Homer by Richard Sale


How others study and learn is a mystery to me.  Unfortunately, for me, I study and learn by fits and starts. 

When I read a book, and it is like watching a torch burn, watching it catch fire and watching as its knowledge lights another torch in turn. One day recently, I was reading an essay by the great Spanish philosopher, Ortega, Mediations on Hunting, and he made remarks about Polybius, a Greek historian writing about Rome, and I began to read him, and soon I was finishing The Iliad and began to read Greek plays that I haven’t read in 50 years.

Like everyone, I am often guilty of saying to myself that I read such and such a book in college or high school. Unfortunately, I often cannot remember what they said. Simply recalling titles is hardly praiseworthy, so when I began to study the Greeks again, I once again discovered that the Greeks are incredibly good!

Why? They are full of vital force. They don’t age. Their voices remain alive with strong and tumultuous life. They aren’t uselessly theatrical.  Homer, at the beginning of The Iliad plunges us immediately into a near-violent quarrel.  The king of the Greeks is Agamemnon, and while powerful, he is very self-willed and stubborn and ruinously touchy.  He is known as the “wide-ruling king,” but his pride overpowers his ability to reason fairly or clearly.  He is always insisting tediously that his is the greatest of all the Greeks.  They grow weary of  hearing it.

Here is the beginning.

The god Apollo is angered by an insult and sets loose a plague among the Greek warriors fighting on the shores of Troy. When it turns out that a woman captive, a prize of war, must be returned to her father to quell the plague, King Agamemnon begins to fidget and stew.  His attitude is bratty, and it is grade-school bratty: If I have to give up a woman won by war, why shouldn’t someone else give up his? His chief champion and the greatest of the Greek warriors, Achilles, has little respect for the king calling him, “the most profit-loving man,” and warns the king that if he lost his prize, it is tough luck. Achilles, growing very angry, asserts, “We have no common store” of prizes available, but Agamemnon, always the brat says, "Will you tell me to give my prize up, and am I to be without one, while you keeps yours?” The king is going to pick another prize from his fighters, and he warns, “Angry will he be to whom I come.”

Achilles bridles in fury at this. “What do I care about you and your anger?” This infuriates Agamemnon who says, that if the god Apollo is taking away his prize, “…I will come to your hut and take away your prize of honor, the fair-faced Breisis, so that you jay see that I am much greater than you. Then others, in times to come, may be slower to match themselves with me.”

Immediately this is done.  The mind of Achilles is divided “between taking out his sword and killing Agamemnon or controlling his anger.”  He does the latter, but he  spurns fighting and lapses into a huge sulk as the Trojans begin to rack up a record of battlefield successes. He only forfeits his grudge and is only goaded into fighting after his beloved companion, Patroclus, is slain by the Trojan hero Hector, called, “the tamer of horses.”

But before he leaves the first scene, Achilles lets loose a final flood of insults at his king, “You full wineskin, you; you with the face of a dog, and the heart of a fawn,” and he warns, “in that day, you will bite on your own heart in anger because you did this wrong to the best of the Greeks.”

Why is this so good? Because it is vivid, concentrated, and telling. Because it is real, authentic in mood and tone, and the words come from living, breathing and deeply feeling characters.  I.A. Richards, who produced a wonderful translation of the Iliad, equal to that of Richmond Lattimore, said, “Countless people have lived and live by the (Greek) culture, who have never heard of The Iliad.  (But) fundamental things in their behavior and attitudes in what they do and how they feel and how they give up for what and how they see themselves and others…can be studied economically and profitably through The Iliad.”

He also asserts that reading The Iliad is a thing of “permanent value” because every action is rooted in people’s characters. Clearly there is a profound tragedy that occurs when Achilles resolves to kill Hector, knowing unmistakably that this his own death will soon follow Hector’s.

Homer’s descriptions

They are breathtaking.

Hephaestus, the Greek god who makes armor, is described in a passage, “He got up, the great, hard-breathing mass of him, uneven in his walk,” – the god has a lamed foot like Lord Byron or Talleyrand.

He is also called, “The great artist of the two strong arms.”

There are also brilliant touches. When Patroclus is killed, angry though he is, Achilles knows that he has failed his friend. “I was not with him in his need,” he says in sorrow.

Then there are things like this: describing the aftermath of a terrible battle, Homer says,

“The wall was wet with blood of men from both sides.”

