Christopher Logue has filled much of his career as a poet with his eccentric recastings of Homer’sIliad (c. 800 b.c.). He began this lifetime project of distilling Homer’s epic poem in 1962, on commission from the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Donald Carne-Ross of the BBC had envisioned a radio play based on the Patroklos books of the Iliad (16-19). These are among the most moving of Homer’s poem, for they focus on the protégé of Achilles who dies wearing his master’s armor and mistaken for him by the Trojan Hektor, since Patroklos displays all the ability and courage of Achilles himself. The fate of Patroklos is the stuff of high tragedy, the perennial story of youthful promise abruptly ended.
Carne-Ross had sought a script in modern verse from Logue, one that through its concision would conform to the time requirements of radio. What Logue produced, however, was very different from what Carne-Ross had anticipated. Logue’s verse did indeed have the required brevity, but it told the story of Patroklos not only without sentiment but also without any hint of Homeric characterization. The death of Patroklos became, in Logue’s hands, but another almost incidental death on an indifferent, undifferentiated battlefield. The popular success of this version was so great that Logue published a slightly altered revision of the script in the highly respected journalArion under the title “Pax” (1963). He subsequently expanded this work, which he came to callPatrocleia (the glory of Patroklos), to include not only the death of the young hero but also its dubious glory. This appeared with the title War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’sIliad (1981), and Logue’s series of Homeric recastings (which also includes Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s Iliad, 1991) began.
Logue’s Homer-inspired poetry in no way resembles, aside from its assortment of non-Homeric ancillary characters, Nikos Kazantzakis’ consciously philosophical Odyssey (1938; English translation, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, 1958), yet it is to Kazantzakis’ epic that the reader of Logue’s work instinctively turns, since both poets employ a style that is inherently anticlassical. Like Kazantzakis, Logue fills his verse with modernisms both in language and through proleptic narrative, but there any similarity ends. None of Kazantzakis’ secular humanism appears in Logue, and no philosophy beyond nihilism. His characters lack nobility of even the most basic kind and strive for nothing beyond glorification of self. Logue strips all epic from epic, all moral growth from narrative, all sympathy from characterization, and he does these things with consistent intent. His Helen concerns herself only with what kiton she will wear to the battle at which her two husbands, Menelaos and Paris, will fight for their rights to her ownership. As she does in Homer’s poem, Aphrodite saves Paris from almost certain death at Menelaos’ hands, but in Logue one remembers not the skill of Menelaos but the bravery with which he bears the pain of an ironic castration suffered from the Artemis-directed arrow of a Logue creation named, with puckish wordplay, Pandar.
His face goes down. He breathes. He bites. He sighs.
And smoothly as a fighter-plane peels off
“. . . aha . . . aha . . .” (my God, that man takes pain,
As well as women do) lord Jica has the bones apart
And sweetly as he drew his mother’s milk
Makon has drawn the barbed thing out.
A battlefield operation to remove an arrow lodged in Menelaos’ groin appears replete with sexual, scatological, and homosexual references. Beyond this is the irony that Menelaos has involved the entire Greek world in a ten-year war to assert his right to possess Helen sexually. Just as it appears that he has won, his castration ensures that the victory is meaningless.
This ironic nihilism asserts itself continually in Logue’s verse, but it inevitably appears amid wordplay and ironic humor. The effect, clearly one that Logue intends, is to distance the reader from the characters of the poem. One observes, though from a comfortable distance, the lunacy of humanity in which one participates in the circumstances of...
(The entire section is 1762 words.)