The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 8

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Patroclus, sitting in the tent of the wounded Eurypylus, sees the iniminent peril of his countrymen. He cannot bear the sight, and taking hasty leave of his friend, hurries back to the quarters of Achilles, and stands before him in an agony of silent tears. At first the hero affects to chide his follower for such girlish sorrow—what cares he for the Greeks? It is plain, however, that he does care; and when Patroclus, in very outspoken terms, upbraids him for his obduracy, and asks that, even if the dark doom that hangs over him makes his chief unwilling to take the field in person, he will at least send him with the Myrmidons to the rescue, Achilles at once consents. Patroclus shall go, clad in his armour, that so perchance the Trojans may be deceived, and think that they see the well-known crest of Achilles himself once more leading the fight. Only he warns him not to advance too far; to be content with rescuing the galleys, and not attempt to press his victory home to the walls of Troy; in that case he will find the gods of the enemy turn their wrath against him. In spite of his assumed indifference, Achilles is intently watching the combatants in the distance, and sees the flames rising in the air from the galley of Ajax. He can no longer restrain his feelings, but hurries his comrade forth. Patroclus puts on the harness of his chief, and takes his sword and shield: only the mighty 'spear he forbears to touch;—

"None save Achilles' self that spear could poise,
The far-famed Pelian ash, which to his sire,
On Pelion's summit felled, to be the bane
Of mightiest chiefs, the centaur Chiron gave."

He mounts the hero's chariot, driven by the noble Automedon, and drawn by the three horses, Xanthus, Balius, and Pedasus—or as we should call them, Chestnut, Dapple, and Swift-foot. The battalions of the Myrmidons eagerly gather round their leaders,—even old Phœnix taking command of one detachment. Achilles himself gives them a few fiery words of exhortation. "They have long chafed at their enforced idleness, and clamoured for the battle; lo! there lies the opportunity they have longed for." Then, standing in the midst, he pours from his most costly goblet the solemn libation to Jove, and prays of him for Patroclus victory and a safe return. The poet tells us, with that licence of prognostication which has been considerably abused by some modern writers of fiction, that half the prayer was heard, and half denied.

"Like a pack of ravening wolves, hungering for their prey," the Myrmidons launch themselves against the enemy. The Trojans recognise, as they believe, in the armed charioteer who heads them, the terrible Achilles, and consternation spreads through their ranks. Even Hector, though still fighting gallantly, is borne back over the stockade, and the ditch is filled with broken chariots and struggling horses. Back towards the Trojan lines rolls the tide of battle. Sarpedon, the great Lycian chief, own son to Jupiter, falls by the spear of Patroclus. The ruler of Olympus has hesitated for a while whether he shall interpose to save him; but his fated term of life is come, and there is a mysterious Destiny in this Homeric mythology, against which even Jupiter seems powerless. All that he can do for his offspring is to insure for his body the rites of burial; and by his order the twin brothers, Sleep and Death, carry off the corpse to his native shore of Lycia.

But Patroclus has forgotten the parting caution of Achilles. Flushed with his triumph, he follows up the pursuit even to the walls of Troy. But there Apollo keeps guard. Thrice the Greek champion in defiance smites upon the battlements, and thrice the god shakes the terrible Ægis in his face. A fourth time the Greek lifts his spear, when an awful voice warns him that neither for him, nor yet for his mightier master Achilles, is it written in the fates to take Troy. Awe-struck, he draws back from the wall, but only to continue his career of slaughter among the Trojans. Apollo meets him in the field, strips from him his helmet and his armour, and shivers his spear in his hand. The Trojan Euphorbus, seeing him at this disadvantage, stabs him from behind, and Hector, following him as he retreats, drives his spear through his body. As the Trojan prince stands over his victim, exulting after the fashion of all Homeric heroes in what seems to our taste a barbarous and boastful spirit, Patroclus with his dying breath foretells that his slayer shall speedily meet his own fate by the avenging hand of Achilles. Hector spurns the prophecy, and rushes after the charioteer Automedon, whom the immortal horses carry off safe from his pursuit. Then donning the armour of Achilles, so lately worn by Patroclus, he leads on the Trojans to seize the dead body, which Menelaus is gallantly defending. After a long and desperate contest, the Greeks, locking their shields together in close phalanx, succeed in carrying it off, the two Ajaxes keeping the assailants at bay. Jupiter, in pity to the dead hero, casts a veil of darkness round him. But this embarrasses the movements of friends as well as enemies, and gives rise to a characteristic outburst on the part of Ajax, often quoted. He can fight best when he sees his way. "Give us but light, Jove, and in the light, if thou seest fit, destroy us!"

