Christopher Logue’s Homer – 4 Patrocleia vs later books

In Pax, Logue imagines that the hatred in Achilles’ eyes is so violent and has such power that it might damage the metal of his divine armour if he looked at it with fully open eyes. If the poet simply said that this did happen the idea would immediately go flat and lose all its wonder. Instead he says that when Thetis laid the armour on the sand

     Nobody looked. They were afraid.

     Except Achilles: looked,
Lifted a piece of it between his hands;
Turned it; tested the weight of it; and then
Spun the holy tungsten like a star between his knees,
Slitting his eyes against the flare, some said,
But others thought the hatred shuttered by his lids
Made him protect the metal.

     His eyes like furnace doors ajar.

“Some said, / But others thought”. The idea is there but without compromising Achilles’ humanity or destroying the human scale. Again, at the end of the poem, when Achilles mounts his chariot to lead the attack against Troy, he’s bathed in a divine light. Imaginatively we’re suspended between mortality and myth. He cracks his whip and everything slows. His immortal horses rise “as in dreams, or at Cape Kennedy”. Their hooves barely dent the sand, and his chariot wheels barely touch the world. Achilles tells the horses to take care not to leave him as they left Patroclus. One says they can bring him back alive this time but soon they won’t be permitted to

     And Achilles, shaken, says:
“I know I will not make old bones.”

     And laid his scourge against their racing flanks.

Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.

However godlike he may be, Achilles is human, mortal, shaken by the fear of death as he prepares for his day of greatest triumph. That’s why he can move us, and why his courage has meaning.

I don’t think Pax is as fine as Patrocleia, but it is in GBH that there is a real change of imaginative approach. In this and the following books the writing can still be extremely striking and impressive but the work seems to me to have lost a fundamental humanity, and the impressiveness of the writing seems to me to be of an overblown, imaginatively coarsened kind.

For example, take this description of Odysseus’s chariot driver:

     Close-up on Bombax: 45; fighting since 2;
Who wears his plate beneath his skin; one who has killed
More talking bipeds than Troy’s wall has bricks;
Whose hair is long, is oiled, is white, is sprung,
Plaited with silver wire, twice plaited – strong? –

Why, he could swing a city to and fro with it
And get no crick; whose eye can fix
A spider’s web yoking a tent peg to its guy
Five miles downbeach – and count its spokes:

There’s certainly a kind of hard brilliance to the image of the eye fixing the spider’s web at five miles, but it overkills in several directions at once – not only in the sheer preposterousness of the exaggeration but also in the redundant specification of where the spider’s web is. More importantly, how can one relate humanly to a creature like this? And what kind of powers would the semi-divine Achilles need for him to stand out in the world of Bombax?

This is my fundamental problem with all the later-written poems of War Music. Reading them, I’ve been excited by the brio and muscular power of their language, by the visual and auditory sharpness with which they paint scenes and by the inventive wit with which they collide the traditional associations of the Iliad against the language and imagery of cinema, computer games and celebrity journalism. As satire they can be wonderful. What I miss in them and find so abundantly in Patrocleia is the sensitivity, heart, human feeling, and emotional engagement with the characters that give that book its beauty and pathos and have drawn me back to it so repeatedly. One thing vital to sustaining that kind of response was the preservation of the human scale. Another was the flexibility and openness that earlier entries try to point out in Logue’s own approach to the material – his ability to empathise with his murderous heroes, for example, as well as to see them cynically.

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