The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 1

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THE ILIAD.

 

 

CHAPTER I.

 

THE QUARREL OF AGAMEMNON AND ACHILLES.

 

Adopting for himself a method which has since become a rule of art, more or less acknowledged in the literature of fiction, the poet dashes off at once into the full action of his story. He does not ask his readers or hearers to accompany the great armament over sea from the shores of Greece, or give them the history of the long and weary siege. He plunges at one leap into the tenth year of the war. He assumes from the outset, on the part of those to whom he speaks, a general knowledge of the main plot of his poem, and of the characters represented: just as the modern author of a novel or a poem on the Civil Wars of England would assume some general acquaintance with the history of Charles I., the character of Cromwell, and the breach between King and Commons. Nine whole years are supposed to have already passed in desultory warfare; but for the details of these campaigns the modern reader has to go to other sources, with which also the original hearers are supposed to have been acquainted. The Trojans and their allies are cooped up within the walls of their city, while the Greek hero Achilles has spread the terror of his name far and wide.

The poet’s exordium is of the very briefest. His invocation to the goddess of song is in just three words:—

 

“Sing, heavenly muse, the wrath of Peleus’ son.”

 

We have here the key-note of the poem brought before us in the very first line—nay, in the very first word, according to the original, for “wrath” stands first in the Greek, which it cannot very conveniently do in the English. The two great heroes of the Greek chivalry, Agamemnon and Achilles, always jealous of each other, come to an open quarrel in full council of the princes of the League. Their quarrel is—like the original cause of the war, like so many quarrels before and since—about a woman, a beautiful captive. A fatal pestilence is raging in the camp. The Sun-god, Apollo, is angry. To him and to his twin-sister Diana, the Moon, all mysterious diseases were attributed—not without some sufficient reasons, in a hot climate. Pestilence and disease were the arrows of Apollo and Diana. Therefore the Greeks have no doubt as to the author of the present calamity. It is “the god of the silver bow” who is sending his swift shafts of death amongst them. The poet’s vision even sees the dread Archer in bodily shape. It is a fine picture; the English reader will lose little of its beauty in Lord Derby’s version:—

 
"Along Olympus heights he passed, his heart

Burning with wrath; behind his shoulders hung
His bow and ample quiver; at his back
Rattled the fateful arrows as he moved.
Like the night-cloud he passed, and from afar
He bent against the ships, and sped the bolt;
And fierce and deadly twanged the silver bow.
First on the mules and dogs, on man the last,
Was poured the arrowy storm; and through the camp

Constant and numerous blazed the funeral-fires."
 

