Sunday, November 27, 2016

`No Place on Earth Without Its God'

Thanks to Nige I am enjoying Adam Nicolson’s The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters (William Collins, 2014). Nicolson does many things well, and does them simultaneously. His prose is notable for clarity and concision. Like a poet, his gyroscope is rhythm, and he never descends into the purple. His thought draws on vast reading without turning pedantic. His concern is Homer, yes, but also how we have come to understand Homer across millennia. Consider his title. Nicolson recounts John Keats’ discovery of Homer, first in Pope’s translation and then, more fatefully, the gorgeous version by Shakespeare’s contemporary, George Chapman. We all know the fruit of that encounter, written in October 1816. Nicolson shifts our attention to the following year, when Keats is writing “Endymion,” a poem suffused with Homer. Nicolson hears “the bass note of a Homeric presence” in these lines:

“And such too is the grandeur of the dooms
We have imagined for the mighty dead;
All lovely tales that we have heard or read:
An endless fountain of immortal drink,
Pouring unto us from the heaven's brink.”
Nicolson’s Homer is more than a poet of heroic tales. He helped make us who we are (as did, I would add, Dante and Shakespeare, ever “relevant” writers we are obliged to not merely read but live with and know). Nicolson calls Homer “the embodiment of retrospect.” What could be less interesting than the future? Nicolson continues: “All poetry is memorial. Much of it is elegy.” He cites fragments of elegiac poetry written in cuneiform on clay tablets and discovered by nineteenth-century archaeologists in Sumer, in present-day Iraq. “As far back as we can reach,” he writes, “poets have been looking back, their poetry living in the gap that opens between now and then.” The Sumerian lines were written in “about 2600 BC, perhaps two thousand years before the Homeric epics were first written on papyrus.” Nicolson has a gift for inspiring a sense of temporal vertigo, and he reminds us why we read in the first place:

“[Homer] 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 those 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.”

Nige’s timing, by the way, was perfect. I had recently finished reading the late Christopher Logue’s War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), a book we have been reading in increments for decades. Here is an “unplaceable,” previously unpublished passage from a section titled “Big Men Falling a Long Way (Fragments from Books 10-24)”:

“Take an industrial lift.
Pack it with men fighting each other,
Smashing each other back against its governors
So the packed cage shoots floors up, then down,
Then up again, then down, lights out, then stops,
But what does not stop are the blows,
Fists, feet, teeth, knees, the screams of triumph and of agony
As they go up, then stop, then down they go.
No place on earth without its god.”

1 comment:

Finn MacCool said...

I, too, have been inspired by Nige to read "Why Homer Matters." A wonderfully informative and delightfully written book.