“Cortez in Darien” Alan Farrell

D243 "The Greeks. The Greeks. In our A-Camp stood, among the weapons racks and jungle plane antenna cables and duty rosters, a biiiiiiiiiiiiig white Kelvinator refrigerator, packed with unrationed Cokes kept cold by an eternally-running 10-KW generator whose cycle-setting (the gauge had been shattered by a mortar fragment one night) we adjusted using a tape-recorder and a Frank Sinatra tape. When Frank’s "myyyyyyyyyyyyyy-eyyyyyye waaaaaaaaaaaay" sounded about right, we figured we were on 60 cycles and let it go. One day, shuffling in off sandbag detail with my montagnards to snatch a Coke, I took the grease pencil we tied to the fridge with a string and used to keep track of drinks drunk to write across the upper door of the thing: Andra moi ennepe, Mousa . . . First line of Homer’s Odyssey : "Sing to me the man, O Muse…" That evening when I got back from LP and went after yet another Coke, I discovered that someone had written with the same grease pencil in bold black characters beneath my inscription this: . . . polutropon hos mala pola plangthe , ". . . full of ruse and who suffered many woes," the last part of the same first verse of the Odyssey. I spent the remaining months of my tour and the intervening years trying to figure out which of my buddies on that 12-man A Detachment knew Homeric Greek and pierced my vanity. Of course no one would own up to it. Yet, there was another schoolboy there with me. And that shared experience is a debt I owe to the dozens of Unrats and Chippings and Gradgrinds who filled my head with the stuff that saw me through.

I suppose no one gets out of school without reading the sonnet by John Keats that begins "Much have I travell’ed in the realms of gold/ And many goodly states and kingdoms seen." Homer, claims Keats, is a dominion like one of these. The little poem is singular among others equally famous because its final and soaring image reposes on an error. In what is perhaps the most famous of literary blunders, the unlucky Keats has Cortez and not Balboa (or one of them) stare at the Pacific, "Silent, upon a peak in Darien." The exercise, of course, is to see the beauty, retrieve the passion, uncover and correct the error, but not discount the power of the work for its inaccuracy.

But somehow, we always want to twit Keats about his imperfect history. And many there are who find that mislaid fact a stumbling block. I have in my time been such a one.

There is a line in the Iliad , somewhere near the end, which even the clumsiest teacher usually manages to find and show off to students. It’s the one in which Achilles lops off a Trojan head, leaving the marrow to burble up, muelos spondulion in Greek, out of the now uncorked spine. A gruesome image. And fertile for the classroom. It tells us that war is oh gosh! bad and will undo us and we’d better find a way to stop it if we don’t all want to see our collective marrow come burbling up out of our collective spine.

I still remember the day that line surfaced in prep school English class and my quiet astonishment at hearing that Homer, who had spent thousands of lines singing with evident relish the heroic butchery of the Greeks and Trojans, didn’t like war. This was my first brush with irony in literature. The poet’s obvious delight in detailing this war reveals to us clever readers that he means just the contrary! Understanding that was a lot to ask of a seventeen-year-old, and I’m afraid I greeted the assertion with skepticism.

But over the years I guess I’ve read about as much Homer as anyone. For the longest time I could not get beyond that initial mistrust of an author whose notion of reality so poorly coincided with mine. I knew, as apparently Keats did not, that Balboa had first set eyes on the Pacific; and I knew, or at least I thought I did, that marrow did not burble. Somehow the picture of marrow, the phlegmatic, pinkish goo I had seen peering wistfully up at me out of soupbones, somehow the thought of that stuff spurting into the air confirmed to me the mendacity of Homer in particular and of literature in general. Whatever literature was about, I figured, had to be wholly divorced from the real life in which real man and women, for the most part unwillingly as far as I could tell, were called upon to function. Now, I supposed if that were all I’d seen, I’d be within my rights to remain a skeptic and disdain literature. But that’s not all I’ve seen.

