The Iliad (Collins)/Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX.

 

THE RETURN OF ACHILLES.

 

With a fierce delight Achilles gazes on the work of the Olympian armourer, before the dazzling brightness of which even the Myrmidons veil their faces. He sets forth at once for the tents of Agamemnon; and, taking his way along the shore, calls the leaders to battle as he passes each man's galley. The news of his coming spreads fast and far, and every man, from the highest to the lowest, even those who never quitted the ship on any other occasion—


"The steersmen who the vessels' rudders hold,
The very stewards who served the daily bread"—


flock to the central rendezvous to welcome back the champion of the Achæans. He is as impulsive and outspoken in his reconciliation as in his wrath. There is no need of mediation now between himself and Agamemnon. He accosts the king with a noble simplicity:


"Great son of Atreus, what hath been the gain
To thee or me, since heart-consuming strife
Hath fiercely raged between us, for a girl—
Who would to heaven had died by Dian's shafts
That day when from Lyrnessus' captured town
I bore her off, so had not many a Greek
Bitten the bloody dust, by hostile hands

Subdued, while I in anger stood aloof.
Great was the gain to Troy; but Greece, methinks,
Will long retain the memory of our feud.
Yet pass we that; and though our hearts be sore,
Still let us school our angry spirits down.
My wrath I here abjure." (D.)


Agamemnon, for his part, magnanimously admits his error; laying the chief blame, however, upon Jupiter and Fate, who blinded the eyes of his understanding. The peace-offerings are produced and accepted, though Achilles only chafes at anything which can delay his vengeance. Ulysses strongly urges the necessity of a substantial meal for the whole army;


"For none throughout the day till set of sun,
Fasting from food, may bear the toils of war;
His spirit may be eager for the fray,
Yet are his limbs by slow degrees weighed down."


Achilles schools himself into patience while the rest act upon this prosaic but prudent counsel; but for himself, he will neither eat nor drink, nor wash his blood-stained hands, till he has avenged the death of his comrade. So he sits apart in his grief, while the rest are at the banquet: Minerva, by Jupiter's command, infusing into his body ambrosia and nectar, to sustain his strength. Another true mourner is Briseis. The first sight which meets the captive princess on her return to the Myrmidon camp is the bloody corpse of Patroclus. She throws herself upon it in an agony of tears. He, in the early days of her captivity, had spoken kind and cheering words, and had been a friend in time of trouble. So, too, Menelaus briefly says of him—"He knew how to be kind to all men." This glimpse which the poet gives us of the gentler features of the dead warrior's character is touching enough, when we remember the utter disregard of an enemy's or a captive's feelings shown not only by Homer's heroes, but by those of the older Jewish Scriptures.

When all is ready for the battle, Achilles dons the armour of Vulcan, and draws from its case the Centaur's gift,—the ashen spear of Mount Pelion, which even Patroclus, it will be remembered, had not ventured to take in hand. Thus armed, he mounts his chariot, drawn by the two immortal steeds, Xanthus and Balius—for their mortal yoke-fellow had been slain in the battle in which Patroclus fell. As he mounts, in the bitter spirit which leads him to blame the whole world for the death of his friend, he cannot forbear a taunt to his horses—he trusts they will not leave him on the field, as they left Patroclus. Then the chestnut, inspired by Juno, for once finds a human voice, and exculpates himself and his comrade. It was no fault of theirs; it was the doom of Patroclus, and Achilles' own doom draws nigh. This day they will bring him back in safety; but the end is at hand.

Unlike Hector, Achilles knows and foresees his doom clearly; but, like Hector, he will meet it unflinchingly. Pope's version of his reply is deservedly admired. Xanthus has uttered his warning;


"Then ceased for ever, by the Furies tied,
His fateful voice. Th' intrepid chief replied
With unabated rage—'So let it be!
Portents and prodigies are lost on me;
I know my fate; to die, to see no more
My much-loved parents and my native shore;
Enough—when Heaven ordains, I sink in night;
Now perish Troy!' he said, and rushed to right."