Another description of battle is described, “And when the Greeks and Trojans fought, like the East and South winds fighting in a mountain wood, shaking the trees until you could hear the branches being broken.”

When the grief-stricken Achilles returns to battle and kills Hector, he pulls the spear out of Hector’s body, lays it aside as he takes his armor, "…the other Greeks ran up  to wonder at Hector’s beauty.”  A truly wonderful touch.

The whole poem has great scope and a plot of great complexity. All the episodes have been combined to produce a startling unity of action that ponders the meaning of valor, struggle, and death. The tale is a heroic struggle to obtain outstanding, imperishable honor by means of unmatched prowess.

There is nothing dead about the classics.

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17 Responses to Homer by Richard Sale

  1. Thanks Richard and a reminder well worth it!
    If you or others have not read Thomas Cahill’s “Sailing the Wine Dark Sea-What Greece Gave Western Civilization” from the Hinges of History Series you might find it of some interest!

  2. nick b says:

    “Homer, thy song men liken to the sea,
    With every note of music in his tone,
    With tides the that wash the dim dominion
    Of Hades, and light waves that laugh in glee
    Around the isles enchanted: nay, to me
    Thy verse seems as the River of source unknown
    That glasses Egypt’s temples overthrown,
    In his sky-nurtur’d stream, eternally.
    No wiser we than men of heretofore
    To find thy mystic fountains guarded fast;
    Enough–thy flood makes green our human shore
    As Nilus, Egypt, rolling down his vast,
    His fertile waters, murmuring evermore
    Of gods dethroned, and empires of the Past.”
    – Andrew Lang, from his translation of the Odyssey of Homer, with SH Butcher. From Volume 22 of the Harvard Classics.

  3. Babak Makkinejad says:

    You guys need to get out of Euro-American tunnel and read other epics that are equally alive; e.g. Shahnameh, and Mahabharata.

  4. turcopolier says:

    I have read both of those. pl

  5. Fred says:

    Sing to me the man, O Muse…
    Homer’s well worth reading; and one discovers more of the challenges to living with each reading.

  6. Well written, Mr. Sale. Speaking of the Greeks, I had a wonderful cinematic moment while watching the Polish film “Katyn”. After the war, while the Soviet sponsored Polish government was being consolidated, a young woman, having learned that her brother had been one of the Poles murdered in the Katyn forest, decided commission a memorial to him, with the date of his death inscribed thereon. This was anathema to the new Polish government and communist party, since the party line was to blame the Germans and the date made that impossible. Unable to raise enough money for the memorial she sold her very long snd beautiful hair to a theatre for a wig. On her way out of the theatre with the money, the camera passed over a poster announcing the play being produced. The play was “Antigone”. That was an “Aha!” moment and illustrated for me why we still read, study, and perform the plays of Sophocles 2500 years later. That wonderful play asks the question, “what duty do we owe to the state and what do we owe the Gods, our consciences and customs?”. An enduring question.

  7. shepherd says:

    For what it’s worth, Homer isn’t as embedded in the “Euro-American” tradition as you might think. The poems only became widely read, really, in the late 18th century. Virgil was much better known and admired throughout the tradition, and they are very different poets. I’ll try to sketch those differences.
    Homer’s theme is rage. His warriors have been trained since birth to build and harness incredible anger into acts of violence. They don’t fight as disciplined units, they range around the battlefield talking trash and trying to murder one another. Victory almost always results in rape and slaughter–though their are curious acts of friendship and kinship too on the battlefield. At times, Homer’s warriors can seem (to modern eyes) borderline psychotic. But they are also highly noble and fascinating in their way–they are very different from the Western tradition. I also don’t mean any of this as criticism (I see no point in using modern morality in ancient contexts). Homer sees no world other than his.
    Virgil is completely different. While he recognizes the need for violence (and, I should note, he’s a profoundly self-contradictory writer; the poem ends with Aeneas killing a prostrate foe in a fit of rage), in general for him, furor must be balanced by pietas. The Iliad is largely framed around an internal dispute inside the Greek army, the war in the Aeneid is altogether a dispute between people who are foreign to one another–the one superior in virtue to the other. You can many threads of European thought in him, while relatively few in Homer.

  8. Fred says:

    I disagree on your view of Homer’s theme. Virgil wrote almost a thousand years after Homer, at the beginning of the Augustan period. Homer was the foundation, the cornerstone, Virgil built on his themes. Of course it is differnt to modern eyes. The morals of today are certainly not the ones existing in the Agean 3,000 years ago.

