Sometimes, when I hear people wondering what the point of poetry is, I want to hit them. No, really. Hit them.
Well, hit them with a copy of this:
On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
This was written by John Keats, in 1816.
George Chapman was a playwright, poet and translator of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, now largely remembered for his translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey. Not that Chapman was the first poet to return to Homer. Chapman’s version itself owed at least as much to Virgil as it did to Homer. In that, Virgil is often regarded as the finest Latin poet of them all, and the Aeneid is commonly regarded as his finest work. No less an authority than Dante himself had Virgil as his virtuous heathen, his guide through the Inferno.
All roads, it seems, lead to Homer. The Iliad is set in the Trojan War. That there were Trojan wars is undeniable: however, the Trojan War itself is not really from history in any meaningful sense. Instead, it is myth, or even poetry that tells us the truth here.
So what is it all about? The Iliad begins with allusions to Greek myths its audience would have known intimately. To be precise, two myths of gods and men. In the first place, a prince. Paris was a prince of Troy, who having been the subject of a prophecy that he would bring about Troy’s downfall, had been raised a shepherd, not knowing of his true identity. Zeus, the king of the gods, set him in judgement over three goddesses who were arguing over a golden apple. To win his favour, the naked goddesses offered him rewards: Athena offered him wisdom, martial skill and greatness; Hera offered him Asia. Aphrodite offered him Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world. She was the daughter of Zeus himself, after the god came to her mother Leda in the form a swan and raped her. Paris gave the apple to Arphrodite.
The poem itself alludes to the moment when the goddess has Helen shot with cupid’s arrow, and Paris takes Helen from Sparta to Troy: war comes. The ten years of the Trojan War follow. When Helen was born there were four births in all: one was Clytaemnestra. Upon his return from the Trojan War, the leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, would be murdered by his unfaithful wife, Clytaemnestra herself.
Again, the remarkable hold these legends have had over the western imagination returns. One place that has seen its share of the peculiar evil of the sort of fratricidal strife that Homer writes of is Ireland. The greatest Irish poet, WB Yeats, saw the Irish story very much through his own lens. He came to Irish nationalism in large part thanks to his unrequited love of Maud Gonne.
No Second Troy
Why should I blame her that she filled my days
With misery, or that she would of late
Have taught to ignorant men most violent ways,
Or hurled the little streets upon the great,
Had they but courage equal to desire?
What could have made her peaceful with a mind
That nobleness made simple as a fire,
With beauty like a tightened bow, a kind
That is not natural in an age like this,
Being high and solitary and most stern?
Why, what could she have done being what she is?
Was there another Troy for her to burn?
It was Maud Gonne who had played the part of Cathleen ni Houlihan in Yeats’ play of the same name, the personification of Ireland herself. For Yeats the ‘great stir’ of the Irish literary revival in the end led to the rebellion of Easter 1916:
Did that play of mine send out
Certain men the English shot?
In the midst of the Irish Civil War of 1923 WB Yeats’ imagination turned to Troy, Agamemnon, Leda and the Swan, and to one of his greatest poems.
Leda and the Swan
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Being so caught up,
So mastered by the brute blood of the air,
Did she put on his knowledge with his power
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?
The Iliad is set in the Trojan Wars’ last few weeks, a war governed by the caprices of the gods and the inevitability of fate. It is a poem in which the glory and horror of war coexist, acknowledge one another. Whilst the Greeks are led by Agamemnon, and the Trojans by the old King Priam, the real heroes (in the correct sense) are the great Greek hero Achilles, and the Trojan Hector.
Perhaps it is the endemic, intimate, family quarrel of twentieth century Irish history that has seen The Iliad resonate most of all in the work of Michael Longley, an Ulster poet writing through the span pf the bloody conflict that has disfigured the north in modern times. Here, Longley envisages Hector and his infant son, and muses on family, love and blood. By rendering it into the colloquial he emphasises what Seamus Heaney’ once referred to as the the intimacy of blood-letting.
When shiny Hector reached out for his son, the wean
Squirmed and buried his head between his nurse’s breasts
And howled, terrorized by his father, by flashing bronze
And the nightmarish nodding of the horse-hair crest.
His daddy laughed, his mammy laughed, and his daddy
Took off the helmet and laid it on the ground to gleam,
Then kissed the babbie and dandled him in his arms and
Prayed that his son might grow up bloodier than him.
The climax of The Iliad is centred upon one of the most powerful moments in all literature. When Hector kills Achilles’ blood brother Patroclus, Achilles swears vengeance, even knowing that fate has already decreed that Achilles will lose his own life in the war in his turn. When he does kill Hector, the dying man reminds Achilles of that fate. In his fury, Achilles ties the dead body to a chariot and drags it across the earth, dishonouring his enemy.
It is then that the gods ease Achilles heart, and lead Hector’s father, Priam, to claim his son’s corpse. Priam asks Achilles to think of his own father.
Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’
Michael Longley wrote this poem in 1994, as rumours of a possible ceasefire in Northern Ireland, after over twenty-five years of grinding, bloody, fratricidal strife were gathering. It was published in The Irish Times just days after such a ceasefire was announced. In his Nobel address, Seamus Heaney spoke of ‘the credit of poetry’, and wrote about a great verse by Yeats about the civil war that disfigured Ireland in the 1920s, saying that it was as tender about life as it was tough about the brutal realities of war. Longley’s poem struck home, having a similar longing for the tenderness of reconciliation, and a tough-minded recognition of it’s the hateful nature of its making: ‘and do what must be done’.
In Heaney’s own terms, it is surely to the credit of Homer, and to poetry itself that the underlying truths of peace, just as the underlying truths of war, might have been spoken in ancient Greece and refashioned to express a fundamental truth of peace, and war, in our own islands, in our own time.
To the credit of poetry, I’ll paraphrase Keats, with whom I began: truth can be beauty; it may not be all we know on earth, but it is something we need to know