On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book VIII

Index to this series | Text of Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad

In the eighth of the twenty-four books of the Iliad, the battle is even all morning, until Jove weighs out the fates of the two sides. The fate of the Greeks is heavier. They are driven back to the wall around their ships. Juno and Pallas try to help them, until warned off by Jove. The Trojans camp outside the Greek wall, lighting fires, at Hector’s command, so that they can see through the night whether the Greeks are trying to escape.

Altınova 2017.09.13

In the fourteenth of the sixteen chapters of the 1884 novel Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans (in the translation by Margaret Mauldon, Oxford World’s Classics, 1998/2009, from the French original, A rebours), the narrator describes as follows a thought of the main and indeed only character; it is connected to the aim of the present series of articles on the Iliad.

Many times had Des Esseintes reflected upon the thorny problem of how to condense a novel into a few sentences, which would contain the quintessence of the hundreds of pages always required to establish the setting, sketch the characters, and provide a mass of observations and minor facts in corroboration. The words chosen would then be so inevitable that they would render all other words superfluous; the adjective, positioned in so ingenious and so definitive a manner that it could not legitimately be displaced, would open up such vistas that for days on end the reader would ponder over its meaning, at once precise and manifold, would know the present, reconstruct the past, and make conjectures about the future of the souls of the characters, as these were revealed by the light of that single epithet.

No specific example of such an adjective is offered, though it is said that Baudelaire and some poems of Mallarmé meet the contemplated standard, and the chapter has already quoted French verses that Des Esseintes appreciates. What Des Esseintes comtemplates is the prose poem.

Of all literary forms, the prose poem was the one which Des Esseintes preferred. In the hands of an alchemist or genius, it should, he believed, contain within its small compass, like beef essence, the power of a novel, while eliminating its tedious analyses and superfluous descriptions.

I do not contemplate writing a prose poem here, though I may wish to recognize sequences of a few verses of Homer, or Chapman, that serve as poems in themselves, or the gist of poems.

Des Esseintes is a recluse, holed up outside Paris with his books, his servants, and his ancestral wealth. He slowly goes mad. Because he has trouble with his digestion, a doctor prescribes enemas that include the beef essence described above. Des Esseintes is delighted to be able to avoid having to eat. He does retain enough wit to obey, when the doctor ultimately tells him, in the fifteenth chapter,

he must abandon this solitary existence, return to Paris, get back into ordinary life, and try to enjoy himself, in short, like other people.

He does however protest,

But I don’t enjoy the things other people enjoy!

I could say that myself. I could say further that I don’t see much in the way of people actually enjoying themselves in an active sense, during my ongoing holiday at a beach opposite Lesbos. I spend the morning, before it is light, writing these articles; I read on the beach, after it is light. A few persons have their morning constitutionals along the shore, or a dip in the water, but practically nobody sits on the beach in the morning. They sit there in the afternoon, which makes me wonder what they have been doing all morning. What can be so enjoyable in their cottages?

The life of Des Esseintes is relevant to my “Ahtamar Island” article, insofar as this concerns solitary life. At the beginning of the sixteenth and final chapter of Against Nature, Des Esseintes objects to his doctor’s prescription of city life:

there are people who live alone, never speaking to a soul, who lead a wholly inward life, isolated from society, for example prisoners in solitary confinement and Trappist monks, and there’s no evidence to suggest that those poor devils and those saints ever become lunatics or consumptives.

I doubt Des Esseintes is right about the prisoners, at least in an American supermax prison. If he is right about the monks, I think it is because, unlike himself, the monks have a purpose, beyond mere amusement of themselves, even though this amusement be achieved with the help of the finest literature of the ages.

Let me turn again to Book VIII of the Iliad now, leaving open the question of whether I do so merely for my own amusement (lines 1–4).

THe chearfull Ladie of the light, deckt in her saffron robe,
Disperst her beames through euery part, of this enflowred globe,
When thundring Ioue a Court of Gods, assembled by his will,
In top of all the topfull heights, that crowne th’Olympian hill.

