|Introduction to The Iliad|
Copyright © Bernard Knox, 1990
Yet though it is always metrically regular, it never becomes monotonous; its internal variety guarantees that. This regularity imposed on variety is Homers great metrical secret, the strongest weapon in his poetic arsenal. The long line, which no matter how it varies in the opening and middle always ends in the same way, builds up its hypnotic effect in book after book, imposing on things and men and gods the same pattern, presenting in a rhythmic microcosm the wandering course to a fixed end which is the pattern of the rage of Achilles and the travels of Odysseus, of all natural phenomena and all human destinies.
|The Trojan War||
But though we may have our doubts, the Greeks of historic times who knew and loved Homers poem had none. For them history began with a splendid Panhellenic expedition against an Eastern foe, led by kings and including contingents from all the more than one hundred and fifty places listed in the catalogue in Book 2. History began with a war. That was an appropriate beginning, for the Greek city-states, from their first appearance as organized communities until the loss of their political independence, were almost uninterruptedly at war with one another. The Greek polis, the city-state, was a community surrounded by potential enemies, who could turn into actual belligerents at the first sign of aggression or weakness. The permanence of war is a theme echoed in Greek literature from Homer to Plato.
|The Iliad accepts violence as a permanent factor in human life and accepts it without sentimentality, for it is just as sentimental to pretend that war does not have its monstrous ugliness as it is to deny that it has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power, which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage and self-sacrifice that peacetime, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command. Three thousand years have not changed the human condition in this respect; we are still lovers and victims of the will to violence, and so long as we are, Homer will be read as its truest interpreter.|
In any civilization which makes a place in its thought for free will (and therefore individual responsibility) and pattern (and therefore overall meaning), the two conceptsfixed and freeexist uneasily cheek by jowl. The only escape from this logical contradiction is the prison of rigid determinism, a pattern fixed from the beginning and not subject to change, or on the other hand, the complete freedom and meaningless anarchy of an unpredictable universe. And Greek thought, like ours (or those of us at least who still live in the humane traditions of the West), tries to embrace the logical contradiction of freedom and order combined.
In Homer the combination is a subtle one; the idea of destiny, of what is fixed, is flexible. Zeus can predict the futurethe deaths of Patroclus, of Achilles, the fall of Troyand in all these cases it is impossible to say whether the result is destiny or his will or both. But sometimes the possibility is raised that what is fated will actually be annulled by divine willor even by human.
|Both sides, now Achilles is absent, want peace, but the war goes on. We too have seen and may see again similar situations, and when the catastrophe comes on us in spite of the universal desire to avoid it, we fall back on explanations that are perhaps more sophisticated but no more satisfactory: the irrationality of human nature, the will of history (Croces phrase), the will of God or even pure accidentand in the last analysis these explanations are just as metaphysical as Homers gods.|
|Each one is a separate force which, never questioning or examining the nature of its own existence, moves blindly, ferociously, to the affirmation of its will in action. The Homeric god recognizes no authority outside itselfexcept superior force.|
Zeus in his sphere of power, Aphrodite in hers, are irresistible. To be a god is to be totally absorbed in the exercise of ones own power, the fulfillment of ones own nature, unchecked by any thought of others except as obstacles to be overcome; it is to be incapable of self-questioning or self-criticism. But there are human beings who are like this. Preeminent in their particular sphere of power, they impose their will on others with the confidence, the unquestioning certainty of their own right and worth that is characteristic of gods. Such people the Greeks called heroes; they recognized the fact that they transcended the norms of humanity by according them worship at their tombs after death. Heroes might be, usually were, violent, antisocial, destructive, but they offered an assurance that in some chosen vessels humanity is capable of superhuman greatness, that there are some human beings who can deny the imperatives which others obey in order to live.
The heroes are godlike in their passionate self-esteem. But they are not gods, not immortal. They are subject, like the rest of us, to failure, above all to the irremediable failure of death. And sooner or later, in suffering, in disaster, they come to realize their limits, accept mortality and establish (or reestablish) a human relationship with their fellowmen. This pattern, recurrent in the myths of the Greeks and later to be the model for some of the greatest Athenian tragedies, is first given artistic form in the Iliad.
text checked (see note) November 2021
Translation copyright © Robert Fagles, 1990
Hector Returns to Troy
No man will hurl me down to Death, against my fate.
And fate? No one alive has ever escaped it,
neither brave man nor coward, I tell
its born with us the day that we are born.
The Trojans Storm the Rampart
The Argive trench could not hold out much longer,
nor could the rampart rearing overhead, the wide wall
they raised to defend the ships and the broad trench
they drove around it allthey never gave the gods
the splendid sacrifice the immortals craved,
that the fortress might protect the fast ships
and the bulking plunder heaped behind its shield.
Defying the deathless gods they built that wall
and so it stood there steadfast no long time.
Battling for the Ships
Zeus, Father Zeus, they say you excel all others . . .
all men and gods, in wisdom clear and
but all this brutal carnage comes from you.
