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Epic Logos: On First Looking into Several Homers1


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I - Fealty

  • 1  This paper is part of a research project supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technlog (...)

1John Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” charts a key moment in the construction of the modern subject, making that identification between subjectivity and language, a Logos everywhere complicit with power, which has been a major feature of the western philosophical tradition:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific - and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

2Keats’s “Much-travell’d” succinctly translates Chapman’s wordy characterisation of Odysseus as “The man … / That wandered wondrous far,” who “saw and knew,” in a phrase echoed in Keats’s second line, “The cities of a world of nations.” Keats, that is, implicitly identifies his own subjective travels with those of Homer’s warrior. Odysseus, however, comes home to Ithaca. Keats, by contrast, finds his temporary space in a text which, in imagination, leaves him stranded in wonder at the farthest limits of things, in that “wide expanse” which Cortez contemplates, or those even more sublime distances in the gulfs of space.

3The insistent first person singular which dominates Keats’s opening sentence suggests a subject effortlessly able to assert unchallenged hegemony over the text, containing within consciousness the vast extents of space and time it invokes. The grammatical subject - “I” reiterated six times in fourteen lines - seems to be the poem’s imperious, all-encompassing subjectivity, identifying itself with a political discourse of “realms,” “states and kingdoms,” “fealty,” “demesne,” ruled.” Yet it is also half aware of its secondariness and subjection to an external authority and power, its own “fealty,” in succession, to Chapman, Homer, and Apollo - the literary tradition. Keats’s political terminology harks back anachronistically to a feudal, medieval order, at the very moment that it celebrates the opening up of a new world which, less than fifty years before he wrote, had effected a radical break with all such autocratic forms of governance. And that moment which marks the inauguration of modernity in the opening up of a new geography becomes, even more significantly, the metaphor for the psychological, mental discovery of a new world which is actually the oldest one in the European heritage: archaic late Mycenaean Greece, itself long gone when these originary texts of the European tradition were composed.

4If Homer ruled this “one wide expanse” as his demesne, the political control here jostles with something more sublime. Apollo is the god of poetry, but he is also, in Homer, that fearful natural power, the sun, which strikes men dead on the plains of Troy. A “demesne” is marked out, mastered, but an “expanse” is, like the Pacific, uncharted, potentially infinite. The mind, even Homer’s, cannot master the sublime infinitude of space that reduces the speaking subject to awestruck silence, the seeing subject to a “wild surmise” that threatens sanity. This “pure serene,” however, is not just external, bodied over against the subject. It also enters into its very heart, breathed in, inflating the self fit to burst with an internalised sublimity. If Chapman’s printed page may be said, like the bardic Homer, to “speak out loud and bold,” this loudness and boldness take on the power of those archaic warrior princes their texts extol. The Keatsian subject, for all the apparent empowerment induced by his reading, remains passively transfixed at the receiving end of discourse, “had I been told,” “Then felt I,” the syntactic inversions indicating the secondariness and subordination of the subject, a “quiet watcher” of a vastness that swims, at its own speed, into his ken. Ascending to the summit of the world of objects, these masterful Conquistadors are reduced to abjection, subdued by a new and hitherto unknown vastness which marginalises subjectivity. It doesn’t matter, it seems, that it was Balboa rather than Cortez who stood on that peak in Darien. Darien and the Pacific dictate the terms here: they rule. Cortez, Balboa, Chapman, Keats are all merely transitory subjects of that transcendent power. But their relation to this natural “expanse” reproduces their submission, as transient carriers, to the political “demesne” of an Imperium which determines their every breath.

5Keats’s sonnet compounds, from William Robertson's History of America (1777), which he had recently been reading, Balboa’s discovery of the Pacific in Book III and Cortez’ first view of Mexico City in Book V. But the latter offers the “prospect” not of a boundless, uninhabited natural expanse but of a populous civilisation, of “fertile and cultivated fields… a lake resembling the sea in extent, encompassed with large towns… the capital city rising upon an island in the middle, adorned with its temples and turrets,” so “exceed[ing] their imagination, that some believed the fanciful descriptions of romance were realized,” the “spectacle” of “a country …. rich beyond any conception which they had formed of it.” That word “rich” should remind us that when Keats speaks of “realms of gold” this is not simply an innocent allusion to the golden treasury of poetry. The Americas were a realm of gold in a more immediate mercenary sense to the Conquistadors, to be conquered and pillaged, stripped of their riches, in the service of imperial Spain. Within the unconscious of the text, that is, two quite disparate moments are recollected, one which contemplates the sublimity of nature, infinite space, as a metaphor for reading Homer, and another which records the destruction and plunder of a flourishing alien culture, in which the sacking of Troy by marauding Greeks prefigures all Europe’s subsequent centuries of rapine, plunder and genocide. If bards hold the world in fealty, they hold it in the end, like the Conquistadors, by violence and brute force, and it is the brutality of those conquerors that their poems celebrate.