Jove commands that none shall cross his sovereign will; for he is so strong that he can win any tug of war, even if all other deities are against him, along with the earth and the seas (lines 16–25):

Indanger it the whiles and see: let downe our golden chaine;
And, at it, let all Deities, their vtmost strengths constraine,
To draw me to the earth from heauen: you neuer shall preuaile,
Though with your most contention, ye dare my state assaile:
But when my will shall be disposd, to draw you all to me;
Euen with the earth it selfe, and seas, ye shall enforced be.
Then will I to Olympus top, our vertuous engine bind,
And by it euerie thing shall hang, by my command inclind:
So much I am supreme to Gods; to men supreme as much.
The Gods sat silent, and admir’d; his dreadfull speech was such.

Thus Jove believes in an absolute frame of reference; otherwise how can the difference between the two outcomes be told? Today we say, if a heavenly body pulls the earth, the earth pulls just as much.

Pallas wants at least to be able to help the Greeks in an advisory capacity. Jove would seem to wink at this (lines 34–5):

He smil’d, and said; Be confident, thou art belou’d of me:
I speake not this with serious thoughts, but will be kind to thee.

It will be seen that this is not quite right.

Jove flies down to Ida, to Mount Gargarus in particular, in order to watch the action. The Greeks eat breakfast quickly. The Trojans, fewer, taking arms to defend their wives and children, run out of the gates of their city. Throughout the morning, equal numbers die on each side. At noon, Jove brings out the balance (lines 58–62).

But when the hote Meridian point, bright Phoebus did ascend,
Then Ioue his golden Ballances, did equally extend:
And of long-rest-conferring death, put in two bitter fates
For Troy and Greece he held the midst: the day of finall dates
Fell on the Greeks: the Greeks hard lots, sunke to the flowrie ground.

The Greeks can apparently tell what has happened. Thunder is heard and lightning seen. the bravest Greeks retreat: Idomeneus, Atrides (either Agamemnon or Menelaus, or both), and both the Ajaces. Nestor too wants to flee, but his horse is struck in the head by an arrow from the bow of Paris. Nestor tries to cut the horse loose, but Hector will kill Nestor, except Diomedes sees and comes to the rescue. Though asked, Ulysses will not come help, but Diomedes offers to Nestor his chariot, pulled by the horses taken from Aeneas. Diomedes cannot help pointing out the strength of his youth (lines 92–5).

Then let my Squire leade hence thy horse: mine thou shalt guard, whilst I
(By thee aduanc’t) assay the fight; that Hectors selfe may trie
If my lance dote with the defects, that faile best minds in age,
Or find the palsey in my hands, that doth thy life engage.

Eurymedon and Sthenelus take the reigns of Nestor’s chariot, to drive Diomedes to Hector. Diomedes slays Hector’s charioteer Eniopeus. Hector is sorry, but cannot stop to mourn; he takes a new charioteer, Archeptolemus.

After all of this, Nestor is apparently still close to the scene. Jove is not only seen and heard, but smelled (lines 114–5):

A dreadfull flash burnt through the aire, that sauourd sulphure-like,
Which downe before the chariot, the dazled horse did strike.

Nestor can see that this is the Trojans’ day, and so Diomedes should just retreat. Diomedes fears that Hector will boast that he frightened him. Nestor says none of the Trojans would believe this, knowing how many he has already killed. Diomedes flees, and indeed Hector taunts him for this, saying the Greeks will now treat him like a woman. He wavers. Jove’s thunderbolts tells him what to do: defer to the Trojans, for now (lines 139–42).

This, two waies mou’d him; still to flie, or turne his horse and fight:
Thrise thrust he forward to assault; and euery time the fright
Of Ioues fell thunder draue him backe: which he proposd for signe
(To shew the change of victorie) Troians should victors shine.

Hector is drunk with success. He boasts of the favor of Jupiter and expects fame from his ultimate victory (lines 145–52):

I know, beneuolent Iupiter, did by his becke professe
Conquest, and high renowne to me; and to the Greeks distresse.
O fooles, to raise such silly forts, not worth the least account,
Nor able to resist our force; with ease our horse may mount,
Quite ouer all their hollow dike: but when their fleet I reach,
Let Memorie to all the world, a famous bonfire teach:
For, I will all their ships inflame; with whose infestiue smoke
(Feare-shrunke and hidden neare their keels) the conquerd Greeks shall choke.

