War Music

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That there still is a Homer to read, Christopher Logue finds strange, and the “Homerniks” who guard the flame a potentially weird lot indeed:

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For a poem of over 15,000 lines representing an age as remote from its own as it is from ours to survive the collapse of, not just one society (a serious critical test no poem in English has, as yet, had to pass), but two, could easily mean that those who have kept it alive are mad.

Tucked away in parentheses, note, is a low bow to a work which has structured consciousness since literacy’s beginnings. Logue’s wonderfully written preface to War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s “Iliad” explains to the reader that a poet’s (Logue’s) sense of the poem is not like a translator’s or antiquarian’s. When Logue was commissioned by Donald Carne-Ross to rewrite Homer for the BBC, his lack of Greek was not the scandal to him that others might think it should be. The challenge Logue perceived in the assignment was, in Samuel Johnson’s words to James Boswell, that the true test of the epic would be to “try its effect as an English poem.”

In 1962, Logue published his paraphrase of book 16 as Patrocleia, and in 1963, book 19 appeared as “Pax,” in the journal Arion. (Pax appeared in book form in 1967.) Logue envisioned book 16 as a synecdoche for the entire Iliad. As Carne-Ross said, “It has a quarrel, a making-up, a concession, several battles, the death of a famous leader (Sarpedon), disagreement in Heaven, a human cheeking the Gods, and, as a result of that human’s death, an irreversible change.” “Homer’s lay fans” applauded Logue’s work and offered their expertise when he decided to tie books 16 and 19 together with a paraphrase of 17 and 18, thereby creating “a narrative capable of being read independently of its guessed-at parent.” Logue conflated books 17 and 18 to a single book which he called “GBH” (grievous bodily harm), for the destruction found therein. Books 16 to 19 were then published in 1981 in London, under the title War Music; not until 1987 was this volume published in the United States.

The independent story the four books tell features Achilles and Patroclus on the Greek side and Hector on the Trojan. Achilles is bitter about Agamemnon’s theft of his beautiful slave, Briseis, and has withdrawn from the war, demanding restoration and sulking. The Greeks are outmanned in Achilles’ absence, and book 16 opens with Patroclus, Achilles’ greatest love, asking for the use of the great warrior’s armor and foot soldiers. Achilles grants the request while warning Patroclus to stay away from Hector, as Hector would “make a meal of you,” and Achilles wants the glory of killing him. Patroclus fights brilliantly but ignores the warning about Hector, whom Apollo favors. Apollo himself fells Patroclus—“His hand came from the east,/ . . . And every atom of his mythic weight/ Was poised between his fist and bent left leg"—and allows Hector to finish the job with a spear. “GBH” covers the fighting over Patroclus’ corpse and ends with the scream of Achilles, brought on by news of Patroclus’ fate, which sends the Trojans into retreat. Book 19 treats the peacemaking among the Greek allies, Achilles and Agamemnon, and Achilles’ preparation for war.

It is a commonplace of Homer studies that each age translates the poet into a voice befitting current taste and the going sense of reality. John Keats’s sonnet on reading Homer gives all praise to George Chapman, as if the poet were Chapman. Preparing to write his account, Logue studied five versions, including those of Alexander Pope and Chapman along with more recent translations: “Lord Derby was high-Victorian and Rieu mid-Windsor-steady.” Logue’s category is surely modernist-eye-and-ear. He begins book 19 with a new Homeric sunset:


(The entire section contains 1994 words.)

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