The Iliad "Smiling Through Tears"

Simone Weil

"Smiling Through Tears"

Context: The seventeenth century Thomas Heywood followed the Greek Anthology in declaring: "Seven cities warred for Homer being dead." Many more than that number of translators have tried to keep him alive with their versions in English of his Iliad and Odyssey. Chapman provided a translation for Shakespeare's generation. Alexander Pope's 1715 translation was long the most admired, but several more modern ones provide easier reading today, such as the one by E. V. Rieu or one in 1898 by Samuel Butler, author of The Way of All Flesh. Whether the author was one man, blind, elderly, and wandering with his harp from one Greek city to another, or some one who later collected the various legends that sprang up after the Trojan War, will probably never be settled, though the majority of scholars today lean toward the single poet theory. The Iliad covers a brief period in the ten-year-long Siege of Troy, about 1200 B.C. Agamemnon covets Briseis, a captive of Achilles, son of Zeus, and being King of the Achaians, he gets the maiden. Achilles withdraws from the siege and sulks in his tent. Then Zeus, to avenge the injustice to his son, urges Agamemnon in a dream to risk defeat and attack the city. The Trojans come out to defend it. Paris, whose love for Helen had motivated the war, suggests a single combat between the Greek Menelaus, Helen's wronged husband, and himself to settle the matter. As Paris is being beaten, a goddess snatches him away, so Menelaus is declared victor. But Athena interferes and causes a Trojan archer to shoot an arrow at the victor. That treachery starts a general conflict. In Book VI, the Trojan warrior Hector, seeing the battle going against his side, retires to Ilium (Troy) to sacrifice to Athena. Foreseeing that he will die, he seeks his wife Andromache, to bid her farewell. She has gone to the walls with their small son, but hurries to meet Hector. In a sentimental scene, the sight of the warrior in shining armor with the horsehair plume nodding fiercely from his helmet frightens the baby, so Hector takes the helmet off and lays it gleaming on the ground. Then as Pope translated the scene:

He spoke, and fondly gazing on her charms,
Restored the pleasing burden to her arms;
Soft on her fragrant breast the babe she laid,
Hush'd to repose, and with a smile survey'd.
The troubled pleasure soon chastised by fear,
She mingled with a smile a tender tear.
The soften'd chief with kind compassion view'd,
And dried the falling drops, and thus pursued: . . .