In their misery the Greeks appeal to their soothsayer Calchas, to divine for them the cause of the god’s displeasure. The Mantis or soothsayer, whose skill was in most cases supposed to be hereditary, accompanied a Greek force on all its expeditions; and no prudent general would risk a battle, or engage in any important enterprise, without first ascertaining from this authority the will of the gods, as shadowed out in certain appearances of the sacrifice, or some peculiarity in the flight of birds, or some phenomena of the heavens. In this particular expedition it would appear that Calchas had turned the last branch of his art to good purpose; it must have been his knowledge of the stars which had enabled him, as Homer tells us, to pilot the great fleet from their own shores to Troy. He confesses that he can read the secret of Apollo’s present wrath; but he hesitates to tell it, dreading, he says, lest he should thereby anger the “great chief whom the whole host obeys.” Achilles charges him to speak out boldly without fear or favour; none shall harm him—not even if he should denounce Agamemnon himself as the cause of this visitation, adds the hero, gladly seizing the opportunity of hurling a defiance at his great rival. Thus supported, the seer speaks out; Agamemnon is indeed the guilty cause. In a late foray he had taken captive the maiden daughter of Chryses, a priest of the Sun-god, and the father had come to the camp of the invaders as a suppliant, pleading the sanctity of his office, and offering a fitting ransom. The great king had refused to listen, had sent him away with bitter words and threats; and the priest had prayed to his god to punish the insult: hence the pestilence. Immediately the popular voice—expressed loudly through Achilles—demands the maiden’s instant restitution to her father. Agamemnon, though burning with indignation alike against the seer and his champion, dares not refuse. His prerogative, however generally admitted and respected by the confederate army, is dependent in such extremities on the popular will. He promises at once to send back the daughter of Chryses unharmed and without ransom. But at the same time, after a stormy and bitter dispute with Achilles, he announces his intention to insist on that chief resigning, by way of exchange, a fair captive named Briseis, carried off in some similar raid, who had been awarded to him as his share of the public spoil. To this insolent demand the majority of the council of chiefs, content with their victory on the main question, appear to raise no objection. But Achilles—his impetuous nature roused to madness by the studied insult—leaps up and half unsheathes his sword. Even then—such is the Greek’s reverence for authority—he hesitates; and as he stands with his hand upon the hilt, there sweeps down from Olympus[1] Pallas Athene (Minerva), the goddess of wisdom, sent by Here (Juno) Queen of Heaven to check this fatal strife between her favourite Greeks. The celestial messenger is visible to Achilles alone. She calms the hero’s wrath so far as to restrain him from any act of violence; but, as she disappears, he turns on his enemy, and swears a mighty oath—the royal oath of kings—by the golden-studded staff, or “sceptre,” which was borne by king, priest, and judge as the emblem of their authority. Pope’s rendering has all the fire of the original, and the additional touches which he throws in are at least in a kindred spirit:—

 

"By this I swear, when bleeding Greece again
Shall call Achilles, she shall call in vain:
When flushed with slaughter Hector comes to spread
The purpled shore with mountains of the dead,
Then shalt thou mourn th’ affront thy madness gave,
Forced to deplore, when impotent to save;
Then rage in bitterness of soul, to know
This act has made the bravest Greek thy foe."

 

He dashes his sceptre on the ground, and sits down in savage silence. Agamemnon is ready enough to return the taunt, when there rises in the assembly a venerable figure, whose grey hairs and tried sagacity in council command at once the respect of all. It is Nestor, the hoary-headed chieftain of the rocky Pylos in the Peloponnese—known in his more vigorous days as “the horse-tamer,” and, in sooth, not a little proud of his past exploits. Two generations of men he has already outlived in his own dominions, and is now loved and respected by the third. He has joined the great armament still sound in wind and limb; but he is valued now not so much for his

 

“Red hand in the foray,”

 

as for his

 

“Sage counsel in cumber.”

 

He can clothe this counsel, too, in winning words. The stream of eloquence that flowed from his lips, says the poet, was “sweeter than honey.” He gently reproves both disputants for their unseemly strife—a shame to the Greeks, a triumph to the enemy. His words ring like the lament of David over the suicide of Saul—“Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon, lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice.”

 

"Alas, deep sorrow on our land doth fall!
Yet shall on Priam and his sons alight
Hope, and a great joy on the Trojans all,
Hearing ye waste in bitter feud your might,
Ye twain, our best in counsel and in fight.” (W.)

 

He proceeds to tell them something of his own long experience, by way of claim on their attention—with something also, as critics have noticed, of an old man’s garrulity. But the reader, it should be remembered, really wants to know something about him, even if the Greeks may have been supposed to have heard his story before.

 

"In times past
I lived with men—and they despised me not—
Abler in counsel, greater than yourselves.
Such men I never saw and ne’er shall see,
As Pirithous and Dryas, wise and brave,
And Theseus, Œgeus’ more than mortal son.
The mightiest they among the sons of men,
The mightiest they, and of the forest beasts
Strove with the mightiest, and their rage subdued.
With them I played my part; with them, not one
Would dare to fight of mortals now on earth.
Yet they my counsels heard, my voice obeyed;
And hear ye also—for my words are wise.” (D.)

