On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XVIII

I analyze Book XVIII of the Iliad into seven scenes.

Branches against sky

  1. Achilles receives from Antilochus the news of Patroclus’s death, and Thetis receives the news from Achilles. She tells him not to fight till she has brought new arms from Mulciber (Chapman’s lines 1–136).

  2. Merely by making an appearance (on the command of Juno, conveyed by Iris) and by shouting, Achilles drives the Trojans from the Greek ships (lines 137–208).

  3. The Trojans consider whether to retreat to Troy, as Polydamas recommends, or “arme for a fierce assault,” as Hector urges. They foolishly clamor for the latter, since “Minerua robd them of their braines” (lines 209–76).

  4. Achilles tends the corpse of Patroclus (lines 277–315).

  5. Jove asks Juno whether she is satisfied now, and she rebukes him (lines 316–26).

  6. Thetis visits Vulcan and Charis, Vulcan’s “nuptiall fere” (lines 327–422).

  7. Vulcan constructs Achilles’s new shield (lines 423–559).

I note seven features of the book.

  1. Homer’s account of the Shield of Achilles is an instance, if I may say so, of what I am doing here, which is describing a work of art. However, there is a word at least for what Homer is doing: ekphrasis. This comes to me, somehow, through an anonymous blog post that gathers some quotations on the topic.

  2. Among Vulcan’s depictions in the Shield is a labyrinth for dance (lines 536–8):

    … a dancing place,
    All full of turnings; that was like, the admirable maze
    For faire-hair’d Ariadne made, by cunning Dedalus.

    If the labyrinthine dancing place is meant to suggest a dance itself, this is evidence for Collingwood’s argument that patterns in so-called primitive art generally are representions of dance. They are then representations in the second degree, produced “by bold selection of important or characteristic features and suppression of all else.” I talked about this in “The Tree of Life.” There is a third degree of representation, which “abandons literal representation altogether”; an example is modern dance music as a representation of sex. This is all at the end of the chapter “Art and Representation” in The Principles of Art (1938):

    suppose an artist wanted to reproduce the emotional effect of a ritual dance in which the dancers trace a pattern on the ground. The modern traveller would photograph the dancers as they stand at a given moment. A conventional modern artist, with a mind debauched by naturalism, would draw them in the same kind of way. This would be a silly thing to do, because the emotional effect of the dance depends not on any instantaneous posture but on the traced pattern. The sensible thing would be to leave out the dancers altogether, and draw the pattern by itself.

    This is certainly the explanation of much ‘primitive’ art which at first sight appears altogether non-representative: spirals, mazes, plaits and so forth. I think that, for example, it may possibly be the explanation of the strange curvilinear designs which are so characteristic of pre-Christian Celtic art in the La Tène period. These patterns produce a powerful and very peculiar emotional effect, which I can best describe as a mixture of voluptuousness and terror. This effect is certainly not accidental. The Celtic artists knew what they were doing; and I imagine that they produced this emotional reaction for religious or magical reasons. I conjecture that the state of mind may originally have been evoked by the dance-patterns of their religious ceremonies, and that the patterns we possess may be representations of these.

    On the Shield of Achilles though, the dancing place is not entirely abstract; Homer has Vulcan depict “youths and virgins” (line 539) there.

  3. While Book XV gave us Jove’s summary (delivered to Juno) of the rest of the epic, we now get Thetis’s summary (delivered to Vulcan) of what has happened so far, at least to Achilles (lines 397–412):

    For first he wonne a worthy Dame, and had her by the hands
    Of all the Grecians: yet this Dame, Atrides countermands:
    For which, in much disdaine he mourn’d, and almost pin’d away,
    And yet, for this wrong, he receiu’d, some honor, I must say;
    The Greeks being shut vp at their ships; not sufferd to aduance,
    A head out of their batterd sternes; and mightie suppliance,
    By all their graue men hath bene made, gifts, honors, all proposde
    For his reflection; yet he still, kept close, and saw enclosde
    Their whole host, in this generall plague. But now his friend put on
    His armes; being sent by him to field, and many a Myrmidon
    In conduct of him; all the day, they fought before the gates
    Of Scaea; and most certainly, that day had seene the dates,
    Of all Troyes honors, in her dust; if Phoebus (hauing done
    Much mischiefe more) the enuyed life, of good Menœtius sonne,
    Had not with partiall hands enforc’t; and all the honor giuen
    To Hector, who hath prisd his armes …

    Patroclus’s death is here in divine hands, the fault of neither Patroclus himself (for not obeying Achilles’s command not to go too far) nor Achilles (for not realizing that such a command was likely to be disobeyed).

  4. Achilles himself may take some tentative responsibility for his friend’s death. At least he condemns himself in general terms (lines 96–103):

    … In counsell, many a one
    Is my superiour; what I haue, no grace gets; what I want,
    Disgraceth all. How then too soone, can hastiest death supplant
    My fate-curst life? her instrument, to my indignitie,
    Being that blacke friend Contention; whom, would to God might die
    To gods and men; and Anger too, that kindles tyrannie
    In men most wise; being much more sweete, then liquid hony is
    To men of powre, to satiate, their watchfull enmities.

    Of the two cities that Vulcan will depict on the shield to be commissioned by Thetis, the one at war is beset by Contention, we might say; the city at peace has tamed Contention through an established court of law.