  9. I have always believed seapower the driver for Greece and Rome not the Phalanx and Cohort. Perhaps am wrong. Mare Nostrum!

  10. shepherd says:

    Your disagreement is with Homer, not me. He announces his subject matter in the first line of his poem: the wrath of Achilles. But, of course, you are correct that Virgil built on Homer and that they treat many themes in common. So in that sense, you’re right. Still, they have very different worldviews. Virgil is highly critical of the Homeric ethos, and his view had a deep and profound influence on European thought; while Homer’s did not. Until relatively recently (by this, I mean 250 years), Homer was not much read, and Virgil was read by everyone.

  11. Babak Makkinejad says:

    Thank you for your comments; I learnt something.

  12. shepherd says:

    The Romans had no navy until the First Punic War. They obsessively built roads to extend their power. They developed credible sea forces, but if they could avoid water, they did.
    With the Greeks, sea power was obviously more important. The Athenians always had a big navy.

  13. David Habakkuk says:

    Thanks for your fascinating comments on Richard Sale’s fascinating post.
    My own knowledge of Homer is sketchy, largely deriving from an amateurish interest in English drama in Shakespeare’s time.
    Certainly, the Iliad is the story of the ‘wrath of Achilles’. But then, the Odyssey is quite different, is it not? In which case, to speak of a simple ‘Homeric ethos’ might be slightly misleading, might it not?
    The first significant translation of Homer into English was that of George Chapman, Shakespeare’s contemporary. It did have resonance at the time. In particular, it seems likely that one of Shakespeare’s weirdest plays – Troilus and Cressida – was in part his response to Chapman’s translation.
    The play is suffused, I think, with Shakespeare’s own complex feelings about the ‘swordsmen’ of the court of the late Elizabethan period, with some of whom he was closely acquainted. Behind his transformation of Homer’s Achilles is, quite clearly, the Earl of Essex.
    It is at least arguable that the culture of the ‘swordsmen’ was carried over into Virginia, the colony named for Elizabeth. At the risk of putting forward too outrageous an hypothesis, I might suggest that both the negative and positive aspects that Shakespeare identified in the ‘swordsmen’ could be found very strongly present in the antebellum south.
    Perhaps the ambivalences one finds in ‘Mark Twain’ have something in common with those one finds in Shakespeare.
    This is a rash comment, which better informed people may know to be quite off the wall. But the relations between Greek culture, Roman culture, English culture, and American culture are fascinating in their complexity.

  14. shepherd says:

    I’ve also been mulling my own rashness in proposing such a late date for widespread reading–it’s a squishy concept. My own sense of intellectual history is that the Homer really became popular with the Romantic movement, though certainly the works were translated and read earlier. But what’s always curious to me is that while we almost entirely prefer Homer to writers like Virgil, that was not a widely held view until relatively recently.
    You’re correct about Chapman’s Homer, it did have resonance (it is, by the way, not a close translation by any means). But unfortunately it is not the source of Troilus and Cressida, which was probably published a decade or so before Chapman’s translation. The T/C legend is not of ancient vintage but a tale of chivalry belonging to the Middle Ages. Chaucer wrote a version of it. As such, I’d imagine you could make a go of an argument that S’s feelings about swordsmen resonate in the South, which embraced chivalry apparently with some gusto. (That said, others on this blog are much more knowledgeable about that period than me).
    As for the final point about Odysseus, again, I’d get clobbered by any of my old professors for talking in such a sloppy way. The Odyssey is quite different in many ways, and some have argued it represents a transition to a more settled time.

  15. turcopolier says:

    The whole Southern thing of the classics as a background for gentlemen was very strong, even in the fifties (1950s). I was saturated in the matter of this or that place at VMI. This predilection is reflected in the 19th Century name of a tiny hamlet on the Shenandoah Valley. It is called “10th Legion.” I am in Charleston, SC. An African-American gent drove me to the hotel this morning. As we passed through the city he pointed out the Military College of South Carolina (The Citadel). He said “you have another one of those, right? VMI?” I said. “Yes, there is such a place.” pl

  16. nick b says:

    Here is an 1884 NYT review of George Palmer’s translation. The author speaks briefly about the increase in Homeric translations throughout his time.

  17. optimax says:

    Parts of Chapman’s translation of The Iliad began appearing in 1598, though the whole work was not published until 1611.

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