Christopher Logue’s Homer: Patrocleia – 3

One great contrast between Patrocleia and the later sections of War Music is the human scale of Patrocleia’s heroes. Another is in the presentation of the gods. When things get serious the chasm between the human and the divine is absolute. The poem’s climax comes when Patroclus, excited by success and blind to the extent to which all men are only the puppets of the gods, forgets his mere humanity, forgets Achilles’ warning against overreaching himself, and collides with Apollo’s divine power. At the point I’m going to quote Patroclus has started to scale the walls of Troy. Apollo shouts a warning so loudly that

Even the Yellow Judges giving law
Half-way across the world’s circumference, paused

The tide doesn’t yet turn for the Trojans, but it does for Patroclus as he hurls himself back into the human melee “desperate to hide / (To blind that voice) to hide / Among the stainless blades”. Although he obeys the god it’s too late to save him:

     Patroclus fought like dreaming:
His head thrown back, his mouth – wide as a shrieking mask –
Sucked at the air to nourish his infuriated mind
And seemed to draw the Trojans onto him,
To lock them round his waist, red water washed against his chest,
To lay their tired necks against his sword like birds.
– Is  it a god? Divine? Needing no tenderness? –
Yet instantly they touch, he butts them,
Cuts them back:
– Kill them!
My sweet Patroclus,
– Kill them!
As many as you can,
Coming behind you through the dust you felt
– What was it? – felt creation part and then

(page break)

At this point you really need the book. You turn the page to find a giant APOLLO! blasted across the double page spread followed by a single half line:

Who had been patient with you

                                                                                                  (page break)


     His hand came from the east
And in His wrist lay all eternity;
And every atom of His mythic weight
Was poised between His fist and bent left leg.
Your eyes lurched out. Achilles’ helmet rang
Far and away beneath the cannon-bones of Trojan horses,
And you were footless… staggering… amazed…
Between the clumps of dying, dying yourself,
Dazed by the brilliance in your eyes,
The noise – like weirs heard far away –
Dabbling your astounded fingers
In the vomit on your chest.

This is a stunning moment which I’m sorry not to be able to reproduce (even if I could do the giant letters, I couldn’t get the effect of turning a page). Of course the impact isn’t merely a matter of the use of huge block capitals but also of the way their effect is fed by contrast: we’re held in our uncertainty and dim grappling with an extremely abstract idea (“You felt / – what was it? – felt creation part and then”) until we turn the page and this uncertainty is blasted through by the single giant word.

One obvious point to make here again concerns our shifting relation to the characters in the story and how we are drawn into imaginative identification with them. In what I’ve quoted we move rapidly from what appears to be a neutral spectatorial position to that of someone loving Patroclus and shouting him on, caught up in the moment but also seeing it in retrospect as Patroclus’ last chance to do anything before being killed. And then, brilliantly, our response is made to split so that we’re simultaneously seeing Patroclus from outside (addressing him as “you”) and feeling things as he feels them – the vague, disturbing parting of creation and the overwhelming shock of Apollo. Patroclus was, of course, wearing Achilles’ helmet till Apollo struck him and sent it flying. The long heptameter line “Far and away between the cannon-bones of Trojan horses” stretches the distance to the helmet and again makes us see it through his eyes, as if he’s seeing it and everything except Apollo’s blinding light through the wrong end of a telescope. What a marvellously filmic effect that is. It’s followed by a purely verbal one: the ellipses marking trailing pauses in the following line make the line itself seem to stagger and trip over its own metrical feet.

Even now, even as so much compels us to enter into Patroclus’ experience, the second person pronouns hold him and that experience away from us. If I can split into separate elements tones that are blended in our response, I think there are feelings of empathy (as if we were him) and compassion (for someone suffering outside us – something he markedly didn’t feel himself) and also something more complicated. This last element is a sense of Patroclus’ being presented as an object lesson and comes most fully into focus with “Between the clumps of dying, dying yourself” and with “amazed” and “astounded”. It’s as if Patroclus never believed that he could be killed himself until it started to happen. No doubt there’s an element of a sense of his getting his come-uppance here, of tables being turned on the pitiless killer. No doubt there’s pity for his boyish rashness. But above all there’s the feeling that he’s a lesson for all of us in the sense that his blindness and vulnerability and ultimate impotence are essential elements of our shared human condition, even though they’re elements we have to forget most of the time if we’re to be active in our lives.

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