Chesterton on the Iliad

Achilles mourns Patroclus, from a second century a.d. greek sarcophagus

Achilles mourns Patroclus, from a second century a.d. greek sarcophagus

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:

[The Iliad] 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.
— GK Chesterton

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.

Waking into the world


About a week ago, Alan Jacobs posted a short bit of one of his favorite Auden poems on his blog. I enjoy but am no great fan of Auden and began to skim, but then stopped short when Jacobs invoked Beowulf. It seems that in his poem “Horae Canonicae,” Auden borrowed from Beowulf what struck me as a beautiful image.

Here’s the relevant passage—some genealogical framing from near the beginning of the poem—in the translation of Beowulf I happen to be reading right now, that of R.M. Liuzza:

Four children, all counted up,
were born to that bold leader of hosts.

Liuzza’s translation is good—I want to emphasize that—but here it translates the meaning rather than the literal words of the text. Here’s the same passage in the original Old English:

ðæm feower bearn     forðgerimed
in worold wocon     weoroda ræswan

And to give my own roughly literal version:

to him four children counted forth
woke into the world…

Waking into the world.

Today is my birthday, the day I woke into the world thirty-five years ago (an age with plenty of its own significance). But that’s not what was on my mind when I ran across this beautiful phrase. Rather, a few days earlier, my wife and I had welcomed our third child, a healthy baby boy, our second son, into the world. That has a way of preoccupying you.

So after spending a few days in the hospital, attending the birth and holding this stunned, fearful, hungry, and not a little drowsy new life in my arms, waking into the world seemed exactly right. Who isn’t a little shocked to wake up, who doesn’t expect breakfast, and who doesn’t carry sleep with them like the warmth of their blankets for a little while after rising? Waking into the world is a metaphor that strikes closer to the truth than plain English, the way all good poetry does.

While being born has its own poetic weight—each and every one of us is carried into life, just as each of us will be carried out—I think waking gets at what makes being born such a shock and delight. Beyond the fun, simple parallels, when we wake we come slowly or instantly into a world we were totally unaware of a moment before. It went on without us—had been going on for some time—with its own cast of characters and interests. We aren’t necessary to its existence and continuation. And so waking up and joining it is a gift.

Because I can’t keep him out of this blog for long, here’s a favorite bit from Chesterton, in Heretics, on the same point:

The supreme adventure is being born. There we do walk suddenly into a splendid and startling trap. There we do see something of which we have not dreamed before. Our father and mother do lie in wait for us and leap out on us, like brigands from a bush. Our uncle is a surprise. Our aunt is, in the beautiful common expression, a bolt from the blue. When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world that we have not made.

None of us has to wake into the world—indeed many never even get the chance. But my growing awareness of the gratuitousness of life, how totally unnecessary it all is, has made me more and more grateful to have received such a gift as waking. I don’t know how much time I have left in this world—I pray it’s many years, of course—but however long it is, I’m thankful for the grace of waking into it, and of being able to give that gift to my children.

Thanks to all who have passed along birthday wishes and greetings, and especially those who have helped us welcome our son. God bless, and thanks as always for reading.

Leaving things out

Last year I wrote a short post about proportion in the arts, inspired by an offhand answer Jerry Seinfeld gave about turning down $5 million per episode for one more season of “Seinfeld.” There, I quoted the great poet, critic, and translator of Dante John Ciardi, who in the notes to his Inferno wrote that:

Poetry is, among other things, the art of knowing what to leave out.
— John Ciardi

A side note: Is there another phrase that evokes quite what “leaving things out” does? It suggests making things manageable—in all kinds of ambiguous ways. What I’m driving at in this post, of course, is leaving things out to get at the true shape of something, rather as I’m leaving things out of my diet right now to return to what I hope is a truer shape of me.

When I learned that the great historian of modern Europe and Churchill biographer John Lukacs had died a few weeks ago, I revisited a short book—a bound essay, really—he wrote for ISI’s Student Guide series, A Student’s Guide to the Study of History. There, in a passage describing the simple version of the historian’s process of preparing and gathering material, I read this footnote:

No matter how detailed and assiduous, your research will never be complete. The nineteenth-century monographic ideal was that certifiable historian who, having read every document and every writing related to his topic, is able to produce a complete and definitive history of it. This is no longer possible—because of the possibility that new documents, new treatments, and more publications about his topic, many in different places and languages of the world, may yet appear. (Of course some histories are more “definitive” than others. But never absolutely so.)

