On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVI

It is the story of Icarus. A man gets wings, flies too high, and is burned. Icarus is Patroclus, the wings are Achilles’s armaments, and flying too high is assaulting the very walls of Troy.

Kocabey Mosque, Şavşat, Artvin

That is the simple story of Book XVI of the Iliad. The book also contains a puzzle: why does Achilles let Patroclus to fight in his place?

It has made no sense to me since first I read the Iliad. Achilles wants the Trojans to press the Greeks hard enough that Agamemnon will understand the wrong he has done. Why then allow Patroclus to relieve the pressure?

The mosque dates to 1902, when the region was part of the Russian Empire

The Trojans having reached the Greek ships, Patroclus comes crying to Achilles: crying like a girl, says Achilles, who does however agree that the time has come to help the Greeks (lines 53–6):

… for I did euer vow,
Neuer to cast off my disdaine, till (as it fals out now)
Their misse of me, knockt at my fleet; and told me in their cries,
I was reueng’d, and had my wish, of all my enemies.

Patroclus shall help the Greeks, but only so far as it will bring glory to Achilles. The latter makes a pious prayer to this effect, as Homer tells us in remarkable detail.

From a special casket, Achilles takes a special bowl, from which only he drinks, only to a god; and that god must be Jove. Just so might a Christian priest drink to Jehovah from a consecrated chalice.

Achilles washes first the bowl, with sulfur and with water; then his hands. In pouring a libation, he prays specifically to the god whose cult is observed at Dodona by ascetic barefoot priests. Achilles wants Patroclus

  1. to show that he can fight without Achilles, but
  2. to fight only to the extent of driving the Trojans from the ships.

Jove will grant only the former prayer. Here is how Chapman renders Homer’s account (lines 216–44):

… and then the Generall,
Betooke him to his priuate Tent, where (from a coffer wrought
Most rich and curiously; and giuen, by Thetis, to be brought
In his owne ship, top-fild with vests; warme robes to checke cold wind;
And tapistries, all golden fring’d, and curl’d with thrumbs behind:
He tooke a most vnualewed boule, in which none dranke but he;
Nor he, but to the deities; nor any deitie,
But Ioue himselfe was seru’d with that; and that he first did clense
With sulphure, then with fluences, of sweetest water rense.
Then washt his hands, and drew himselfe, a boule of mightie wine;
Which (standing midst the place enclosde, for seruices diuine,
And looking vp to heauen and Ioue, who saw him well) he pour’d
Vpon the place of sacrifice, and humbly thus implor’d:

Great Dodonaeus, President, of cold Dodonaes towres;
Diuine Pelasgicus, that dwell’st, farre hence; about whose bowres
Th’austere prophetique Selli dwell, that still sleepe on the ground,
Go bare, and neuer clense their feete: as I before haue found
Grace to my vowes, and hurt to Greece, so now my prayres intend.
I still stay in the gatherd fleete, but haue dismist my friend
Amongst my many Myrmidons, to danger of the dart.
O grant his valour my renowne; arme with my mind his hart,
That Hectors selfe may know, my friend, can worke in single warre;
And not then onely shew his hands, so hote and singular,
When my kind presence seconds him: but, fight he nere so well;
No further let him trust his fight: but when he shall repell
Clamor and Danger from our fleete, vouchsafe a safe retreate
To him and all his companies, with fames and armes compleate.

He prayd, and heauens great Counsellor, gaue satisfying eare,
To one part of his orisons, but left the other there.

Through inaction, Achilles has grown soft and even cocky. He wants to relieve the sorrow of his protégé, and he thinks that even the protégé can save the Greeks. Perhaps one must avoid being judgmental. In “Homer for the Civilian,” I recalled a combat veteran’s complaint that the peaceful likes of myself could never understand Achilles. For Collingwood, history is re-enactment of the thoughts of the past, and such re-enactment is possible; but one must not be facile in claiming to have achieved it.

Wooden ceiling of Kocabey mosque

In Book VI, Hector prays that his son will be superior to himself. Achilles is not like that with Patroclus, whose achievements should only redound to his mentor. Some senior researchers are like this, as when they insist on putting their names on their juniors’ papers.

Carved wooden door of Kocabey mosque

Even Patroclus does not understand Achilles though. In proposing to enter the fight himself, he suggests that Achilles holds back because of an unfavorable omen (lines 31–4):

What so declines thee? If thy mind, shuns any augurie,
Related by thy mother Queene, from heauens foreseeing eye,
And therefore thou forsak’st thy friends; let me go ease their mones
With those braue reliques of our host, thy mightie Myrmidons.

Achilles denies the accusation (lines 44–5):

But this fit anger stings me still, that the insulting king,
Should from his equall take his right; since he exceeds in powre.

He does however, as we have seen, allow Patroclus to lead out the Myrmidons, who have grown restive and even mutinous, by Achilles’s account.

For the sins of Paris, though he is not named, the Trojans now suffer the collateral damage of divine justice (lines 365–73):

And as in Autumne the blacke earth, is loden with the stormes,
That Ioue in gluts of raine poures downe; being angry with the formes
Of iugdement in authorisde men, that in their courts maintaine
(With violent office) wrested lawes, and (fearing gods, nor men)
Exile all iustice; for whose faults, whole fields are ouerflowne,
And many valleys cut away, with torrents headlong throwne,
From neighbour mountaines; till the sea, receiue them, roring in;
And iudg’d mens labours then are vaine, plagu’d for their Iudges sin:
So now the foule defaults of some, all Troy were laid vpon.

