The Tribune - Spectrum


, June 23, 2002

Iliad translated, and much more
Vijay Tankha

War Music
by Christopher Logue. Faber and Faber. Pages 215. £ 7.99

War MusicWAR Music describes itself as an "account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad." This is a modest subheading appended to the title. Christopher Logue is a poet, and has written a poem around and within the text of Homer’s great work. It is clearly not a translation, if by a translation we mean a line by line rendering of Homer’s Greek into Logue’s English; and yet there is some turning of classical Greek into modern English which is not all Homer and yet not all that far from Homer. Consider the epithets that Homer has for his gods: glaukopis (ox-eyed), often applied to a goddess, a mark perhaps of beauty in the Greek but strikingly odd in English. Logue gives us alternatives: lake-eyed, prussic eyed (perhaps for ‘grey-eyed’), all of which work well. They give us a feeling not so much of Homer’s Greek but of Homer’s poetry and his poetic world, where the recurrent image is nevertheless unfamiliar (to us) in its effect.

The Iliad opens with the famous quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon. The first line demands, in fact, to know the cause of the anger of Achilles that brought so many able warriors to their doom. The Greeks had sacked a town in the Trojan area…the spoil has been distributed and the women allotted. Agamemnon, leader of the Greek confederacy, had taken as his prize Chryses (daughter of a priest of Apollo). The priest comes and offers to ransom his daughter. Agamemnon refuses, the priest prays to Apollo who sends the plague down on the Greeks. The Greeks call their soothsayer, who directs them to return the girl. Agamemnon is forced to do this, but demands compensation and eventually settles on Achilles’ prize (another un-named young girl). The quarrel ensues between the leader and their most redoubtable warrior, who refuses to fight the Trojans. This frames the rest of Homer’s poem. Homer dramatises these events in about 250 lines of dense verse, moving effortlessly between past and present.


Logue spends 21 pages on his preamble and setting for the poem, recounting the sacking of the city (Homer names it Tenedos, Logue calls it Tollo), and has Achilles narrate a part of the story to his mother, the goddess Thetis. In Homer’s work, Achilles does not go to his mother until after the quarrel. This provides a fresh perspective for those already familiar with Homer’s poem. As Logue says, "I concocted a new story line, and then, knowing the gist of what this or that character said, tried to make their voices come alive and to keep the action on the move." And he succeeded.

War music is still in progress, begun in the early 60s by a poet who knew no Greek and who began by studying scholarly and not-so-scholarly translations. As he notes, "My reading on the subject of translation has produced at least one important opinion: ‘We must try its effect as an English poem… Boswell reports Johnson as saying." In producing a poem (in English), Logue has done a wonderful job. In recreating the Greek world, Homer’s world, without quite giving us Homer’s language, he has given the reader a sense of the Homeric epic: he has fleshed out Homer’s poem, given it the urgency of epic drama.

The Illiad, it has often been repeated, is a poem about war. It is, however, not a glorification of war, but sometimes a recording of the dire necessities of its savagery and stupidity, of its manly and aggressive virtues. For the ancient Greeks, however, Homer’s work was not simply a poem. Homer was called the educator of all Greeks. It was he, as Herodotus said, who gave the Greeks their religion. For us, from the distance of more than two millennia, the poem is a unique window into a world that is the cradle of western civilization. Logue’s Homer gives the modern (western, perhaps English) reader an insight into these strange and distant times; an exciting poetic encounter with the riches of Homer’s poetic vision. Logue looks upon the same landscape, from another apercu. Here’s Hera speaking to her husband Zeus,

Rain Over Europe

Queen Hera puts her hate-filled face around its fall,

And says to God:

‘I want Troy dead.

Its swimming pools and cellars filled with limbs;

Its race, rotten beneath the rubble oozing pus;

Even at noon the Dardanelle’s lit up;

All that is left a bloodstain by the sea.’

‘Hold on…’

‘No, no,’(wagging a finger in his face),

‘I shall not stop. You shall not make me stop.

Troy asks for peace? Troy shall have peace. The peace of the dead.

Or You will have no peace until it does.’

The poetry is crisp. It is in English. The sentiment is Greek.