Christopher Logue’s Homer: Patrocleia – 2

The changes of perspective in Patrocleia (1981) are a constant imaginative astonishment that keeps our response to the poem fluid and alive. This is true even in purely visual terms, in the ceaseless shifting of the imaginary camera of the poem, for example between extreme close-ups and the perspective from which Zeus sees “minute Patroclus” as like a fleck of radium and Hector like a silver mote. It’s much more so when you include the dazzling shifts between an external view, such as a film might present, and our momentarily becoming the characters as if we were acting their parts in a play. I discussed a relatively subdued moment of that kind in my last entry. There I said we identified with the anonymous soldiers fighting and dying in a war that meant nothing to them – and with a feeling that the captains were the real enemies of these common soldiers. In this and my next entry I want to look at two examples where we identify with heroes and where our participation in the feelings of the characters involves fundamental shifts of imaginative sympathy, or at least does so for me.

One is when the dying Sarpedon tells his friend to save him from desecration by the Greeks:

     Kneeling at first, then laid full length,
Teeth clenched and saying: “Glaucos, be quick
Or they will strip me while I live.
And if they do it, Glaucos, if
My captured weapons prove their jubilee,
Shame on you, Glaucos, till your dying day.
So get our best.
Anaxapart, Aeneas, Hector too – do not miss him –
And cover me with moving blades till sunset.
Then …” he was going,
“For my sake Glaucos…” going,
And he was gone.
Sunlight reflecting in his dry brown eyes.
Patroclus in his chariot again,
Wiping his neck, his smiling beard,
About to signal the advance.

I’m sure different people will have very different responses but I suspect that most will feel caught between conflicting pulls. As I read it – especially aloud – I become Sarpedon struggling to force out those last hoarse words, feeling the pain of death and the shame of defeat as powerlessness engulfs his body and he becomes an abject inanimate thing. The high proportion of short lines (played against the norm of a rough iambic pentameter) help me feel and express this panting struggle as a physical process. Sarpedon’s phrases get shorter, his gasping words pushing up against and broken apart by the narrator’s murmurs of “going… going… gone” embodying the indifferent onward march of time and event. “Kill!” has to be said loudly, heaved out with enough weight to balance the three and two foot lines on each side of it. This makes it feel like the desperate vomiting up of Sarpedon’s soul. At the same time its violence is a shocking jolt after the pathetic appeals to friendship. The whole passage is a brilliant interplay of conflicting tones and energies. “Cover me with moving blades till sunset” has an incongruous elegance, almost beauty. The pathos of Sarpedon’s speech is sometimes lightly undercut by its own language – by touches of pompous archaism and translatorese as well as by the narration it’s embedded in. But this undercutting is equivocal too. The awkwardness of the translatorese can make it seem touching, and it’s only when you get to the end of the going … going … gone … sequence and get the allusion to an auctioneer’s call that the mocking tone registers. The orchestration of tenses is an artistic joy – the in your face urgency of the present participles, the imperatives and future conditionals with which Sarpedon makes a last desperate attempt to shape events, and then suddenly he’s lost in the past (“And he was gone”) as the tide of time rolls over him and the future shifts to Patroclus “about to signal the advance”. The two minor sentences “Sunlight reflecting in his dry brown eyes. Patroclus in his chariot again … ” neatly capture the compression of a cinematic jump cut. They spark us into thought in the way cinematic montage effects do. Patroclus’s heat and animal vitality and pleasure in victory chillingly embody the pitilessness of war but they also (at least for me) surround him with boyish innocence and pathos because we know that he’s heading straight for death and he doesn’t.

Of course I know that the detail of other people’s response won’t be the same as mine. What I think I probably do share with other readers is a basic fluidity and complexity of response, a sense of shifting, divided sympathies and conflicting emotions. I think this is an essential part of what makes the 1981 Patrocleia a great poem and one that is greatly superior to the other sections of War Music in ways I’ll talk about in another entry. In Patrocleia (and in Pax, which he wrote next) Logue writes in a much more imaginatively open and exploratory way than in other sections. Instead of taking up a settled attitude towards his material he seems to let the poetry of the moment guide him where it will.

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