Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Iliad: Metaphor

Achilles binding the wound of Patroclus.

When I heard our reading group up north was going to discuss the Iliad, I groaned: it's long and bloody and I hadn't read it since I was an undergraduate, years and years ago. But then I remembered the great scenes: the old men admiring Helen, Hector's son crying in fear when he sees his father's flashing helmet, the death of Patroclus, the death of Hector, the rage of Achilles. Maddened, he kills in a fit of blood lust and throws the dead bodies into the river Scamandros, so many bodies that the river overflows with blood.

Yet as I read I was more interested in the metaphors that were doors into a parallel world of an agricultural, sheepherding, goat-herding, people who kept their eyes on nature. I had been taught that metaphor and simile amplified the main subject, but now I appreciated the metaphors in their own right. They signified life away from the blood-soaked battlefield where warriors fought for honor.

Here are some of Homer's metaphors and similes:

Think how a goatherd off on a mountain lookout
spots a storm cloud moving down the sea . . .
bearing down beneath the rush of the West Wind
and miles away he sees it building black as pitch,
blacker, whipping the whitecaps, full hurricane fury--
the herdsman shudders to see it, drives his flocks to a cave--

. . . like swarms of bees
pouring out of a rocky hollow, burst on endless burst.
bunched in clusters seething over the first spring blooms,
dark hoards swirling into the air, this way, that way . . .

. . . as the huge flocks on flocks of winging birds, geese or cranes
or swans with their long lancing necks--circling Asian marshes
round the Cayster outflow, wheeling in all directions,
glorying in their wings--keep landing, advancing . . ."

. . . as the swarms of flies seething over the shepherds' stalls
in the first spring days when the buckets flood with milk . . .

. . . as quick as a mother
flicks a fly from her baby sleeping softly . . .

. . . like flocks of sheep in a wealthy rancher's steadings,
thousands crowding to have their white milk drained,
bleating nonstop when they hear their crying lambs . . .

. . . like a lithe black poplar
shot up tall and strong in the spreading marshy flats,
the trunk trimmed but its head a shock of branches.

. . . as a garden poppy, burst into red bloom, bends,
drooping its head to one side, weighted down
by its full seeds and a sudden spring shower . . .

I've read as far as Book Six. Tonight, reading on, I'll look for the "as" and "like," not in order to escape the bloody battles but to see how most ancient Greeks lived--tending their children and animals, the swans, cranes and geese wheeling overhead, bees and flies swarming, udders swelling with fresh milk--Greeks who had the time to see a single red poppy droop its head.


  1. Oh, Mim, they are enough to make you swoon. Thank you for posting the gorgeous 'parallel-world' Homer of the Iliad. When you read it again after a space of time, you wonder how you could not be reading it constantly, in spite of the war and blood--he sees the beautiful world that isn't at war; and he sees deeply into the aggressive storm of men who love and need and hate and lust for war. And the scenes you mentioned are only a few of the ones that will break your heart. Thank you.

  2. More to come, dear Vespersparrow.

  3. a brilliant way to read....thank you!

  4. Mim,

    Your remarks call to mind Auerbach's similar points [in the essay, 'Odysseus' Scar' in Mimesis] about the rhetorical structure of Homer's epic as opposed to the more symbolic one of the Bible. The difference is in the details.

    I've wondered recently which details can be said to constitute the more authentic narrative record. Auerbach would argue for Homer ... but what if Homer was lying?

    Thanks for reminding us of these beatiful figures.

  5. Lenten: Homer never lies in his metaphors and similes.

    While there are differences between the Bible and the Iliad, those differences are not absolute. Both tell stories, and both use figurative language: "The mountains skipped like rams and the little hills like lambs."

    Both narratives are authentic. The Bible shows us the human psyche, doesn't it? Are they authentic historically? Who knows?

    You've got me thinking. Thank you.

  6. Lenten Stuffe, I haven't read Mimesis for years, so I don't remember--is it you or he that thinks Homer might be lying? I agree with Mim. I completely believe Homer didn't lie. I think poems can and do lie, but are they the ones we cherish? I have to quote Theodor Adorno again, "Art is magic delivered from the lie of being truth."

  7. Mim & Melissa,

    I don't think Homer lies either, especially in his figures, and Auerbach doesn't ask that question, he simply foregrounds the different kinds of narratives involved in each epic -- compares and contrasts [in a limited way] detail-by-detail.

    'Lying' itself may be too harsh a word for it, but is it even possible to lie aesthetically? Is Cubism a lie? People really don't look like that at all. I guess I'm wondering how a fiction could be an authentic narrative [I'm with Adorno, as usual], or how an historical record could be inauthentic, or even untrue [Oscar Lewis's A Death In The Sánchez Family]: Tom Waits notoriously reinvents his biographical narrative sometimes when he's being interviewed, so that people are left scratching their heads and saying, 'hold on a second, now, that's not true at all, or that didn't happen that way at all.' I've often wondered whether he's just being funny or making a serious artistic point.

    Just some thoughts ...

  8. what book is the quote "as quick as a mother flicks a fly from her baby sleeping softly" from?