 

The angry chiefs do hear him so far, that after the interchange of a few more passionate words they leave the council. Achilles stalks off gloomily to his tent, accompanied by his faithful friend and henchman, Patroclus (of whom we shall hear more), and followed by his retinue. Agamemnon proceeds at once to carry out his resolution. He despatches a galley with a trusty crew, under the command of the sage Ulysses, to the island of Chrysa, to restore the old priest’s daughter to him in all honour, with expiatory presents, and the offer of a hecatomb to the Sun-god. They make the voyage quickly, and arrive safely at the island. The rapid movement here of Homer’s verse has rarely been more happily rendered than in the English hexameters of Mr Landon:—

 

"Out were the anchors cast, and the ropes made fast to the steerage;
Out did the sailors leap on the foaming beach of the ocean;
Out was the hecatomb led for the skilful marksman Apollo;
Out Chryseis arose from the ship that sped through the waters."

 

So, by the good priest’s prayers, the god is propitiated, and the plague in the Greek host is stayed.

Meanwhile another embassy, on a very different errand, has been despatched by the King of Men to the tents where Achilles lies, hard by his ships, with his fierce bands of Myrmidons encamped around him. Their name has passed into a by-word, being commonly but incorrectly used to designate an unscrupulous rabble of followers, to whom their leader’s word is law. The notion must be derived not from Homer, but from Pope. In his version of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles, he makes the former say to his antagonist—

 

"Go, threat thine earth-born Myrmidons; but here
’Tis mine to threaten, prince, and thine to fear.”

 

But to suppose that the Myrmidons were subservient to any man’s threats, is to give them a very different character from what we find in Homer. Even the epithet “earth-born,” which is Pope’s, not Homer’s, and which may easily be misunderstood, they would have prized as a high compliment, implying that they were no new race, but the aboriginal possessors of their native soil; just as the proud Athenians wore the “golden grasshopper” in their hair, because that insect was fabled to owe its birth to the spontaneous action of the earth. The followers of Achilles were indeed “fierce as ravening wolves,” as the poet has afterwards described them; but they were the very flower of the Greek army, troops of whom any leader might be proud, and if they had a wolfish thirst for blood, they were no worse and no better in this respect than Achilles himself, or any captain in the host before Troy; for an insatiable ferocity, when once the spirit of combativeness is aroused, is the characteristic of all Homer’s heroes, as in those of the medieval romances.

The purpose of the king’s embassy to Achilles is, of course, in pursuance of his threat, to demand the surrender of the fair Briseis. Such a message to such a man is no very safe or agreeable errand. But Agamemnon chooses his envoys well. He sends two heralds—Eurybates and Talthybius. The herald’s office, in early Greek warfare, had an especial sanctity. Those who held it were not mere officials whose name protected them, but men of noble and even of royal birth, who might have been captains of thousands themselves, if they had not chosen, as it were, the civilian’s place in warfare. Such diplomacy as there was room for in those ages was transacted by them. They were under the special protection of Zeus, as the god of oaths and treaties. There was no fear that the noble chief of the Myrmidons, even in his most furious mood, would treat such envoys rudely. But in fact his reception of them is one of the most remarkable scenes in the poem, both from its high-toned courtesy and from its strong contrast with the hero’s previous bearing towards Agamemnon. Achilles receives the heralds of the king much as a well-bred gentleman of fifty years ago would have received the "friend" who carried a hostile message from one with whom he had a deadly quarrel a few hours before. The demand which they brought from Agamemnon was pointed with the additional threat that, if he refused to give up the damsel, the king would come himself and carry her off by the strong hand,—a threat almost brutal, because quite unwarranted; since Achilles had declared in the council that if the Greeks, who had awarded her as his battle-prize, chose to acquiesce in the injustice of demanding her back from him, he should make no resistance. But it does not seem that the heralds delivered themselves of the additional insult which they were charged to convey. They had no need. As they stand at the entrance of his tent, “troubled and awe-stricken,” loath to begin their unwelcome tale, Achilles sets them at their ease at once in a few calm and dignified words. He recognises in them “the messengers of Zeus”—and if now by accident of Agamemnon, the offence is his, not theirs. He at once bids Patroclus lead forth the damsel, and gives her into their custody, to deal with according to their orders. He repeats his oath, however, though in calmer terms; and calls them to witness before heaven that Agamemnon, in his day of need, shall look in vain for the saving arm of the man he has insulted.

