Christopher Logue’s Homer: Patrocleia – 1

Narrative poetry doesn’t come much finer than in the version of Patrocleia in Christopher Logue’s 1981 War Music: An Account of Books 16 to 19 of Homer’s Iliad.

It’s thrilling to read through fast, as an action narrative should be, but its lyricism and its imagistic brilliance hold the reader’s mind and keep the story fresh through endless rereading.

One thing the work is famous for is the film-like vividness and particularity of its descriptions. The influence of cinema appears very obviously in things like the explicit use of the language of screenplay to mark a narrative shift (“Cut to the fleet”) or in scene setting that combines the economical syntax of screenplay directions with poetic evocativeness (“Noon. Striped mosquitoes. Nothing stirs.”). But these are only superficial and local manifestations of an influence that is radical and pervasive. The whole poem follows a cinematic rhythm in the fluent immediacy with which it swoops from scene to scene, angle to angle, long shot to close-up. Illustrating this properly would take lengthy quotation but I can show something of what I mean in a passage that almost seems to anticipate sequences from Kurosawa’s Ran or the Battle of Helm’s Deep in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings in its movement between long-shot and close-up:

     Man against man; banner behind raised banner;
The torn gold overwhelming the faded blue;
Blue overcoming gold; both up again; both frayed
By arrows that drift like bees thicker than autumn rain.
The left horse falls. The right, prances through blades
Tearing its belly like a silk balloon.
And the shields inch forward under bowshots.
And under the shields the half-lost soldiers think:
“We fight when the sun rises; when it sets we count the dead.
What has the beauty of Helen to do with us?” Half-lost,
With the ochre mist swirling around their knees,
They shuffle forward, lost, until the shields clash –

In Pax the cinematic influence is even more obvious, if only because Logue both often deals in shorter takes, and breaks things up by printing the different takes as separate blocks of print, instead of combining them as he does in the passage I’ve just quoted. This holds up separate moments for lyrical contemplation but at a cost in the narrative momentum that is so powerful in Patrocleia.

But of course this writing isn’t only cinematic. The associative value of the words and their phonetic qualities are as important as they are in any good poetic writing. This is poetry that almost compels you to read it aloud, and after you’ve done so once, you register its physicality in the muscles and spaces of your mouth, even in silence. For example, the repetitions of words in the first line of the little passage above, the pounding stresses, the alliteration and the urgent ellipses combine to involve the reader in a sense of surging muscular effort locked in stasis. I think the main lines of the way this is done are pretty obvious: the plosive “b”s are spat out, the strong stresses take an effort to articulate, the crowding together of stresses slows the line metrically and the repetitions act out a failure of progression. A huge amount could be written about the physical suggestiveness of sound and rhythm in this extract, but there’s just one other detail of that kind that I want to comment on here. It’s the wonderful sense of a near-suspension of movement created in the line describing the arrows. The extra unstressed syllable in the second foot contributes to this and so does the inversion of the fourth foot, both these things building on the groundwork laid by the fact that this line and the one before it are alexandrines to make us visualise, almost feel, the way arrows seem to hang in the air when they reach the peak of their flight and before they start dropping. It’s tempting to comment on how brilliantly the arrestingly visual impact of the image of the horse prancing through blades is reinforced by the incongruous elegance and delicacy of the sounds and the associations of the words used to describe it. Above all, though, it’s the precise, assured, rapid and unexpected orchestration of such suggestions and many others that makes the whole passage so moving and involving, especially when you read it aloud and perform those expressive sounds yourself.

I’m writing too much for one entry, but the climax of this involvement comes with our becoming the soldiers:

With the ochre mist swirling around their knees,
They shuffle forward , lost, until the shields clash:
–AOI!
Lines of black ovals eight feet high, clash:
–AOI!
And in the half-light who will be first to hesitate,
Or, wavering, draw back, and Yes! … the slow
Wavering begins, and, Yes! … they bend away from us;
And the spears flicker between the black hides,
Bronze glows vaguely and bones show
Like pink drumsticks.

The shift from a third person to a first person perspective is prepared by our being drawn into the soldiers’ thoughts (“We fight when the sun rises …”) and it’s clinched before the shift from third to first person makes the process explicit by our being made to shout “AOI!” ourselves – at least if we’re reading the poem aloud.

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