And then, on the next page, as Lukacs begins to explain the triage of sorting the material an historian has collected, he includes this wonderful parenthetical:

It is a great mistake to use everything.
— John Lukacs

Precisely because everything is not up to the same standard, is not relevant, is not part of the story you’re trying to tell. This is a succinct warning away from the kitchen sink approach, which every one of us has encountered at least once in some 800-page book, fiction or non-fiction.

Which brings me back to Ciardi: the art in poetry and history, as in so much of life, from cookery and dieting (see above) to marriage, is in choosing. This entails constraint (adherence to form), restraint (rejection of self-indulgence), and commitment (sticking with it even though you’ve just made it harder on yourself), and these in turn entail a certain amount of courage (say what you mean!) and discipline (mean what you say!).

Leaving things out—choosing—shapes both you and your art and will create order. And contrary to the modern suspicion that order only crushes creativity, it will in reality “give room for good things to run wild.”

Take a moment to read this detailed LA Times obit for Lukacs. He led a remarkable life, from surviving the Holocaust in Hungary to working as an historical adviser on Darkest Hour. And pick up one of his books sometime. I recommend The Duel: The Eighty-Day Struggle Between Churchill and Hitler, which I’ve recommended here before along with a few of his other books.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, edited by Verlyn Flieger, is the latest Tolkien napkin doodle to get its own book.

aotrou itroun cover.jpg

I'm being jocular, of course, and this Lay is a welcome edition to the available work of Tolkien, but when I turned it up online that was the first thing to cross my mind. Christopher Tolkien and the Tolkien Estate have taken some flak for mining the master's unpublished papers, presumably as a cash grab.

Delving too greedily and too deep, if you will.

As it happens, I don't think this criticism is fair, and I'm glad that even slender volumes like this one (just 106 pages) and The Story of Kullervo continue to come out, for reasons I'll get into later.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun is a 506-line poem based on Breton myth, particularly Celtic stories about witches and changelings. It's a lay, meaning a narrative poem longer than a ballad and shorter than an epic, composed in iambic tetrameter couplets, a format most famously used in the lais of Marie de France, a twelfth-century poet. Tolkien wrote this poem in 1930, apparently in the middle of writing The Lay of Leithian, which the editor has established thanks to Tolkien's own careful notations of the dates of completion of several different manuscripts. 

Tolkien wrote the poem following a period of intense study of Celtic myth and legend, and the Lay is rooted in the stories of Brittany, a continental outpost of the Celtic Fringe. Gwyn Jones, familiar to anyone who has studied the Viking Age, published the Lay in Welsh Review in December 1945.

The Lay tells the story of a Breton king and queen who cannot have a child. The king eventually seeks out an enchantress who gives him a potion which, after he spikes his wife's drink with it, allows the couple to conceive and bear twin children. The witch accepts no payment—always a danger sign in this kind of story—and a short time later the king, pursuing a white deer to help satisfy a strange craving of his wife, stumbles upon the witch, who now demands payment. He refuses, insists he will be immune to her vengeful witchcraft, and slowly succumbs and dies over the next three days, after which his wife dies as well. 

The story is slight but evocative, and Tolkien's poetry is wonderful to read. Here's the king pursuing the deer (ll. 259-276), just before he encounters the witch for the second and final time:

Beneath the woodland's hanging eaves
a white doe startled under leaves;
strangely she glistered in the sun
as she leaped forth and turned to run.
Then reckless after her he spurred;
dim laughter in the woods he heard,
but heeded not, a longing strange
for deer that fair and fearless range
vexed him, for venison of the beast
whereon no mortal hunt shall feast,
for waters crystal-clear and cold
that never in holy fountain rolled.
He hunted her from the forest eaves
into the twilight under leaves;
the earth was shaken under hoof,
till the boughs were bent into a roof,
and the sun was woven in a snare;
and laughter still was on the air.

Beautiful, eerie, atmospheric, expressive of the king's character—his own desire to run down this deer is about to ensnare him—and not a little unsettling, with that laughter hanging in the air behind him as he unwittingly leaves the ordinary world behind.

