CLASSIC THOUGHTS / Swarms of bees and poppies: Continuing our occasional series of reflections on classic literature, Gabriel Josipovici considers the lofty realism of Homer's Iliad

'THE DEAD writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did,' T S Eliot has someone say. And the reply comes: 'Precisely, and they are that which we know.' Not only that though. Old books are there to remind us of ways of looking and thinking that we have forgotten or that modern culture has kept hidden from us. And of no book is this truer than of the Iliad.

Where Virgil is the poet of subjectivity, of pathos, of the unspeakable sorrow at the heart of things, Homer is the poet who more than any other tells us how things are. There is a kind of ruthlessness in describing a warrior falling off a chariot, a spear through his neck, as like a diver plunging into still seas; or of a warrior, his face a bleeding mass, his neck broken, as like a poppy in a field beaten down by a spring shower. Shocking, yes, but that is not the intention, nor, I think, is it quite the effect.

We are merely being asked to see things from a non-human perspective, one which stands above human concerns and is not subject to our sense of time, and from which the erupting on to the Trojan plain of a horde of armed men is simply an aspect of life on the planet, like the flight of migrating birds or the sudden emergence of a swarm of bees. Human beings are like leaves on a tree, 'one generation of men will grow while another dies', and it is well to know this and have no illusions about our place in the universe.

But that is only half the story. Homer's objectivity is not that of Ecclesiastes, which, I suspect, he would see as being as one-sided as Virgilian pathos. Unlike leaves and bees, human beings long to make something of their brief lives under the sun and, unlike them, they find it difficult to cope with the knowledge of their own death and the loss of those closest to them. Indeed, the Iliad, far from being the great poem of war, is the great poem of mourning. Its central question is: how can we cope with the death of those we love and find ways of making our acute sense of what they have meant to us something enriching rather than destructive?

Achilles, who has not been able to bear the shame of having his concubine, Priseis, taken away from him, discovers that even the funeral games in Patroclus' honour have not made his friend's death any more bearable. Yet in the last book he finds rest at last when he is able to return the body of Hector to his grieving father. And he can only make that gesture of generosity when he has made the imaginative leap of understanding what the old man must be feeling: 'You must be brave indeed,' he says to Priam, 'to come here to face the man who has killed your son.'

So the two of them weep together, Priam for his dead son and Achilles for his dead friend and for his old father. And we, who know he will soon die himself (though the poem, with typical restraint, includes neither that event nor the fall of Troy in its pages), and who have ourselves suffered loss and tried to mourn in a world where the public structures which used to facilitate such things no longer exist - we are helped by Homer's poetry and his wise realism to come to terms with the most important thing in all our lives: death.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us