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.