It is something in favour of a tender side to the hero’s character, that the “fair-cheeked” Briseis, spoil of war though she was, parts from him very reluctantly. Achilles, for his share, fairly weeps: but not the most romantic reader of the story dares nurse the idea that it is for his Briseis. They who bring with them, to the pages of classical fiction, a taste which has been built up by modern song and romance, must be warned at once that there is no love-story in either Iliad or Odyssey. Indeed, one remarkable point of difference between the imaginative writers of antiquity and those of our own days, lies in the absence of that which is the motive and the key-note of five-sixths of our modern tales in prose and verse. Love between unmarried persons, in the sense in which we commonly use the word, seems very much the product of modern civilisation. There is indeed a passion which we name by the same English word—the mere animal passion, which Homer, to do him justice, deals with but as a matter of fact, and never paints in attractive colours. There is again a love of another kind—the love of the husband for his wife and of the wife for her husband—which the old poet also well understood, and which furnishes him with scenes of the highest pathos and beauty. But as to the sentiment which forms the common staple of modern romance and drama, Homer certainly did not know what it meant, nor Achilles or Briseis either. As for the latter, if she shed tears, it was no doubt because she had found in Achilles a kind and generous lord and master, who had made her captive lot (which might chance to come to the turn of any lady or princess in those warlike times) as tolerable as such a life could be; and because Agamemnon—if she had heard his character from Achilles—did not promise a very favourable change in that respect.

Achilles weeps—but not for Briseis. He is touched in a point where he is far more sensitive—his honour. He has been robbed of the guerdon of valour, bestowed on him in full conclave of the chiefs of the army. He has been robbed of it by Agamemnon—the man for whose especial sake, to avenge whose family wrongs, he has come on this long expedition from his home. This was his indignant protest in their dispute at the council—

 

"Well dost thou know that ’twas no feud of mine
With Troy’s brave sons, that brought me here in arms;
They never did me wrong; they never drove
My cattle, or my horses; never sought
In Phthia’s fertile life-sustaining fields
To waste the crops; for wide between us lay
The shadowy mountains and the roaring sea.
With thee, O void of shame! with thee we sailed,
For Menelaüs and for thee, ingrate,
Glory and fame on Trojan crests to win.” (D.)

 

And now this is his reward! And the whole Greek army, too, have made themselves partakers in the wrong, inasmuch as they have tamely looked on, and allowed the haughty king thus to override honour, gratitude, and justice. His indignation is intense. He wanders away, and sits alone on the sea-beach, “gazing vacantly on the illimitable ocean.” Soon there comes a change upon his spirit; and now, with a childlike petulance—these Homeric heroes, with all their fierce ways, are still so very childlike, and therefore so human and so interesting—he cries to his mother. True, that mother is, as we remember, a goddess—Thetis, daughter of the great Jupiter, and of potent influence in the waters beneath the earth. To her he bemoans himself. That his days were to be few, he knew when he came here to Troy; but she had promised him undying renown. It has failed him: his “one crowded hour of glorious life” is darkened in dishonour. He cries, and his goddess-mother hears him—

 

"Beside her aged father where she sat,
In the deep ocean-caves."

 

It is the original of our own Milton’s beautiful invocation in Comus—the rough simple outline on which he has painted with a grace and fulness which make it all his own—

 

"Sabrina fair!
Listen, where thou art sitting
Under the glassy, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braids of lilies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair;
Listen for dear honour’s sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,

Listen, and save!"