Around the end of March in 1969 at about two o’clock one starless morning I lay in the dust of our compound in the highlands of Vietnam while men outside using hand-made bamboo quadrants and knotted string to compute parabolas lobbed 122 mm rockets at us. They sort of whiffle as they go over, those things do. One slammed into the ground close enough to me to lift me up and plop me down in a heap. Shards of something rained down on me. I got up without really thinking and staggered over to the still-smoking crater. I stepped on an object in the dark, which I reflexively picked up. At that moment a flare burst over the camp and froze everything.

I held in my hand a severed human foot.

For a few seconds I couldn’t fathom it. Flares, I guess you know, backlight everything. Soldiers are taught not to move a muscle in that flash of daylight. So I crouched there on the rim of that crater and peered at the little foot. It was sheared off a couple inches above the ankle, and from its puckered flesh poked a stub of bone, a distal tibia I think it’s called. A lumpy jelly burbled up and out of the shaft. It ran down the heel and over my fingers. Marrow. I cannot say how long I squatted motionless in the yellow glare riveted to my unearthly little trophy, but I was long in getting over it.

Homer was right. Marrow does burble.

And I began to wonder. If Homer was right about the marrow, what else had I discounted that he might be right about as well? After that, in odd moments and there are plenty of odd moments in a warI began to recast Homer in my head. I had read him carefully enough all right; I just hadn’t understood. I soon found out just how much I had remembered and how many of those tired old scenes were charged now with a significance I had to learn.

All those episodes I had riffled through so casually now became important to me. If marrow did burble, if Homer somehow had firsthand knowledge on that score, what else did he know that I didn’t? I recalled one thing: Homer didn’t think much of modern men. "That’s the way men are now," he would sneer, hoioi nun brotoi eisi, to explain why the old deeds looked so hopelessly grand to us. Sure enough, all the old soldiers from Korea or World War II, "the one wit’ thuh numbar," scorned us kids: "You should have seen a real war!" Homer knew that.

And what got you killed? That hadn’t changed either: Spheterin atasthaliesen , that is, your own foolishness. Homer knew that, too. And Homer seemed to know what goes wrong with even good men. He forgets and calls Aegisthos, lover of Clytemnaestra and murderer of Agamemnon, amumonos , that is, blameless, when he should be dolometis , duplicitous. So good men do dumb things and wicked for passion’s sake. But do they cease even so to be good?

And how did Odysseus know enough to dodge Nausikaa, the nymph? And Circe the witch? By what intuition would a middle-aged man just back from a long war turn down offers like that? What made him reluctant to "put your sword in its sheath", koleo aor theo , as he was invited to do? Just what did he put and wherefor a year on that island? Why would such women as Nausikaa, Calypso, Circe find a tired, scarred, old man attractive, anyhow?

Homer understood all that, as I was beginning to. He knew about digging foxholes, taphro orkute , in any event. He knew about drugs, too, athinon ediar , flowery food, that sapped the will to go home. At night we listened to the stubaropthongos luros , the deep-voiced lyre, play us aoiden neotaten , the song freshest to men’s ears. At that time it was the Animals and "House of the Rising Sun", rhododactualos Eos . Some of my buddies chased the eudzonai , well-girdled women of that Fortress to the East we had come to sack. Sorry. . . . come to save.

Homer had evidently met my buddies, too. He sang of hyperphialos , wiseapple Ajax, a good man in a fight but a pain in the ass when drunk back in camp. Okupos , swiftfooted, were all of us kids who wanted so badly to be heroes like Achilles. I never did like Achilles for my part, though, and the only thing I remembered about him was that he didn’t enjoy being dead. Most of us trusted polutropos , "been-around" Odysseus, who knew the score and planned on going home. Odysseus was not averse to hiding behind a tree and whomping someone whose back was turned. The hippos xestos , "horse of wood" was after all the symbol of guerilla warfare and the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg in those days.

