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27. Nestor to the Rescue, First Essay, I.245-284
So spoke the son of Peleus, flung down the
gold-studded staff, and resumed his seat; while, opposite,
Atreides raged at him. But then soft-spoken Nestor
rose, the clear-voiced orator of Pylos,
from whose tongue speech sweeter than honey flowed.
He had already seen the passing of two mortal generations
born and reared with him in holy Pylos,
and now he ruled the third.
He spoke to the assembly, then, with benevolent intent:
Getting Started, I. 245-253
Calchas and Athena have already intervened in the growing quarrel between the son of Peleus and the lord of men. The first gave an interpretation of events but failed to stem either the tide of rancor or the plague; the second put a restraint on Achilles (i.e., put away your sword), but also urged him to continue to upbraid Agamemnon (211). Thus, the quarrel escalated, and the battle against Troy was in danger of degenerating into an intra-Greek squabble.
Finally, in an effort to lower the emotional temperature, a third figure rises, Nestor, who gives us the longest speech so far in the Iliad. These forty lines consist of nine introductory lines and then thirty-one lines of advice or encouragement. The following “line map” will help you get the flow of the action.
1. 245-46 Achilles sits down in anger and frustration
2. 247 Agamemnon keeps raging
3. 247-53 Nestor arises, with long description of him
4. 254 Nestor starts speaking
5. 255-58 Introductory words--the Trojans rejoice in our squabble. Then follows a “ring composition” in which Nestor tells a story.
6. 259 Accept what I have to say
7. 260-61 Better men than you listened to me in the past
8. 261-71 The story from the past
9. 271-73 Better men than you listened to me in the past
10. 274 Accept what I have to say
11. 275-76 Turning to Agamemnon--accept my conditions
12. 277-81 Turning to Achilles--accept my conditions
13. 282-84 Turning to Agamemnon--accept my conditions
Expositing the Narrative
This outline is only slightly oversimplified; it is meant to give you a detailed understanding of the flow of these stirring lines. So many things are happening here; I can only point out a few. The major point should be crystal clear. Nestor, the wizened and wise elder spokesman, now intervenes to try to calm rising tensions. His appeal will be to the long experience of honor and recognition accorded him; his advice is practical and meant to preserve the honor of both. He will urge both combatants to follow his advice. Let’s go section by section.
1. Achilles casts the scepter down and sits. This unexpected act both illustrates and increases his frustration and anger. Two brief points should be noted. First, the verb for cast (bale) is the same word used in line 52 to describe the way that Apollo “cast” his arrows on the hapless Achaians. It is a common verb, but it also may suggest here something as portentous as that earlier “casting.” Just as the arrow “twanged” from Apollo’sready quiver, so the scepter “rattles” as it is thrown to the earth. Nothing good can come of either act. Second, The scepter is briefly but picturesquely described. It is “studded with golden nails.” Everything of value is either of silver, gold, bronze, or
is winged, flashing, glancing, etc. We half anticipate that these descriptive words would be the means for the author to develop further the natural history of the scepter given in lines 234-39. I
could imagine the following...”the scepter, studded with silver nails, which noble Hephaestus had himself flattened on the fiery anvil....” Well, you read enough epic and begin to think in those terms!
2. The “camera” then pans the audience and lands on the lord of men. Only four words, in line 247, describe him. He, “from the other side,” was “raging.” That one Greek word, translated “from the other side” (heterothen), helps paint the scene and call to mind the usually ignored reference in line 191 to the men who are “in between.” We see the two heroes, separated by a crowd. The separation both adds to the drama of the moment and allows for protection of one from the other. The word “raging” is our old friend menio, the verb form of the first word of the Iliad, menin.
Because of these two words we pause and think for a split second about Agamemnon. Is he about ready to stand? Several of the past scenes have one party sitting and another rising up immediately. What is he going to do? Will he want to move towards Achilles? Challenge him to a fight? Nurse his anger in silence? He rages on, and that is not a good sign.