 

Thetis hears, and rises on the sea—“like as it were a mist”—(the “White Lady of Avenel”) caresses him soothingly with her hand, as though the stalwart warrior were still a child indeed, and asks him the simple question which all mothers, goddesses or not, would put into much the same words—“My son, why weepest thou?” He tells his tale of wrong; and she proceeds to give him, in the first place, advice certainly not wiser than that of some earthly mothers. She does not advise him to make up his quarrel with Agamemnon, but to nurse his wrath, and withdraw himself wholly from the siege. She, meanwhile, will intercede with Jupiter, and beseech him to grant the Trojans victory for a while, that so the Greeks may learn to feel the loss of the hero whom they have insulted.

There is an obstacle, however, in the way of the immediate performance of her promise—a ludicrous obstacle, to our modern taste, though the poet does not so intend it. The King of the Gods has gone out to dinner—or rather to a continuous festival of twelve days, to which he has been invited by "the blameless Ethiopians;"[2] a race with whom the Immortals of Olympus have some mysterious connection, which has been held to imply an Eastern origin for the Greek religion and race. With the dawn of the twelfth morning, however, Thetis presents herself in the "brazen-floored" halls of Jupiter, and we are introduced to the Olympian court and household. A strange picture it is—such a travesty of a divine life as makes us wonder what the poet himself really conceived of the gods of his adoption. The life of mortal heroes in the world below is grandeur and nobleness itself compared with that of the Olympian heaven. Its pleasures indeed are much the same—those of sensual gratification; the feast, the wine-cup, music and song, are what gods and goddesses delight in as much as those whom the poet pathetically calls "the creatures of a day." But all their passions are incomparably meaner. The wrath of Achilles is dignified—Juno's anger against Troy is mere vicious spite. The subtle craft of Ulysses is at least exercised for the benefit of his countrymen and their cause; but the shifty counsels of Jupiter are the mere expedients of a cunning despot who, between queen and ministers and favourites, finds it difficult, in spite of his despotism, to have his own way. The quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles is tragedy: the domestic wrangles of the Thunderer and his queen are in the very spirit of low comedy, and not even the burlesques of Life in Olympus, which some years ago were popular on our English stage, went far beyond the recognised legends of mythology. In fact, the comic element, what little there is of it in the Iliad, is supplied (with the single exception of the incident of Thersites) by the powers whom the poet recognises as divinities. The idea of rival wills and influences existing in the supernatural world led the poet necessarily to represent his gods as quarrelling; and quarrels in a primitive age are perhaps hardly compatible with dignity. But the conception of gods in human shape has always a tendency to monstrosities and caricature. How close, too, the supernatural and the grotesque seem to lie together may be seen even in the existing sculptures and carvings of ancient Christendom, and still more remarkably in the old Miracle-Plays, which mix buffoonery with the most sacred subjects in a manner which it is hard to reconcile with any real feeling of reverence.

Thetis throws herself at the feet of her father Jupiter, and begs of him, as a personal favour, the temporary humiliation of Agamemnon and his Greeks. For a while the Thunderer is silent, and hesitates; Thetis perseveringly clings to his knees. At last he confides to her his dread lest a compliance with her petition should involve him in domestic difficulties.


"Sad work thou mak'st, in bidding me oppose
My will to Juno's, when her bitter words
Assail me, for full oft amid the gods
She taunts me that I aid the Trojan cause.
But thou return—that Juno see thee not
And leave to me the furtherance of thy suit." (D.)


He pledges his promise to her, and ratifies it with the mighty nod that shakes Olympus—a solemn confirmation which made his word irrevocable.


"Waved on th' immortal head th' ambrosial locks,
And all Olympus trembled at his nod."


