Friday, November 14, 2008


Scenes from Homer

In the Trojan War, Hector killed Achilles' companion Patroclus. Homer, Iliad 22, describes how Achilles took revenge on Hector. Edwin Muir, Ballad of Hector in Hades, retells the story:
Yes, this is where I stood that day,
    Beside this sunny mound.
The walls of Troy are far away,
    And outward comes no sound.

I wait. On all the empty plain
    A burnished stillness lies,
Save for the chariot's tinkling hum,
    And a few distant cries.

His helmet glitters near. The world
    Slowly turns around,
With some new sleight compels my feet
    From the fighting ground.

I run. If I turn back again
    The earth must turn with me,
The mountains planted on the plain,
    The sky clamped to the sea.

The grasses puff a little dust
    Where my footsteps fall.
I cast a shadow as I pass
    The little wayside wall.

The strip of grass on either hand
    Sparkles in the light;
I only see that little space
    To the left and to the right,

And in that space our shadows run,
    His shadow there and mine,
The little flowers, the tiny mounds,
    The grasses frail and fine.

But narrower still and narrower!
    My course is shrunk and small,
Yet vast as in a deadly dream,
    And faint the Trojan wall.
The sun up in the towering sky
    Turns like a spinning ball.

The sky with all its clustered eyes
    Grows still with watching me,
The flowers, the mounds, the flaunting weeds
    Wheel slowly round to see.

Two shadows racing on the grass,
    Silent and so near,
Until his shadow falls on mine.
    And I am rid of fear.

The race is ended. Far away
    I hang and do not care,
While round bright Troy Achilles whirls
    A corpse with streaming hair.

It took Odysseus, also known as Ulysses, ten years to return home after the Trojan War. During his absence, suitors tried unsuccessfully to win the hand of his wife Penelope. When he finally returned, Odysseus took revenge on the suitors. Jorge Luis Borges, Odyssey, Book Twenty-three (tr. Robert Fitzgerald), retells the story:
Now has the rapier of iron wrought
The work of justice, and revenge is done.
Now spear and arrows, pitiless every one,
Have made the blood of insolence run out.
For all a god and his seas could do
Ulysses has returned to realm and queen.
For all a god could do, and the grey-green
Gales and Ares' murderous hullabaloo.
Now in the love of their own bridal bed
The shining queen has fallen asleep, her head
Upon her king's breast. Where is that man now
Who in his exile wandered night and day
Over the world like a wild dog, and would say
His name was No One, No One, anyhow?
A couple of details in Borges' poem may be puzzling to the reader unfamiliar with Homer's Odyssey. The phrase "a god and his seas" refers to Poseidon. Odysseus during his wanderings had been captured by Poseidon's son Polyphemus, a one-eyed giant (Cyclops). Odysseus concealed his true name from Polyphemus and pretended that his name was Οὔτις ("No One"). When Odysseus and his companions blinded the sleeping Polyphemus in his one eye, and the other Cyclopes asked who had done the deed, Polyphemus answered, "No One." After Odysseus escaped from Polyphemus, the giant begged his father Poseidon to take revenge, and Poseidon's wrath pursued Odysseus throughout the rest of his wanderings.

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