The Song of Achilles

I really wish I’d stumbled across Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles before I enrolled in my Classical Literature course last year. We read both Homeric epics, as well as The Aeneid, the plays of Aristophanes, and Apuleis; the intense reading list made for an excruciating semester and while I felt I’d earned my stripes as an English student by reading the classics, I didn’t feel particularly engaged with any of the texts. They all seemed to depict a world completely alien to mine, with its foreign code of honour and hospitality and its petulant gods. The Iliad was by far the most enjoyable of the texts. The principal heroes, Hector and Achilles, are simultaneously both demi-gods and beasts on the battlefield, and the epic’s depiction of war more generally is far from glorious. If I’d read The Song of Achilles before taking the class, I think I’d have enjoyed The Iliad even more. Miller interjects a much-needed sense of humanity into the myth without straying too far from the source material.

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The Greek gods are probably the most problematic aspects of the Homeric epics (and of most classical literature, which follows in the Homeric tradition). The gods can be understood as natural forces; for example, Poseidon could be seen to personify the will of the sea. Or the gods could be seen as late additions to the original historical events, added in to present the outcome of the Trojan War as divinely ordained. If, however, it’s always the gods who inspire their favoured mortals with heroic qualities or lift them out of an arrow’s path, then to what extent are the heroes truly heroic at all? The exact nature of the gods is never clarified and presents a significant stumbling block to modern readers. Miller offers a unique solution to this problem: in her retelling of The Iliad, Thetis exists in the flesh and can walk among the living if she chooses. Patroclus, the narrator, carelessly lists the many heroes who are the offspring or grandsons of gods. While the gods are immortal and elevated above mortals, they are still subject to Fate; even Thetis cannot change her son’s destiny.

By smoothing over the difficulties presented by the interfering Homeric gods, Miller can give greater focus to her true concern: the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. Their story is a moving one, a truly timeless exploration of how powerless we all are in the pitiless face of Fate.

Sing of anger

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Achilles’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Achaeans loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men – carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

The Iliad, Homer

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Night

To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.

The question of how feeble language becomes in the face of atrocity is addressed from the outset of Elie Wiesel’s courageous memoir of the Holocaust. I was only able to read certain passages in Elie’s memoir if I first convinced myself that the events depicted were fictional; it’s impossible to accept that acts of such senseless destruction truly did occur – but distancing ourselves from these stories won’t make them any less true. If reading Elie’s memoir was unsettling, I can’t imagine how intensely challenging the effort of sharing these experiences must have been for the author. How can everyday words be applied to an experience born out of the worst excesses of human cruelty?

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In placing his tumultuous experiences onto paper, Elie found language itself to be an inadequate medium. Words that would usually describe normal aspects of the human experience, such as ‘hunger’ or ‘transport’, were, Elie suggests, ‘betrayed and perverted by the enemy’. The experience of atrocity has altered the fabric of language itself. The death-knell shadow of the chimney loomed day and night over the teenage Elie as he suffered in Auschwitz; as death was the only constant feature of Elie’s reality, ‘chimney’ became the only word which described something tangible. I like to think, however, that by presenting his memoir to the world Elie Wiesel has firmly reclaimed the words that were bastardized in the concentration camps of World War Two.

Night is not only a memoir of a monumentally devastating epoch in world history, but an indispensable human document, one that we should never lose sight of. Elie’s memoir evokes a true test of faith, not just of Elie’s own religious faith but the faith of both author and reader in humanity itself.

The Sea-Dog

The sea is a hungry dog,
Giant and grey.
He rolls on the beach all day.
With his clashing teeth and shaggy jaws
Hour upon hour he gnaws
The rumbling, tumbling stones,
And ‘Bones, bones, bones, bones! ‘
The giant sea-dog moans,
Licking his greasy paws.

And when the night wind roars
And the moon rocks in the stormy cloud,
He bounds to his feet and snuffs and sniffs,
Shaking his wet sides over the cliffs,
And howls and hollos long and loud.

But on quiet days in May or June,
When even the grasses on the dune
Play no more their reedy tune,
With his head between his paws
He lies on the sandy shores,
So quiet, so quiet, he scarcely snores.

The Sea, James Reeves

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‘Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Hokusai.

Wuthering Heights

‘My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath – a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff – he’s always, always in my mind…’

I have absolutely no idea why I waited so long to read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. I’ve been an admirer of the Brontes for years (though I do rate Tenant of Wildfell Hall much more favourably than the more renowned Jane Eyre). Wuthering Heights certainly did not disappoint: Bronte’s coupling of Dickensian lyricism with Gothic intrigue makes for an illuminating read. I think its success lies in its combination of the great Victorian preoccupations with inheritance, marriage and property, and the thoroughly unconventional character of Heathcliff. This brutally passionate and unrepentant man remains shocking to modern sensibilities.

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Heathcliff is a fascinating character, no doubt because it’s difficult to fully appreciate all the multi-faceted angles of his character at once. He exerts such a terrific pull over Catherine that their love is figured as an almost elemental force. But is this great capacity to love enough to redeem Heathcliff in the eyes of the reader? Their passion seems of another world; its unearthliness is never more pronounced than when Heathcliff orders the side of Catherine’s coffin broken open so that when he is laid to rest beside her, their bodies will dissolve together. He also has an endless capacity for cruelty; with his ‘sharp cannibal teeth’, he often seems more devil than man. The resonance of the novel rests on the enigma of Heathcliff’s character; his nature is a mystery it’ll take me another read to fully appreciate.

Threaded on time

Straws like tame lightnings lie about the grass
And hang zigzag on hedges. Green as glass
The water in the horse-trough shines.
Nine ducks go wobbling by in two straight lines.

I lie, not thinking, in the cool, soft grass,
Afraid of where a thought might take me – as
This grasshopper with plated face
Unfolds his legs and finds himself in space.

Self under self, a pile of selves I stand
Threaded on time, and with metaphysic hand
Lift the farm like a lid and see
Farm within farm, and in the centre, me.

Summer Farm, Norman MacCaig

800px-Wheatstacks_(End_of_Summer),_1890-91_(190_Kb);_Oil_on_canvas,_60_x_100_cm_(23_5-8_x_39_3-8_in),_The_Art_Institute_of_Chicago

‘Stacks of Wheat’ by Claude Monet.