Critics have somewhat over-praised the grandeur of the image; but it is said that the great sculptor Phidias referred to it as having furnished him with the idea of his noble statue of Olympian Jove. Satisfied with her success, Thetis plunges down from high Olympus into the sea, and the Thunderer proceeds to take his place in full council of the gods, as calm as if nothing had happened. But there are watchful eyes about him which he has not escaped. Juno has been a witness of the interview, and has a shrewd suspicion of its object. A connubial dialogue ensues, which, though the poet has thought fit to transfer the scene of it to Olympus, is of an exceedingly earthly, and what we should now call "realistic," type. Homer's recognised translators have not condescended to give it the homely tone of the original. Pope is grandiloquent, and Lord Derby calmly dignified; but Homer intends to be neither. Mr Gladstone's translation comes nearest the spirit of the Greek. The brief encounter between the king and queen of the Immortals is cut short by the former in rather summary fashion. "Thou hast been promising honour to Achilles, I trow," says Juno.


"Zeus that rolls the clouds of heaven
'Moonstruck! thou art ever trowing;
After all, it boots thee nothing;
So thou hast the worser bargain.
It was done because I willed it.
Lest, if I come near, and on thee
All the gods that hold Olympus

her addressing answered then;
never I escape thy ken.
leaves thee of my heart the less:
What if I the fact confess?
Hold thy peace—my word obey,
these unconquered hands I lay,
nought avail thee here to-day.'"[3]






He bids her, in very plain Greek, sit down and hold her tongue; and gives her clearly to understand—with a threat of violence which is an unusual addition to his many failings as a husband—that it is his fixed intention, on this occasion, to be lord and master, not only of Olympus, but of his wife. Juno is silenced, and the whole assembly of the gods is startled by the Thunderer's violence. Vulcan, the fire-god—the lame brawny hunchback, always more or less the jester and the butt of the court of Olympus, but with more brains in his head than most of his straight-limbed compeers—Vulcan comes to the general relief. He soothes his royal mother by the argument, that it were ill indeed to break the peace of heaven for the sake of two or three wretched mortals: and he reminds her—we must suppose in an aside—that they both knew by bitter experience that when the father of gods and men did choose to put forth his might, it went hard with all who resisted.


"When to thy succour once before I came,
He seized me by the foot, and hurled me down
From heaven's high threshold; all the day I fell,
And with the setting sun on Lemnos' isle
Lighted, scarce half-alive ; there was I found,

And by the Sintian people kindly nursed" (D.)


He gives the mother-goddess further comfort—in "a double cup," which he proceeds also to hand round the whole of the august circle. They quaff their nectar with unusual zest, as they break into peals of laughter (it must be confessed, rather ungratefully) at the hobbling gait and awkward attentions of their new cup-bearer:—


"Thus they till sunset passed the festive hours;
Nor lacked the banquet aught to please the sense,
Nor sound of tuneful lyre by Phœbus touched,
Nor Muses' voice, who in alternate strains
Responsive sung; but when the sun had set
Each to his home departed, where for each
The crippled Vulcan, matchless architect,
With wondrous skill a noble house had reared."


And so, at the end of the first book of the poem, the curtain falls on the Olympian happy family.

But Jupiter has but a wakeful night. He is planning how he may best carry out his promise to Thetis. He sends a lying spirit in a dream to Agamemnon at midnight. The vision stands at the head of the king's couch, taking the shape of old Nestor. In this character it encourages him to muster all his forces to storm the city of Troy on the morrow. Now, at last, the false phantom assures him, its walls are doomed to fall; the strife in heaven is ended; Juno's counsels have prevailed, and the fate of Troy is sealed irrevocably.

Joyfully the King of Men arises from his sleep, and summons at daybreak a council of the chiefs. Already, says the poet, he storms and sacks the royal city in imagination, little foreseeing the long and bloody struggle that lies yet between him and his prey. In the council he invents a stratagem of his own, which complicates the story considerably without improving it. He suspects the temper of his army; and before he makes up his mind to lead them to the assault, he seeks to ascertain whether or no the long ten years' siege has worn out their patience and broken their spirit. He will try the dangerous experiment of proposing to them to break up the siege and embark at once for home. He himself will make the proposal to the whole army; the other leaders, for their part, are to oppose such a base retreat, and urge their followers to make yet another effort for the national honour of Greece.

