Homer’s similes

In Book 12 of the Iliad, as the Asius and his troops storm a Greek wall, soldiers on the wall throw stones to repel them. Homer describes it as follows:

……………………The stones fell like snow

Down to the ground, falling, falling, like flakes
A cold wind from the shadowy clouds
Drives thick and fast upon the bountiful earth.
(12.162-65; tr. Lombardo)

This is an astonishing simile, and provides insight into the general manner in which Homer’s similes operate. Though they begin from a conspicuous, generally visual similarity, they gain their power and poignancy from their operation on other levels. In this instance, there are at least four salient movements in the comparison.

The first movement is the obvious similarity that sparks the simile: the stones fall thickly from the wall, like snow. By a natural extension of the simile, we arrive at an implied hyperbole: the stones cover the ground to the point where the earth is invisible. We may likewise imagine the stones thick enough to seriously obscure the Trojan soldiers’ vision.

But this perception of similarity soon gives way, and we are struck by the stark differences between the two scenes. There is something calm and peaceful about the snow-covered earth, however thickly the snow falls. We imagine the earth devoid of action, tranquil—completely unlike the conflict between Trojans and Greeks.

This second movement gives way in turn, however, to the third. We realize that Homer has called attention to the fact that the earth is bountiful. Yet we see it in a snowstorm, in winter, when its productive function is at its lowest point, and we still await the rebirth of spring. Winter, though the most beautiful season, is also the harshest, and its association with death suits it for comparison with war.

But this, too, moves in the opposite direction. Winter is only a temporary cessation of the earth’s productive function. In directing our attention toward that function, Homer invites a contrast with its other function: as the permanent resting place of the dead. The Greek stones render the earth—the bountiful earth—a graveyard.

In the end, the simile does not resolve itself one way or another. The stonestorm is and is not like a snowstorm. The visual similarity provides the opportunity to be struck successively by both sides of the comparison. I might note that, of the four motions described above, I felt only the first two during the regular flow of reading. Only when I stepped back and began to dwell on the tension between those two did the third and fourth reveal themselves. This is one reason why I like Lombardo’s choice to set off Homer’s similes in italics: it encourages one to spend with them the time they require to bloom.

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2 comments
  1. John Peck said:

    Dear Resister,

    Just to thank you, belatedly, for your astute, welcome attention to CANTILENA. But also for your recent praise for the first line in Hppkins’s sonnet on the individuation dynamics of each kind, each species. That first line was the vibrant content of a dream of mine several decades ago. I had known and admired the poem already, so the psyche clearly wanted me to go deeper and farther with haeceitas, thisness. What do you make of that Old Welsh figured lacing the line–the cynegehaed? It’s more than a figure, I reckon, if that dream prodding has anything to say about it. It’s ontological in some way, maybe interlacing endlessly among the kinds.

    Your writing is discerning and spirited–no common matter at any time.

    Like

    • Dear John,

      Thank you for visiting, and for your kind comments. It’s always heartening to know that I’m not just shouting into the void here.

      I don’t know about the cynegehaed, and google isn’t a help—what is it? I would be delighted to learn more about the inner workings of that poem, one of Hopkins’ finest.

      Keep well,
      Aaron

      Like

Parry

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