Books in Review

The Husbands

Copyright (c) 1996 First Things 64 (June/July 1996): 49-50.

Homer for Today

The Husbands: An Account of Books 3 and 4 of Homer's Iliad. By Christopher Logue. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 56 pp. $19.

Reviewed by Laurance Wieder

The Husbands is the latest installment of Christopher Logue's "account" of Homer's Iliad. With its companion volumes, the earlier Kings and War Music, it proves once again that poetry is the fit medium for truth. It's also great fun.

Even unfinished, Logue's Homeric enterprise is already one of the enduring poems in our language. The late-twentieth-century epic is built atop all our inherited versions of Homer-not excavated, like some linguistic equivalent of Schliemann's Troy, but built upon: a new-made Iliad in English verse. The new Homer has the freedom and vigor of an extraordinarily gifted and beautiful child of old, moneyed family. Logue deploys Homer's vast historical and linguistic inheritance to create an Iliad that, perhaps for the first time, is not held hostage by a yearning for the lost world of ancient Greek.

As this version deftly reminds us, the Trojan War was a war between East and West, between tribes (the Balkan Greeks) and empire (the Trojan Medes), between raw impulse and high civilization. Events in The Husbands turn around the duel between Menelaos and Paris, Helen's "husbands" and the injured parties in the war.

Here's Paris:

Napoleon's Murat had 50 hats
And 50 plumes each 50 inches
And 50 uniforms and many
Than 50 pots of facial mayon-
Appropriate to a man with
tender skin;
He also had 10,000 cavalry,
Split-second timing, and con-
tempt for death.
So Providence-had he been
Later and lowlier-might well
have cast Prince Paris.
The centuries have not lied:
Observe the clotted blossoms
of his hair,
Frost white, frost bright-and
beautifully cut,
Queen Aphrodite's favourite

Here's Menelaos charging with his spear:

In a fast slouch, the Trojan
With a belligerent snarl, the
Come on to it.
Both men stand tall. Both men
look large
And though the Ilians were
proud of him,
Paris, his mirror bronze, his
Beautiful as he was, they de-
tested him.
But heroes are not frightened
by appearances.
Under his breath Lord
Menelaos says:
"I hate that man. I am going to
kill that man.
I want to mark his face. I want
to shout into his face:
You are dead. You are no longer
in this world."

What of the motive, Helen? Aphrodite tells her as she bathes:

"You wear a crown of hearts.
Your duty is
To stir and charm the wonder
of the world.
To raise the cry: Beauty is so
Leaves. Tiles. The sky. "And
so it is.
Free. And unfair. And strong.
A godlike thing."
The water's net across the
water's floor.

In Logue's version, the erotic suffices as a cause for war, and the conflicting intentions of human and gods are represented as something more compelling than a classroom rubric. Even the deus ex machina sleight-of-hand that spirits Paris from the field before Menelaos can finish him off is handled like the dazzling stage effect it is, rather than a verbal formula.

Except for George Chapman's Homer (a great Elizabethan poem) and Alexander Pope's Iliad (a work of high polish and manners), most versions of Homer in English are shackled by ideas about the Greek. Verse Iliads in English typically set out to relate the story, or to render word-for-word, or to recreate some aspect of Greek word order, rhythm, or measure. This requires a willing suspension of disbelief in our own language; knowledge and judgment and nuance, everything that makes the tongue a living spirit, must give way for a labored impossibility. The reader must believe that the three-thousand- year-old past is present, that Homer writes in English, and that his dialect knows of nothing that has happened in the intervening millennia. What this leads to can be found in almost any Hollywood film on a classical theme: think of all those Hercules movies; think of Clash of the Titans.

Poetry vibrates between two extremes. At one pole, the poem is a poem because of what it knows. At the other, the poem is poetry because of how it sounds. The knowledge and the music, inseparable in the original, become visible choices in the translation. As Matthew Arnold reminds us in his famous lectures "On Translating Homer," ideas about the language of the original poem are a downright impediment to making an English version that is poetry. Swift and direct, Homer has both knowledge and music. Poetry's material is the word, and its whole formal and conventional apparatus exists only to preserve and transmit a living voice. Ideas alone do not make poetry, just as remarks, however earnest, are not literature.

Rather than pretend to know how Homer struck his contemporaries, Christopher Logue takes Homer as a foundation, a given. Wherever it finally stops, Logue's work will look complete, because at least in the bold outline everything is already known and he, a master of metonymy, can build whatever he wants on the plains of Troy.

In loose blank verse akin to Milton's in Paradise Regained, Logue marshals all the imaginative resources available to an educated, sentient person at the end of the twentieth century. His narrator doesn't pretend to be a bronze-age blind bard. He knows better than to test his popular audience with catalogues and battles crowded with the genealogies and particularized deaths of heroes whose only purpose is to fall. Logue's Homer has more sense than to weight the flight of his song down with repeated epithets that might have helped a singer of tales to keep the thread and to improvise, but which only clog and spoil writing. His visualizations have the sweep and scale of wide-screen movies. Homer's heroes act and speak and are alive and believable without apology or special permit. Their motives, and the gods they pray to, are credible and moving.

Living and writing in the late twentieth century has its burdens as well as its privileges. The telescoped time of Logue's simile-as the opposing armies square off-fuses the melancholy of history with the sadness of nature:

Think of the noise that fills the
When autumn takes the Dnepr
by the arm
And skein on skein of honking
geese fly south
To give the stateless rains a
So Hector's moon-horned,
shouting dukes
Burst from the tunnels, down
the slope,
And shout, shout, shout,
smashed shouted shout
Backwards and forth across the
While pace on pace the Greeks
came down the counterslope
With blank, unyielding imper-

Or here, as the Greeks and Trojans under truce settle down to watch the duel between Menelaos and Paris:

Now dark, now bright, now
As aircrews watch tsunamis
Ripples across the Iwo Jima
Or, as a schoolgirl makes her
Go dark, go bright-
The armies as they strip, and
lay their bronze
And let their horses cool their
Along the opposing slopes.

Homer is the vehicle not only for the story of Troy, but also for much of what is known about Greek mythology, prehistory, geography, religion, and the arts. Logue doesn't try to bring all this baggage aboard his bark; he brings to his poem some knowledge Homer didn't have. To abjure the last 2,500 years would be to lobotomize his enterprise. Why have a tool that will do a job, and not use it? One might compose music in the late twentieth century for Renaissance period instruments, but it would always be, like theme park castles, a replicated rather than authentic air. Kings, The Husbands, and War Music (Books 16-19) make an authentic epic, for us today.

If David's psalms give individuals language for emotions and obligations and joys and predicaments predicated upon the Fall of Man and the Law, then Homer's poem is of the other eternity. There, gods are just like men who live forever, and can do what they please. Nobody knows what they have in mind. The godlike heroes do what they must, and die. Greeks and Trojans pray convincingly to gods who do or do not listen, and who themselves divide things into two: not good and evil, life and death, but them and us. Unlike the psalms, however, the Iliad takes no sides. Terror and pity course through both Greeks and Trojans; for Homer as well as for Logue, what survives is knowledge and music.

Laurance Wieder is a poet and writer. His most recent book is Duke: The Poems as Told to Laurance Wieder (Wiseacre Books).