The clans, at the summons of their several chiefs, muster in their thousands from tents and ships; and Agamemnon, seated on his throne of state, the immortal sceptre in his hand, harangues them in accordance with his preconcerted stratagem. He paints in lively colours the weariness of the nine years' siege, his own disappointed hopes, the painful yearning of their long-deserted wives and children for the return of their husbands and fathers; and ends by proposing an immediate re-embarkation for home. He plays his part only too successfully. The immense host heaves and sways with excitement at his words—"like the long waves of the Icarian Sea, like the deep tall corn-crop as the summer wind sweeps over it"—and with tumultuous shouts of exultation they rush down to their galleys and begin at once to launch them; so little regard have the multitude for glory, so strong is their yearning for home. It is possible that the poet is no unconscious satirist, and that he willingly allowed his hearers to draw, if they pleased, the inference which he hints in more than one passage, that war is the sport of princes, for which the masses pay the cost.

But Juno's ever-watchful eyes have marked the movement. Again Minerva is her messenger, and shoots down from Olympus to stop this disgraceful flight. She addresses herself to the ear of the sage Ulysses, who knows her voice at once. 'Wisdom speaks to the wise,—if any reader prefers the moral allegory to the simple fiction. Ulysses is standing fixed in disgust and despair at the cowardice of his countrymen. The goddess bids him use all his eloquence to check their flight. Without a word he flings off his cloak,[4] and meeting Agamemnon, receives the immortal sceptre from his hand, and armed with this staff of authority rushes down to the galleys. Any king or chieftain whom he encounters he hastily reminds of the secret understanding which had been the result of the previous council, and urges them, at least, to set a braver example. To the plebeian crowd he uses argument of another kind. He applies the royal sceptre to them in one of its primitive uses, as a rod of correction, and bids them wait for orders from their superiors. Easily swayed to either course, the crowd are awed into quiet by his energetic remonstrances. One popular orator alone lifts his well-known voice loudly in defiance. It is a certain Thersites, of whom the poet gives a sketch, brief enough, but with so many marks of individuality, that we may be justified in looking at him as a character drawn from life.


"The ugliest man was he who came to Troy,
With squinting eyes and one distorted foot,
His shoulders round, and buried in his breast
His narrow head with scanty growth of hair."


His talent lies in speaking evil of dignities—a talent which, no doubt, he had found popular enough in some circles of camp society, though all the respectable Greeks, we are assured, are shocked at him. He launches out now with bitter virulence—in which there is nevertheless (as in most oratory of the kind) a certain amount of truth—against Agamemnon. He denounces his greed, his selfishness, his disregard of the sufferings of his troops, his late treatment of Achilles; they must all be cowards, he says, to obey such a leader—


"Women of Greece! I will not call ye men!"


Why not sail home at once, and leave him, if he can, to take Troy with his own single hand?

The mutineer speaks in an evil hour for himself, this time; for Ulysses hears him. That energetic chief answers him in terms as strong as his own, and warns him that if he should catch him again railing in like fashion—"taking the name of kings in his abusive mouth"—he will strip his garments from him, and flog him naked back to the ships. And, as an earnest of his promise, he lays the mighty sceptre heavily on his back and shoulders. Such prompt and vigorous chastisement meets the popular humour at once; and as the hunchback writhes and howls under the blows, the fickle feelings of the Greeks break forth in peals of laughter. "Of the many good things Ulysses has done, this last," they swear, "is the best of all."

