I should make it clear at the outset that I have read neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey, so I came to Adam Nicolson’s latest book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, perhaps like many in the same boat: keen to understand why these mighty poems still exert such a powerful hold over the modern imagination.
I have read Alice Oswald’s stunning Memorial, the poem she has described as a memorial to the dead soldiers of the Iliad, and I saw Simon Armitage’s Last Days of Troy at the Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester, the play that pared both epic poems to the bone. And, of course, anyone will come across references to Homer when reading history or poetry. One of my favourite poems is ‘Ithaca’ by CP Cavafy, so another reason for reading Nicolson’s book was by way of preparation for our trip to Kefalonia – and Ithaca – this year.
For someone like me, Nicolson’s book is perfect: a beautifully-written exploration that weaves together a personal and passionate account of what Homer means to him with historical, poetic, scholarly and literary insights into the origins and significance of the Homeric texts. Nicolson’s perspective on Homer is non-academic, but it is deeply intelligent and thought-provoking. He is a wonderful writer, something that I already knew from hearing the essays he has presented in his mellifluous voice on BBC Radio 3 on subjects such as Homer’s landscape, Arcadia, and spring in Crete.
In The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, Nicolson begins by stating that two questions lie at the heart of his book: where does Homer come from? And why does Homer matter?
Why is it, asks Nicolson, that this account of war and suffering, verses conceived maybe (note that ‘maybe’) four thousand years ago ‘still speak to us of the role of destiny in life, of cruelty, humanity, its frailty and the pains of existence’?
Nicolson’s answer: ‘because Homer tells us how we became who we are.’
Nicolson tells us that he fell in love with the Odyssey while reading it after a ‘ruinous’ journey through a huge storm from Falmouth to the south-west coast of Ireland. As a schoolboy, he had never understood Homer. Now, though:
I suddenly saw that this was not a poem about then and there, but now and here. The poem describes the inner geography of those who hear it. Every aspect of it is a grand metaphor. Odysseus is not sailing on the Mediterranean but through the fears and desires of a man’s life.
Nicolson’s main argument is that the poems are much older than current academic orthodoxy allows: maybe as much as 4,000 years old, rather than being the product of the eighth century BC, when they were almost certainly first written down. That was a time which saw the revival of an older Greek civilisation that had subsequently sunk into poverty and ruin. The eighth century revival saw the population of Greece and the islands growing, the revival of the art of making bronze, colonies, trade, better ships, coinage, temples, cities. According to the traditional view, Homer was the product of this dynamic, politically innovative and culturally burgeoning moment in Greek history.
But Nicolson reckons that Homer’s epic poetry derives from a historical moment a thousand years earlier when early Greek civilisation crystallised from the fusion of two very different worlds: the ‘semi-nomadic hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppes to the north and west of the Black Sea, and the sophisticated, authoritarian and literate cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean’. Homer’s epics as we know them were derived, via a long oral tradition, from cultures perhaps as far back as 2000BC, he believes.
Nicolson interprets the poems as a foundation myth that revealed how Greek civilisation had evolved from the clash of these two cultures. What emerged in Greece was a culture very different, and the poems were a means by which the Greeks came to define themselves.
I do not have sufficient learning to make my own judgement about Nicolson’s thesis. There was a critical response in the TLS by Barbara Graziosi, Professor of Classics and Director of the Institute of Advanced Study for the Arts and Humanities at Durham University:
Nicolson wants to push back the origin of the Homeric poems to the second or even the third millennium BC. He concedes that they were probably first written down in the late eighth or early seventh century, but that is hardly the point. The Iliad and the Odyssey refer to historical and material circumstances that did not obtain before around 700 BC. His attempts to trace the poems further back in time are tenuous
The epic – that process of handing down through the generations, by means of an oral tradition, an act of memory – is also the subject of Nicolson’s book. He writes that
The poems were composed by a man standing at the top of a human pyramid. He could not have stood there without the pyramid beneath him, and the pyramid consisted not only of the earlier poets in the tradition but of their audiences too.
Nicolson ranges far and wide, from Crete to Bosnia and the Hebrides to find similar examples to Homer’s verse in places where the singing of epic poetry still continues. The purpose of epic, Nicolson writes, ‘is to make the distant past as immediate to us as our own lives, to make the great stories of long ago beautiful and painful now.’
Epic, which was invented after memory and before history, occupies a third space in the human desire to connect the present to the past: It is the attempt to extend the qualities of memory over the reach of time.
In a wonderful example, he discusses a depiction of this epic tradition in a fresco revealed in 1939 in the Mycenaean palace of Pylos, in the south-western Peloponnese. A poet (‘call him Homer’) sits on a rock, plucking the strings of a lyre. Against the red of the wall behind him, the artist has depicted a large bright bird ‘making its way out into the world, leaving Homer’s own static, singing figure behind’.
The bird is poetry itself taking wing, so big, so much stronger than little Homer. … Meaning and beauty take flight from Homer’s song.
It’s moments like this which make The Mighty Dead such a memorable book.