Jove himself rethinks his justice. His son Sarpedon is such a great warrior, belittling the Trojans and allies who withdraw from the Greek onslaught; Sarpedon himself will go forth to meet the man who is killing so many. Seeing this, Jove confesses to Juno that he is reconsidering his intention, declared in Book XV, to have Patroclus kill Sarpedon (lines 413–4):

Two minds distract me; if I should, now rauish him from fight,
And set him safe in Lycia; or giue the Fates their right.

It would not be a good idea to save Sarpedon, observes Juno: every god would then want to save his son. Let Sarpedon fight bravely, she says: fight, die, be returned bodily to Lycia, and be commemorated there with a column over his tomb.

When Patroclus is able to strike the mortal blow, and Sarpedon falls “like an Oke, a Poplar, or a Pine” (line 447), he wants what Juno proposes. He tells Glaucus, even threateningly (lines 447–62):

First call our Lycian Captaines vp, looke round, and bring vp all,
And all exhort, to stand like friends, about Sarpedons fall;
And spend thy selfe thy steele for me: for be assurd, no day
Of all thy life, to thy last houre, can cleare thy blacke dismay
In woe and infamie for me; if I be taken hence,
Spoil’d of mine armes; and thy renowme, despoil’d of my defence.

Sarpedon’s body will be despoiled nonetheless. Jove will wonder when to have Hector cut short Patroclus’s successes. Not till Hector is driven to the gates of Troy, Jove decides. Hector understands this, or is given to understand; Jove (lines 603–7)

… so disanimates
The mind of Hector, that he mounts, his chariot, and takes Flight
Vp with him, tempting all to her; affirming, his insight
Knew euidently, that the beame, of Ioues all-ordering scoles,
Was then in sinking on their side, surcharg’d with flockes of soules.

The Lycian comrades of Sarpedon now also retreat, and Patroclus has his armaments sent back to the ships. Jove however has the corpse sent to Lycia: as if prefiguring the Dormition of the Mother of God, he tells Apollo to order Sleep and Death to undertake the transport of the body.

Thrice Patroclus leaps on the Trojan walls. Apollo warns him off a fourth attempt. He also tells Hector to go out and fight like a man; but he does this explicitly in the guise of Hector’s Uncle Asius.

Patroclus gloats over slaying Hector’s charioteer with a rock. Hector grasps Cebriones’s smashed head, Patroclus the feet, and they have tug-of-war till sundown, when the Greek side wins the corpse.

Now it is Patroclus’s time. Apollo strikes him from behind, knocking of Achilles’s “three-plum’d helme” (line 725). Hector picks it up, Euphorbus stabs Patroclus in the back, and Hector finishes him off, though not before Patroclus can taunt him at obtaining only “A third place in my death” (line 783), after the god and the other man.

Mountain landscape of Kocabey village

Taunting, trash-talking: Patroclus has recently condemned it in a comrade. Aeneas misses Meriones with a spear, but says he will not again. No, replies Meriones, I’m going to get you first; but then Patroclus (lines 578–83)

Rebuk’t Meriones, and said: What needst thou vse this speech?
Nor thy strength is approu’d with words, (good friend) nor can we reach
The bodie, nor make th’enemie yeeld, with these our counterbraues;
We must enforce the binding earth, to hold them in her graues.
If you will warre, Fight; will you speake? giue counsell; counsell, blowes
Are th’ends of warres, and words; talke here, the time in vaine bestowes.

There is a time for talking, and a time for fighting.

Is that toxic masculinity talking? I close with memories. In a popular song of my childhood, a father’s advice was, “Son, you don’t have to fight to be a man”; but the son’s ultimate conclusion was, “Sometimes you gotta fight when you’re a man.” The conclusion of Kenny Rogers’s song was, “Everyone considered him the coward of the county.” This was ironic; but was there a double irony? Better to fight than to abstain out of cowardice; but another level is possible. Nine years after “Coward of the County” came out, Michael Dukakis lost a Presidential election by telling Bernard Shaw he would not want the death penalty for the raper and murderer of his wife. As somebody pointed out, anybody would want the death penalty here; but the law has another purpose than satisfying our desires.

6 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVII « Polytropy on September 19, 2019 at 10:16 am

    […] « On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVI […]

  2. […] the end of Book XVI, defending the ships, Ajax called on his comrades to face the reality that there was nowhere to […]

  3. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXI « Polytropy on September 23, 2019 at 10:11 am

    […] he hid. Chapman calls it Pelias, presumably because it came from Mount Pelion, as we were told in Book XVI, lines 125–9, when Patroclus was suiting […]

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

    […] In the Introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of the Iliad (in Chapman’s translation with modernized spelling; Ware, Hertfordshire, 2003), Adam Roberts analyzes Patroclus’s slaying of Thestor in the renditions of Fagles, Pope, and Chapman. The event is told in lines 399–410 (Chapman’s lines 381–92) of Book XVI. […]

  5. By Soap (Iliad Book XI) « Polytropy on February 8, 2023 at 7:44 am

    […] armor of Achilles. The idea is a key element of the arc of the epic, but will not be realized till Book XVI, when Patroclus proposes it to Achilles without mentioning its […]

  6. By Focus (Iliad Book XVI) « Polytropy on March 17, 2023 at 1:35 pm

    […] 2019, I gave a fair summary of the book, saying the story was that of Icarus. This time, I shall look at […]

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