We have seen horses divine, and horses slain in battle; now we see horses with names, horses fed on bread and wine by Andromache, who feeds them even before she feeds her own husband. They are Xanthus, Podargus, Aethon, and Lampus, and Hector urges them to help him take Nestor’s golden shield and Nestor’s Vulcan-made cuirass.

Juno is not pleased. She tries to raise the ire of Neptune, reminding him of what the Greeks have sacrificed to him “in Helice and Aegae.” He will not be tempted to strive with Jove.

The trench dug by the Greeks by the ships is filled with men and horse. Jove would allow Hector to burn the fleet, did not Juno inspire Agamemnon to rally the troops. “His ample purple weed / He wore to show all who he was” (lines 183–4). Standing near Ulysses’s ships, whence his words can reach the ships of Ajax and Achilles, Agamemnon reminds the Greeks of the boasts they made in Lemnos, presumably while drunk on such Lemnian wine as they drank last night, as described at the end of the previous book. He reminds Jove of the “fat thighs of beeves” (line 203) that he has burnt for him. He asks but the favor of letting the Greeks escape with their lives. Jove sends a eagle as a sign of acceptance (lines 208–15):

To this euen weeping king, did Ioue, remorsefull audience giue,
And shooke great heauen to him, for signe, his men and he should liue:
Then quickly cast he off his hawke, the Eagle prince of aire,
That perfects his vnspotted vowes; who seisd in her repaire
A sucking hinde calfe; which she trust, in her enforciue seeres,
And by Ioues altar let it fall, amongst th’amazed peeres,
Where the religious Achiue kings, with sacrifice did please
The authour of all Oracles, diuine Saturnides.

Nine Greeks come forth to fight:

  • Diomedes,
  • the two Atrides,
  • the two Ajaces,
  • Idomeneus and friend Meriones,
  • Eurypylus,
  • Teucer.

Taking advantage of the shield of Ajax, Teucer (lines 232–3),

He far’d like an vnhappie child, that doth to mother run
For succour, when he knowes full well, he some shrewd turne hath done.

With his arrows, Teucer kills eight men:

  1. Orsilochus,
  2. Ormenus,
  3. Ophelest,
  4. Daetor,
  5. Chromius,
  6. Lycophon,
  7. Amapaon, and
  8. Melanippus.

Agamemnon is impressed. He praises Teucer’s father Telamon for having brought him home to be raised, though his wife was not the mother. If victory over Troy is granted, Agamemnon will honor Teucer next after himself (lines 252–3).

Teucer right nobly answerd him: Why (most illustrate king)
I being thus forward of my selfe, dost thou adioyne a sting?

The sting seems to be that, despite killing eight men with eight arrows, he has not been able to reach Hector. He does go on to strike Gorgythion, whose head then inclines like a poppy flower filled with seed. Apollo deflects the next arrow, which strikes not Hector but his new charioteer Archeptolemus. Hector is able to hit Teucer with a stone, but his half-brother Ajax rescues him.

The Trojans are now in the game again, Hector in the vanguard (293–7).

As when some highly stomackt hound, that hunts a syluan Bore,
Or kingly Lion, loues the hanch, and pincheth oft behind,
Bold of his feet, and still obserues, the game, to turne inclind,
Not vtterly dissolu’d in flight: so Hector did pursue;
And whosoeuer was the last, he euer did subdue.

Juno invites Pallas to interfere, observing (lines 310–1),

Hector Priamides now raues, no more to be indur’d;
That hath alreadie on the Greeks, so many harmes inur’d.

Raving was part of the just war theory adumbrated by Pallas in Book V: Mars has just rule only in just war; “otherwise he raves, not fights,” and in this case the goddesses are justified in interfering—which is what Pallas says now, recalling how she rescued Jove’s son Hercules “in labours of Eurystheus” (line 319), namely “To hale out hatefull Plutoes dog, from darksome Erebus” (line 324). Had she known what her father would allow to happen now, “He had not scap’t the streames of Styx, so deepe and dangerous” (line 325).

