The British poet Christopher Logue has spent three decades working at a short collection of verse based on Homer’s Iliad. The project began almost by accident when the classicist Donald Carne-Ross asked the poet to help make a readable script of some Homeric excerpts for the BBC Carne-Ross equipped Logue, who knew no Greek, with a literal translation of the excerpt (Book XVI) he had in mind. Logue studied other verse translations and produced The Patrakleia of Homer: A New Version (1963).
He next turned his hand to Book XIX of the Iliad, which he saw as a companion piece to Book XVI. He closed the gap between the two with six hundred lines of (mainly) battle description from the intervening books, and published the result as War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ (1981). “Version,” you notice, has now become “account”—Logue is moving more freely on his own, despite continuing guidance from classicists. The innovations become even more pronounced in his third thin book, Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s ‘Iliad’ (1991). He wants, apparently, to avoid the whole question of a translator’s “fidelity” by presenting his work as something like a musical fantasia on Homer’s recoverable meanings for our time—a book that is as much a commentary as was, say, Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or The Poem of Force. But Logue goes beyond Weil. He is much more interested in purely literary accomplishments—e.g., in the effects of the Homeric similes—than was the ideological Weil. It is this care in re-creating literary effects that makes Logue’s work the very thing he refuses to say it is: the best translation of Homer since Pope’s. In fact, on its own partial scale, it is as good as the very best English version, Chapman’s, to which it owes a great deal.
This claim may seem extreme. After all, Logue not only cuts the text but rearranges it; he reassigns speeches, and indulges in wild anachronisms (“Ajax, grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”); he even adds whole scenes and characters not in the original. But all this is in service to Homer, trying to be true to him.
Take the episode from Book I where Achilles is about to attack Agamemnon, until Athena intervenes (1.194–222). The episode is quickly told, and with deceptive simplicity, yet G.S. Kirk calls it “perhaps the most remarkable of all corporeal interventions by a god or goddess in the Iliad.”1 It is both a mystical and a harsh act, a “violent grace” as Aeschylus would later put it. Athena comes herself, not in disguise, not sending a lesser messenger. She appears behind Achilles, and jerks his head around by the hair. Only then does he see her, though no one else can. It is almost as if the ghost of Hamlet’s father tackled him as he moved angrily toward Gertrude. The mixture of incongruous elements creates an unearthly reality at the very peak of the heated debate—and the conversation with the goddess takes place outside ordinary time, since no one but Achilles knows it is occurring. As Kirk notes, this is significantly different from other divine appearances. It shows that Achilles has a traffic with the gods unlike that of other men—something his many dealings with Thetis, his mother, illustrate. The oral poet could rely on acquaintance with more typical theophanies to make this particular collocation of details remarkable. None of that is really conveyed by most “literal” translations—which leave out, or leave unnoticed, almost everything that matters. Now hear Logue:
Is like a chalkpit fringed with roar- ing wheat.
His brain says: “Kill him. Let the Greeks sail home.”
His thigh steels flex.
Like a match-flame struck in full sunlight,
We lose him in the prussic glare
Goddess Athena, called the Woman Prince—who burst
Howling and huge out of Zeus’ head—sheds
From her hard, wide-apart eyes, as she enters
And stops time.
But those still dying see:
Achilles leap the 15 yards between
Himself and Agamemnon;
Achilles land, and straighten up, in one;
Achilles’ fingertips—such elegance!—
Push push-push push, push Aga- memnon’s chest;
The king back off; Achilles grab
And twist the mace out of his royal hand,
And lift it…Oh…flash! flash!
The heralds running up…
But we stay calm,
For we have seen Athena’s radiant hand
Collar Achilles’ plait, and then,
As a child its favorite doll,
Draw his head slowly back to- wards her lips
“You know my voice? You know its power?
“Hera has sent me. As God’s wife, she said:
‘Stop him. I like them both.’
I share her view. In any case
We have arranged another death for Agamemnon.
If you can stick to speech, harass him now.
But try to kill him, and I kill you.
And time restarts.
What Logue creates is a convincing theophany for our time. The odd mingling of intimacy and brutality is conveyed by the doll image—the gods of Logue’s Iliad play with men, like the gods of King Lear. This colors the way we hear Athena’s message. (Chapman, by contrast, made Athena’s arrival an allegory of reason reasserting control over the passions.) The “we” of the passage—“those still dying” in the present time—are the privileged auditors, who can watch the gods at work. In the oral period of the Iliad’s composition, this privileged access to the gods was given to the singer (aoidos) by the Muse. This lends a “god’s eye view” to the poem, one that Logue achieves by enlisting modern astronomy and space photography as a form of “celestial machinery.”
