Epic Poetry Isn’t My Bag . . .

I’ve been trying to round out my reading list with several of the “classics” that I somehow passed over during my school years. Most of the books have been wonderful reads, but this one was tough. I checked out Homer’s Iliad from the library, and it took me two full weeks to wade through it.

It made my “want to read” list because the PBS Newshour interviewed Emily Wilson, who published a new translation in 2023 that has received rave reviews. Unfortunately, the library could only get me Alexander Pope’s 1720 translation. Egads! If it was a movie, it would be rated “R” for violence. Heads rolled everywhere, and the sands turned slimy with gore on nearly every page. Not something I’d recommend reading on a full stomach.

Still, the epic tale of battles during the latter part of the Trojan War remains a valuable piece of classical literature. The characters, including Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Helen of Troy, Aphrodite, Paris, Ajax, Artemis, Hermes, and many others are familiar and comfortable (I did read The Odyssey in high school). I find it striking that the Greek gods possessed such human traits and meddled so notoriously in human affairs. They were downright busybodies!

The other thing that strikes me is the meter. Although I’ve never really liked poetry, the strictly metered “Homeric Hexameter” mesmerized me. I often found myself reading passages aloud, just to hear the melodic sounds.

According to W. A. Johnson, the hexameter is quantitative in the sense that the metrical value of a syllable is decided not by its accent or loudness, but by its quantity, that is, by the time taken to pronounce it. The Homeric Hexameter is called the dactylic hexameter because the basic unit is a dactyl, which is one long syllable followed by two short syllables. Each unit in the line consists of either one dactyl or one spondee, which is a foot composed of two long syllables. There are six of these units (“feet”) in each line. An exception is the final foot, which is always two syllables, the first long and the second either long or short.

Well, those are the mechanics of it, probably too much information. My point is that beauty can exist in the melody and rhythm of a really gory tale. That makes me think about the form and function of other unpleasant things in life. Like the Trojan battles, can modern-day negatives be examined from a different viewpoint? If not beauty, can we extract wisdom from today’s galling headlines?

Photo by Erol Ahmed on Unsplash

#epicpoetry #theiliad #FormAndFunction

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