The main text itself is about twenty pages long. The rest of the book is taken up with antecedents: two ballads, a fragment, and earlier handwritten and typescript versions of the final published poem. The ballads, which are thematically linked (Christopher Tolkien refers to them as a diptych), tell two stories of corrigans—female nature spirits that seek to replenish their dwindling ranks by either seducing mortal men or stealing human children. Here are the first three quatrains from The Corrigan I, in which a woman finds her child swapped for a changeling: 

'Mary on earth, why dost thou weep?' 
'My little child I could not keep:
A corrigan stole him in his sleep,
And I must weep.

To a well they went for water clear,
In cradle crooning they left him here,
And I found him not, my baby dear,
Returning here.

In the cradle a strange cry I heard.
Dark was his face like a wrinkled toad;
With hands he clawed, he mouthed and mowed,
But made no word.'

I particularly enjoyed the two ballads. They're short, atmospheric poems that evoke the dangerously blurry boundary between the everyday and supernatural worlds, a theme not so much running through as saturating Celtic myth.

The editor, Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger, helpfully lays all this out in her introductory material, explanatory notes, and critical apparatus. By printing the published version of the Lay first and following it with the ballads and earlier drafts, Flieger shows how Tolkien dabbled with some ideas he had encountered in his reading of Celtic myth at the time and, gradually, reworked some Breton legends and made them his own. She offers particularly keen insights into the ways in which Tolkien, in the final version of the Lay, pitted pagan and Christian elements against each other—the witch's laughter versus hymns, the witch herself versus the Virgin—to shape a powerfully resonant but economical story. 

Which is why I appreciate works like The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun being made available. If you have an interest, like I do, in the ways writers and artists consider, rework, and riff off of their inspirations until something original emerges, books like these and the aforementioned Story of Kullervo—also edited by Flieger and also worth reading—are opportunities to see that artistic process in action.

Because what Tolkien did with the myths he loved was not simple regurgitation, which tends to be how people talk about his medieval influences. While a case can be made that the corrigan of the ballads or the fay or witch of the Lay proper are the literary grandmothers of a character like Galadriel, these poems are important on their own, not just as raw material for The Lord of the Rings. It is interesting in and of itself to see how Tolkien read voraciously—whether Celtic, Germanic, or Finnish legend—absorbed what he was interested in, and let it inform his creativity. His was a mind awake and open, endlessly curious, receptive to ancient storytelling traditions, and he didn't mind a lot of hard work.

As an aside: Ted Nasmith, the illustrator whose paintings graced the paperback copies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings that I read in high school, has three works based on Aotrou and Itroun that you can look at on his website.

The Gardener, an Easter sonnet

‘Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?’ She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said unto Him...

This is a sonnet I wrote on Easter Sunday a few years ago. It's an elaboration on an image from my favorite passage of Chesterton's Everlasting Man. But the less explanation the better, probably.

I hope you enjoy, and that you all have a happy Easter!

* * * * *

The Gardener
(After Chesterton)

In the beginning, first of all the stations,
the gardener, his delving his delight,
in cooling mists of waning daylight
walked his grounds and spoke with his creations.
But garden drove him out, itself so driven,
and histories of corruption followed after—
of rot, of glut, of lust and hollow laughter,
the briar-strangled garden left unliving.

Beginning new, that gardener once gone
returned and looked and set to work again—
his delving his delight, despite of thorns,
despite of toil, despite of blood—until again
he rose and walked the garden, now reborn,
in coolness not of evening but of dawn.

Aeneas, Captain Kirk, and my grandfathers

No real Southerner has ever been able to consider very seriously the highly touted ancestor worship of the Chinese. It is watery by comparison.
— Ferrol Sams

In the last days of Christmas break I had the pleasure of reading David Ferry's new translation of The Aeneid, published by Chicago University Press. It won't supplant Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles' two classic translations in my imagination, but it's a very good new version that manages to convey the spirit of Virgil's epic in contemporary English, and I recommend it. 

aeneid cover.jpg

I picked up The Aeneid during the break for a couple of reasons. First, I hadn't read it since college, and it's an old favorite, so I was long overdue to revisit it. Second, I'm always interested in new translations of classics, and I had read good things about Ferry's Aeneid. Finally, since last reading it, a lot has changed in my life: I've married and become a father, and, more immediately, my 90-year old grandfather died just before Christmas.