6Keats’s language everywhere testifies to this integral relation. An ubiquitous political power and bottomless voracity co-exist with the vastness and sublimity of the poetic imagination. This compromising complicity taints the very core of the modern subject. The disturbance implicit in that “wild surmise” focuses a deeper unease. Keats”s mis-remembering is hardly innocent. As a radical and republican, he would have been well aware of the brutalities of the Spanish Bourbons, restored to their thrones in Old and New Worlds by the Congress of Vienna. Indeed, in his dying months he moved to Rome from Naples, because, as he wrote home in November 1820, “the continual visible tyranny of this government prevents me from having any peace of mind. … I will not leave even my bones in the midst of this despotism’ (Houghton, 262). Keats would have endorsed the sentiments of Chapman’s 1598 commentary, that “Homer’s poems were writ from a free furie, an absolute and full soule,” in contrast to the subaltern subjectivity of Virgil, the apologist for an empire coterminous with the known world, whose Aeneid was written “out of a cortly, laborious and altogether imitatorie spirit.” Yet if, in Chapman’s words, the Odyssey was an allegory of the “mind’s inward, constant and unconquerd Empire,” that last word cannot be detached from its worldly and external trappings. Far from being an innocent construct, Keats’s “inward empire” of the imagination is everywhere inscribed with the discourse of power, with that violence and oppression endemic to the European mind from Homer until now. The experiencing subject is the place where these discourses of power and wonderment converge in a sublime which is always already compromised. Here, in the merging of imperium and empyrean, the speaking subject falls silent.

II - Changing Minds

7How the double meaning of “subject” emerged during the Renaissance, to be consolidated in the Enlightenment by Kant and his successors, can already be detected in the ambiguity, for example, in a founding text of that opening up of the New World. The first charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629 assured its inhabitants that they were to “have and enjoy all liberties and Immunities of free and naturall Subjects,” “as yf they and everie of them were borne within the Realme of England.” That this is a charter issued by the crown reinforces the point that these are subjects under political authority. “Immunities,” however, which in offering exemptions emphasises the same subordination, has, pulling against it, the boundless and unbounded scope of “all liberties,” while “free and naturall” as epithets of “Subjects” seems to point towards Rousseau rather than HookerAlready here, significantly in the context of a new-found-land where the monarch’s writ necessarily runs loose (the Governor of Massachusetts was not appointed by the King but chosen by a convocation of freemen, so that the colony was virtually self-governing from the start), “subjects” are becoming self-constituting, self-authorising, underwritten in their freedom by nature itself (Poore, 940, in Draper, 33).

8That scion of Boston, Mass, T. S. Eliot, setting out at the start of the last century to re-conquer the Old World, assumed an automatic link between Homer and what he called, in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (Selected Essays, 13-22), “the mind of Europe.” This foundational text of modernism, written in 1919 at the end of a war that had reduced Europe to a waste land of ruin and cultural fragmentation, the Trojan war rewritten on a continental scale, attempted to forge from that catastrophe a transhistorical unitary subject, the European mind. Such a construct might make the modern world possible for art, might transform, bring to order, what he called, in a review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history” (Dial, 480-3). The “historical sense,” Eliot proposed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.” It is this “sense… of the timeless and of the temporal together,” he went on, which makes a writer “traditional,” but also “most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”

9The “mind of Europe,” Eliot continued, “is a mind which changes, and … this change is a development which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsmen.” Yet this vision of a transcendent, masterful transhistorical mind, crammed full of all the objects of past and present, requires at the same time the surrender of the individual subject’s autonomy to a collective Subject, the reduction of the personal subject to an infinitesimal point, in “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” In the face of the contemporary collapse of the European mind into internecine slaughter, Eliot tries to recreate its imaginary unity. Within a couple of pages, however, discussing Dante’s account of the final voyage of Ulysses, he can pronounce, in what seems like a flagrant non-sequitur, that “The point of view which I am struggling to attack is perhaps related to the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul.”

