Dana Levin

The Heroics of Style, Part Two

This is the second of a three-part column that explores the relationship between pressure — psychological, societal and aesthetic — and the development of poetic style. Just as a diamond is coal’s response to the press of the earth, in its broadest terms a style is an aesthetic response to being an individual in the grip of the world.

The author is interested in how the pressures generalized above necessitate a way of using a simple poetic tool; and how such use can come to define a given poet’s style. Part one focused on Sylvia Plath and how psychological and societal forces influenced her use of metaphor and simple declarative syntax; part three will turn to ‘originality’ and its sway on the younger poet.

Unique and indelible styles often arise out of great personal trial and sometimes at great cost: hence the ‘heroics’ of the title. By these lights, the author views style as a product of friction and resistance.

 

Part II: The Homeric Simile

The Greek shield was so broad it could carry a man from battle.

Like a stretcher.

Simile.

*

Most of us know the basic beginning of The Iliad: the many tribes of Greece, with Achilles their greatest warrior, are aligned in warfare under the rule of Agamemnon, whose brother’s wife, Helen, has run off with Paris, Prince of Troy. It is not for me now to give a broader synopsis—delight yourself by reading the book. What I’m intrigued by here is how a poem over 2700 years old still rings with immediacy and drama; how it can seem as necessary now as it did to Plato and Aristotle, for whom it was a text as primary as our bible.

Why was it so important to these philosophers, who prized thinking over fighting? “Metaphysics,” states Webster’s, is “the branch of philosophy that deals with first principles and seeks to explain the nature of being or reality and the origin and structure of the world.” In other words, metaphysics is where being and cosmos meet. Throughout The Iliad, men and gods and fate twist and wrap around each other on a field of first principles: the battlefield, where the principles of life and death are experienced in their stark and dynamic relation. Besides being a terrific story, The Iliad shows us what it means to be a human being threatened with death and bolstered by courage, helpless before fate and yet able to impress the gods with bravery, perseverance and devotion. Agamemnon’s greed, Achilles’ rage, Hector’s fidelity to home and country: The Iliad puts on display the whole panoply of human action and feeling—through it we learn what humans are.

First principles: men violate other men. Indeed, the fruits of Western thought were engendered by violence, when we remember that the Homeric epics had already, for over 300 years, provided the Greeks with a central mythos by the time Socrates was ruminating on Justice in The Republic. Why should war be so central to the ancient Greek self-conception? Bernard Knox, in his introduction to Robert Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, tells us that the Greek city-states, out of which Homer’s great tale arose, “were almost uninterruptedly at war with each other” for the duration of their existence. For Plato, Aristotle, and the Greeks of their time, history begins with the conflict between Greece and Troy, a “splendid Panhellenic expedition against an Eastern foe, led by kings.” History, Knox tells us, begins with a war.[1]

First principles: the body is mortal. Eva Brann describes an Iliad that is one long list of the body’s degradation at the hands of other bodies: “teeth knocked out, gullets pierced, nipples punctured, chests crushed, innards dropping, gore spattered, spears trailing from wounds.”[2] She calls such details “incessant”; and indeed, page after page of The Iliad offers lavishly specific descriptions of torture and death: “The famous spearman struck behind his skull,/just at the neck-cord, the razor-spear splicing/straight up through the jaws, cutting away the tongue — /he sank in the dust, teeth clenching the cold bronze.” (Book 5, lines 80-83). This description alone amazes: awesome, the inventions of men in the service of death. But in a poem of over 18,000 lines, their sensationalism wearies, then breeds despair. Not even the promise of an afterlife is vicariously available to The Iliad’s ancient audience: “and hateful darkness seized him” is the last description Homer most often gives the battle-dead. It is not for Paradise “but the House of Hades, Lord of the Dead” that Greek and Trojan alike are due.[3] For an epic so full of death and devastation, with no reward of heaven or resurrection to sustain, how can the listening spirit endure? By being brought back to life—by simile.

As the swarms of flies

(seethe) over the shepherds’ stalls

in the first Spring days when the buckets flood with milk¾

so many long-haired Achaeons swarmed across the plain

to confront the Trojans, fired to smash their lines.

(Book 2, lines 555-59)

 

The warriors’ dream of peace,” Knox says, “is projected over and over again” in the Homeric simile.[4] An arrow meant for Menelaus, Helen’s rightful husband, is deflected by Athena “as quick as a mother flicks a fly from her baby sleeping softly.” (Book 4, lines 148-51); the voices of the old men of Troy, who watch the battles from atop the city gates, are “clear as cicadas/settled on treetops, lifting their voices through the forest,/rising softly, falling, dying away…” (Book 3, lines 180-83). Again and again Homer, through simile, brings us back to the life of peace that runs parallel to this world of maiming and death. It is a necessary reminder: when The Iliad opens, Troy and Greece have already been at war for 10 years; mere youths when some of the best fighters first embarked for Troy, they have come of age on blade and blood. How essential then the image of flies swarming new milk, cicadas clicking from treetops —

 