What had bored me at school saved me now. As I sat through ambushes, at relay sites, on security, in darkness, all those infinitely rich episodes came back to me. Now they beguiled the numbing reality of patience, by which guerrilla warfare is waged, through the very thing I had rejected them for in class. Each episode was a puzzle. I was grateful for puzzles now. Those Homeric scenes were, I swear it, treasures I hoarded more jealously than any simple souvenir. Memories have only one face; Homer had a thousand, enough for the thousand moments of brute monotony. I came dimly to suspect that if Homer had known what he was talking about, maybe Goethe did, too. Rabelais. Cervantes.

Safe and cynical today, I cannot seem to set down here the depth of my gratitude to those swirling images of long -dead only-too-human heroes. I had found out first-hand that Homer knew what he was talking about. It had not been an act of faith, though, and I was a little ashamed that I had made him prove it to me. I had challenged him, lumpishly and brutally, to come up with proof. I chose to validate the poet’s insightand this is worseby simple test of his knowledge of the absurdity of combat, of anatomy to be exact. I had required that whole shabby cataclysm to be staged so that I could see.

Did it come to this for everyone? And how did Homer’s unerring eye for savagery qualify him to speak to me about sexuality, honor, despair, hope? Was I justified in concluding that someone with so faithful a regard for detail would not have missed telling detail elsewhere, or at least not likely?

And did Homer like or dislike war? Of course he disliked it,without for an instant dreaming that so silly a creature as man would ever find another way: spheteresin atasthaliesin , remember? The leaders of Troy, gerai polemoio pepaumenoi , "don’t fight any more because they are old." They sure do talk a lot, though, esthloi agorontai. And the men who fight will probably never know any more of the reason why than the Greeks did about Argive Helen: an unapproachable ideal and anything but virginal.

My guess, though, is that Homer cannot repress at least a grudging admiration for the excitement, the commotion, the grandeur released in battle. There is some sort of intensity in combat that he cannot seem to deride or dispel. The poet’s unabashed adulation for his heroes, who owe all they are to war, is probably rightly damnable. Wouldn’t some other kind of adversity or adventure do as well for the instruction of the young of their race and the gratification of their baser instincts? Homer doesn’t rightly know, I suppose. If he did, I’m pretty sure he would have told us. He told us everything else.

Well, now I’m the middle-aged man with the scar. And I’ve wandered inland to settle, just like Odysseus. I still have the dog-eared old copy of the Iliados I carried all through the war. I keep it so I won’t forget how many times I’ve huddled in fear with that paperback in the trouser-pocket of my fatigues and won’t try to persuade myself I was ever a hero. And I guess you know that on the day Odysseus came home, nostimon hemar , his dog died and his wife looked at him funny and his friends threw things at him. He was probably happy for all that, even if Tennyson doesn’t think so. But sometimes the old tales would make him cry, it seems to me. We can believe that a man like that cried.

Homer says so. And he was right about the marrow, wasn’t he?"

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25 Responses to “Cortez in Darien” Alan Farrell

  1. rjj says:


  2. China Hand says:

    I studied Homer’s greek, too. I was never as diligent a student as this man, though.
    Even so, it seems that the lessons this man learned so painfully were easier for me.
    Sometimes, I think that the written word is a curse. Sometimes, I think it’s a blessing.
    I’m not sure on which side I would set this man’s words — blessing or curse — I can only say that I regret this constantly recurrng theme, and wish it would end.
    I pray that he has cleansed himself into happiness; but my recent time is given mostly to prayers for those who suffer now. I hope they might find peace; barring that, I hope that we can absorb their fears and stave off more violence.
    I have seen cracked and shattered bones, blood-strewn streets, gunsoht wounds and severed limbs. I do not know if I can help, but I will try.
    I am sure this man will try, too.
    And in the meantime, I pray.

  3. frank durkee says:


  4. bob mcmanus says:

    Thank you

  5. Gozer says:

    Just a word…Excellent.

  6. Mad Dogs says:

    Mighty fine thoughts.

  7. Sidney O. Smith III says:

    This essay is literary art. Symphonic. Thanks for sharing it with us.