10Eliot’s intention can be winkled out by reference to his contemporaneous essay in The Monist on Leibniz’s monads and F. H. Bradley’s “finite centres.” There he observes that

It is very difficult to keep the meanings of “soul,” “finite centre,” and “self” quite distinct . A self is an ideal and largely a practical construction, one’s own self as much as that of others. […] The self is a construction in space and time. It is an object among others, a self among others, and could not exist save in a common world. (K&E, 204)

11The subject, taking command of its subject world, experiences at the same time a sense of its own volatility and vulnerability. It is not really quite all there. And the evanescence and fungibility of the subject can be explained, a later essay suggests, in specifically political terms. “Religion without Humanism” (Foerster, 105-12), in 1930, proposes that

at the present time the problem of the unification of the world and the problem of the unification of the individual, are in the end one and the same problem; and that the solution of one is the solution of the other. Analytical psychology... is attempting to produce unified individuals in a world without unity; the social, political and economic sciences can do little, for they are attempting to produce the great society with an aggregation of human beings who are not units but merely bundles of incoherent impulses and beliefs. The problem of nationalism and the problem of dissociated personalities may turn out to be the same.

12W. B. Yeats, reaching in 1923 a similar conclusion amidst the debris of a civil war which had unravelled all the logocentric values of the Classical inheritance, had made Homer the figure of the modern situation. Homer, he says in “Meditations in Time of Civil War,” has been transformed from an originary plenitude, an overflowing fullness, into the figure of a brutal emptiness and absence. The “inherited glory of the rich,” the whole western cultural tradition, which Yeats acknowledges has always been, ultimately, the creation of “violent bitter men,” the men of power who commission it, has evaporated into

Mere dreams, mere dreams! Yet Homer had not sung
Had he not found it certain beyond dreams
That out of life’s own self-delight had sprung
The abounding glittering jet; though now it seems
As if some marvellous empty sea-shell flung
Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams,
And not a fountain, were the symbol which
Shadows the inherited glory of the rich. (Tower, 17)

13Homer had been a superabundant, abounding jet, a fons et origo, the invigorating source of the whole European tradition. Now the image is turned inside out. The overflowing fountain has becomes an empty sea-shell, in which we hear the echo of an absence, a fantasy of the rich streams and obscure dark now forfeited, a vacuity upon which we persist in imposing our fantasies of fullness and self-presence, “self-delight.”

14A decade later, as the European crisis deepened, “Coole Park and Ballylee, 1931,” in The Winding Stair, had still not recovered that earlier, ratifying Homer, the patriarch and progenitor of the European mind. Instead, Homer has become a kind of deus absconditus, figuring forth in his absence the passing of “Traditional sanctity and loveliness,” as the elegiac voice recognises its own supersession:

We were the last romantics - chose for theme
Traditional sanctity and loveliness;
Whatever’s written in what poets name
The book of the people; whatever most can bless
The mind of man or elevate a rhyme;
But all is changed, that high horse riderless,
Though mounted in that saddle Homer rode
Where the swan drifts upon a darkening flood.

15If the world has been reduced to an anthology of already written tales, both source and theme for texts yet to be written, these last romantics, choosing their themes from what was already “traditional,” can only pillage what is already written in “what poets name / The book of the people.” That first patriarch of the European literary tradition is named in the very moment that the poem acknowledges his status as an empty signifier, an absence without historical referent, the hubristic high horse of the epic tradition now a mere empty saddle.

16What lies behind this image is that sense of the dark backward and abysm into which the once quasi-historical figure of Homer had disappeared, as the result of fifty years of scholarship, in the uncertain protohistoric hiatus between song and script, the dark ages of ancient Greece between the bardic tradition of the Homeridae and the transcription of the epics under the Athenian dictator Peisistratus.Homer, as a textual and discursive practice, has become a blank sheet upon which each age inscribes its own image. He repeatedly figures forth the problematics of the subject in modernist writing, in Pound and Yeats as much as in Joyce and Eliot.

17By 1939, when Bruno Snell published the article, “Homer's View of Man,” which was to become the first chapter of his 1948 book, Die Entdeckung des Geistes, translated in 1953 as The Discovery of the Mind, not only had Homer disappeared from the saddle of European tradition, but so had the unitary epic subject he had once appeared to articulate. For Snell, the Homeric subject was “a bundle of loosely clustered organs of emotion and perception, with no unified mind, no “soul,” no firm sense of individual identity, not even any coherent sense of corporeal unity.” Terry Eagleton, in The Ideology of the Aesthetic, formulates the modernist crisis of the subject in a way which explains the version of Homer we encounter in its writers:

For the subjugated subjects of empire, the individual is less the strenuously self-fashioning agent of his own historical destiny than empty, powerless, without a name; there can be little of the realists’ trust in the beneficence of linear time, which is always on the side of Caesar. Languishing within a barren social reality, the colonized subject may beat the kind of retreat into fantasy and hallucination which lends itself more evidently to modernist than to realist literary practice. And if the traditional national languages are now encountering global semiotic systems, cherished cultural heritages yielding ground to avant-garde techniques which are easily portable across national frontiers, who better to speak this new non-speech than those already disinherited in their own tongue? (322)

18For if the mind of Europe changes, it changes within discourse, that Logos where the subject, transcendent imaginative ego and abject political vassal, is colonised by the discourses of power, both finds and loses itself: changes its mind.