  5. Grammatically speaking, in lines 100–1 just above, there is a relative clause, “whom would to God might die to gods and men.” Apparently the antecedent of “whom” is “That black friend Contention,” and the verb “would” has the implicit subject “I.” Standing alone then, the clause would read, “Contention, I would to God, might die to gods and men.” This is a rearrangement of, “I would to God that Contention might die to gods and men.” Thus “Contention” is a subject, namely the subject of the clause that happens to be the object of the verb “would.” By the prescriptive rule that I am familiar with and try to follow, one may refer to “the friend whom I wish to die,” but “the friend who I wish would die.” Chapman was following the latter pattern and should have used “who,” not “whom.” He may indeed have made a mistake, as many persons do today, if they mean to be following the rule that I am referring to. Perhaps however they are following a different rule, or no rule at all. We might have to ask them to be sure; for as I have tried to argue, grammar is properly neither prescriptive nor descriptive, but criteriological, meaning it accounts for the criteria or rules that people actually do use.

    I think this view of grammar is somewhat corroborated by Debbie Cameron in a remark on lexicography in “Dictionary wars,” a new post in a blog I read regularly, language: a feminist guide.

    No one checks the dictionary entry for ‘woman’ before they utter a sentence containing the word: we don’t need anyone’s permission to use words to mean what we already know they mean. Dictionary-makers spend a lot of their time and energy systematically investigating what we think words mean, as evidenced by the way we use them, so they can document that fully and accurately. They take their cue from us, not vice-versa.

    Since Cameron is writing about “woman,” I recall investigating the meaning of this word recently in “Math, Maugham, and Man.” Pertinent is a comment on Cameron’s author page by somebody called kate on December 10, 2018: “where I live in Orkney, Wife just means ‘woman’ and has no connotations of marital status.”

    Cameron uses the terminology of description, referring to

    the aim of a modern dictionary, which is to describe the way words are actually used … If enough speakers of the language have adopted a new word or meaning, descriptive accuracy requires it to be included.

    Still, as suggested in a quotation that I included in “A New Kind of Science,” the linguist (the lexicographer, the grammarian) recognizes that a word may be used in error, even by the standards of the speaker or writer.

    On that point, I take issue with a recent essay in the Guardian Weekly (23 August 2019, Vol. 201, No. 11, pp. 34–9) called “Lingua fracas!!” appearing on line as “Why it’s time to stop worrying about the decline of the English language.” David Shariatmadari mentions writers in English over the centuries who have decried corruptions in the language. Since good writing has continued to appear, Shariatmadari concludes that the doomsayers were wrong. One might as well say that the Y2K doomsayers must have been wrong, since nothing bad happened on New Year’s Eve, 1999. It didn’t happen, because warnings were heeded. If good writing happens, it is because writers take care to do it. According to Shariatmadari,

    Any given language is significantly reconfigured over the centuries, to the extent that it becomes totally unrecognisable. But, as with complex systems in the natural world, there is often a kind of homeostasis: simplification in one area can lead to greater complexity in another. What stays the same is the expressive capacity of the language. You can always say what needs to be said.

    This is true in a way, which is why I question those who are impressed by what Apollonius could do, given his limited mathematical tools. We create our own mathematical tools. We create our own language. Chapman created the language he needed for Homer. He just had to care to do so, and to work at doing it. Unlike the operations of our autonomic nervous system—the breathing, the beating, the digesting—, our language does not come for free.

  6. At the end of Book XVI, defending the ships, Ajax called on his comrades to face the reality that there was nowhere to retreat, no city to back them up. Now Hector points out to his comrades that Troy is too exhausted to back them up (lines 254–9):

    … Before time, Priams towne
    Traffickt with diuers-languag’d men; and all gaue the renowne
    Of rich Troy to it; brasse, and gold, abounding: but her store
    Is now from euery house exhaust; possessions euermore,
    Are sold out into Phrygia, and louely Maeonie;
    And haue bene, euer since Ioues wrath …

    Unfortunately for himself and his city, Hector thinks Jove is now on their side.

  7. Learning the fate of Patroclus when Achilles in agony pours earth over his head, the women whom the latter and his friend have taken captive – they wail along with him. Perhaps enslaved Africans in the American South had a similar response to the death of their enslaver – who might have been General George Washington, for example; I learn from Mount Vernon that Phillis Wheatley wrote and sent him an ode in 1775.

    Thetis wails too, and all of the Nereids, although they do not yet know why; apparently the grapevine has not extended under sea.

Edited January 11, 2022, first to add the reference to ekprasis, and then to try to increase clarity elsewhere, especially in the parts on the representation of dance and on the grammar of “who” and “whom.”

3 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book XXII « Polytropy on September 24, 2019 at 7:15 am

    […] he is alone at first. He cannot retreat to Troy, not after chiding Polydamas for recommending it in Book XVIII. He considers surrendering himself to Achilles, and offering Helen and whatever else Paris stole […]

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

    […] for Homer’s δαιδαλέος. There is an associated verb, δαιδάλλω, used in Book XVIII, line 479, in an overview of how Hephaestus adorns Achilles’s shield. Later in the book, at […]

  3. By On Plato’s Republic, 14 « Polytropy on December 13, 2021 at 6:49 pm

    […] Homeric reference is to the Shield of Achilles, Iliad Book XVIII, line 600; here are lines 590–602, in Caroline Alexander’s […]

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