We have now reached the crisis of the story. The wrath of Achilles against Agamemnon wanes and pales before the far more bitter wrath which now fills his whole soul against Hector, as the slayer of his comrade. Young Antilochus, son of Nestor, brings the mournful tidings to his tent, where he sits already foreboding the result, as he sees the Greeks crowding back to their galleys from the field in front of Troy. His grief is frantic—he tears his hair, and heaps dust upon his head, after a fashion which strongly suggests the Eastern character of the tale. His goddess-mother, Thetis "of the silver feet," hears him,

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

and comes with all her train of sea-nymphs to console him, as when before he sat weeping with indignation at the insult of Agamemnon. In vain she strives to comfort him with the thought that his insulted honour has been fully satisfied—that the Greeks have bitterly rued their former treatment of him. He feels only the loss of Patroclus, and curses the hour in which he was born. All that he longs for now is vengeance upon Hector. Thetis sorrowfully reminds him that it is written in the book of fate that when Hector falls, his own last hour is near at hand. Be it so, is his reply—death comes in turn to all men, and he will meet it as he may. But he cannot go forth to battle without armour; and the goddess promises that by the morrow's dawn, Vulcan, the immortal craftsman, shall furnish him with harness of proof.

The Greeks have fought their way to their vessels, step by step, with the dead body of Patroclus. But Hector with his Trojans has pressed them close all the way, and even when at the Greek lines seizes the corpse by the feet. Iris flies to Achilles with a message from Juno—will he see his dead friend given as a prey to the dogs and vultures?—He is without armour, true; but there is no need for him to adventure himself among the combatants; let him only show himself, let the Trojans but hear his voice, and it is enough. He does so; standing aloft upon the rampart, while Pallas throws her ægis over him, and surrounds his head with a halo of flashing light, he lifts his mighty voice and thrice shouts aloud. Panic seizes the whole host of Troy, and while they give ground in dismay, the dead Patroclus is borne off to the tent of Achilles.

Night falls on the plain, and separates the combatants. The Trojans, before their evening meal, hold an anxious council, in which Polydamas, as great in debate as Hector is in the field, advises that they should now retire within their walls. Achilles, it is evident, will head the Greeks in the morning, and who shall stand before him? But the wise counsel of Polydamas meets the same fate as that of Ahithophel; Heaven will not suffer men to listen to it. Minerva perverts the understandings of the Trojans, and they prefer the rasher exhortations of Hector, who urges them at all hazards to keep the field.

Thetis, meanwhile, has sought out Vulcan, and bespoken his skill in the forging of new armour for her son. The lame god will work for her, she knows; for in the day when his cruel mother Juno, in wrath at his marvellous ugliness, cast him down from Olympus, she with her sister-goddess Eurynome had nursed him in their bosom till he grew strong. She finds him now hard at work at his forges, in the brazen halls which he has made for himself in heaven. He is completing at this moment some marvellous machinery—twenty tripods mounted on wheels of gold (the earliest hint of velocipedes), which are to move of themselves, and carry him to and fro to the assembly of the gods. Another marvel, too, is to be seen in the Fire-king's establishment, which has long been the desideratum of modern households, but which modern mechanical science has as yet failed to invent—automaton servants, worked by machinery.

"In form as living maids, but wrought in gold,
Instinct with consciousness, with voice endued,
And strength, and skill from heavenly teachers drawn;
These waited duteous at the monarch's side."

Willingly, at the request of the sea-goddess, Vulcan plies his immortal art. Helmet with crest of gold, breastplate "brighter than the flash of fire," and the pliant greaves that mould themselves to the limb, are soon completed. But the marvel of marvels is the shield. On this the god bestows all his skill, and the poet his most graphic description. It is covered with figures of the most elaborate design, wrought in brass, and tin, and gold, and silver. In its centre are the sun, the moon, and all the host of heaven: round the rim flows the mighty ocean-river, which in Homeric as in Eastern mythology encompasses the earth; and on its embossed surface, crowded with figures, is embodied an epitome of human life, such as life was in the days of Homer. The tale is told in twelve compartments, containing each a scene of peace or war. Three groups represent a city in time of peace: a wedding procession with music and dancing, a dispute in the market-place, and a reference to the judgment of the elders gathered in council. Three represent a city in time of war: a siege, an ambuscade, and a battle. Then follow three scenes of outdoor country life: ploughing, the harvest, and the vintage. The lord of the harvest stands looking on at his reapers, like Boaz. In the vintage scene, the art of the immortal workman is minutely described. The vines are wrought in gold, the props are of silver, the grape-bunches are of a purple black, and there is a trench round of some dark-hued metal, crowned by a palisade of bright tin. Three pastoral groups complete the circle. First, a herd of oxen with herdsmen and their dogs, attacked by lions; secondly, flocks feeding in a deep valley, with the folds and shepherds' huts in the distance; and lastly, a festival dance of men and maidens in holiday attire, with the "divine bard," without whom no festival is complete, singing his lays to his harp in the midst, and two gymnasts performing their feats for the amusement of the crowd of lookers-on. If any reader should have imagined that Homer's song of (it may be) three thousand years ago was rude and inartistic, he has but to read, in the version of any of our best translators, this description of the Shield of Achilles, to be convinced that the poet understood his work to the full as well as the immortal craftsman whom he represents as having wrought it. We need not trouble ourselves with the difficulty of that French critic, who doubted whether so many subjects could really be represented on any shield of manageable size —like Goldsmith's rustics who marvelled, in the case of the village schoolmaster,

"That one small head could carry all he knew."

It is only necessary to point to the clever design of Flaxman for its realisation, and its actual embodiment (with the moderate diameter of three feet) in the shield cast by Pitts.