The Light of Homer
for Peter Manning, teacher and mentor
and down from the high heavens
bursts the boundless bright air. . . .
Autumn comes around again, like a familiar old taskmaster no longer to be avoided, but full of old memories, and not entirely unwelcome after the summer has run its course; and with the change of season, thoughts of Homer arise. I believe it has to do with the quality of light at this time of year. The weakening, goldening light of October, always a little ceremonial, elegiac and antique—like the music of Elgar, which somehow puts me in the same frame of mind. The afternoon light, mote-filled and evocative, slanting in through the west windows, pouring over the bookcases, fixing the moment in the nostalgic mind. I think of the time—the fall of freshman year at Berkeley—when I first read The Iliad and then The Odyssey in their entirety, back to back. The full dose of riches. Those days of reading Homer (the Lattimore and Fitzgerald translations, respectively—still my favorites, after all these years) are imprinted in memory. They were days of strangeness, newness, and nervousness—the nervousness of being new at the university, and the strangeness of its impersonal, public vastness, so different from my elite private high school back east. And the beauty of October in Northern California only made it stranger: the mockery of the California sunshine falling on my sadness—the congenital mild depression I have always carried with me, but didn’t know enough then to name.
It may seem odd that the idealized, romanticized vision I have now of the kind of light that goes along with reading (and later teaching) Homer should be connected with a poem—The Iliad is the one I have in mind here—that is so far from romanticizing or idealizing anything. The world of The Iliad is a world severely stark and unillusioned. Consider the scene from Book XXI, where Achilles kills Lycaon, a young Trojan warrior who has just begged him for mercy:
“So friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?
. . . Even I have also my death and my strong destiny,
and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime
when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also. . .”
. . . Achilles drawing his sharp sword struck him
beside the neck at the collar-bone, and the double-edged sword
plunged full length inside. He dropped to the ground face downward,
and lay at length, and the black blood flowed, and the ground was
soaked with it.
What is especially noteworthy about this passage, as critics like Simone Weil and George Steiner have pointed out, is the implacable, matter-of-fact vision of fate conveyed, by both speaker and narrator. The title of Weil’s famous essay is “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force”—“force on loan from fate,” as she puts it; and both the force and the sense of fate behind it take on a quality of the sublime. Something supremely austere is at work here, remote and untouchable: “…and red death came flooding down his eyes,/and the strong force of fate” (Fagles translation). The purity of this austerity may be what Matthew Arnold was getting at in “On Translating Homer,” when he described him as “the clearest-souled of poets.” And the graphic nature of the carnage takes nothing away from the austerity—as when Patroclus, soon to die himself at the hands of Hector, brains the charioteer Cebriones with a rock:
The sharp stone crushed both brows, the skull caved in
and both eyes burst from their sockets, dropping down
in the dust before his feet as the reinsman vaulted,
plunging off his well-wrought car like a diver—
Cebriones’ life breath left his bones behind
and you taunted his corpse, Patroclus O my rider. . .
Here Patroclus behaves like a cold-hearted killer; yet this recognition doesn’t keep the poet from addressing him with a personal epithet that, formulaic though it is, also conveys a sense of attachment to the character. Homer does something similar near the bloody climax of The Odyssey, where he addresses Odysseus’ loyal servant Eumaeus several times as “O my swineherd”—a homely locution I have always loved for its incongruous mixture of humbleness and nobility.
The homely and the grand sit comfortably together in Homer. In the climactic scene of The Iliad, Achilles chases the doomed Hector several times around the outskirts of the city—past the wild fig tree, and the Trojan lookout point, and the wagon trail, and the hot-and-cold springs where the Trojan women did their washing before the war came: homely locales all. But then the poetic register shifts gracefully from the familiar back to the heroic:
Past these they raced, one escaping, one in pursuit
and the one who fled was great but the one pursuing
greater, even greater—their pace mounting in speed
since both men strove, not for a sacrificial beast
or oxhide trophy, prizes runners fight for, no,
they raced for the life of Hector breaker of horses.
The understatement of this last line is breathtaking, and anticipates the quiet, sublime simplicity of the very last line of the poem: “And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”
In The Iliad there is room for all things under the sun: war, with its occasional peaceful moments; grandeur, and sometimes homeliness; darkness and red death; and also—remembering Arnold here—sweetness and light. Yet the resolutely austere, clear light in which the great events of the poem unfold is also—for me at least—of a piece with the more homely light in which I have always read it, and will continue to read it: the waning light of October, with its intimations of mortality, its many memories of schooldays past, and its anticipation of schooldays yet to come. Fewer, these, without a doubt, but still sweet, if it please the gods.