During the summer of 1977, Robert Lowell finished a draft of a long essay on New England poets, “New England and Further.” The “further” refers (for the most part) to the conclusion of the essay, “Epics,” published here. He intended to spend the first two months of the fall school term polishing the essay, and correcting mistakes. He was working in Castine, Maine, almost without books, and pressing to complete a draft. (There are errors: Dante assigns Boniface VIII to Hell, not Purgatory.) He died September 12, 1977.
“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden said; but the great epics, like our own classics, must mean something, not by didactic pedagogy, propaganda, or edification—but by their action, a murky metaphysical historic significance, a sober intuition into the character of a nation—profundities imagined, as if in a dream, by authors who knew what they had written. Even to the Philistine podestà, Dante was the soul of Italy.
Homer—hexameters must have slid from his tongue, as easily and artfully as Shakespeare’s last blank verse. He had no necessity or license to vary meter, and has less anxiety than even Walt Whitman for the triumphs of overcurious craft. This and narrative genius were his simplicities to celebrate the cycle of Greek radiance, barbarism, and doom with the terrible clairvoyance of a prophet.
The Iliad is the epic of Greece, written when Greece was still half-Asiatic, and tossing in the womb of her brilliance. Here, already foreshadowed, are deviously debating fractious Greek leaders, kings of petty city states; the bisexual warrior, heroic comradeship, the lonely man of Excellence, unreliable, indispensable, ostracized at the height of his fortune—here too the theme of Greek pathos, the young men carved on the stele for Marathon, the victory’s gloria mundi killed in full flower.
The Iliad, unlike other world-epics, is dialectical: thesis, antithesis—the synthesis is wearisome to work and transitory…fury then contrition—insensate rage of Achilles forced to relinquish his concubine, Briseis, to Agamemnon, then his recoiling on himself after the death of Patroclus to rejoin the Greek fighting—then his rabid butchery of the Trojans, then gently relenting to return Hector’s body to Priam, the helpless father…what no other Greek would dare to do. Achilles is the most mercurial and psychic mind in epic narrative—if mind may be defined as wavering, irresistible force, a great scythe of hubris, lethal to itself, enemies and the slaves—animator of the actual.
Alexander carried the Iliad with other Greek classics on his own Asian invasion, and mysteriously relived with greater intelligence, though a Macedonian alcoholic, the impulsive brutality and forgiveness of Achilles. General Fuller writes, “He was both mystical and practical…. It was in his outlook upon women—in nearly all ages considered the legitimate spoil of the soldier—that Alexander stood in a totally different moral world compared with the one inhabited by his contemporaries…. Yet, in spite of this extraordinary respect for womanhood, his highest moral virtue …