The reason these circumstances sent me to Virgil was because of his poem's depiction of fathers and the authority and responsibility they bear. Rome was a patriarchal society (I use the term descriptively and not, as is now common, as a pejorative) and The Aeneid both dramatizes Roman society's concerns with fatherhood and holds up examples to the reader of what good and bad fatherhood and manly leadership look like. In addition to being a compelling story, it's a guide. And now that I've become a father myself, and have lost one of the most important men in my life, its guidance is more welcome than ever.

Poetry of maturity

CS Lewis, in his examination of epic poetry in A Preface to Paradise Lost, writes that "with Virgil European poetry grows up." To illustrate what he means, he draws a striking contrast between the heroism of Homer's protagonist and that of Virgil's: 

I have read that his Aeneas, so guided by dreams and omens, is hardly the shadow of a man beside Homer's Achilles. But a man, an adult, is precisely what he is: Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy. You may, of course, prefer the poetry of spontaneous passion to the poetry of passion at war with vocation, and finally reconciled. Every man to his taste. But we must not blame the second for not being the first.

He goes on to note that through Aeneas, Virgil introduces something new to epic poetry, which is the war between duty and desire and the struggle to master emotion, passion, or mere appetite in the face of what is right to do, the struggle that defines "most human life as it is experienced by any one who has not yet risen to holiness or sunk to animality." The Aeneid is poetry of maturity and responsibility.

Achilles, as Lewis implies, is a creature of appetite: he is defined—and defines the entire course of The Iliad from its first word—by his rage, and has a lust for conquest, military and sexual, and honor that drive him. Even the more cerebral Odysseus (one of my favorite characters in literature) is prone to characteristically juvenile weaknesses: recklessness, carelessness, distrust. 

Aeneas, by contrast, is driven onward by prophecies it is his responsibility to fulfill. Like Achilles, his honor is at stake, and like Odysseus, so are the fates of his family and people, but Aeneas, as an example of Roman virtue, approaches threats with deliberation, with deference to custom and the gods, and—always—to his duty as the leader of his people. He cannot merely enjoy authority without reckoning with the responsibilities his position entails. 

In a recent episode of John J. Miller's Great Books podcast, Miller talks with Louis Markos of Houston Baptist University about The Aeneid. Markos offers two apparently silly but insightful analogies to illustrate the differences between a few of these heroes.

Aeneas : Achilles :: Beowulf : King Arthur

Or, in a more popular vein:

Aeneas : Odysseus :: Jean-Luc Picard : Captain Kirk

Beowulf and Picard may be less flashy, less sexy than the brash and machismo driven Kirk or the honor-driven cuckold Arthur, but they're also more stable, more obviously concerned with their followers and less like to get them killed in misadventures. Markos points out that Picard seldom leaves the Enterprise in contrast to Kirk, who frequently does, and gets redshirts needlessly killed. By the same token, Beowulf, we are told again and again, cares for and looks after his people well, in contrast to King Arthur, who has to sacrifice himself in a bloody final comeback in order to repair years of damage due to his luxurious inactivity.


Aeneas carrying his father and leading his son by the hand as they escape Troy

Aeneas carrying his father and leading his son by the hand as they escape Troy

What makes the difference between Achilles and Aeneas is pietas, the Roman virtue that runs through The Aeneid as its hero's guiding principle. Pietas, after twisting its way to us through twenty centuries, give us the modern English piety, but is far richer in meaning. It's piety, but more than mere piety. It's respect, but more than mere respect. Pietas is a bone-deep, self-sacrificial love of the things that have made you who you are. It is a religiously imperative duty toward continuity. Foremost among these continuities, for the Romans, was the family.

Aeneas embodies pietas throughout the Aeneid. His struggle to live up to the standard of pietas required of him by his pietas—this is a virtue that, like all real virtues, demands itself—is the real conflict of the story. The battles and fights to the death are incidental to this larger and more eternally important conflict. The most famous case is probably Aeneas's idyll in Carthage with the beautiful Dido, who seems to offer him a new future, a new continuity to pursue in a new place, where he can, at last, rest from his struggles and wanderings. But the gods, via pietas, demand more of him, and as a man he must answer to his duty and move on. 

