Tag Archives: Homer

Among the functions of the Iliad is to preserve the names of those who fought valiantly in the Trojan war, and thereby to give to them the eternal glory they had earned. So it is intriguing to come across this passage, in the middle of book 17.

Around the corpse they kept pressing hard
With sharp spears and killing each other.
Some Greek would say from his bronze mask:

“Friends, there’s no point in returning
To the hollow ships. It would be better
For the black earth to swallow us here
If we’re going to let the Trojans haul him
Back to the city and win all the glory.

Or some Trojan would say:

“Friends, even if we’re all fated to die
By this body, don’t take a step back.

These words would lift everyone’s strength.” (17.424-35, tr. Lombardo)

The corpse is that of Patroclus. Hector has killed him and stripped him of Achilles’ armor (which he was wearing). The Greeks and Trojans are now fighting to gain possession of his body. On both sides, we see the soldiers rallying themselves with the thought that glory is worth the price of death, and that shame is a fate worse than death.

What is curious is that these speeches are anonymous, spoken by “some Greek” and “some Trojan.” Why? For one thing, this allows the poet to suggest that many soldiers give speeches along these lines. But the reason, I think, goes deeper. There is a basic tension in the Iliad. It is, on the one hand, a story about a relatively small number of central heroes, flanked by a few more minor characters noteworthy enough to be named. Yet, on the other hand, it is also a story of war, of a fight between large masses composed of individuals who cannot all be named and honored.

In making these speeches anonymous, the poet seems to acknowledge this tension, to acknowledge that, for most of those seeking glory in war (at least glory of the sort the poets can offer), they will fail, whether or not they survive. They will remain anonymous, recognized only by the actions typical of “some Greek” or “some Trojan.”


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.

At the start of this year, I wrote up some delusions about what I might read in 2017. Now that the halfway point is past, I am in the mood to find out how I have done.

Here is what I have read from that list, with associated posts:

Homer – Odyssey (Lombardo, trans.) – post
Virgil – Aeneid (Lombardo, trans.) – posts (collected)
Robert Frost – A Boy’s Willpost
Fernando Pessoa ­– The Book of Disquietpost1, post2, post3, post4, post5
Wu Yubi – The Journal of Wu Yubi – [no posts]
Henri Cole – Nothing to Declare – [contemporary poetry] [no posts]

Not altogether terrible, though certainly less than half of what I predicted. As I knew would happen, my reading took me down other rabbit holes. I give the highlights below; the full list would be a bore.

Pessoa’s succulent nihilism brought me to read A Little Larger Than the Entire Universe (Zenith, trans.), the Penguin Classics collection of his poetry. Whereas The Book of Disquiet is all in one voice (that of Bernardo Soares), the poetry here is in four voices: Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Of these, I felt the closest kinship with Reis, the melancholy Epicurean, whose compact odes find joy even in their resignation. Reis works in bulk: no single poem stands out, but together they form a powerful collection. In contrast, de Campos is a poet of the single poem, most especially the dazzling “Maritime Ode,” which defies description. At 31 pages, it is too long to leave here, so I leave instead the much more compact “Ah, a Sonnet…”—also by de Campos:

Ah, a Sonnet…

My heart is a mad admiral
Who quit his life at sea
And remembers it little by little
At home, pacing, pacing…

With this motion (the mere thought
Of which makes me shift in my seat)
The seas he once sailed still toss
In his muscles bored of inactivity.

Nostalgia’s in his legs and arms.
Nostalgia pours out of his brain.
His boredom turns into raving.

But if, for God’s sake, the heart
Was my theme, why is this poem dealing
With an admiral instead of with feeling?

I can never read enough translations of Virgil’s Aeneid, so, a couple months after finishing up Lombardo’s fine rendition, I began Sarah Ruden’s, which I think may be my favorite of the five I have read (Ruden, Lombardo, Fitzgerald, Mandelbaum, Fagles). It is a line-by-line, mostly blank verse translation—the sort of thing that will either succeed or fail on a large scale. It is hard to imagine such an attempt being middling. Ruden’s, happily, succeeds. Her lines are terse and forceful, and lack the somewhat stiff grandiosity that occasionally characterizes the blank verse translations of Fitzgerald and Mandelbaum. The compact lines serve Virgil better than the loose lines of Fagles, and she avoids Fagles’ tendency toward being too colloquial. Lombardo’s translation is the freest (though highly musical), and makes a nice pairing with Ruden.

The introduction to the Lombardo translation was written by W. R. Johnson. It was sufficiently insightful that it induced me to buy Johnson’s book Darkness Visible, a classic work of Virgil scholarship. Johnson’s book does exactly what I ask for from a book of criticism: it makes me a better reader. Johnson’s central concern in the work is to elucidate the way in which the world of the Aeneid constants hovers around darkness and chaos, always threatening to fall fully under their sway. He shows this by comparing passages in Virgil to passages in earlier authors, especially Homer. He convincingly demonstrates that where Homer’s passages are characterized by brilliant clarity, Virgil’s re-envisionings of these same passages make them deliberately, carefully murky. Thus Virgil captures a world beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. I had sensed this in my reading of Virgil—it is a major part of why I prefer Virgil to Homer—but I could not have articulated it without having read Johnson. I cannot recommend Darkness Visible highly enough.

