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NA306212 - HOMER: Iliad (The)
The Iliad is one of the two great epics of ancient Greece, the other being, of course, The Odyssey. Of their author, Homer, we know almost nothing: he probably lived in the 8th century BC, and it is almost certain that he composed his verse orally, its literary form not being settled until the 6th century BC. By this time Homer’s works had come to represent something like the Bible in the Judaic-Christian tradition: they formed the artistic, moral and narrative basis of ancient Greek (and then Roman) culture. The two epics survived the Dark and Middle Ages, although they only became widely known again in the Renaissance period. Since then, they have been repeatedly translated.
In The Iliad, Homer takes for his story fifty crucial days from the ten year duration of the Trojan War. The Greek allies, nine years into the siege, are wearying of their failure to take the city, and the poem opens with a disastrous quarrel between Agamemnon, leader of the Greeks, and Achilles, their finest warrior. Achilles withdraws from action to sulk in his tent, and the Trojans find new success on the battlefield. Led by Hector, they gradually drive the Greeks back to their ships, breaching the defenses hastily thrown up around them. At this crisis, Achilles agrees to allow his dearest friend, Patroklos, to borrow his armor and fight in his stead. Patroklos repulses the Trojans with such success that they are pushed back to their own walls, but is himself killed by Hector. Achilles is roused by grief and rage to return to the fray. He kills Hector; King Priam pleads successfully for the return of his son’s body; and the poem ends quietly with a truce for Hector’s funeral.
Such is the outline of the story. Homer makes no attempt to conceal the eventual fate of his characters: his audience would in any case have been familiar with the tale, but (more importantly) Homer actually increases suspense and significance by inducing in the reader a painful sense of human frailty and self-deception as we watch the characters moving towards their fate. The tone and structure of this epic is essentially tragic: the individual tragedies of (chiefly) Hector and Achilles (whose death is anticipated, not described) are powerfully moving, but we have all the time a sense of human beings placed in a religious context and operating always within the shadow of greater powers. Achilles could choose between a long, dull, safe life — and a brief, but glorious one. The gods do not allow a compromise.
Homer’s range and sophistication are shown in his treatment of the gods. They are a family, and they quarrel as a family: when Thetis asks Zeus to favor her son Achilles, Zeus agrees reluctantly, gloomily reflecting that his wife Hera ‘will not spare/For gibe and taunt injurious’ when she hears. Clearly some sort of divine comedy is being enacted — yet Homer is never less than serious in his belief that the gods do indeed, however capriciously, control the lives of men.
The tragic intensity of The Iliad is reinforced by wonderful moments of human tenderness in between the bloody battles: Hector, half-aware that his own death is not far off, bids farewell to his grieving wife Andromache on the battlements of Troy, yet both can laugh affectionately at their baby son Astyanax’s fear of his father in his plumed helmet; at the emotional climax of the epic, King Priam touches Achilles’ heart by compelling him to see and imagine how his own aged father Peleus would feel if the body of his dead son were kept from him.
Much of the poem’s action is devoted to descriptions of battle. In these, Homer is uncompromisingly realistic as to the manner and moment of injury or death, and even though the diction is often conventional, one feels on every occasion the stab of poignancy as another young man is ‘of youth's prime/And vigorous manhood suddenly bereft.’ It is worth noting also that roughly half the poem consists of dialogue: Homer is perhaps not only the first great creator of epic poetry in Western civilization, but also its first tragic dramatist.
Homer wrote in hexameters, while Cowper uses blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameters) for his version. Translations of Homer by Dryden, Pope and others had been made throughout the Augustan period, generally using the rhymed couplet, but Cowper’s version combines almost ideally the dignified music of Milton with the ‘classical’ restraint and formality of 18th century verse, and an additional hint of early Romantic sensibility.
William Cowper, Translator
William Cowper (1731-1800) was educated at Westminster and called to the bar in 1754. Bullied at school, he was subject to repeated bouts of severe depression, which effectively destroyed his legal career and made his private life equally unsuccessful. This depression became strongly associated with his religious convictions, which made him acutely conscious of what he saw as his personal and moral inadequacy. He lived for some time with the Reverend Morley Unwin’s family at Huntingdon, and later with John Newton, the Evangelical minister with whom he wrote some of the best-loved hymns in the English language (including ‘God moves in a mysterious way’). His best-known works are probably the discursive satires, such as Conversation and The Task, which display a sharp wit moderated by sensitive humanity and a love of the domestic. His translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey appeared in 1791. Listeners to this version may be interested to know that Cowper’s Iliad is not currently in print: the text has been prepared from the first edition.