III - Wide Language

19In his 1995 Stockholm Address, accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature (Opened Ground, 447-67), Seamus Heaney spoke apparently inconsequentially of twiddling the dials of the wireless, as a child, in words which seem to recall Keats’s experience on first reading Chapman’s Homer:

I […] got used to hearing short bursts of foreign languages as the dial hand swept round from BBC to Radio Eireann, from the intonations of London to those of Dublin, and even though I did not understand what was being said in those first encounters with the gutturals and sibilants of European speech, I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world beyond. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language.

20This then becomes the figure of the subject’s evolving relation to the wider world of discourse:

In such circumstances, the mind still longs to repose in what Samuel Johnson once called with superb confidence “the stability of truth,” even as it recognizes the destabilizing nature of its own operations and enquiries. Without needing to be theoretically instructed, consciousness quickly realizes that it is the site of variously contending discourses. The child in the bedroom, listening simultaneously to the domestic idiom of his Irish home and the official idioms of the British broadcaster while picking up from behind both the signals of some other distress, that child was already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament, a future where he would have to adjudicate among promptings variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, sceptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, simply impossible.

21Heaney stresses here the complex hybridity of the colonised personal, as of the poetic subject, speaking of the conflicting narratives within which his consciousness stumbled upon both allegiance and apostasy, oscillating between “the Christian moralist in oneself… impelled to deplore the atrocious nature of the IRA’s campaign of bombings and killings, and the “mere Irish” in oneself … appalled by the ruthlessness of the British Army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972,” but adding to this simple binary a third, destabilising figuration, that of a subjected and subaltern self, “the minority citizen in oneself, the one who had grown up conscious that his group was distrusted and discriminated against in all kinds of official and unofficial ways.” In a subtle deployment of demonstrative adjectives, Heaney deconstructs himself as a political subject, dividing his subjectivity between two externalised, third-person locations, “this,” and “that”:

this citizen’s perception was at one with the poetic truth of the situation in recognizing that if life in Northern Ireland were ever really to flourish, change had to take place. But that citizen’s perception was also at one with the truth in recognizing that the very brutality of the means by which the IRA were pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based. (emphasis added)

22“It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir;” Heaney observes, “that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.” Heaney’s allusion goes, in its historical forgetfulness, to the heart of the dilemma he is representing. For though the imperial apologist Tacitus is the scriptorial author of this phrase, he actually puts it into the mouth of the first subaltern Celt in the annals of history ostensibly to speak from his own subject-position, the British warrior Calgacus rallying opposition to the advancing Roman imperium. Heaney’s historical forgetting, like Keats’s misnaming of Cortez, enacts the double-take in the subject, between “this” and “that” citizen, which Heaney addresses. This doubleness Heaney spells out when he invokes, without naming, Walter Benjamin’s famous critique of that “Tradition” which modernists such as Eliot sought to recover as a unitary collective subject, but which for Benjamin was a one-sided story, written by the victors:

Only the very stupid or the very deprived can any longer help knowing that the documents of civilization have been written in blood and tears, blood and tears no less real for being very remote.

The century has witnessed the defeat of Nazism by force of arms; but the erosion of the Soviet regimes was caused, among other things, by the sheer persistence, beneath the imposed ideological conformity, of cultural values and psychic resistances of a kind that these stories and images enshrine. Even if we have learned to be rightly and deeply fearful of elevating the cultural forms and conservatisms of any nation into normative and exclusivist systems, even if we have terrible proof that pride in an ethnic and religious heritage can quickly degrade into the fascistic, our vigilance on that score should not displace our love and trust in the good of the indigenous per se. On the contrary, a trust in the staying power and travel-worthiness of such good should encourage us to credit the possibility of a world where respect for the validity of every tradition will issue in the creation and maintenance of a salubrious political space.

23The divisions within the body politic effect, Heaney argues, divisions within the subject itself, a schism at the point where political and experiencing subjects intersect, “an ongoing partition of the island between British and Irish jurisdictions, and an equally persistent partition of the affections in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish heritages.” It’s here that Heaney recalls an Irish predecessor on that very same Swedish platform:

When the poet W.B. Yeats stood on this platform more than seventy years ago, Ireland was emerging from the throes of a traumatic civil war that had followed fast on the heels of a war of independence fought against the British. The struggle that ensued had been brief enough; it was over by May, 1923, some seven months before Yeats sailed to Stockholm, but it was bloody, savage and intimate, and for generations to come it would dictate the terms of politics within the twenty-six independent counties of Ireland.