Through the azure vacancy in which
Our cooling onion floats: clouds long as lips,
God’s lips above the mountain, saying:
Your death is nearer than your nose.”2
It was probably not evident from the Athena-theophany, standing on its own above, that the freeze-frame treatment of time was a movie device; but read in context it fits with many other references to cinema. Our narrative formulas are derived from the movies. So when the oral poet uses a formula like “In response to A, then spoke up B,” Logue uses transitions more natural to our age.
Reverse the shot.
Close-up on Bombax.
Cut to the flat-topped rock’s west side, and see…
Even similes can use the kind of fuzziness sharpening into focus that is familiar on the screen:
Picture a yacht Canting at speed
Over ripple-ribbed sand. Change its mast to a man, Change its boom to a bow, Change its sail to a shield:
That is the kind of point-to-point comparison that scholars deny to the Homeric simile: but most of Logue’s similes are as distantly “fetched” as anyone could desire. The genius of the Homeric simile is the great dissimilarities it risks. Battles are “explained” in terms of eclogue. Great things by small, noble by vulgar. This used to exercise critics’ ingenuity as they tried to understand just what (if anything) was the tertium comparationis for this image or that. But the comparisons depend as much on their tonal contrast as on the point of similarity. They let us look on the action from a distance, placing it in ways not to be ticked off as so many allegory-items. Pastoral scenes are introduced into battle, and it is like Kurosawa’s transformation of a battle into slow-motion ballets of death, with an incongruous music sounding. That is Logue’s technique for many of the similes:
Try to recall the pause, thock, pause
Made by axe blades as they pace
Each other through a valuable wood.
Though the work takes place on the far
Side of a valley, and the axe strokes are
Muted by depths of warm, still standing air
They throb, throb, closely in your ear;
And now and then you catch a phrase
Exchanged between the men who work
More than a mile away, with per- fect clarity.
Likewise the sound of spear on spear
Shield against shield, shield against spear
Around Sarpedon’s body.
The distant thock of iron going into wood becomes the close-up crashing of armed men trying to hack each other’s flesh. The comparison works by magic, not by calculated degrees of likeness.
Logue is brilliant at finding just the right equivalents for Homer in our repertoire of poetic wonders. This is not a matter, simply, of matching word for word. Rather, cultural/iconic/psychological resources must be sought out and fitted together. For the heavenly armor of Achilles, Logue turns to modern “wonder metals”:
And as she laid the moonlit armour on the sand
It chimed; And the sound that came from it
Followed the light that came from it,
Made in Heaven.
And those who had the neck to watch Achilles weep.
Could not look now. Nobody looked. They were afraid.
Except Achilles: looked,
Lifted a piece of it between his hands;
Turned it; tested the weight of it; and then
Spun the holy tungsten, like a star between his knees,
Slitting his eyes against the flare, some said,
But others thought the hatred shut- tered by his lids
Made him protect the metal. His eyes like furnace doors ajar.
The way the armor was preternaturally fitted to his anger, expressing it, becoming its instrument, could not be more economically conveyed. Scholars have noted that fire images used of the armor reflect its divine forging.3 Logue puts the fire in the mind of Achilles, for which the armor is itself an image and a vehicle.4
Logue can use a simile to establish a convincing context for supernatural events—as when he uses the “miracle” of modern space travel to prepare us for the jolt of Achilles’ miraculous horse showing not only unnatural speed but articulate speech:
The chariot’s basket dips. The whip
Fires in between the horses’ ears;
And as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy, they rise,
Slowly it seems, their chests like royals, yet
Behind them in a double plume the sand curls up,
Is barely dented by their flying hooves,
And wheels that barely touch the world,
And the wind slams shut behind them.
“Fast as you are,” Achilles says,
“When twilight makes the armistice,
Take care you don’t leave me behind
As you left my Patroclus.”
And as it ran the white horse turned its tall face back
This time we will, this time we can, but this time cannot last.
And when we leave you, not for dead—but dead—
God will not call us negligent as you have done.”
This conversation takes place almost in the air—which makes it more plausibly free of naturalism. If the horse can be a rocket, why can it not be the ventriloquial instrument of a god? Talking horses were part of the oral poet’s resources. They are not part of our stock of images. It is not “adding to” Homer to make the horse real in its remarks. Unless the poet can do that, he is not giving us Homer at all.
In other translations, the catalog of ships is mainly inert stuff the modern reader slogs through or omits; but Kirk and others make a strong case that it would have fascinated the singers’ early audiences, blending as it does the exotic with the familiar. It contains patriotic references to regions and poleis still alive with cults related to the heroic age. Furthermore, the sheer scale of all this armor, these great men, the fighting traditions, builds up massively to the opening of the epic’s battle scenes.
