Tuesday, March 01, 2005


Homer of the Insects

Chapter 6 of Joseph Wood Krutch, The Great Chain of Life (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1956), bears the title The Barbarian Mammal and the subtitle Homeric Heroes. In that chapter (pp. 99-100) Krutch said:
Someone once bestowed upon Henri Fabre the title "Insects' Homer," and for all its inappropriateness it stuck. Actually, insects are not susceptible of Homeric treatment. Their lives are too complicated, too narrow, too fixed by convention and too often very unseemly. What they require, and what in Fabre they got, was less a Homer than a Zola, an Ibsen, or even a Strindberg.
One of Krutch's other books was a biography of Thoreau. To Thoreau, insects were indeed susceptible of Homeric treatment. In his account of the battle between the red ants and the black ants (Walden, chapter 12), Thoreau wrote:
In the meanwhile there came along a single red ant on the hillside of this valley, evidently full of excitement, who either had despatched his foe, or had not yet taken part in the battle; probably the latter, for he had lost none of his limbs; whose mother had charged him to return with his shield or upon it. Or perchance he was some Achilles, who had nourished his wrath apart, and had now come to avenge or rescue his Patroclus.
"Complicated, narrow, fixed by convention, and often very unseemly" -- that's not a bad description of the lives of Homeric heroes.

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