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3. The Prologue, I. 1-7
"Goddess, sing me the anger, of Achilles, Peleus' son,
that fatal anger that brought countless sorrows on the Greeks
and sent many valiant souls of warriors down to Hades,
leaving their bodies as spoil for dogs
and carrion birds: for thus was the will of Zeus brought to fulfilment.
Sing of it from the moment when Agamemnon, Atreus' son,
that king of men, parted in wrath from noble Achilles."
Learning to Sing, Homeric Style
[I am indebted to the excellent translation of A. S. Kline, posted on the Internet, for my basic text here. I have versified Kiline's words (his are in paragraphs), trying to stay as close as possible to the structure of the Greek lines. I will point out the importance of that as these essays unfold.]
Homer’s language is spare, his images clear, his phrases arresting and visual, his similes inviting and provocative, his action intense, and his psychological descriptions telling and succinctly drawn. He plunges us directly into the middle of the action, in (what turns out to be) the ninth year of the ten-year Greek siege of Troy. We are not formally introduced to any of the leading characters, but we get to know them by seeing them in action or, in the case of Achilles, in repose. Like a foggy
windshield that gradually clears up, so by degrees the figures take on a focus and personality. Issues that are obscurely hinted at in the first lines take on a laser-like intensity and brilliance as
the narrative unfolds.
Thus, the Iliad teaches us an important life lesson at the outset. We, too, are plunged into the middle of life, without any real introduction to its benefits and harshness. Sometimes our interpreters along the way are skillful and generous. Other times they simply don’t know what they are doing, and we stay long in the dark. Sometimes we have to negotiate the avenues of life with a seemingly tattered
and out-of-date road map, without the sense that the road we seek was even platted when the map was printed. But if we persist in Homer, and in life, and for not too long, we are rewarded with
clarity, beautiful language, images of power and, as it turns out in this case, a dilemma of monumental proportions.
The Dilemma of Anger
A dilemma, in rhetoric, is “a form of argument involving an adversary in the choice of two alternatives, either of which is (or appears) unfavorable,” OED, s.v. Def. 1. Thus, the use of the
word hints at two, or more, unfavorable choices before us. The “dilemma” of the Iliad is how to handle the tremendous load of anger—in this case Achilles’ anger. “Sing, Goddess, the anger
of Peleus’ son Achilles,” is the opening line. Menin (“anger” or “wrath”) is the first word of the Iliad, and it will drive the action and define the relations among characters in the epic.
Anger was one of the emotions most closely studied by Aristotle in his Rhetoric. He defined it as:
“an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous
revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without
justification towards what concerns oneself or towards
what concerns one’s friends,” Rhetoric 1378a.
Aristotle may indeed have derived his definition directly from the encounter between Achilles and Agamemnon in Book I of the Iliad. In any case, in what follows we will be looking for a “conspicuous slight” which evokes a desire for “conspicuous revenge.”
But what might be the “dilemma” of anger, as I call it, in the Iliad? It is whether: (1) to tamp it down and put it away, either because it is harmful to the person who is angry or to the people he says he
loves; or (2) to express the anger through vindictive action. That, then, is the dilemma, the theme, the underlying issue, the “1000 pound elephant in the room” that underlies the Iliad. Will Achilles, in fact, put away his anger? Will he nurse it? Will he express it? If he does so, how will he do so and whom
will it hurt? This won’t be the only theme in the Iliad, but it is the dilemma that gets us started.
Of course, once we are in the realm of anger, we are plunged right in the middle of the human condition. Anger coats our lives, either because we live in it and act from it, or because so many people with whom we deal are controlled by it. Disappointed expectations, longings unfulfilled, slights experienced, frustrations unvoiced, all can lead to expressions of anger which undermine relationships, short-circuit ambition, fuel unhealthy action and unbalance the mind. One might also say that “righteous anger” might lead to positive social change, but the Iliad doesn’t probe what we might consider a “constructive” use of anger. Perhaps we are fooling ourselves in the twenty-first century to think that anger has a constructive dimension, though it is often a powerful human motivator.
Achilles will be the man of anger in the Iliad. He embodies the trait and is seemingly unwilling to give it up, even as it becomes evident that anger, which leads to his inaction, is the indirect cause of the death of his intimate companion, Patroclus. But now I am getting ahead of myself, and the Iliad doesn’t want us to get ahead of ourselves. It simply wants us to follow the story along and have the mist, which often intervenes in the story to protect humans or gods in danger of attack or death, gradually dissipate from our minds.
In telling that story, the text itself will be our guide. But I will sometimes advert to the most significant work on the Iliad in the past generation, the six-volume commentary on the Iliad edited by G.S. Kirk. Near the beginning of vol. 1 (1985), he says:
“The Commentary has always been envisaged as
one that develops as it goes along, rather than one in
which everything has been decided once and for all,”
The Iliad: A Commentary, Vol. 1, p. ix.
Kirk’s approach is illuminating because it shows that even those who have spent their whole professional career in the world of ancient Greece feel that they are coming to the text of
the Iliad ‘as if for the first time.’ They, and we, will discover its meaning as the story unfolds. How exciting to believe that a text carries that much continuing power that it can, like a child’s
birthday, be greeted by senior scholars with anticipation of new discovery. That type of energy and enthusiasm, I hope, underlie my approach to this text.
Following the Flow of I.1-7
As I said, we have a story of anger in the Iliad. It is the anger, in the first instance, of “Peleus’ son.” People are important here in their own right but also because they are descended from someone. They find their place in the world through their parentage and through their deeds. It is the patronym (name derived from a father or male ancestor) that is important for the Greeks even though, in this case, it will be Achilles’ mother, Thetis, whom he calls upon for help in Book I. Then, at the close
of line 1 we learn the guy’s name--Achilles. But no sooner do we learn his name then we are told, in the Greek text of line 2, that the anger is “accursed” or “baneful.” In order to get the full flavor
of the Greek we might translate the first line and the first word of the second line as:
“Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles, the
accursed (destructive, baneful) anger...”
The poetic method that allows a descriptive adjective or participle to drop down to the next line when it is describing a noun of the previous line is called “enjambment.” At first glance, we might think that “enjambment” means to “jam up” or to “constrict” the flow of the line, maybe ending the thought at the end of the line, but it means exactly the opposite. Derived from the French enjamber, it means to “stride” (to the next line) or “to encroach” (upon the next line). Thus, enjambment in poetry is where lines run on to complete their meaning in the next line or lines.
A few years ago the word phantonym was invented in English to describe a term whose definition is the opposite of what a it would likely “appear” to mean. An example is enervate. Many people see “energy” in the word, but it means exactly the opposite—to exhaust. “Energy” is the phantonym of enervate. Thus, the phantonym of enjambment is “stopping up” or “jamming up,” though it really means to “run on” to the next line. As just mentioned, the result of enjambment is a thought that flows between lines and a yields a thought that can, as it were, “re-strike” the reader with a greater intensity than when the noun was first introduced. That is, when I read about anger, I then pause for a split-second and say to myself, “Ok, this is about anger, and I know a little about it.” But then a world of other concepts is introduced in the next few words. We have a Goddess who sings, and we have a man who is the son of a man. We begin to forget the urgency, power and centrality of the word “anger” as we wonder what it might mean that a Goddess inspires or a hero is a son. But then, with the enjambed word “accursed” or “destructive” in line 2 we are brought back to the anger. A circle has been made, and the anger is more fully described. We will have a real problem on our hands, a consuming, destructive, accursed, baneful anger. This is the theme of the Iliad, and now
we are ready to read about it. Now, also, we won’t forget it.