Logue gets that effect of crescendo in his catalog—stuffed, like the original, with numbers and odd bits of supply-information. His shorter text moves, like the Greek, from Agamemnon’s oration through a bravura piece on the aegis of Athena. Then the lists, topped off by an echo of Eliot’s “Coriolan.” Homer had his heroic stock phrases. We have very few workable classical echoes still alive in modern poetry, but Eliot’s lines are foremost among these.
Wide-ruling Agamemnon’s voices called
Greece to its feet, and set it on the move; And as they moved,
To stunt-hoop tambourines and trumpet drums
The Woman Prince, ash-eyed Athena, flew
Her father’s awning, called the Aegis, blue,
Broad as an upright sky, a second sky
Over their shoulders rippling estuary, And turned the pad
Of tassel-ankled feet, the scrape of chalk
On slate, of chariot hubs, back on itself
And amplified that self; contained its light;
Doubled its light; then in that blinding trapped
Man behind man, banner behind raised banner,
My sand-scoured bronze, my pearl and tortoise gold,
And dear my God, the noise!
As if the hides from which 10,000 shields were made
Came back to life and bellowed all at once.
See how the hairy crests fondle each other onwards as
From hill and valley, well and dis- tant wall,
All those who answered Agamem- non’s call
Moved out, moved on, and fell in love with war again.
As shining in his wealth, toting the solar mace,
Thighs braced against his chariot’s wishbone seatstays,
The Shepherd of the Host,
Lord of the Shore, the Islands, and their Sea,
God’s Agamemnon in his bullion hat
Drove down their cheering front.
20,000 spears at ninety, some
scaffolding poles, full-weight, to thrust, moving toward Troy; some light,
surveyor rods, to throw;
10,000 helmets—mouth-hole, eye- hole, open-faced,
chin-strapped or strapless;
5,000 crests—T, fore-and-aft, forward curving
(though either will do), some half- moon war horns;
shields; posy, standard, 8-oval-8 or “tower,”
two-to-six plyhide, some decked with bronze;
bows, single curve, lip-curved, lip- curves with reflex tip
(tested, found arrow-compatible);
“Keep up, there…“
blades: short, long, leaf, stainless
haft-rivets set square::triangular with rat-tailed tangs
(these from Corfiot workshops, those imported);
good (hay-fed) car-mares, each with her rug
(these double as body bags);
ships: long, black, swift, how many, how full;
400 tons of frozen chicken—their heads a world away;
a green undercoat;
and reaching the top of the swell in the plain:
“Now see the Wall.”
barbs, barbs plus spur, spades, beaded quivers,
body-paint, paste flecked with mica, arm-rings,
chapati-wrapped olives, hemmed sheepskins
(in case it gets cold without warning)
And birth bronze, dust bronze, surgical bronze,
Mirror bronze, cup bronze, dove
(seven parts copper to one part tin) down the hill towards Troy.
As for the deepest meanings of the epic, Logue expresses the best in modern scholarship in his version. The whole matter of shifts in identity, whereby men kill themselves, over and over, is worked out—in a paramount and exemplary way—through the passage of Achilles’ first set of armor (derived from the gods by way of Achilles’ father) to Patroclus and then to Hector. Patroclus, wearing the armor, becomes Achilles. Gregory Nagy demonstrates how artfully the death of Achilles is contained within the Iliad, foreshadowed in the killing of Patroclus.5 This means that the Achilles who goes out in his divinely supplied second armor already fights as a dead man; and when he confronts his own armor, now carried on Hector, he kills himself a second time. The mystery of war is presented here in ways that can never be reduced to anything so simple as martial or pacifist arguments.
When Hector kills Patroclus/Achilles, Patroclus tells him that he is simply executing himself. In the Greek this is conveyed by saying, “Thanatos and over-whelming Moira have already taken a stand beside you, for you to be brought down at the hands of Achilles” (16.853–854). Logue turns it this way:
“I can hear Death pronounce my name, and yet
Somehow it sounds like Hector.
And as I close my eyes I see Achilles’ face
With Death’s voice coming out of it.”
Since we lack a formal theology of personified Death and Moira (one’s destined “allotment”), Logue creates an equivalent voice-and-mask sequence that plays up the dream-shifts in identity by which the greatest heroes keep killing themselves in this central sequence of the poem. When Hector strips Achilles’ armor off Patroclus and dons it himself, he is at first lifted up to Achilles’ level—his limbs magically fill out the originally loose harness. But he is stepping, literally, outside his own limits, losing himself in the larger meshes of Achilles’ destiny. Logue marks the fatal moment when he says good-bye to his own past, mirrored in the shield he is about to bear:
Achilles’ armour was not made on earth.