Then, prompted still by the goddess of Wisdom, Ulysses harangues the reassembled troops. He reminds them of their plighted oath of service to Agamemnon, of the encouraging oracles of heaven, of the disgrace of returning home from an unaccomplished errand. With the art of a true orator, he sympathises with their late feelings—it is bitter for them all, indeed, to waste so many years on a foreign shore, far from home, and wife, and children; but bitterest of all would it be


"Long to remain, and bootless to return."


The venerable Nestor speaks to the same effect; and Agamemnon himself closes the debate with a call to immediate battle. It is a right royal speech, far more worthy of a true "king of men" than his former philip-pics—moderate in his allusion to Achilles, spirited in his appeal to his warriors.


"Come but new friendship, and our feud destroy,
Then from the evil that is fixed and sealed
Not one day's respite shall be left to Troy—
But now to dinner, ere we take the field;
Let each his spear whet, and prepare his shield,
Feed well the horses, and each chariot test,
That we may fight it out till one side yield,
Fight in sound harness, and not think of rest,
Till the black night decide it as to Zeus seems best.

"Then shall the horses in their foam be wet,
While forward in the glittering car they strain;
Then shall the straps of the broad buckler sweat
Round many a breast there battling in the plain;
Then shall the arm droop, hurling spears with pain:
And whomsoever I behold at lair
Here by the ships, and for the fight not fain,
Small for that skulker is the hope, I swear,

But that the dogs he fatten and the fowls of air." (W.)


He remembers, too, like a wise general, that a battle may be lost by fighting on an empty stomach. So the oxen and the fatlings are slain, the choice pieces of the thighs and the fat are offered in sacrifice to the gods, and then the whole army feasts their fill. Agamemnon holds a select banquet of six of the chief leaders—King Idomeneus of Crete, Nestor, Ajax the Greater and the Less, and Uysses, "wise in council as Zeus." One guest comes uninvited—his brother Menelaus. He is no dinner-loving intruder; he comes, as the poet simply tells us, "because he knew in his heart how many were his brother's cares and anxieties,"—he might be of some use or support to him. Throughout the whole of the poem, the mutual affection borne by these two brothers is very remarkable, and unlike any type of the same relationship which exists in fiction. It is never put forward or specially dwelt upon, but comes out simply and naturally in every particular of their intercourse.

A king and priest, like Abraham at Bethel, Agamemnon stands by his burnt-offering, and lifts his prayer for victory to Jupiter," most glorious and most great, who dwells in the clouds and thick darkness." But no favourable omen comes from heaven. The god, whether or no he accepts the offering, gives no sign. Nevertheless—we may suppose with a certain wilfulness which is part of his character—Agamemnon proceeds to set the battle in array; and the second book of the Iliad closes with the long muster-roll of the Greek clans under their respective kings or chiefs on the one side, and of the Trojans and their allies on the other, which in our introduction has already been partly anticipated.[5] The long list of chiefs, with their genealogies and birthplaces, and the strength of their several contingents, was evidently composed with a view to recitation: and whatever may be its value as an authentic record, we can understand the interest with which a Greek audience would listen to a muster-roll which was to them what the Roll of Battle Abbey was to the descendants of the Normans in England. If here and there, upon occasion, the wandering minstrel inserted in the text the name and lineage of some provincial hero on his own responsibility, the popular applause would assuredly be none the less.

 

 
  1. The mythology of Homer supposes the gods to dwell in an aërial city on Mount Olympus (in the north-east of Thessaly), whose summit was always veiled in cloud, and from which there was imagined to be an opening into the heavens.
  2. Why specially "blameless?" has been sometimes asked. The author of the 'Mill on the Floss' suggests that it was because they lived so far off that they had no neighbours to criticise them.
  3. Translations, 1863.
  4. It may be satisfactory to a matter-of-fact reader to know that Eurybates, his attendant, takes care of it. The old Greek bard is much more particular on such points than modern novelists, who make even their heroines take sudden journeys without (apparently) having any chance of carrying with them so much as a sac-de-nuit.
  5. Page 17.