Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus…
- The Iliad, translated by Richard Lattimore
It is, arguably, the founding moment in literature: the opening of the Iliad, that weird, brutal tale of gods and humans that establishes, in this first, curling, all-encompassing sentence (if sentence it is), the ground and remit of all tales that follow. Here is the Trojan War – a ten-year siege of which the Iliad covers only a few weeks in total, and four days in focus – condensed into 24 chapters that tell a story which remains as strange, abundant, excessive and exorbitant to us now as it must have been at its initial invocation.
For the Romantics, this was the limit of Romanticism: a tale of tragic fate, of love that cannot conquer in the face of mendacious humanity and capricious gods. For the Modernists, here was the language stretched and pulverised squeezed, as in a wine-press, to express the oddness of being in the world. To the Postmodernists, it was an epic that revelled in its self-referentiality; a text with, for all its details, holes and openings which folded time and space into patterns that could move and transform from one reading to another. Based on a story that may or may not be ‘true’ – disputes continue as to whether there was a Trojan War – written by a hand which may not have existed, and delivered down the ages by systems of transmission that are lost to us, the Iliad is as unfettered as a text can be, and more miraculous for it.
This month sees Faber publish the paperback edition of Christopher Logue’s War Music: his ‘account’ (his preferred word) of the Iliad, written over a period of 40 years, beginning in 1959, when he was commissioned by the BBC to translate a section of the poem for radio performance, and continued sporadically until his death in 2005. The translation, which came out in four books War Music (1981), Kings (1991), The Husbands (1995), All Day Permanent Red (2003), is collected here for the first time and placed in the chronological order of the original. The work is unfinished, and the Faber edition includes an Appendix with Logue’s plan for the rest.
We tend to think of translation as a move between languages, and there are various theories concerning what this move should achieve: textual fidelity, textual infidelity, a capturing of the ‘feel’ of the poem (whatever that means – again theories joyfully multiply) or a complete reimaging, where the voice of the new poet, writing in the new time, attempts a version both recognisable and new. Logue famously pointed out to the BBC commissioner of his poem, Donald Carne-Ross, that there was a slight problem with attempting to translate the Iliad. He knew no Ancient Greek, and obviously the opportunity for co-translation with the original poet had been lost several thousand years previously. Carne-Ross’s solution – audacious in many ways, and one of those bits of serendipity all writers dream of – was to ask Logue to work from previous translations, and from a word by word key that he, Carne-Ross, would put together. This was not to be a literal translation in any sense. It was to be Christopher Logue’s poem, based on Homer’s.
This way of working has become more common now – think of Ted Hughes’s version of Ovid, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, or Anne Carson’s Sappho – but at the time it was a brilliant wager on Logue’s talent, and on the idea that a poem had a ‘meaning’ (or multiple ‘meanings’) that could be transmitted – not without transformation – in a new way to speak to a new world. It was a notion that was met with some opprobrium by other translators of Homer in the classical tradition. The poet dismissed them as ‘translation police’, keeping Homer ‘in their hands’.
What Logue produced is astonishing: a gleefully anachronistic version of Homer where helicopters ‘whump’ in the sky, Shakespeare is invoked (‘King Richard calling for another horse’) and future wars such as Stalingrad always already exist in the episteme of the poem. This is not pastiche – Logue is forgoing the conceit that we don’t know the story and, moreover, the conceit that we don’t also know history – and literary history – since the time of this epic. To sing the Iliad without acknowledging that the carnage it reports has continued is a decision in itself. By anchoring his account in that which is eternal, Logue cuts through the distancing of myth, and the way it ‘makes safe’.
This version is also unashamedly filmic (“Reverse the shot./ Go close”), and it is not the gods he invokes at the start of War Music, but rather our collective, incorporated knowledge of film technique:
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
pwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal fleet.
The effect of this is to evoke and eternal past and an eternal present simultaneously; and there is no apology, coded or otherwise, for doing so. Philip Larkin warned about an easy reliance on the ‘myth-kitty’ in his ‘Statement on Poetry’, arguing that each poem should be ‘its own freshly created universe’. But here Logue embraces the notion that not only is myth abiding, but the kitty is both added to and refreshed by our new ways of seeing. To use the language of cinematography, for example, is to use the language in which we can now think, and could not think before.
Logue does not allow himself to make completely free with Homer’s ‘original’. One of the starling achievements of the work is to replicate way the Iliad embraces pathos while rejecting bathos. This is a world where events, though tragic, are inevitable. To summon up sympathy for each of the dead is to wish upon the work a sentimentality it does not have. It is not for nothing that Louis MacNeice called War Music “not a translation but a remarkable achievement of empathy”. Which is not to say that the reader is not moved. The moment when Achilles, who has in a fit of pique absented himself from the war, hears of the death of his friend Patroclus, and who thus is drawn back in, simultaneously sealing the doom of Troy, Hector and himself, is a masterpiece of understatement:
And those who had the neck to watch Achilles weep
Could not look now.
Nobody looked. They were afraid.
His eyes like furnace doors ajar.
When he had got its weight
And let its industry assuage his grief:
He said. Simple as that. ‘I’ll fight.’
And so Troy fell.
It’s interesting to set this work against Alice Oswald’s recent Memorial, her version of the Iliad which extracts from the text each death mentioned, and tells a brief limpid tale of most of them, simply listing the dead at other times in a laconic evocation of the sheer scope of the bloodshed, and the smallness of the combatants in the tapestry of war:
ORSILOCHUS and CRETHON grew restless
They had shallow stony eyes
Always staring at the pulling sea
And they were the grandsons of a river
Famous Alpheus whose muscular waters
Wind round Pylos
But those cold blue arms could not keep them
As soon as they were old enough
They took their ship to Troy their story
Finishes here in darkness
Oswald shares Logue’s discipline, romanticising neither the conflict or the lives of its victims (‘And Hector died like everyone else’). That war is inevitable is, in one sense, the message of the Iliad; we can only look on and do what we can to mourn. However, Logue’s account is unfinished. It does not include the final battle between Achilles and Hector is not told, nor is Hector’s death, the dragging of his corpse around Troy, and its return to King Priam, Hector’s father. Instead it ends with Achilles re-entering the fray:
And Achilles, shaken, says:
‘I know I will not make old bones.’
And laid his scourge against the racing flanks.
Someone as left a spear stuck in the ground.
Although obviously unintentional, there is something apt about this lack of closure. The clock of fate has been wound, and the bell must inevitably toll – we know, as Achilles knows, that the gods have made their decision, and he can only bring the hands together for them. The genius of War Music is to make this dilemma fresh and urgent. It is the oldest of all stories, but it is not old.
Many of us have, in a sense, been living in an age of Odysseus. War has seemed an object of the past, a story to be told in memoriam. And yet the Iliad goes on, returning again and again to teach us that the darkness will always return.