Leaving behind poetry, I have been reading a number of the classics of Chinese Philosophy: Confucius’ Analects (Chin, trans.), the book of Mengzi (Lau, trans.), and the book of Zhuangzi (Palmer, trans.). Confucius and Mengzi make a nice contrast. Where Confucius is flexible, emphasizing situationally appropriate conduct (guided but not rigidly determined by the rites), Mengzi is rigid, the sort who might never talk to you again if you bow to him the wrong way. Even if I disagree with Confucius about the general shape of his program, I can feel the deeply humane impulse behind it. In Mengzi that impulse is more difficult to find. But I should be fair to Mengzi. Especially near the start of his work, Mengzi develops certain interesting philosophical themes. Concerning, for instance, the motivation to be ethical, he attempts to start from our natural sympathy for friends and families and to extend this as far as possible. This, I think, is a more plausible solution to the problem of moral motivation than that of the Mohists, who begin with universal love as an imperative. And, as Republicans in the Senate work to savage our healthcare system, Mengzi’s stern moral stance seems especially apt: “Is there any difference between killing a man with a knife and killing him with misrule? There is no difference.”

The real treasure, however, is Zhuangzi, whose laughter still resonates today. He is a relentless puncturer of pretensions, and as pretense is an eternal temptation of the human soul, Zhuangzi will never cease to be relevant. The book that accrued around his name is a hodge-podge, a collection of vignettes and perspectives that do not resolve into any single clearly articulable theme. One imagines Zhuangzi would not have it any differently. I leave, from this work, the following beautiful passage. I might have chosen any number of others.

Words are like the ebb and flow of the wind-blown seas: the purpose of them can become overwhelmed. The wind and seas are easily stirred, and what was attempted can be swamped and lost. (ch. 4)

Enough said about where I have been. Where am I going? I have no interest in predicting the remainder of this year in detail. I will only sketch a few paths that lay within my sight.

I have been reading, with great pleasure, The Poetics of the New American Poetry, a collection of commentaries on the aim and nature of poetry by American poets associated with the volume The New American Poetry 1945-1960 (which I have not read). The volume captures the ferment that surrounded the birth and development of vers libre, both their negative program of throwing off the shackles of forms that were imposed a priori and their positive programs, which were many and resist easy summation. I imagine that I will, upon concluding this volume, be drawn to further explore the poetry of this period, of which I have little firsthand experience. Already, H.D.’s Trilogy, The Selected Poems of Federico García Lorca, and Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems lie before me, and Bunting I have even begun. His “Villon” is a marvelous poem. Perhaps I will write about it here.

On a recent trip to the Pacific Northwest, I returned home with a number of used books (I visited at least eight bookstores in my six-day trip). Among these was Jay Garfield’s translation of and commentary on Nāgārjuna’s The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. I find the Buddhist notion of emptiness intriguing and appealing, and what I have read of this volume already suggests that it may tally with conclusions I have independently reached in my professional work in the philosophy of science. Such concordance may prove to be nothing in the end, but I am sure I will enjoy finding out, one way or the other.

On this same trip I also acquired a copy of Susan Howe’s new book, Debths. It is a short book (though >100 pages, much of each page is white space), and I have already made a first pass through it. But it will require more time. I expect I will be writing about it, one way or another, so I will not say more here. Happily, this will get me closer to meeting my goal of reading four works of contemporary poetry.

And beyond that? My shelves overflow with unread books—perhaps I will make some dents in this. I will not speculate as to the precise locations of these dents.

The transition between book six and book seven of Virgil’s Aeneid is the turning point of the poem. Crudely considered, it is the moment the Aeneid changes from a Roman Odyssey to a Roman Iliad. And Virgil marks this transition with an invocation of the muse Erato:

And now, Erato, who were the kings
And what was the state of ancient Latium
When this foreign army landed in Italy?
Help me, Goddess, your sacred poet,
Recall the prelude to the hostilities,
For I will tell of war’s horror, of pitched battle,
Heroes driven by courage to meet their doom,
Of Etruscan squadrons, and all Hesperia
Pressed into arms. A higher order of things
Opens before me; a greater work now begins.

Curiously, however, these are the 44th through 53rd lines of Aeneid book seven. Why the longish preamble?

A first pass at an answer might be as follows. Book six ends with Aeneas leaving the realm of the dead and sailing to Caieta’s harbor. From there, Aeneas must still make one last voyage to reach the Tiber, the main center of action for the remainder of the poem. That voyage must be described before the invocation of Erato is proper. Since that would make for an anticlimactic ending to book six, it functions much better as the intro to book seven.