24Yeats’s acceptance speech maintains a resonant silence about those events. Nevertheless, Heaney implies, they are the determining absence of his words:

Yeats barely alluded to the civil war or the war of independence in his Nobel speech. Nobody understood better than he the connection between the construction or destruction of state institutions and the founding or foundering of cultural life, but on this occasion he chose to talk instead about the Irish Dramatic Movement.

25Yeats’s silence about the events spoken of in “Meditations in Time of Civil War” reproduces the moment in that sequence where Homer himself is figured as a signifying absence, “some marvellous empty sea-shell flung / Out of the obscure dark of the rich streams.” It’s no accident, then, that Heaney himself should move on to allude to that key moment in the Odyssey where Odysseus, disguised and anonymous, hears without revealing himself the narration of his own deeds at Troy, which Heaney reads as a figure of “the contradictory needs which consciousness experiences at times of extreme crisis”:

When the bard Demodocus sings of the fall of Troy and of the slaughter that accompanied it, Odysseus weeps and Homer says that his tears were like the tears of a wife on a battlefield weeping for the death of a fallen husband. His epic simile continues:

At the sight of the man panting and dying there,
she slips down to enfold him, crying out;
then feels the spears, prodding her back and shoulders,
and goes bound into slavery and grief.
Piteous weeping wears away her cheeks:
but no more piteous than Odysseus’ tears,
cloaked as they were, now, from the company.

Even to-day, three thousand years later, as we channel-surf over so much live coverage of contemporary savagery, highly informed but nevertheless in danger of growing immune, familiar to the point of overfamiliarity with old newsreels of the concentration camp and the gulag, Homer’s image can still bring us to our senses. The callousness of those spear shafts on the woman’s back and shoulders survives time and translation. The image has that documentary adequacy which answers all that we know about the intolerable.

26This passage helps to explain some of the uses to which Heaney himself puts the Homeric motifs in his poetry, in particular, the poem significantly entitled “Whatever You Say Say Nothing” from North. The poem explores that wide expanse of language where the subject is transfixed between “this” and “that,” between saying and saying nothing, speaking, with a parodic echo of the epic formula, of

     The famous
Northern reticence, the tight gag of place
And times: yes, yes. Of the “wee six” I sing
Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, say nothing.

27It’s not the Homeric high horse of Yeats’s poem that Heaney invokes here, but a rather more ambivalent equine, in the shape of the Trojan horse:

Where half of us, as in a wooden horse
Were cabin'd and confined like wily Greeks,
Besieged within the siege, whispering morse.

28The Nationalist minority in the North, a Trojan horse within the Unionist majority, which is itself a minority within the whole island of Ireland (hence, “Besieged within the siege”) is the enemy within which will shortly open the gates of the doomed city. The “wily” Odysseus, the inventor of the wooden horse, epitomises the fork-tongued subject, saving himself from death, and retaining some power in his abjection, by saying and saying nothing, telling the Cyclops that “My name is ‘Nobody’.”

IV - Polytropic Man

29The antithesis of Achilles and Odysseus, protagonists of the Iliad and the Odyssey respectively, is at least as old as Plato. The Lesser Hippias, attributed to Plato in antiquity, has Socrates dispute with Hippias which of the two heroes is the better man. The question relates directly to the problematic nature of a subjectivity which finds and loses itself in language, where it is always the bearer of power in both active and passive senses, patient and agent. The key exchange in the Lesser Hippias, in Jowett’s translation, hinges on the subject’s relation to language and power:

Socrates: Do you say that the false… have no power to do things, or that they have the power to do things?

Hippias: I should say that they have the power to do many things, and in particular, to deceive mankind.

Socrates: Then, according to you, they are both powerful and wily, are they not?

Hippias: Yes.

30In a series of punchy rhetorical questions that leave him reeling, Socrates drives Hippias into conceding that “the false are to be ranked in the class of the powerful and wise,” by virtue of “the power of uttering their falsehoods.” That “polutropon” istranslated as both “wily” and “wise” indicates the nature of the moral ambiguity here. The specifically English valency of “clever,” with its hint of untrustworthiness (“too clever by half”), might reconcile the two inflexions. Hippias can answer only with a succession of stunned Yeses to Socrates’ proposition that “the false are they who are wise and have the power to speak falsely,” and that “the good man will voluntarily do wrong, and the bad man involuntarily, if the good man is he who has the good soul.”