Look how you favor them, these reckless Trojans,
their fury always in uproarno one can ever slake
their thirst for blood, for the great leveler, war!
One can achieve his fill of all good things,
even of sleep, even of making love . . .
rapturous song and the beat and sway of dancing.
A man will yearn for his fill of all these joys
before his fill of war. But not these
no one can glut their lust for battle!
Impossible man! Wont you listen to reason?
Just because some god exalts you in battle
You think you can beat the rest at tactics too.
How can you hope to garner all the gifts at once?
One man is a splendid fightera god has made him
ones a dancer, another skilled at lyre and song,
and deep in the nest mans chest farseeing Zeus
plants the gift of judgment, good clear sense.
And many reap the benefits of that treasure:
troops of men he saves, as he himself knows best.
So now I will tell you what seems best to me.
The Achaean Armies at Bay
But the glorious god of earthquakes shook in anger:
What outrage! Great as he is, what overweening arrogance!
So, force me, will he, to wrench my will to his?
I with the same high honors?
Three brothers we are, all sprung from Cronus,
all of us brought to birth by RheaZeus and I,
Hades the third, lord of the dead beneath the earth.
The world was split three ways. Each received his realm.
When we shook the lots I drew the sea, my foaming eternal home,
and Hades drew the land of the dead engulfed in haze and night
and Zeus drew the heavens, the clouds and the high clear sky,
but the earth and Olympus heights are common to us all.
So I will never live at the beck and call of Zeus!
No, at his royal ease, and powerful as he is,
let him rest content with his third of the world.
Dont let him try to frighten me with his mighty
what does he take me for, some coward out-and-out?
Hed better aim his terrible salvos at his own,
all his sons and daughters. Hes their
they have to obey his orders. Its their fate.
Be men, my friends! Discipline fill your hearts!
Dread what comrades say of you here in bloody combat!
When men dread that, more men come through
when soldiers break and run, good-bye glory,
good-bye all defenses!
Patroclus Fights and Dies
If only he had obeyed Achilles strict command
he might have escaped his doom, the stark night of death.
But the will of Zeus will always overpower the will of men,
Zeus who strikes fear in even the bravest man of war
and tears away his triumph, all in a lightning flash,
and at other times he will spur a man to battle,
just as he urged Patroclus fury now.
Menelaus Finest Hour
Dear god, enough! Any idiot boy could see
how Father Zeus himself supports these Trojans.
All their weapons land, no matter who flings them,
brave fighter or badZeus guides them all to the mark.
Ours all clatter to ground. Wasted, harmless shots.
So come, alone as we are, find the best way out:
how do we pull the body clear and save ourselves,
make it back to our lines and bring our friends some joy?
They look our way in despair, they must. All hope gone
that murderous Hectors rage and invincible spear-arm
can be stoppednot
hell hurl himself against our blackened hulls!
The Shield of Achilles
Now Hera the ox-eyed queen of heaven drove the sun,
untired and all unwilling, to sink in the Oceans depths
and the sun went down at last and brave Achaeans ceased
the grueling clash of arms, the leveling rout of war.
Till now Id hoped, hoped with all my heart
that I alone would die
far from the stallion-land of Argos, here in Troy,
but you, Patroclus, would journey back to Phthia
and then youd ferry Neoptolemus home from Scyros,
fast in your black ship, and show him all my wealth,
my servingmen, my great house with the high vaulting roof.
For father, I fearif hes not dead and buried
just clings, perhaps, to his last breath of life,
ground down now by the hateful siege of years,
waiting, day after day, for painful news of
until he learns his only son is dead.
Olympian Gods in Arms
A mans tongue is a glib and twisty thing . . .
plenty of words there are, all kinds at its
with all the room in the world for talk to range and stray.
And the sort you use is just the sort youll hear.
What do we need with wrangling, hurling insults?
Cursing each other here like a pair of nagging women
boiling over with petty, heartsick squabbles, blustering
into the streets to pelt themselves with slander,
much of it true, much not. Anger stirs up lies.
I blaze for battleyour taunts cant turn me back,
not till weve fought it out with bronze. On with
taste the bite of each others brazen spears!
The Death of Hector
You unforgivable, you . . . dont talk to me of pacts.
There are no binding oaths between men and
wolves and lambs can enjoy no meeting of the
they are all bent on hating each other to the death.
So with you and me. No love between us. No truce
till one or the other falls and gluts with blood
Ares who hacks at men behind his rawhide shield.
Come, call up whatever courage you can muster.
Life or deathnow prove yourself a spearman,
a daring man of war! No more escape for
Athena will kill you with my spear in just a moment.
Now youll pay at a stroke for all my comrades grief,
all you killed in the fury of your spear!
Achilles and Priam
Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
What goods to be won from tears that chill the spirit?
So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such tormentsthe gods live free of sorrows.
There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeuss halls
and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the lightning mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
he makes a man an outcastbrutal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.
text checked (see note) November 2021