Recommended Reading: Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicolson

photo 1I wish I’d read this intriguing book before I picked up the Iliad for a re-read last year (lucky for me, I have the Odyssey still to go on my Classics Club list). Adam Nicolson’s Why Homer Matters* (published in the UK as The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters) is difficult to classify, genre-wise; it is part travelogue, part literary criticism, part history, part ethnography, part memoir. It’s beautifully written, for Mr. Nicolson deeply cares about his subject and its place in civilization:

This is also a book about epic poetry, and about the value of epic in our lives. Epic is not an act of memory, not merely the account of what people are able to recall, since human memory only lasts three generations [. . .] Nor is it a kind of history, an objective laying out of what occurred in a past to which have little or no access. Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: it is an attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time embraced by history. Epic’s purpose is to make the distant past immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now. (3)

The foundational belief of the book is that “Homerity is humanity” (31). Its specific premise is its author’s belief that Homer arises out of a meeting of two cultures: nomadic steppe warriors from north of the Black Sea, and city-based, literate, hierarchical Mediterranean societies. In Mr. Nicolson’s formulation, this clash or melding of worlds occurred around 2000 B.C.; for him, then, Homer’s origins are about a thousand years older than those ascribed to the poems by modern scholarship.

It’s a fascinating idea, but what matters more than its veracity is the way in which Mr. Nicolson illustrates his arguments. His travel has been extensive, and his descriptions of what he sees, at home and abroad, are full of evocative detail. In a bay in Scotland, for instance, “the seawater itself is green with the reflected woods, an ink of molten leaves and boughs” (36).

While I’d say the book leans more toward discussion of the Iliad, Mr. Nicolson, a keen sailor, is just as interested in the Odyssey. Here’s how he describes the relation of the two poems:

The Iliad is soaked in retrospect. The Odyssey, the twin and pair of it, is filled with heroic adventurism and the sense of possibility, as if it were an American poem and the Iliad its European counterpart. [. . .] where the Iliad is a poem about fate and the demands that fate puts on individual lives, the inescapability of death and the past, of each of us being locked inside a set of destinies, the Odyssey, for all its need to return home, consistently toys with the offer of a new place and a new life, a chance to revise what you have been given, for the individual—or at least the great individual—to stand out against fate. (64)

Put another way, “the Homeric condition” is “the Odyssean promise of delight enclosed within the Iliadic certainty of death” (71).

This book is steeped not only in knowledge of the ancient past, but in the more recent literary canon. Take, for example, Mr. Nicolson’s exploration of how the mines in southern Spain might relate to the poem; his description of the “toxic spoil” of the landscape (132) is chilling, filled with images and sounds and tactile effects. It is a portrait of Homer’s Hades:

There is a sense of transgression at Chinflón, a feeling that the this place was once alive and that the miners hacked at its life, as if they were hunting it, digging out its goodness, a form of rough and intemperate grasping, the masculine dragging of value from a subterranean womb. (134)

Consciously or not, I think Mr. Nicolson is channeling the description of another kind of Hell: one that belongs to Mammon and the other demons in Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From heav’n, for ev’n in heav’n his looks and thoughts 
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav’ns pavement, trod’n Gold,
Then aught divine or holy else enjoy’d
In vision beatific: by him first
Men also, and by his suggestion taught, 
Ransack’d the Center, and with impious hands
Rifl’d the bowels of their mother Earth
For Treasures better hid. Soon had his crew
Op’nd into the Hill a spacious wound
And dig’d out ribs of Gold. (PL I.678-90, emphasis mine)

It’s this kind of engagement, with both landscape and literature, that makes Why Homer Matters so endlessly interesting.

As you can see from the picture below, there were many passages that I found especially fascinating or moving, too many to reproduce here. However, for my reader who finds poetry to be a “difficult concept” (as a Vulcan might find humor), here’s an excellent way to think about poetry, especially epic poetry: “Epic is different from life. The present moment might be seen as a blade, cutting the past from the present, severing now from then, but poetry binds the wounds the that time inflicts” (102).

photo 2

This is a book that wanders, but never rambles; that contends, but refuses to be bogged down in certainty; that is erudite, but not didactic. It’s a book deeply interested in both the concreteness of place and the protean possibilities of language. To turn the pages of Why Homer Matters is to be transported. Highly recommended reading.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes, which did not affect the content of my review.



Once More into the Breach, or, Re-reading The Iliad After Ten Years Away

photo 101When the Fates — or, the lovely people who choose Classics Club spin numbers — plunked The Iliad in front of me last month, I was neither pleased nor displeased. I’d put The Iliad on my list because it seemed like a sensible thing to do; having read it many years ago, I was due for a re-read, but I wasn’t looking forward to it the way I’m looking forward to reading Villette or Lilith’s Brood.