As the huge flocks on flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes

or swans with their long lancing necks—circling Asian marshes

round the Cayster outflow, wheeling in all directions,

glorying in their wings—keep on landing, advancing,

wave on shrieking wave and tidal flats resound¾

                                                (Book 2, lines 545-49)

 

Brann describes the Homeric simile as a kind of rapture. “The listener,” she says, “is seized from the dreadful…present and taken to a larger and more peaceful, ordinary…world.”[5] But the rapture breaks—the simile meets its deadly mate:

 

 — so tribe on tribe, pouring out of ships and shelters,

marched across the Scamander plain and the earth shook…

                                                                   (Book 2, lines 549-50)

 

The Iliad see-saws in this manner: death described in terms of life, battle-work in terms of farming and hunting. Is it balance Homer is after? Not image as palliative, but a call for the embattled to remember the enduring world? Action in battle especially is compared to the forces of fire, storm and flood, the only progenitors of violence in a time without war:

 

As ravening fire rips through big stands of timber

high on a mountain ridge and the blaze flares miles away,

so from the marching troops the blaze of bronze armor,

splendid and superhuman, flared across the earth…

(Book 2, lines 539-42)

 

Flaring, superhuman—the Homeric simile also calls us to consider the world-ravaging potentials of human violence: that it is a force of nature, as capable as fire or flood of bringing ruin:

 

Down the plain he stormed like a stream in spate,

a routing winter torrent sweeping away the dikes:

(Book 5, lines 96-7)

So Homer describes Diomedes, fighting the very gods in his battle-wrath. For the gods in The Iliad do take sides, some for Troy and some for Greece — but no similes for them, only the persistent epithet: Athena is always “grey-eyed,” Zeus the god “whose shield is thunder” — unchanging descriptions as befit the immortals. What reminder do the gods need of flies at milk or the flaring of fire, since they will never be torn from this world?

Homer reserves the simile for men, like Gorgythion, in what Brann calls “an accidental death for an incidental youth,” struck by an arrow meant for Hector. On this side-son of Priam, King of Troy, son of one of many wives, Homer bestows one of his most gorgeous similes:

 

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.

(Book 8, lines 349-53)

 

The image suspends, for a moment, the literal flower of the warrior’s youth. Yet, when the simile finishes, our devastation is double: for the life inside the simile (poppies, geese, trees) ends with the life of the warrior. Every loss of a human being, the Homeric simile suggests, is the loss of part of the world. The similes must work to keep life precious and vivid: hence the drama of their construction. The Homeric simile, Brann tells us, “usually…puts the remoter picture, the one introduced to make the comparison, before the given event that is to be enhanced.”[6] So we enter the rapture of waterbirds winging off, the slow red nod of the poppy, only to be led to the shocking encounter, each time, with the “given event” — life’s brutal end.

First principles: life and death are fastened. Homer holds the primal hinge. Such holding reaches apotheosis in Homer’s description of Achilles’ great shield, hammered out by the forge-god himself. The shield encompasses the earth, sky and sea, sun, moon, and constellations—and two cities: one at peace and one at war, with vineyards, farms and meadows in the balance. Great detail is given to the actions of the forged men in these forged places: ambush and pillage, tilling and reaping, the whole round of human experience culminating in a circle dance of girls “crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands” and boys swinging “golden daggers hung on silver belts” around which “a breathless crowd (stands)…struck with joy.” (Book 18, lines 668-705).

The forge-god’s creation is the similaic image of The Iliad, for this “welded indestructible shield” is our world. Its making comes a short time after a description of battle so fierce “you could not say if the sun and moon still stood secure.” (Book 17, line 424). The rage of war, the line suggests, can throw the very cosmos into chaos. Yet Achilles’ shield is a kind of mandala, a world-ordering symbol that gains its durability by being composed of life and death in balance. When Achilles hoists it into final battle with Hector, it prevails despite a dead-center hit. “This is what Hector sees in the minutes before death:” Brann says. “a world that has repelled his thrust.”[7]

For Homer, this act of repelling death is dependent on simile—not metaphor, for the action of metaphor subsumes. In metaphor, Gorgythion and the poppy cease to have individual lives; one is made to bleed into the other. ‘Gorgythion is a poppy’ relegates the poppy to pure figuration; Homer wants us to remember that both are alive—and related in living. For simile, Brann tells us, is “that double-vision by which everything in human life is like something that mitigates or magnifies it.”[8] Our sense of relatedness is perhaps the strongest hold we have against our violent service to death—for despite notions of friend and foe, death is an egalitarian destroyer. In this respect, the similes suggest that The Iliad can be read as an anti-war poem—perhaps the most arresting effect of Homer’s heroic style.

 


[1] Homer, The Iliad; translated by Robert Fagles, pg. 24

[2] Eva Brann, Homeric Moments, pg. 135

[3] Fagles, pg. 26

[4] Fagles, pg. 61

[5] Brann, pg. 138

[6] Brann, pg. 135

[7] Brann, pg. 84

[8] ibid, pg. 139

Dana Levin

 Dana  Levin

Dana Levin's books are In the Surgical Theatre, winner of the 1999 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, Wedding Day, and Sky Burial (Copper Canyon Press). 


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