I know I should post a poem from 1930, since A) that’s what I said I’d do, B) it’s been good to explore poetry through this weekly blog post, and C) it drives half the traffic to this site (welcome poetry people! I will not do your homework for you, but I’m happy you dropped by. I hope you read some of the rest of the blog). But I’ve been reading a book by a Classics professor called Homeric Moments in which she extols the virtues of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and it’s reminded me how truly great those epic poems really are. This blog may slowly morph into a broader literary blog as time passes: I know it hasn’t yet, but I figured a couple of reflections on Homer and the Greek epic would be suitable on a Friday.
The author of this book I’m reading (Eva Brann, by the way) focuses on several dozen “moments” from Homer’s two poems, though she’s using “moment” in an extremely broad way—and that’s certainly not a problem, in my opinion. She loves Homer with a passion, she’s been reading and teaching these works for 50 years, and she wants more people to realize what they’re missing. The five years I spent teaching the Iliad to sophomores were certainly among the best moments of my working life (if not my life as a whole), and I feel a real kinship to her. Sometimes Brann is hard to follow—so academic and precise with terminology that it’s difficult to make sense of what she loves about the poems. But then she opens up with some paragraphs that get at the core of why it is powerful that all of Western literature, including the novels that win Pulitzer Prizes, traces its lineage back to this blind singer and his demi-god heroes of the dimly lit past of ancient Greece…so ancient, in fact, that what we think of as “ancient Greece” (Socrates and Aristotle and togas and democracy) was probably farther removed from Homer and the fall of Troy than we are from Shakespeare. Here’s a taste of what I mean: Brann is focused on the shield of Achilles—THE shield, the shield forged for him by the smith-god Hephaestos—a shield whose beauty and symbolism move me so powerfully that it served as the central image of the baccalaureate speech I gave to the class of 2008 at EHS. If you don’t know the poem or the description of the shield, what follows may be hard to make sense of: as a quick reminder to those who knew once and have forgotten, the shield carries on it cities and sunbeams, singers and lovers, wars and feasts, trees and plowed fields, rivers and oceans. Envision it, and see what Brann believes about it.
The Homeric world, the poet’s and artisan’s world, is in its visible surface indefeasibly beautiful, no matter what happens within it. Dancing youths and devouring lions, wine-refreshed plowmen and brutal amushes are all equally golden. This is, after all, the truth about the Iliad itself: a blood-and-guts poem of unfailing beauty which, through its similes and storied recollections draws all the ordained labors and graceful recreations of the peaceful world into itself. It is this world, whole and hale and soberly glorified by the artist, that Achilles carries into the last battle. He bears it; it shields him. He exposes it; it covers him. He exposes it to the thrust of spears under which it is punctured and staved in but never completely penetrated (as any world is reparable after war), while during battle it insulates the warrior—but barely—from totally berserk dissociation. Achilles carries the shield into battle as a real enough defense against mortal wounding , but he also bears it about—earth, star-studded heaven, seas, cities, land—as if he were the power behind the cosmos. I surmise, I imagine, that Homer thinks of swift-footed, swift-fated Achilles as the being who makes possible the poetry that makes the full world visible.
The point of relating all of this is not to convince those few of you who read this and care that Brann is right in her analysis. I’m not convinced she is (though she certainly makes a compelling case). It’s that these epic poems at the dawn of human literature (not story—story being older, far older, than Homer—but literature) still have the power to make us feel this way. It’s a power I have yet to find in the American novel, even at its best. Maybe that’s a bias of mine, and an unworthy one: I don’t know.
Paul Goodman, a now-nearly-forgotten poet of the 20th Century, wrote a brief little poem entitled “Wonders of the Iliad” in which he relates moments that move him powerfully, and concludes by saying that, to the extent that the people he meets in life resemble these moments in the Iliad, he regards those people as human. The Iliad as more human than humanity itself. A high mark to set: too high, I suppose. But today I found that letting thoughts dwell on the Iliad was very “humanizing” in all the senses that make the word “humanities” a bit magical for me still. I sank into memories, memories of people. Brian, a wise counselor and colleague, convincing me to go ahead and teach Homer—that the kids would get it, after all. The voice of Olga as she declaimed Athena’s rebuke of Achilles in Book 1 with such force that the whole classroom caught its breath. Daniel sneaking a copy of the Iliad into class and reading it every chance he got (correcting me at class breaks, if I was fortunate: in the middle of class if I was not). Whatever combination of humans it took to convince me to play the role of Zeus on camera (“You just have one line, Shwag—just ‘I am Zeus’. Okay, cool. Can you say it and do a little dance step or something? Awesome.”): the part may have been small, but somehow I didn’t manage to live it down very successfully. There are many, many other names and moments I keep as treasures that I don’t have space to delve into now. I taught a lot of good literature: stories that are as epic and gripping as Western culture has produced. Somehow, none of it lingers with me (or, if I can take their comments and emails as any indication, with my former students) quite as deeply or in quite so resonant a fashion as Homer’s poetry does.
It leaves me wondering, as it always does. Wondering how that blind old man who had likely never seen a battle, who had no way of even conceiving of the centuries of audiences waiting for his words, accomplished these remarkable poems—spoke to something in the human spirit that remains even now. Wondering whether America has ever produced such art (and, if it has, if I will ever find it): art that will remain somehow new and classic, timeless and relevant, over the next three thousand years. If you think I’m overselling the Iliad and the Odyssey, I suggest you sit down with them. You may think you know “all about the wooden horse”…and maybe you do. Get a copy of Robert Fagles’s translation (of either poem), find a spot with just the right sort of evening light and read it (aloud if you possibly can, especially if you can do so without feeling self-conscious). Skip over parts if you must—get the story of it first. Return to it when you are older. It grows with you. I’ll probably write about it here again…maybe more than most of you will want to read. Thank you, at least, for hearing me out this time. I’ll be back soon with more from the latest Pulitzer novel—for now, I’m off across the wine-dark sea to the shores of windy Troy.