The Poets

June 17, 2009

Imagery from the Iliad

One of the things I like about poetry is its ability to use imagery from the natural world to convey a thought, an emotion, a situation, etc. There’s a passage in the Iliad where a truce between the two armies dissolves, and war breaks out. The author uses meteorological imagery to describe the clash between the two. Lines 517 through 523 (the first eight lines here) tell the 'literal' account of the conflict, while the following lines employ beautiful imagery.

It's pretty neat.

At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
they slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike,
with the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
and their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,
and the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder—
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and clash of war.

Iliad Book IV, Lines 517 – 527*


John W. May said...

*Typed out exactly as it appears in Robert Fagles’ translation, Homer/Iliad (page 160)

Doug P. Baker said...

Can you imagine how silently the crowds would have held their breath while Homer recited such a passage!?! What a torrent of images crashing on one another, what a rush of sounds, of vantage points.

I remember when we discussed this passage in class when I was teaching. The kids had all read the book and many of them had not really enjoyed it.

When we got to this passage I read it aloud, dramatically, and many of their eyes grew round. They were 'seeing' it for the first time. They were hearing the screams of anguish and triumph. The images began to come alive in their minds.

So I love this passage doubly, both for itself and for the memory of seeing those kids' minds begin to work in new ways.

You are right, Homer was incredible in the way that any situation or feeling would be compared to something tangible that his hearers knew: weather, wind, waves, even the wetness or saltiness of the ocean and of their tears. Like a good preacher he brought his message home vividly and memorably.

As of April 9th, 2010