From The Everlasting Man’s Chapter III: The Antiquity of Civilisation, in which Chesterton describes Homer and the Iliad and their place both in their own time, in Western civilization (hence “our first poem”), and in the hopes and despairs of all mankind:
Somewhere along the Ionian coast opposite Crete and the islands was a town of some sort, probably of the sort that we should call a village or hamlet with a wall. It was called Ilion but it came to be called Troy, and the name will never perish from the earth. A poet who may have been a beggar and a ballad-monger, who may have been unable to read and write, and was described by tradition as a blind, composed a poem about the Greeks going to war with this town to recover the most beautiful woman in the world. That the most beautiful woman in the world lived in that one little town sounds like a legend; that the most beautiful poem in the world was written by somebody who knew of nothing larger than such little towns is a historical fact. It is said that the poem came at the end of the period; that the primitive culture brought it forth in its decay; in which case one would like to have seen that culture in its prime. But anyhow it is true that this, which is our first poem, might very well be our last poem too. It might well be the last word as well as the first word spoken by man about his mortal lot, as seen by merely mortal vision. If the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.
I’ve returned to and chewed on this passage again and again in the decade since I read The Everlasting Man in grad school. There are two things I like about it:
First is Chesterton’s observation that Homer produced one of the great foundation stones of world literature despite humble origins and limited ambitions. Looked at another way, Homer didn’t try too hard. The stereotypical novelist who sets out to write The Great American Novel always fails—indeed, the stereotype would be incomplete without his frustration.
It’s those who tell intensely focused and intimately small stories that tend to reveal the most about the whole world. The parallel I always think of in this regard is Jane Austen. Few writers are as local and parochial in their plots, characters, and settings—her genre almost demands it—but few have said as much about the human condition and especially our flaws than Austen, or said it as well.
Give up ambition. Narrow your gaze. This is a reminder for myself more than anything.
Second is Chesterton’s praise of the Iliad as the sum total of human wisdom, the extremity it can reach unaided. Ancient man was not stupid and saw the world in a harsher and sharper light than shelter modern man does. Homer sees all and rightly assesses it, and the picture the Iliad leaves us with is unremittingly bleak. Even before faint point of hope on which the poem concludes—Hektor’s funeral—his father and his killer fall into each other’s arms and weep, one for the sons he has lost, one for his comrades and, not least of all, for himself. The end is coming as it does for everyone.
It’s true, Chesterton is saying, but it’s not the whole picture. If Achilles and Priam can hope for anything beyond the grisly deaths that await them just after the Iliad’s ending, they cannot know about it. That knowledge has to be supplied from outside, with sight keener than “merely mortal vision.” The mourning Greek heroes yearn for that without knowing it, and also not knowing that they are creating the world into which that outside vision will come and the desires that it will fulfill.
It’s a powerful passage and neatly encompasses the theme and achievement not only of the Iliad but of Chesterton’s own book. Check it out if you ever get the chance.