The goddesses suit up and fly from the gates that are tended by the Hours; but Jove spies them and sends Iris to warn them: he will give his daughter wounds that will not heal in ten years, though with his wife he is more forgiving (line 354–5):

… she doth not so offend,
T’is but her vse to interrupt, what euer I intend.

Iris passes along the word (line 365–7):

… for sometimes childeren
May with discretion plant themselues, against their fathers wils;
But not where humors onely rule, in works beyond their skils.

Juno figures she and Pallas had better abort their plan and go back to Olympus, where Jove tells them ironically, “Ye should haue held your glorious course” (line 396), and presently (lines 403–5),

But thunder should haue smit you both, had you one Troian slaine.
Both Goddesses let fall their chins, vpon their Iuorie breasts,
Set next to Ioue; contriuing still, afflicted Troyes vnrests.

Juno complains some more, but Jove reveals the grand plan to let Hector prevail, even to the slaying of Patroclus, so that Achilles will then come out to fight. Jove recalls how he came to power by overthrowing his father, as if he could do it again to anybody. He does seem to suggest that he himself is subject to fate (lines 414–25).

Greeue not (said Ioue) at all done yet: for if thy faire eyes please,
This next red morning they shall see, the great Saturnides
Bring more destruction to the Greekes: and Hector shall not cease,
Till he haue rowsed from the Fleet, swift-foot Aeacides:
In that day, when before their ships, for his Patroclus slaine,
The Greekes in great distresse shall fight; for so the Fates ordaine.
I weigh not thy displeased spleene; though to th’extremest bounds
Of earth and seas it carrie thee; where endlesse night confounds
Iapet, and my deiected Sire; who sit so farre beneath,
They neuer see the flying Sunne, nor heare the winds that breath,
Neare to profoundest Tartarus: nor thither if thou went,
Would I take pittie of thy moods, since none more impudent.

The Trojans are sorry that night falls before they have routed the Greeks (lines 430–2).

Hector (intending to consult) neare to the gulfie flood
Farre from the Fleet; led to a place, pure, and exempt from blood,
The Troians forces …

He calls for the felling of much wood, to light fires so that night will not hide the Greeks’ escape. It is not enough for him that the siege of Troy should be broken. Hector is still the best man in the Iliad, or the most completely drawn man that one can emulate. His pride shows his humanity. He will die in the Iliad, and thus we shall be able to judge his life as a whole. As Herodotus reports Solon to have said, let no man be judged happy until he has died.

After calling for fires to be lit within Troy itself, lest the Greeks have a surprise attack planned, Hector does wish he were a god (lines 476–9):

O that I were as sure to liue, immortall, and sustaine
No frailties, with increasing yeares, but euermore remaine
Ador’d like Pallas, or the Sunne; as all doubts die in me,
That heauens next light shall be the last, the Greekes shall euer see.

Like the summer ending now for me, pride goeth before a fall!

(To explain. In the days before widespread use of the internet, in the early 1990s, I induced my uncle to subscribe to The Nation, for the sake of the cryptic crossword. I myself accepted the offer of the puzzle writer to send his ground rules in return for a stamped, self-addressed envelope. As an extreme example, he suggested that the clue “Summer?” could have the answer “Pride,” since each of them goeth before a fall.)

5 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book IX « Polytropy on September 23, 2017 at 7:49 am

    […] Book VIII, we know that the Greeks are pressed by Jove and Troy. They are pressed, as if by the North and […]

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  3. By On Translation « Polytropy on October 6, 2019 at 8:28 am

    […] Arnold, concerning the Trojan encampment by night, watchfires shining like stars, as described in Book VIII. Says editor William Tappan in the […]

  4. By Emotional Contagion (Iliad VIII) « Polytropy on January 19, 2023 at 6:07 am

    […] wrote a fuller summary in 2017. Because I was reading it, I also talked about Huysmans, Against Nature, and the belief of the main […]

  5. By Words (Iliad Book XX) « Polytropy on April 13, 2023 at 6:34 pm

    […] to warn Hera and Athena not to interfere in his divine plan, in Book VIII; […]

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