Violence, savagery, and great beauty: One good paragraph #5

I’ve been reading the Iliad lately. I started it a while ago, then got distracted by other things, and only recently picked it back up again. It’s good stuff. There’s no better way to start your day than by reading about Greek and Trojan warriors slaughtering each other. (Just kidding, but it does make for a change from the daily routine, if nothing else.) Reading about heroism, honor, courage can inspire one in daily life, even if your life isn’t as dramatic as theirs was. One can very definitely tell that the Iliad came from an earlier time in human history — one far less complicated, surface-obsessed, yet still treacherous and amoral. We have perhaps sunk farther down than they, who organized their lives around duty and honor. I know that the Iliad is an epic poem and not real life, but one cannot shake the feeling that people in former times knew more about living — really living — than we do now.

From an artistic standpoint, the Iliad is absolutely necessary reading. Homer is a master of comparison, simile, and metaphor, and the pictures he paints with his words make one stop and just sit and admire at times. His assured mastery of his form is noteworthy, too. He knows just how to get the effect he wants within the conventions of his form. Once you become used to the stylized, conventionalized phrasing he employs, that (to us) unnatural way of speaking fades from attention, and all that’s left is the gripping artistry, the cinematic sweep of the story, the stately grief and grand rage of the combatants and those left behind, and the riveting, gratuitous violence.

The Iliad of course has more than one good paragraph; the whole thing is good! That’s why it’s a stone-cold classic still. This is one of numerous quotes from the Iliad that I keep returning to, but it stands out for me because of the combinations and elaboration of the imagery. This comes from Book 16, lines 455-465 in Robert Fagles’ superlative translation. Enjoy:

And all in an onrush dark as autumn days

when the whole earth flattens black beneath a gale,

when Zeus flings down his pelting, punishing rains –

up in arms, furious, storming against those men

who brawl in the courts and render crooked judgments,

men who throw all rights to the wind with no regard

for the vengeful eyes of the gods – so all their rivers

crest into flooded spate, ravines overflowing cut the hilltops

off into lonely islands, the roaring flood tide rolling down

to the storm-tossed sea, headlong down from the foothills

washes away the good plowed work of men –

Rampaging so,

the gasping Trojan war-teams hurtled on.