But there is another, neater, and more homely image of Aeneas that illustrates the heart of pietas, an image often recreated in the Roman world and invoked over and over again in Western literature. As his city fell, Aeneas, directed by his love of family, left the battle and returned to his home to save his father, wife, and son. His wife—walking separately from him—was lost in the chaos, but Aeneas bodily carried his aged father Anchises from the city and led his son Iulus out by the hand. Three generations—past, present, and future—bound and saved from ruin by a father's pietas.

Patria potestas

I can't lecture on Roman culture, pietas, and the figure of the paterfamilias without thinking of my grandfather, Ed Poss.

Four generations of Poss men, October of last year

Four generations of Poss men, October of last year

He died December 23 at the age of 90. As a boy, he survived polio. Doctors told his mother that he'd never walk again, but he went on to become the captain of the Athens High football team and played for Auburn before joining the Navy. He and my grandmother—who just turned 90 herself on Saturday—were married for over seventy years, had three children, and lived to see over a dozen great-grandchildren. He was a respected and successful businessman who was involved in a host of local organizations as well as the Rotary Club. Even as a kid I could always remember what day of the week it was by what civic organization’s meeting he was heading to.

While he never would have put it into these terms, and probably wouldn’t have expressly said so in any terms, in all of these things he was moved by pietas. He modeled it through action, through his life, and not with mere lipservice. His devotion to his literal family as a beloved patriarch and to his “work family”—those are his words—as well as church and community were deep, true, and lifelong.

Modern people are, sometimes justifiably, wary of patriarchy, and the patria potestas—the power of the father—exercised by Roman men makes them leery. While this kind of authority has certainly been abused by baser men, I think this suspicion is more a custom or habit of mind among modern people born of postmodern hermeneutics of suspicion and obsessions with power and privilege—who has it, how did they get it, and, above all, why don’t I have it?

Manliness without ostentation I learnt from . . . my father.
— Marcus Aurelius

These attitudes are essentially opposed to Aeneas’s pietas. For one thing, they’re expressed; like my grandfather, pietas must be so integral a part of one’s character it’s simply a mode of living, not an abstraction to be picked apart. Second, the moderns’ obsession with power inverts the relationship embodied by pietas. Relationship is a key idea, as are others I’ve already invoked: piety, respect, responsibility, duty. Pietas endows the individual with a sense of duty and the relationship of oneself to the whole, two concepts that must be inseparably interlocked to prevent the breakdown of continuity, of the family, of society. Power isn't just power; it's responsibility. It's a sacred duty.

This attitude, based on Patrick Deneen's diagnosis, is lost today. Is there any more alien sentiment to modern people than the idea—falsely attributed to Robert E. Lee, but no less true—that “duty is the sublimest word in any language”?

My grandfather embraced his responsibilities and modeled that duty, that respect, and left the world richer for it.

In memoriam

I’m posting this on the day that, twenty years ago, my other grandfather, J.L. McKay, died of cancer.

Watching TV with my grandfather, J.L. McKay, late 1980s

Watching TV with my grandfather, J.L. McKay, late 1980s

He was a different man from my dad’s dad in many respects—he was a plumber-electrician, a high school graduate, a man whose most extensive travel was to Korea with the Air Force, whose favorite pasttimes were fishing or relaxing on the front porch with his grandchildren, sharing popsicles. But in the most important things he was an exact match—he valued education and athletics, was actively involved in his community and seemed to know everyone, and, most importantly, was totally devoted to his family. He modeled hard work, faith, dedication, and respect—in a word, pietas—for his family.

The article about Dark Full of Enemies in the latest Georgia Mountain Laurel is the first public announcement I’ve made about my forthcoming Civil War novel Griswoldville. I hope to have it out by summer; this week is my spring break, and I'm spending a lot of time in revision. Well before my grandfather died in December I had planned to dedicate the book to both of my grandfathers, two great but humble Georgia natives who have helped make me who I am. It's a small, grateful act of pietas on my part.

I’m thankful to have had two such role models in my life and am fully aware not everyone is so fortunate. But, thankfully, pietas is a virtue that can be learned if you haven’t inherited it. It’s not easy, but then, as I learned from my grandfathers, neither is anything worth doing—whether beating polio, wiring a house, teaching a grandchild to fish, putting in time at the office, or founding a city.