Another central concern of Nicolson’s is the violence of the two Homeric texts. In a striking chapter he compares the moral world of modern urban American street gangs with that of the Iliad. Revenge is at the heart of both, a form of justice. They feel slights over the slightest things. When they are disrespected, they gain respect (from each other) by brutally attacking the source of the disrespect. The Greek warriors, like the rootless members of today’s street gangs, are nomadic bad boys. Both display their glory, their reputation for toughness, on their bodies and in bloodied weapons. ‘This is a gang world, marginal, desperate and tragic, a place of outsiders,’ Nicolson says of the Greek camp outside Troy’s walls. ‘Civilization it is not.’ Troy, in contrast, represents civilization: wealth, stability, marriage, order, comfort and respect.
While some (he cites Simone Weil as an example) have read the Iliad as an anti-war poem, Nicolson doesn’t see it that way: ‘Homer knows about the reality of suffering but never thinks of a world without conflict.’
Even in the good world of justice there is still murder and violence. We might long for peace, but we live in war, and the Iliad is a poem about the inescapability of it.
As the author observes, ‘one atrocity in some village on the northern border of Syria, one night-time drowning of African refugees in the Mediterranean, one week of car bombs in Baghdad’ can outdo the 264 deaths that scholars have counted in the Iliad. Nicolson reckons that at the heart of these epics lies ‘Homer’s embrace of wrongness, his depiction of a world that stands at a certain angle to virtue.’
He does not give us a set of exemplars. These poems are not sermons. We do not want Achilles or even Odysseus to be our model as men. Nor Penelope or Helen as women. Nor do we want to worship at the shrine of Bronze Age thuggery. What we want is Homeric wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death.
There are no sweeteners in Homer, writes Nicolson. He does not flinch from brutality:
There is no hiding in the Iliad, no deceit, no flinching from the view of horror, no reluctance to record the bitter jokes in the face of blood, no sweetening of dismemberment, no pretence that, when the stomach wall is cut, innards do not lurch out onto knees and laps, no forgetting that brains spatter from a spear-mangled head, nor the way wounded, dying men scratch and jerk their life out as they scrabble uselessly at their killers’ feet…
Nicolson, too, is unflinching in the way that he writes with passionate intensity, offering to the reader a deeply personal response to the questions raised in Homer. In this remarkable passage he illustrates the threat presented by a knife blade at your neck by remembering how, as a tourist in the Syrian desert, he was raped at knife point:
Women and children in Homer are always called foolish because they do not risk death by confronting the enemy; they submit and suffer like sheep under a worrying dog. I knelt in the dust as he raped me, a pitiable little dog-like action from behind, the point of the knife jiggling in the side of my neck with his frantic movements, my mind observing this from afar and realizing that the moment of greatest danger was not yet over, that after he had done with me, all the possibilities of loathing, resentment and shame, not to speak of the chance that I would report and identify him, might mean he would kill me.
Nicolson also confronts the question of why he takes such pleasure in Homer’s epics, with their violence and preoccupation with emblems of masculinity. He notes that William Blake blamed Homer for desolating Europe with wars, and that Thomas Paine, at a time when the sons of the aristocracy would imbibe the Iliad before embarking on foreign wars, wrote that he had ‘given to military life a charm which few men can resist’.
Charlotte Higgins, in her review of The Mighty Dead in the Guardian made this observation:
Nicolson’s reading is preoccupied by a pleasure in, and anxieties about, masculinity. His Odysseus is ‘manly’ (a word he actually uses to describe Homer’s wide landscapes). This manliness is about being capable, a survivor who moves restlessly through the world, evading or embracing the “terror-allure” of women; troublingly, however, it is also about enacting appalling violence. Reading Nicolson made me think of the unconscious and entirely automatic mental acrobatics women readers perform when reading these heroic texts. Still, as Sappho showed as early as the sixth century BC, in her important poetic reworkings of Homer, the epics are there to be read and reimagined by us all, man and woman. As Nicolson writes, “Homerity is humanity”.
Nicolson insists that while Homer sees the cruelty of existence with terrifying clarity, he does not endorse it. The Greek warriors may love battle, but Homer is greater than the world he describes, and his greatness lies in his compassion. Nicolson sums up what we still look for in Homer as being:
Wisdom, his fearless encounter with the dreadful, his love of love and hatred of death, the sheer scale of his embrace, his energy and brightness, his resistance to nostalgia.
There is so much wisdom and poetry in Nicolson’s beautifully-written book. Take , for example, this passage in which Nicolson recalls an evening on a small rocky peninsula on the south-eastern coast of the Peloponnese. He had been thinking about the Greek poet George Seferis.
The sea in the bay that evening was a mild milk-grey. … Sitting by the sea squills and the dry grasses blowing in the wind off the Gulf of Argolis, I read what Seferis had said about our relationship to the past. ‘The poem is everywhere,’ he wrote. Our own imaginative life
sometimes travels beside it
Like a dolphin keeping company for a while
With a golden sloop in the sunlight,
then vanishing again.
In the end Nicolson concludes that Homer’s greatness lies in the fact that he provides no answers to humanity’s questions. Recalling that Alice Oswald had recently described in the forward to Memorial, her distillation of the essence of the Iliad, how Homer presents us with a ‘bright unbearable reality’, he writes:
Homer’s greatness is in its telling … the core of life made explicit. He provides no answers. Do we surrender to authority? Do we abase ourselves? Do we indulge the self? Do we nurture civility? Do we nourish violence? Do we love? Homer says nothing in reply to these questions; he merely dramatises their reality. The air he breathes is the complexity of life, the bubbling vitality of a boat at sea, the resurgent energy, as he repeatedly says, of the bright wake starting to gleam behind you.