A lame god yoked its spacious particles.
Deliberate inattention has
Only enhanced its light-collecting planes;
Into whose depth, safe, safe, amid the dunes
Prince Hector looks, amazed, and strips his own;
Stands naked in the light, amazed, and lifts
Its bodice up, and kisses it; then holds it out,
And, like a man long kept from water, lets
Its radiance pour down; and sees within
The clouds that pass, the gulls that stall,
His own hope-governed face, and near its rim,
Distorted as its brilliant surface bends
Its rivetless, near-minus weight away,
His patient horses, and his men.
Not all of Logue’s efforts are so accurately targeted. He takes large chances, like Chapman, and therefore takes some proportionate falls. But his similes are invariably Homeric. The epic itself went as far afield, in time and space, as it could in assembling the material for these “genre paintings.” Logue, given a larger world, of both space and time, has to reach around the globe to be as daring as his model. Some might object to the following simile, though I find it devastating:
Long after midnight when you park, and stand
Just for a moment in the chro- mium wash,
Sometimes it seems that, some way off,
Between the river and the tower belt, say,
The roofs show black on pome- granate red,
As if, below that line, they stood in fire.
Lights similar to these were seen
By those who looked from Troy towards the Fleet
After Apollos answered Cryzez’ prayer.
Logue is on shakier ground when he invents scenes and characters. But we should note where this happens in order to grasp his intent. Almost all the inventions are inside Priam’s Troy. The Trojans are odd and exotic to the Greeks—Priam with his huge harem, the babble of many-tongued allies, the barbaric war shouts. Distance has made the Greek side odd to us, exotic in its own right. So Logue accentuates the “primitive,” what one might call the “third world,” aspect of Troy, inventing uncouth names and hieratic court ritual. The invented names are defensible in that Paris sounds as “foreign” to us as does Achilles. Some Trojans have Greek names in the original poem—Paris himself is sometimes called “Alexandros,” as Greek a name as any Achaean bears. But sometimes, in the fighting, Greek names are played off against non-Greek in a way that Vergil imitated in the later books of the Aeneid.6
Colonial wars with “natives” are clearly echoed in Logue’s British verse—but Americans will think, inevitably, of Korea and Vietnam, of war with “gooks” and “slopes.” These brutal militarisms are a part of all war poetry for us, and Logue’s obscenities, violations of epic “decorum,” share a modern sensibility as surely as does Simone’s Weil’s critical argument. But seeing Homer from our standpoint is what cultural “translation” always entails.
Though I would not defend each of Logue’s daring and risky choices, the one thing that sets his poem off from other recent attempts at the Iliad is its oral nature, its tailoring to its original purpose on the BBC—vocal delivery and performance. This is appropriate to a poetry originally composed by singers as they sang. One can hardly help one-self from singing the lines Logue puts in our mouths as well as our minds:
They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
And gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an opened tin.
April 23, 1992
G.S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary (Cambridge University Press, 1985), Vol. 1, p. 74. ↩
I use examples from the new volume and from War Music indiscriminately, since they are all one poem and will presumably be bound together someday—along, one hopes, with further episodes like the climactic death of Hector. ↩
Richard Stoll Shannon, III, The Arms of Achilles and Homeric Compositional Technique (E.J. Brill, 1975), pp. 28–29. Gregory Nagy suggests there may also be, in such images, an anticipation of the funeral pyre through which Patroclus may be reborn to fame: cf, “Patroklos, Concepts of Afterlife, and the Indic Triple Fire,” in Greek Mythology and Poetics (Cornell University Press, 1990), pp. 85–121. ↩
Homer’s text says, “Achilles’ eyes flashed terribly, like fire under his brows”—but the identification of Achilles’ mind with fire underlies a whole series of similes. Cf. C.H. Whitman, Homer and the Heroic Tradition (Harvard University Press, 1958), pp. 137–147. ↩
Gregory Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), pp. 33–34, 63, 116–117. See also Steven Lowenstam, The Death of Patroklos: A Study in Typology (Anton Hain, 1981), pp. 60–66. Also Shannon, The Arms of Achilles, pp. 23–28. ↩
See, for instance, Aeneid, 9.569–578, 10.747–754. Vergil, too, made up Oriental names to fill out the Trojan ranks. Cf, S. J. Harrison, Vergil: ‘Aeneid’ 10 (Oxford University Press/Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 93–94, 98, 251. ↩