3. So, up pops Nestor. The verb used to describe his rising is one that is unexpectedly vigorous for a man of Nestor’s senior status. It means to “leap up,” “spring up,” or “jump up" (anorouo). Perhaps he didn’t want Agamemnon, who still was nursing his anger, to have a chance to take the floor and possibly continue or even exacerbate the tension. In the language of the Book of
Job, Nestor desires to be the “daysman” or “mediator” to “lay his hand on both” parties and try to bring peace (Job 9:33). But before we hear his words, we learn about him. First we learn about his mouth, then his age, and then his deeds. A few words on each might be helpful.
He is an orator, and Homer gives us two whole lines on that. He is Nestor “of the sweet words.” But that isn’t enough. He is “the clear-toned orator of Pylos,” line 248. Nor is that quite enough. Language that “flows” from his tongue is sweeter than honey. He speaks “honey-charged” words. Ancient civilizations, even more than modern, honored the well-spoken word. From the Book of
“A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver"
An orator’s words can lead to war or bringpeace; they can describe the lay of the land accurately; they can inflame a multitude. But it is Nestor’s sweet words that are here emphasized. Honeyed words are reasonable, conciliatory, true, perspective-giving. We might even say that are “soft.” “A soft word turns away anger,” we are told (Proverbs 15:1). Skilled orators know how properly to calibrate both the emotional temperature of an audience and the words they want to use so as to wing them to their maximum effectiveness.
We learn he is not just a mature man. He is also a senior statesman (250-52). Homer has an interesting way of presenting this. Nestor is now “in his third generation” of people. For two
generations he lived with the leaders, but they have all died off, leaving him alone to rule over the third generation. I love the enjambment of ephthiath, translated “they perished” or “they
died” in line 251. The flow of 250 through the first word of 251 is that
“already two generations of mortal men.....DIED..”
Then, there is a soft stop after “died.” We see the word “they died” standing alone there in line 251, and we stop, if not to pay them respects then at least to recognize the paradoxical reality of the long, and fleeting, character of human life. They lived two generations (“the years of our lives are threescore and ten, or maybe by reason of strength fourscore,” as the Psalms tell us), and then...they DIED. Pause. The ones who were born and bred with him in Pylos, in sacred Pylos, DIED.
There is an interesting use of the rhetorical device known as hysteron proteron in line 251. Literally, the words say, “who were bred and born together with him...” Usually we say “born and bred” or “born and reared.” Indeed, most Iliad translations “correct” the actual word order. The device hysteron proteron literally means “later put as first.” Our most frequently-usedexample in English is when mom says to the child, “Put on your shoes and socks.” Well, you really have to put on socks, first, in my experience, but we still say it. The first use of the phrase “hysteron proteron” as an English word was in 1565. George Puttenham, in his classic 1589 book on The Arte of English Poesie, gave the following example:
“Another manner of disordered (i.e., out of order) speech...the Greeks call it Histeron proteron...’My dame that bred me up and bare me in her wombe.’ Whereas the bearing is before the bringing up.”
Why use it? To bring attention to the first of the two and to the statement in general.
Now Nestor rules over the third generation. He doesn’t narrate his present deeds, but we realize that his position as ruler ought to give him authority. He has seen others at the helm for a long time; now he is the one who is left. Even though they are gone, the implication of the lines is that he still possesses the wisdom of those who went before him, still can mediate accurately the stories and wisdom of heroic ages in the past. Now he rules. Other rulers, such as Agamemnon, ought to recognize that and give heed to him.
4. Finally, in line 253, he prepares to speak. Like Calchas before him, he “is well inclined” to both participants (eu phroneon--see line 73). The entire line 253 is formulaic, imitating
almost precisely line 73. The two verbs s-t-r-e-t-c-h out for most of the line. As we read the verbs, we imagine him stretching his frame, looking over the audience, clearing his throat and waiting
for the din to die down. Because 253 is a formulaic line, the careful reader and hearer will want to know whether this time the formula will introduce a speech that calms things down more than Calchas’ speech did.