Homer’s Iliad 2: Book 6 and Michael Longley’s “The Helmet”
Looking for a link to Longley’s “The Helmet” I found this site with a wonderful little anthology of contemporary poems and passages inspired by Homer:
This seems to be a subsection of a larger site with links to all the poems in an anthology I hadn’t come across – Nina Kossman’s Gods and Mortals: Modern Poems on Classical Myths.
The specific link to “The Helmet” is http://nauplion.net/HELMET.HTM
I wanted it because “The Helmet” is such a beautiful spinoff from Book 6 of the Iliad. Longley’s poems inspired by Homer are fine in remarkably different ways. This one is like a sharp glass splinter. Most of the pathos and emotional complexity of the meeting between Hector and Andromache as developed in the Iliad have been stripped out in Longley’s version. Gone is Andromache’s grief at the death of her father and seven brothers, all at Achilles’ hands, and at her mother’s death by disease. Gone is her fear that she and their child will now lose Hector too. Gone are Hector’s awareness of the futility of his battle and his knowledge that Troy will die and Andromache and Astyanax be dragged off as slaves. In the Iliad, the dramatic life of the passage is in the way one moment Andromache and Hector are facing each other in complicated despair at the future they both know is coming, and the next they’re released into loving laughter by the boy’s fear of Hector’s helmet. His reaction is very ordinary and human – I remember how disconcerted I was when my toddler son was terrified by seeing me in a cardboard mask I’d made to entertain him. Of course it’s ironic that they’re laughing at Astyanax’s reaction to a symbol of the very fears that have been weighing on them in an adult way a moment before. That irony isn’t the heart of the thing in Homer, though. The heart of it is in the beautifully natural and simple way in which Homer has captured what Proust called “les intermittences du coeur” – that fluctuating nature of our emotions that here gives Hector and Adromache the kind of inner life the Greek heroes can’t have because they are so monolithically conceived.
Longley’s very short poem achieves its concentrated impact by resolving the fluctuations and complexities of the situation in the Iliad into much simpler contrasts. “Shiny Hector”, the godlike figure of myth, is contrasted with the vulnerable child. He’s also contrasted with himself, as it were, in another aspect or relation – with himself as “his father” and “his daddy”. The main thrust of the poem is to suggest the monstrosity of war by omitting everything that in Homer makes Hector’s fighting inevitable and by showing us the mask of war through a baby’s eyes, and then to suggest the dreadful perversity of Hector’s wish for his son. It’s brilliantly done by the sharpness with which the opposing states of being are evoked: the shiny, flashing, metallic and horsehair world of the warrior and the violent emotions it causes, described in a subtly heightened and formalized register, all set against the warm world of the family, the soft, comforting breasts, the intimate nexus of wean, daddy and mammy, and the simple almost childish phrasing of lines 5 and 6.
General points about war and tribalism are obviously being suggested; there’s an overlap with Chinua Achebe’s poem “Vultures” which I used to teach for GCSE, though in Longley’s poem the suggestions are made in a defter, subtler and vastly more concise way. But of course there is a very specific reference too. The use of Ulster Scots words – “wean”, “mammy”, “babbie” – and the use of “terrorized” instead of “terrified” make it clearly a poem to be read in the context of the Northern Irish troubles (except for the sake of this effect, “terrorized” would be a clumsy choice of word because it implies an intention to terrify on Hector’s part). So Longley uses the Homeric source selectively, to make his own point with fierce intensity. The point is one I’d find it hard to imagine anyone resisting, and it’s made memorably and extremely well. At the same time, this kind of focused making of a point is something very different to the openness of suggestion and amplitude of understanding that we find in Homer