  8. Jose says:

    I just got “Caravan”, why did you bring this up? lol

  9. r@d@r says:

    now i’m suddenly way less impressed with myself for having read the lattimore translation in jr. high – and way more disappointed in myself for not learning it in the original greek at st. john’s like i ought to have.

  10. Jose says:

    Excellent essay!
    I read all those books but was never so taken by them as this writer.
    I always sided with the Trojans anyways:
    “Paris, you handsome, woman-mad deceiver,
    you shouldn’t have been born, or killed unmarried.
    I wish you had-it would have been far better
    Than having you our shame, whom all suspect,
    Or having the long-haired Acheans laugh
    When you appear as champion-champion beauty-
    But have no strength, nor character, nor courage.”
    Hmmm, how could men who have never had the strength, the character or the courage to fight in a war be so willing to send others to war?

  11. taters says:

    Thank you for sharing this gem with us, Col. Lang.
    Absolutely superb, Gen. Farrell.

  12. Cold War Zoomie says:

    How am I supposed to keep alive my stereotypical vision of the Army being full of Neanderthal rejects scorned by the other branches if you “grunts” keep proving it wrong?
    Now dumb it down, will ya!?

  13. Will says:

    makes all us new guys realize what we missed not getting a classical education.
    i started Latin in the seventh grade but it got canceled after one week. I tried to make up for it by taking a year of Latin in college. I remember all the cases, genitive, ablative and that Julius Caeser is really pronounced Yulius Kaisaar. And of course the “Persicos” for Persians which I freely use in this forum. The school offered New Testament Greek but I had to take 20 hours just to get the Latin in. But I ofter read blueletterbible.com which has an interlinear hebrew greek english bible. hebrew is very close to Arabic and it surprising how much Greek we already know.
    An interesting take on the Iliad is that of psychologist Julian Jaynes. The Bicameral Mind. Look it up on Wikipedia. He says consciousness is not as old as you think and relates it to Schizophrenia. the conversations of the Iliad and Old Testament is used to make his case. It’s all about gods or God speaking to men. one part of the brain speaking to the other, he says as in schizophrenia, his theory. The Iliad is all about Athena or Apollo speaking to Achilles. The Odyssey is more of a self-actualized modern man, the emergence of self consciousness.

  14. Cujo359 says:

    Wonderful story. I’ll quibble with one little bit of it, though:
    It had not been an act of faith, though, and I was a little ashamed that I had made him prove it to me. I had challenged him, lumpishly and brutally, to come up with proof.
    Skepticism isn’t brutal – it’s the natural state of a thinking human mind.

  15. Duncan Kinder says:


    • Nausikaa was not a nymph. She was a Phaiakian princess who rescued him after he had been washed up on her island.
    • Homer did not necessarily have firsthand knowledge of “burbling marrow.” His poetry was composed orally; he did not write it down. It was part of a long bardic tradition, part of which entailed use of stock epithets such as “wine dark sea,” “rosy-fingered dawn,” and many others. “Burbling marrow was one of these and could have been invented by another bard one hundred years before Homer was born.
    • This use of epithet was discovered by Milman Parry in the 1920’s – one of the great achievements of 20th century classical studies. His disciple, Albert Lord, concisely presented Parry’s views in The Singer of Tales
    • “amumonos Aigisthoio,” therefore, is not forgetfulness or some profound insight into the effect of passion on otherwise good men. It merely is the epithet formula dictates one must use for Aegisthos in the genitive at the end of a line.
  16. rjj says:

    “The exercise, of course, is to see the beauty, retrieve the passion, uncover and correct the error, but not discount the power of the work for its inaccuracy.”