31Jowett’s “soul” here translates Plato’s psukhê, which is much more than psyche, mind, consciousness. It is, in fact, the same word deployed in the opening lines of the Odyssey, which say, of Odysseus, in one prose translation, “many things he suffered at sea while seeking to save his own life [psukhê].”

32Psukhê is translated by Richmond Lattimore, in one of the best modern translations, as “spirit”; but “life” would be equally appropriate. Indeed, the word could, with some legitimacy, be translated into modern idiom as “subject.” The phrase applied to this psukhê in the opening line of the poem, “andra polutropon,” a line James Joyce famously copied out in its original Greek to accompany his cartoon portrait of Leopold Bloom, is translated by Richmond Lattimore as “man of many ways.” Peter Jones, in his Companion to Lattimore’s translation, indicates the problematic nature of the phrase by revising Lattimore’s version, offering a literal transcription as “man… of-many-turns.” Jones’s note glosses Lattimore’s “of many ways” with two different phrases, one of which locates its meaning in the objective world of action and travel, the other in the subjective world that experiences that travelling: “of many ways: i.e. “who travelled far” and “of wide experience.” Both aspects are stressed in the opening lines” (Jones, 2). Jones’s own formula, “of-many-turns” could also suggest the turnings of the journey, but leans towards that subjective dimension we know to be characteristic of Odysseus, who is translated by A. T. Murray in 1919 as a “man of many devices” by D. W. Myatt in 1996 as “man of the many stratagems,” by Robert Fagles in 1996 as “the man of twists and turns,” and by Stanley Lombardo in 2000 as, simply, “cunning” It is this sense of “polutropos” that Socrates is interrogating in the Lesser Hippias.

33Joyce picked out Homer’s phrase because he saw its Ulyssean duplicity. Odysseus is a man of many twists and turns, but he is also a “much-troped” figure, a narrative, textual figure that takes many forms. A trope, as the OED tells us, is “a figure of speech which consists in the use of a word or phrase in a sense other than that which is proper to it,” a word, we might say, that like Odysseus, assumes many metaphoric disguises. Indeed, Odysseus has been identified as the earliest instance of that Trickster figure anthropologists, treading in the wake of Empire, encountered in innumerable subject cultures around the globe, a figure who adopts ruses, disguises, shape-shiftings, in order to survive in a world suffused by power not his own. It is Odysseus who devised the wooden horse that enabled the Greeks finally to enter and sack Troy, who fooled the Cyclops, eluded the Sirens and Circe’s magical transformations, and finally arrived home to reclaim his inheritance disguised as the lowliest of the low.

34Lurking within Socrates’ distinction of Achilles from Odysseus is a significant opposition in the construction of the epic subject. The Iliad is preoccupied with outwardness, with action, physical sensations and bodily kinesis. The subject is externalised as what he does. Anything internal is manifested outwardly, as behaviour, deeds, physical appearance and the physical manifestation of emotion. (In recognition of this, Robert Graves’s version of the Iliad was called The Anger of Achilles.) It is written on the bodies of the other Achaians in the reduction of their “strong souls” (psukhê) to insentient matter:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son, Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled into their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished.

35The Odyssey, by contrast, foregrounds inwardness, subjectivity, consciousness. The domestication of the masculine subject is reflected in the many interior locations where such subjects find themselves, inside palace and temple, home and hovel, rather than in the open air of the military council or the battlefield. This interiority matches that assigned to consciousness, apparent in the opening address to the Muse, in Lattimore’s translation:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways […]
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life….

36Whereas the opening of the Iliad stresses the conversion of subjects into mere bodies, heroes into carrion, the Odyssey opens with an insistence on intersubjectivity, learning the minds of other men, suffering pains in the psukhê. It is directed towards the inwardness of the subject.

37Odysseus is much troped in western literature, a much-turned trickster. But the idea of metaphoric transformation here suggests a deeper meaning implicit in that adjective applied to him, polutropon. He is a man much transformed, much translated, turned into other shapes though, unlike his crew, he is never substantially turned into anything else, remaining stubbornly himself within his many transformations. His metamorphoses, that is, are always in a sense disguises, modalities the resolute Odysseus assumes to survive. The wily Odysseus is an intellectual, cerebral, calculating subject, and his metamorphoses therefore are metaphorical, in the mind and in outward appearance. He is an actor. This is the key to his significance as an epitome of the mind of Europe, the western subject. Achilles lives to fight, and will die thus. Odysseus lives only to get home, back to domestic life. He never wanted to go to war in the first place, and indeed adopted (unsuccessfully) a disguise to avoid being conscripted.

