Christopher Logue, War Music: An account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad (London: Faber and Faber, 2001)
Picture the east Aegean sea by night,
And on a beach aslant its shimmering
Upwards of 50,000 men
Asleep like spoons beside their lethal Fleet.
For some time, I have taken note of whether a translation of poetry is by a professional Translator or a professional Poet. When a translation of a world classic leaves me benumbed, I go looking for another translation, hesitating to dismiss something that has exercised a strong magnetic pull for one or two thousand years when it may just be down to a plodding translation.
Often you get lucky and stumble across Translator-Poets or Poet-Translators.
Then there is another class, those who don’t create translations, but rather renditions or reworkings. These seem to be poets who scoop up in the arms of their imagination a handful of translations, cradle and rock them there, then put them to one side and wait. At least, I imagine they wait, allowing the story and its spirit to percolate through their being, engendering some kind of alchemy of forgetting (to avoid plagiarism) and of amalgamating recall. And then, as I imagine it, a self-powering solitary surge of reforging originality. Even as I write this I am reading such a rendition of Gilgamesh.
Such is Christopher Logue’s War Music, his rendition of several books of Homer’s Iliad. It was only in scanning the book cover that I noticed it doesn’t just say ‘Logue … War Music’, but ‘Logue’s Homer – War Music’. Logue’s version of Homer. One poet’s hat’s-off-and-sky-high-thrown salute to another, before grabbing the ancient baton of the Iliad’s story and bounding away with it into a new millennium.
Helped on his venture by piercing, passing, provocative insight:
‘The Greeks are not humanistic,’ Wakefield warned him, ‘not Christian, not sentimental. Please try to understand that. They are musical.’ (xi)
I also liked the poet’s humble tribute to the tenacity and survival of Homer’s epic, and the madness or grit of generation after generation of his fans:
Even though it owes its life to ridicule or to the power of bad taste, any poem that survives outside literary circles for more than one generation is noteworthy. For a poem of over 15,000 lines representing an age as remote from its own as it is from ours to survive the collapse of, not just one society (a critical test no poem in English has, as yet, had to pass), but two, could mean that those who have kept it alive are mad. (viii)
Those whom we may choose to count among the hopelessly insane: the hard core of Unprofessional Ancient Greek Readers, Homer’s lay fans. (viii)
Logue’s rendition fires off salvos of arrow-sharp, dazzlingly varied and original metaphors and similes with the pulsing regularity of a master archer releasing his taut-pulled bowstrings. I would love to see dozens of these absorbed into daily language, so that the overused ‘I need that like I need a hole in the head’ could sometimes be swapped for the fresher and equally arresting, ‘I need that … “no more than our Achilles needs snot on his spearpole.”‘ (68)
His imagery also leaps over time and technology, deftly applying 20th century words and ideas to a Bronze Age battle: weapon-grade chrome turning up on the blood-besmirched beaches of Troy, together with references to sardine cans and slippery bathrooms floors. Or likening Ajax’s grimness to Rommel after Alamein:
And on the next, Ajax,
Grim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein…. 13
It is dramatic and graphic in imagery, and yet curiously, casually, low-key and even sardonic:
They passed so close that hub skinned hub.
Ahead, Patroclus braked a shade, and then,
As gracefully as men in oilskins cast
Fake insects over trout, he speared the boy,
And with his hip his pivot, prised Thestor up and out
As easily as later men
Disengage sardine from a tin. 154
The gods are shown as the often spoiled brats they are, squabbling and cheap-dealing over lives and cities like badly behaved sprogs yanking at each other’s toys in a play-pen.
And like such children, who run to Mummy or Daddy or Teacher, sooner or later these deities go whining and wheedling to Zeus when they can’t get what they want for themselves, often because he’s already given its opposite to their divine rival.
First, prussic-eyed Athena for whom time stops when she arrives (and, mercifully, starts again when she leaves). But Papa Zeus has the attention span of a gnat and not much more patience:
‘Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.’ 121
And always and forever, hate-filled, lake-eyed Hera, pouting and pushing for someone’s death or some city’s destruction because somebody somewhere some time somehow offended her. And when she doesn’t get it, turn on the tears, use some of that liquid in your lake eyes:
God sighs and says:
‘Magnificas. You know how fond I am of Troy.
Its humans have believed in Me, and prayed to Me.
For centuries. If I agree to your destroying it,
And them, you must agree to My destroying any three
Greek cities of My choice – plus their inhabitants.
And when I do so, you, remembering Troy, will make no fuss.’ 122
Occasionally he just puts her in her place again, matching brutality with brutality (his is bigger):
‘What I have said will be, will be,
Whether you know of it, or whether not.
Sit down. Sit still. And no more mouth.
Or I will kick the breath out of your bones.’
And Hera did as she was told. 41
All this Olympian pettiness is reflected at a human level in the squabbling of warriors, as Achilles hurls an insult at Agamemmnon which disgruntled workers might lob at their useless managers:
‘Seeing your leadership has left me leaderless.’ 24
Yes, ten-ton-tantrum Achilles, elsewhere you are called ‘Wondersulk’ (183).
But petulance aside, there is the magnificence of strength and fearlessness, as when Achilles emerges from both wondersulk and heaven-howling grief:
He said. Simple as that. ‘I’ll fight.’
And so Troy fell. (196)
And even among lesser names, the ones who don’t feature in the premier league of Hector, Achilles and their ilk, such as the hawk-eyed Bombax who can swing a city from his oiled silvery plaits:
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 spoke…175
And where bravery doesn’t come so naturally, it is threat-induced:
Be confident that I shall plant my spear
Deep in the back of any hero who mistakes
His shieldstrap for a safety belt; his feet
For running shoes. 77
Read War Music if you love Homer, or epic in general, or if you have never read either. Read it above all if you are plonked on a plane or crammed in a tram, wading through a quagmire of porridge-thick, jargon-addled, intellectually flabby, cosmically inconsequential corporate, academic or other aesthetically non-starter waffle, and would like to refresh your brain and resuscitate your will to live. Dive into this bracing, sparkling, vivifying, pounding sea of lean, lithe, limpid language.
PS If you are Homer-phobic, or just unsure what the fuss is all about, then read our bestellar review of Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead. You’ll feel mighty alive when you have.