Synopsis of The Iliad
Book 1: Agamemnon will not allow the priest Chryses to ransom his
daughter home. Apollo is affronted and sends a plague to destroy the Greeks. Agamemnon is forced to return the girl, but as compensation
insists on taking Achilles’ prize, the maiden Bryseis. The two leaders
quarrel violently and Achilles refuses to fight for the Greeks.
Book 2: Zeus sends a dream to Agamemnon, which incites him to battle. The Greek army is called to arms.
Book 3: The battle is suspended while Paris and Menelaus try to settle the quarrel in single combat. Aphrodite saves Paris from certain death.
Book 4: The truce is broken when Pandarus shoots at Menelaus.
Book 5: The Greek hero Diomede distinguishes himself in battle, and also succeeds in wounding two divinities, Aphrodite and Ares, who were helping the Trojans.
Book 6: Hector rallies the Trojans, resisting Andromache’s plea that he should stay at home in safety.
Book 7: Hector and Ajax fight, inconclusively. The Greeks build a defensive wall around their ships, and reject a Trojan offer of compensation for the abduction of Helen.
Book 8: Battle is renewed, and the Greeks are driven back to the ships.
Book 9: The Greeks, in crisis, appeal to Achilles, but even the beloved Phoenix cannot persuade him to help them.
Book 10: (Omitted in this version)
Book 11: Agamemnon leads the Greeks bravely, but fortune favors the Trojans, and Achilles grudgingly allows Patroklos to appear in his (Achilles’) armor.
Books 12 -15 (given in prose summary): Hector breaches the Greek defenses, and Agamemnon, tempted to give up, is only persuaded by Odysseus and Diomede to persist.
Book 16: At last Patroklos sallies forth. He repels the Trojans brilliantly but is eventually killed by Hector.
Book 17: A battle ensues for the body of Patroklos, which is finally claimed by the Greeks, but only after Hector has taken and donned the armor of Achilles.
Book 18: Achilles is told of his friend’s death. Grief-stricken and enraged, he prepares to seek vengeance; Hephaestus forges new armor for him.
Book 19: Achilles and Agamemnon are reconciled. Battle is renewed.
Book 20: Now the gods rejoin the battle, helping on both sides. Hector escapes Achilles’ assault.
Book 21: Achilles drives many of the fleeing Trojans into the river Scamander and slays them. The river indignantly pursues him. The Trojan forces are driven back into their city.
Book 22: Hector confronts Achilles, who has chased him round the walls of Troy. Hector is killed and Troy laments.
Book 23: Patroklos’ funeral takes place; the funeral games follow.
Book 24: Priam seeks, in secret, Achilles’ tent to beg Hector’s body. Achilles is touched by the old man’s grief and courage, and relents, agreeing also to a twelve days’ truce. Hector’s funeral concludes the poem.
Notes by Perry Keenlyside
The Principle Characters And Names In The Iliad
Agamemnon - son of Atreus, and thus also known as Atrides King of Argos and leader of the Greek expedition to Troy
Menelaus - King of Sparta and Agamemnon’s brother. Husband of Helen
The Atridae - Agamemnon and Menelaus
Achilles - also called Pelides (as he is the son of Peleus and the goddess Thetis)
Patroklos - also called Menoetides (as he is the son of Menoetius); close friend
Odysseus - cunning King of Ithaca, husband of Penelope
Diomede - also called Tydides (as he is the son of Tydeus), strong fighter
Ajax - son of Telamon and brave fighter
Nestor - King of Pylos
Phoenix - aged warrior
Bryseis - the maid who becomes the focus of the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles
The Argives, The Danai/Danaians, The Achai/Achains -
names for the Greek army
The Myrmidons - soldiers led by Achilles
Pallas Athena, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Hephaestus - Gods on the Greek side
Priam - King of Troy
Hecuba - his wife
Hector - their son
Andromache - Hector’s wife
Paris - Hector’s brother. He had awarded the golden apple to Aphrodite who had given him Helen in return. Paris’ abduction of Helen from Sparta to Troy initiated the Greek attack.
Aeneas - son of Anchises
Pandarus - son of Lycaon. Goaded by Pallas Athena, he shoots the arrow at Menelaus to break the truce.
Sarpedon - Lycian warrior fighting for Troy
Ilium – Troy
The Trojans, The Dardanians, Lycians - defenders of Troy
Phoebus Apollo, Aphrodite, Ares, Artemis, Hermes - Gods on the Trojan side
Anton Lesser is one of Britain’s leading classical actors. He has played many of the principal Shakespearean roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company including Petruchio, Romeo and Richard III. His career has also encompassed contemporary drama, notably The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter. Appearances in major TV drama productions include The Oresteia, The Cherry Orchard, Troilus and Cressida and The Mill on the Floss.
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