38But there is a darker side to this. Precisely because he doesn’t want to go on fighting, he devises the ruse that will bring about the destruction of Troy. Joyce was alert to this in choosing Odysseus as his paradigm. “Force, hatred, history,” Leopold Bloom reflects, “that’s not life for men and women.” But, writing in Paris, Zurich, Trieste between 1914 and 1921, in the midst of a continental war that almost destroyed “the mind of Europe,” Joyce’s turning and troping of Odysseus recognises that, in 1914, thousands of peace-loving subjects like Bloom rushed to enlist in the “war to end all wars.”

39For two and a half millennia, Homer had provided the ethical and moral template for European civilisation. In Victorian England, as in fifth-century Greece, his heroes had constituted the archetypes of behaviour, bravery, intelligence, for public schoolboys as, previously, for Athenian statesmen and warriors. Then, in the later 19th century, the whole narrative began to unravel like Penelope’s tapestry. Homer himself dissolved into a multitude of possible authors, and it is in this sense that Yeats can speak of the “empty saddle” where Homer was once thought to ride. But more significantly, anthropological and textual studies began to call into question the supposedly “civilised” and “civilising” function of the Homeric heroes, re-perceived in their actual Bronze Age barbarity and unfamiliarity, rendering them strange, and closer to many so-called “primitive” societies encountered by imperialism’s much-travelled adventurers. The barbarity of Achilles, certainly, in his treatment of the corpse of Hector, dragging it three times round the walls of Troy, was always apparent; but increasingly also the “wily,” “cunning” Odysseus of “many devices” became suspect, identified by Lewis Hyde in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art, as one of only three characters in Greek literature who are said to be polytropic, shape-shifting tricksters - “shifty as an octopus. . . charming, disarming, and not to be trusted”(53). If Achilles represents one pole of the modern subject - the killing machine, automaton, Robocop - Odysseus represents another, the wily apologist for power, flexible, smooth-tongued, the spin doctor and jet-setting international statesman, peddling plausible liberal rationales for programmes of Shock and Awe.

V - Subjectively, all is possible

40W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles” (Shield, 35-7), takes its starting point from the account, in Book XXVIII of the Iliad, of the shield Hephaestos makes, commissioned by Achilles’ mother, Thetis, to persuade her son to return to the siege of Troy. Within the framing narrative of the shield’s making, two other, conflicting stories run concurrently: the ideological fantasy Thetis desires and the totalitarian future Hephaestos actually depicts on the shield’s burnished metal. Thetis wants to see a vision of human society as orderly, rational, coherent, creative, a place of ritual pieties and well-governed cities, where human beings tame and domesticate nature: in modern terms, a land fit for heroes, a world made safe for democracy, a New World Order, where “freedom fries” and Big Macs are available on every street. Hephaestos depicts what war actually leads to: men mobilised to become cyphers, atrocities committed before an indifferent crowd of ordinary decent folk, economic and social collapse, where children learn to scavenge like animals in the ruins for a few scraps of food.

41The subject worlds of Thetis and Hephaestos are discontinuous, but they co-exist. She lives in an imaginary Greece like that depicted on Keats’s “Grecian Urn,” another intertext of this poem, where beauty is truth and truth beauty. Hephaestos lives in the modern era of permanent war, which destroys not only armies but civilisations, and rips beauty and truth apart. None of the actors in this poem is named until the final stanza, the point at which the generic images of actual war and imaginary peace issue into the real world of history. The poem works consistently at a level of generality. Specific scenes and people emerge only as instances of a general condition - an effect achieved in part by Auden’s manipulation of the indefinite article: a plain without a feature, a multitude. Even half a million soldiers are only metonymically “A million eyes, a million boots in line’. Even the Leader’s broadcast voice is “without a face,” depersonalised, invisible, abstract, important only in its effects, urging to war.

42The levelling of individual subjects to mere statistics affects heroes and gods as much as “ordinary decent folk.” The eponymous Achilles is absent even from the final stanza, where he is named for the first time only as the poem ends with the presage of his ending. The absent subject around which the whole poem revolves, for whom the shield is wrought, he is named in his uniqueness only by reference to his function as a killing machine, the “Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles.” Hephaestos likewise never appears as the grammatical subject of the verb until he hobbles away from the narrative as it closes. Before this, it is only parts of him that we see: the shoulder over which Thetis looks, the hands that fashion the metal, etc. He is a working body, an automaton, not a subject. Like Achilles, he exists simply as a function, and that function is to further the cause of war. But if Thetis seems to be the dominant perspective of the narrative, the subject whose looking constitutes it all, this too evaporates on inspection. For she is a deluded and disappointed subject, an agent whose only real function, whatever her personal maternal motives, is to get the narrative of war back on course. As a commissioning subject, she is merely another inflexion of that voice without a face which, for those marching columns, “Proved by statistics that some cause was just,” instilling “a belief / Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.” She is merely the carrier of the epic Logos, a pliant subject of that power whose authority she transmits to her son, who in turn, both agent and victim, passes the message on.