All of that is true, but shallow. Virgil accomplishes much more in those forty-three lines than simply conveying a necessary plot point. The way he describes the voyage from Caieta’s harbor to the Tiber itself signals the conclusion of the first half of the story and the beginning of the second, in two ways.

First, before the voyage even begins, death claims one more member of Aeneas’ party: Caieta, who nursed him when he was an infant. (It is from her that Caieta’s harbor takes its name.) So far as I can recall, Caieta is the last remaining familial link between Aeneas and Troy. His wife Creüsa was lost in book two and his father Anchises in book three. There is, of course, still Iülus, but he represents the Aeneas’ future line in Latium, and is not so strictly tied to Troy. Caieta’s death thus symbolizes a complete break with Troy except as a memory. Much more than the invocation of Erato, her death declares that what follows is to be something different.

Only after she dies do they set sail for their final landing spot. One reason why this trip can be described so briefly (<40 lines) is because it conspicuously lacks drama. Virgil doesn’t hide this fact; rather, he makes sure we are aware of it:

And from those shores could also be heard
Lions roaring and snapping at their chains
Late into the night, the raging of bristled boars
And caged bears, and huge wolf-shapes howling.
All these were men whom Circe had cruelly drugged
And clad in the hides and faces of beasts.
But Neptune, to save the good Trojans
From these monstrous transformations,
Kept them from landing on those deadly shores,
Filling their sails with wind, and bearing them past
The seething shoals and out of danger. (7.19-29)

What is interesting in this episode is what does not happen: the Trojans do not land on Circe’s shores, are not turned into wild beasts. They reach the Tiber without incident. Where Caieta’s death signaled Aeneas’ break with Troy, this non-episode signals the Aeneid’s break with the Odyssey.

To see this, compare this scene to that in book three, in which Aeneas and his crew land in Sicily and pick up Achaemenides, a member of Ulysses’ crew left behind to fend for his own against the Cyclopes (see my posts here and here). One reason why that scene appears in the Aeneid is to draw a parallel between Virgil’s poem and Homer’s (and, of course, to use this parallel as a way also to highlight their differences).

By contrast, in book seven, Virgil draws attention to the fact that the opportunity for another such parallel was present, but not taken. It was not taken because it was no longer appropriate: the time had come for something new.

Only after these two severances—the breaking of Aeneas’ last living tie to Troy, and the breaking of the Aeneid/Odyssey parallel—was Virgil ready to begin his “greater work,” and to ask Erato’s aid in his task.


The last time I read book 3 of the Aeneid, I wrote about the strange episode where Aeneas and his crew flee from Polyphemus. The scene is strange for its lack of any real tension. It is not a thrilling escape from danger. Excitement was not Virgil’s intent in placing that scene in his poem. I tried to find another motivation in his sympathy for Polyphemus, whose eye Odysseus had gouged out.

But there is another reason for the scene as well, and that will be my focus here. Just prior to their flight from Polyphemus, Aeneas and his crew meet Achaemenides, a holdover from Odysseus’ crew. In their escape from Polyphemus’ cave, Odysseus and his men had apparently forgotten Achaemenides, and he had spent the next three months on the island, surviving on wild fruit and roots in the forest. On seeing Aeneas arrive, he approaches and, seeing that they are enemy Trojans, chooses to place himself at their mercy rather than condemn himself to continued existence in Sicily.

Now, surely, part of the reason why Virgil places this scene here is to take a swipe at Odysseus, the conniving and evil Greek. This serves two purposes: it gratifies Roman sentiment, and it establishes Virgil’s hero as superior to Homer’s. Aeneas would never leave a crew member behind out of negligence, after all.

But there is more to it than that. The Aeneid is, above all else, a book of exiles. Where the Odyssey is dominated by a morality of host-guest obligations, the moral fabric of the Aeneid concerns exiles and the community between them. Indeed, it might not even be a morality properly so called. It is less ordained by the gods than a natural consequence of empathy: those who have known exile are friendly to the wayward Trojans, and the Trojans are, in turn, friendly to the exiles they meet. (It was, of course, friendliness toward a pretend exile that caused the fall of Troy in the first place.)

The encounter with Achaemenides illustrates this. Even though he is a Greek who fought at Troy, and even though he is a former companion of hated Odysseus, Aeneas and the Trojans accept him into their ranks. This is doubly remarkable because the last time they showed sympathy to a Greek with a sob story, they were tricked into bringing the fatal horse inside the city walls. Yet they still accept Achaemenides as a “worthy suppliant” (3.770).

What we are to take away from this, I think, is that, in the world of the Aeneid, the status of being an exile creates a bond between all who share it. Who cares that Achaemenides was a Greek, and thus an enemy of the Trojans? That antagonism was between two established homes. When the homes are destroyed or otherwise lost, so too the grounds for hostility. Exileship trumps nationality.