  17. pbrownlee says:

    Argos and Achilles and Ajax and Agamemnon (and that’s just a few of the As) have helped get a lot of us through a great deal of ephemeral manure.
    “As they were talking, a dog that had been lying asleep raised his head and pricked up his ears. This was Argos, whom Odysseus had bred before setting out for Troy, but he had never had any enjoyment from him. In the old days he used to be taken out by the young men when they went hunting wild goats, or deer, or hares, but now that his master was gone he was lying neglected on the heaps of mule and cow dung that lay in front of the stable doors till the men should come and draw it away to manure the great close; and he was full of fleas.
    “As soon as he saw Odysseus standing there, he dropped his ears and wagged his tail, but he could not get close up to his master.
    “When Odysseus saw the dog on the other side of the yard, he dashed a tear from his eyes without Eumaeus seeing it, and said:
    “Eumaeus, what a noble hound that is over yonder on the manure heap: his build is splendid; is he as fine a fellow as he looks, or is he only one of those dogs that come begging about a table, and are kept merely for show?’
    “This hound,’ answered Eumaeus, ‘belonged to him who has died in a far country. If he were what he was when Odysseus left for Troy, he would soon show you what he could do.
    “There was not a wild beast in the forest that could get away from him when he was once on its tracks.
    “But now he has fallen on evil times, for his master is dead and gone, and the women take no care of him. Servants never do their work when their master’s hand is no longer over them, for Zeus takes half the goodness out of a man when he makes a slave of him.’
    “So saying he entered the well-built mansion, and made straight for the riotous pretenders in the hall.
    “But Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had seen his master once more after twenty years.”
    (The modern sequel by Katzantzakis shows that he just did not get it — but Homer did — and reinforces what we who “did” classical and modern Greek whispered — that the ancient Greeks were extinct and modern Greeks were Turks — even if Homer was born in wonderful Izmir. Disappointing but not as much as wise, modest Thucydides being staked out by Donald Kagan of all people — if I were Thucydides, I’d be calling my agent).
    There is a line in the Chinese film “The King of Masks” (which I may be misremembering) — “True feeling is rare but it can be found” — http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0115669/
    Thank you — especially Alan Farrell and Pat Lang — for an unexpected epiphany in the misty Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia.
    We are doggy folk and dropped ears mean something here.
    Keep them epiphanies coming, boys.
    And death to the “riotous pretenders”!

  18. taters says:

    That was superb, thanks.

  19. W. Patrick Lang says:

    The use of the deathshead as a military symbol is several centuries old. pl

  20. W. Patrick Lang says:

    I remember you now.
    OK. What unit is that? Exactly?
    By the way, what was the demonstration area at Bragg named for? The first one? pl

  21. Alex Brush says:

    Thanks for sharing this with me…Really profound. Feel kinda inspired to look a bit more closely into Homer’s work. If only I knew Greek…seems French is enough of a chore to learn though.

  22. looseleaf says:

    A technical point: “spinal marrow” was the medical term employed in English until the late 19th-early 20th C. to refer specifically to the spinal cord. An equivalent term “moelle epiniere”, is still used in French. I believe related terms were used much further back into Renaissance, medieval and ancient periods. I think that in the example cited, Homer most likely was referring to the spinal cord, or whatever remained of the contents of the spinal canal after it had been hacked open.Whether “burbling” is the most apt verb to describe what happens in this situation, I cannot say from my own experience. Brooks burble, I think. Spinal marrow/cord probably oozes.
    My particular quibble notwithstanding, it is heartening to read a testament to the sustaining power of great literature.

  23. rjj says:

    I have almost no Latin, less Greek, but a smattering of anatomy.
    Spinal marrow I automatically processed as a kenning for spinal cord, which looks like cooked long bone marrow.
    Spinal cord and brain are fairly fluid. They do seep/ooze and spread out after the meninges are severed. They don’t appear to burble, but might begin to after they had been left out in the sun a while.
    What I know is based on “harvesting” a goodly number of baby mice brains to culture neuroblasts. Could be a matter of scale and controlled (limitedly violent) conditions, though.
    BUT, BUT, BUT what is the verb that conveys “burble” here:
    muelos aute sphonduliôn ekpalth’, ho d’ epi chthoni keito tanustheis.

  24. T Brush says:

    It is even more clear to me now having read your piece on Homer and the brutal truth of war, why your work leaves your students so deeply affected and infected with the bug for learning. Our son has been and continues to be inspired by you the man and your work. Thank You!

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