth, he poured it over his head, fouled his handsome face and black ashes settled onto his fresh clean war-shirt. Overpowered in all his power, sprawled in the dust, Achilles lay there, fallen ... tearing his hair, defiling it with his own hands. And the women he and Patroclus carried off as captives caught the grief in their hearts and keened and wailed, out of the tents they ran to ring the great Achilles, all of them beat their breasts with clenched fists, sank to the ground, each woman's knees gave way. Antilochus kneeling near, weeping uncontrollably, clutched Achilles' hands as he wept his proud heart out – for fear he would slash his throat with an iron blade.
And. really just to illustrate the virtues of the Fagles translation, here’s Alexander Pope’s version of those lines:
A sudden horror shot through all the chief, And wrapp’d his senses in the cloud of grief; Cast on the ground, with furious hands he spread The scorching ashes o’er his graceful head; His purple garments, and his golden hairs, Those he deforms with dust, and these he tears; On the hard soil his groaning breast he threw, And roll’d and grovell’d, as to earth he grew. The virgin captives, with disorder’d charms, (Won by his own, or by Patroclus’ arms) Rush’d from their tents with cries; and gathering round, Beat their white breasts, and fainted on the ground: While Nestor’s son sustains a manlier part, And mourns the warrior with a warrior’s heart; Hangs on his arms, amidst his frantic woe, And oft prevents the meditated blow.
You have to admire the way Pope fixes improprieties related to sex and gender: the captive women are virgins, and Antilochus, Nestor’s son, is far too manly to weep. I had a quick look at other translations. George Chapman (1616) has Antilochus weeping with the women. Richmond Lattimore (1946) has: ‘Antilochos mourned with him, letting the tears fall’. A S Kline (2009) has him ‘weeping and groaning’. For now at least, I’m content to wonder what Caroline Alexander, the Iliad’s first female translator, does with this moment – Amazon are advertising the hardcover for $150+ dollars.
Anyhow, onward …