43This poem was written in 1952, only seven years after the end of the Second World War, in the middle of a Korean War that teetered on the brink of nuclear armageddon. The world Hephaestos depicts is that twentieth-century world of total warfare, mass bombing and mass mobilisation, totalitarian dictatorships and social and political collapse which Auden had seen first-hand in the ruins of Berlin, on a 1945 mission, on behalf of the Pentagon, to study the effects of aerial bombing on civilian populations. In the thirties, Auden had seen war first-hand in Spain and China. He was aware, too, of how Stalinist rhetoric had turned, troped, the subjective into the delusory, to be contrasted with the “objective” Logos of Comintern policy, the one consistent rationale of which seemed to be to justify the extirpation of “subjects.” In his elegy in About the House for his friend and fellow poet Louis MacNeice, “The Cave of Making,” Auden wrote shamefacedly of the lessons of that dishonest decade, that “we shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler, / trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively, / all is possible.” It’s a lesson the twenty-first century seems to have mislaid.

VI - Epi-Logue.

44“Fleet Visit,” which comes immediately after the title poem in The Shield of Achilles, was written in Italy in 1951, three years after the prospect of a Communist victory in general elections had been averted by the intervention of the Papacy and the appearance of the US Sixth Fleet in Italian waters:

The sailors come ashore
Out of their hollow ships
Mild looking middle class boys
Who read the comic strips
One baseball game is more
To them than fifty Troys.

45Like Cortez’s men or Odysseus’s crew, these young men are agents of power who are themselves passive, carriers but also victims of the imperial Logos they are programmed to enforce, not looking at the scene with a “wild surmise,” however, but in complete boredom, patiently “set down / In this unamerican place” (the lower case cocks a snook at the McCarthyite epithet). “Mild-looking” is succinctly ironic: their looks, both appearance and gaze, disguise the ultimate violence they represent. Their “hollow” ships (the adjective is Homer’s) likewise, “Without a human will / To tell them whom to kill,” look “humane” and, unlike the sailors, “far from looking lost, / Look as if they were meant / To be pure abstract design.” Behind the Modernist aesthetic design implied by this phrase lurk, however, the impure grand designs of politicians. These ships are multi-billion-dollar killing machines, with a moral hollowness that matches that of the vacuous, lost young men who serve them.

46Fifty years, three millennia, later, the same imperial discourse subjects the globe to its fork-tongued Logos, proclaiming peace and commanding war. Christopher Logue first began adapting the Iliad in 1959, though his War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s Iliad, was not published until 1984, just after the Malvinas / Falklands war. Throughout his version of Homer, Logue dislocates the epic Logos with anachronistic Homeric-style similes which dislodge the subject of power, in a postmodern telescoping of archaic and contemporary, bathos and pathos, which is profoundly unsettling. Let me quote, by way of conclusion, one such moment, as appropriate in an age of depleted uranium and smart bombs as in Homer’s antique regime of personal combat. It is the scene which describes the death of Thestor, who, as the text tells us, is “not a Trojan,” but an unimportant teenage volunteer in what we might call a coalition of the willing. He dies all the same, an abject subject, cowering weeping in his chariot:

They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
As gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men detach
A sardine from an opened tin.

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1  This paper is part of a research project supported by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Technlogy (BFF 2002-02842), the Communidad Autónoma of La Rioja (ANGI-2002/05) and the University of La Rioja, Logroño, Spain (API-02-35).

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Stan SMITH, « Epic Logos: On First Looking into Several Homers », E-rea [En ligne], 2.2 | 2004, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2004, consulté le 18 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.427

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Nottingham Trent University
Stan Smith is Research Professor in Literary Studies at Nottingham Trent University, formerly held the established Chair of English at Dundee University, and has been Visiting Professor at the Universities of Florence and Zaragoza. He is the author of two books on Auden (Basil Blackwell; the British Council) and the editor of the forthcoming Cambridge Companion to Auden. A study of modern Irish poetry, Ireland Between Fantasy and History, will be published by Irish Academic Press in 2005. Other books include Inviolable Voice: History and Twentieth-Century Poetry (Gill and Macmillan), Edward Thomas (Faber and Faber), W.B.Yeats: A Critical Introduction (Macmillan) and The Origins of Modernism: Eliot Pound, Yeats and the Rhetorics of Renewal (Harvester-Wheatsheaf). He is a member of the Executive of the English Association

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