I bounced around looking for the right edition; the one I had in my reference section (yes, I have my own reference section) was too modern, as was another edition I found in the library. I prefer poetry to be translated into poetry, so that nixed the prose versions. Finally I settled on the verse translation by Robert Fagles, with an introduction by Bernard Knox. If you’re planning on reading The Iliad, I highly recommend this edition; the introduction is thorough, organized, and insightful, and the translation moves rapidly and flows easily. (Notes and a section on proper names are included after the text.)

The Iliad is the preeminent poem of war, and it felt somehow appropriate to be reading it while I was thinking about the poets of World War I for my weekly poetry posts. For all its focus on glory and honor — and especially the physical manifestations of those qualities — the poem doesn’t shrink from the realities of violence. It’s quite gory, and since Homer often gives us a brief bio of the fighter about to be speared, the violence is intensely personal, inflicted by one specific man on another specific man. Here’s an example (and with a poppy, too):

The archers loosed a fresh shaft from the bowstring
straight for Hector, his spirit longing to hit him–
but he missed and cut Gorgythion down instead,
a well-bred son of Priam, a handsome prince,
and the arrow pierced his chest, Gorgythion
whom Priam’s bride from Aesyme bore one day,
lovely Castianira lithe as a deathless goddess . . .
As a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighed down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower,
so Gorgythion’s head fell limp over one shoulder,
weighed down by his helmet (8.342-53)

As Bernard Knox writes in his Introduction, Homer’s use of the word “friend” between combatants “is sincerely meant; it is a recognition of equality, the equality of men of war, all of whom must face violent death” (37). In The Iliad, even kings and gods can be injured.

I think just about everyone knows the plot of the poem, so I’ll refrain from supplying it and just touch on a few things that struck me through this reading:

Bernard Knox elucidates one of the poem’s great conflicts — fate vs. free will:

[. . . ] in fact the coexistence of these irreconcilables is not a phenomenon confined to Homer’s imagined world. In any civilization which makes a place in its thought for free will (and therefore individual responsibility) and pattern (and therefore overall meaning), the two concepts –fixed and free–exist uneasily cheek by jowl. The only escape from this logical contradiction is the prison of rigid determinism, a pattern fixed from the beginning and not subject to change, or on the other hand, the complete freedom and meaningless anarchy of an unpredictable universe. And Greek thought, like ours (or those of us at least who still live in the humane traditions of the West), tries to embrace the logical contradiction of freedom and order combined. (40)

The sensitive portrayal of Andromache and the portrayal of fierce goddesses vs. the relentless objectification of women: The poem begins, of course, with Achilles’s rage when Agamemnon carts off Briseis, one of Achilles’s war prizes (though he claims later “I loved that woman with all my heart / though I won her like a trophy with my spear” [9.416-17]). At the funeral games for Patroclus, one of the prizes Achilles offers is a woman worth four oxen, “and skilled in many crafts” (23.785). Throughout The Iliad, women are regarded as prizes and slaves (the Greeks plan to enslave the Trojan women once the city falls); rape and enslavement are weapons of war (and still are).  Andromache herself is captured by Achilles’s son Pyrrhus (who slaughters her baby son) after Troy falls, and is enslaved as his concubine. This treatment of women is highlighted by Homer’s sensitive portrayal of Andromache, and the machinations and deep feelings of the goddesses who preside over the conflict, especially Hera, Athena, and Thetis (Achilles’s mother).

Unexpectedly moving passages: Given The Iliad‘s ancientness and its stylistic patterns, I expected to be interested by the poem, to appreciate it, but I didn’t expect to be truly moved. The grief of Achilles for Patroclus, Andromache’s scene with Hector, and Priam’s determination to recover Hector’s body were stand-out exceptions. All made me want to walk over to my bookshelf and take down Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles — which I read twice in a row when I received it for Christmas in 2012. If you haven’t read it, please do. It is beautiful and illuminates The Iliad like nothing I’ve ever read before.

Epic lists: The Iliad is well known for its Catalogue of Ships, but there are other lists in the poem, of course. My favorite is the list of the Nereids which appears in Book 18.

Robots: Well, almost. As Hephaestus sets about forging a new shield and armor for Achilles, “Handmaids ran to attend their master / all cast in gold but a match for living, breathing girls. / Intelligence fills their hearts, voice and strength their frames, / from the deathless gods they’ve learned their works of hand” (18.488-91).

And with robots, Dear Readers, I leave you with a question: what do you think of The Iliad?