In the renewed battle which ensues, the gods, by express permission of their sovereign, take part. Juno, Neptune, Minerva, Mercury, and Vulcan assist the Greeks: Mars, Venus, Apollo, Latona, and Diana join the Trojans. Their interference seems, at least to our modern taste, to assist in no way the action of the poem, and merely tends to weaken for the time the human interest. We must be content to assume that upon a Greek audience the impression was different. The only effect which these immortal allies produce upon the fortunes of the day is a negative one; Apollo incites Æneas to encounter Achilles, and when he is in imminent danger, Neptune conveys him away in a mist. Apollo performs the same office for Hector, who also engages the same terrible adversary, in the hope of avenging upon him the death of his young brother Polydorus. Disappointed in both his greater antagonists, Achilles vents his wrath in indiscriminate slaughter. Driving through the disordered host of the Trojans, his chariot wheels and axle steeped in blood, he cuts the mass of fugitives in two, and drives part of them into the shallows of the river Scamander. Leaping down from his chariot, he wades into the river, and there continues his career of slaughter sword in hand. Twelve Trojan youths he takes alive and hands them over to his followers; sparing them for the present only to slay them hereafter as victims at the funeral-pile to appease the shade of Patroclus. Another suppliant for his mercy has a singular history. The young Lycaon, one of the many sons of Priam, had been taken prisoner by him in one of his raids upon Trojan territory, and sold as a slave in Lemnos. He had been ransomed there and sent home to Troy, only twelve days before he fell into his enemy's hands again here in the bed of the Scamander. Achilles recognises him, and cruelly taunts him with his reappearance: the dead Trojans whom he has slain will surely next come to life again, if the captives thus cross the seas to swell the ranks of his enemies. In vain Lycaon pleads for his life, that he is not the son of the same mother as Hector—that his brother Polydorus has just been slain, which may well content the Greek's vengeance. There is a gloomy irony in the words with which Achilles rejects his prayer. Before Patroclus fell, he had spared many a Trojan; but henceforth, all appeal to his mercy is vain—most of all from a son of Priam. But, in fact, the wish to escape one's fate he holds to be utterly unreasonable;


"Thou too, my friend, must die—why vainly wail?
Dead is Patroclus too, thy better far—
Me too thou seest, how stalwart, tall, and fair,
Of noble sire and goddess-mother born,
Yet must I yield to death and stubborn fate,
Whene'er, at morn or noon or eve, the spear
Or arrow from the bow may reach my life." (D.)


At last the great river-god—whom the gods call Xanthus, but men Scamander—rises in his might, indignant at seeing his stream choked with corpses, and stained with blood. He hurls the whole force of his waves against Achilles, and the hero is fain to save himself by grasping an elm that overhangs the bank, and so swinging himself to land. But here Scamander pursues him, and, issuing from his banks, rolls in a deluge over the plain. Even the soul of Achilles is terror-stricken at this new aspect of death. Is he to die thus, like some vile churl—


"Borne down in crossing by a wintry brook?"


Neptune and Minerva appear to encourage him, and give him strength to battle with the flood: and when Seamander summons his brother-river Simois to his aid, Vulcan sends flames that scorch all the river-banks, consuming the trees and shrubs that clothe them, and threatening to dry up the very streams themselves. The river yields, and retires to his banks, leaving Achilles free to pursue his victories. He drives the Trojans inside their walls, and but that Apollo guards the gates, would have entered the city in hot pursuit. Hector alone remains without—his doom is upon him.

The gods, meanwhile, have entered the field of battle on their own account, and contributed, as before, a ludicrous element to the action of the poem. Minerva fells Mars the war-god to the ground with a huge mass of rock, an ancient landmark, which she hurls against him; and he lies covering "above seven hundred feet," till Venus comes to his aid to lead him from the field, when the terrible goddess strikes her to the earth beside him. Juno shows the strength of those "white arms" which the poet always assigns to her, by a terrible buffet which she bestows, for no particular reason apparently, upon Diana, who drops her bow and loses her arrows, and flies weeping to her father Jupiter. He, for his part, has been watching the quarrels of his court and family with a dignified amusement;—


"Jove as his sport the dreadful scene descries,
And views contending gods with careless eyes." (P.)


Those philosophers who see a moral allegory in the whole of the Homeric story, have supplied us with a key to the conduct and feelings of Jupiter during this curious combat. "Jupiter, as the lord of nature, is well pleased with the war of the gods—that is, of earth, sea, air, &c.—because the harmony of all beings arises from that discord. Thus heat and cold, moist and dry, are in a continual war, yet upon this depends the fertility of the earth and the beauty of the creation. So that Jupiter, who, according to the Greeks, is the soul of all, may well be said to smile at this contention."[1] Those readers who may not be satisfied with this solution must be content to take the burlesque as it stands.

 

 
  1. Eustathius, as quoted by Pope.