War Music adapts Homer’s Iliad freely rather than translating the Greek epic. Four decades of work brought Christopher Logue nearer to a complete poetic version, but illness interfered before his death in 2011. His friend Christopher Reid arranges the final edition as War Music, gathering what has been previously published in five installments. Appended are notebooks, unpublished portions and letters extending Logue’s diligent compilation. The results fragment, but they all the more recall the sudden absences in texts familiar to readers of classical literature, full of lacunae and missing sections due to the same ravages of time that halted Logue.

Quotation cannot capture by this medium the precise layout by which the English poet breaks open the Greek bard’s meter and line scheme. But transcription can illustrate Logue’s breakdown of Homeric scenes into blunt imagery and colloquial choices. For instance, early on Achilles refuses to give back the slave girl Briseis. “Witness me glad. Yes. Extra glad when/ Longing for me makes every one of you/ Reach into his own broad chest,/ Take out, and suck, his heart,/ Then spit out its extract in his neighbour’s face,/ Ashamed that you, the Greek commander lords,/ Dishonoured and betrayed boy Achilleus,/ Promised by God, the best of the Achaeans.” The warrior’s petulance stings by his boast.

Soon after, Nestor confronts this dangerous dissent. He rouses the Greeks to shared struggle through clipped, curt phrases. “Someone talks common-nonsense and—tarrah—/ You give these words a future. Let them die.” These lines convey the old king’s disgust at the egoism and indulgence Achilles epitomizes.

Logue shifts into an assured, striding lope when he praises champion Hector. “Whether it is his graceful confidence,/ His large and easy legs, his open look,/ That lets him fortify your heart,/ And makes you wish him back when he has gone,/ Trusting oneself to him seems right; who has belief,/ And your belief respected, where he stands.” These confident encouragements mirror the awe that Greek literature expresses about a mighty man in battle, and those who follow him into death, for life.

Compare Hector’s calm with Athena’s lust. “Setting down her topaz saucer heaped with nectarine jelly/ Emptying her blood-red mouth set in her ice-white face/ Teenaged Athena jumped up and shrieked:/ ‘Kill! Kill for me!/ Better to die than to live without killing!'” Whether this complements more than contrasts with the acclaim given heroes is left for the reader to decide. Logue edges in a curdled aside: “Who says prayer does no good?” The distance between Homer and our age returns.

Such jolts interfere with the depiction of any continuity for this assault on Troy. Logue inserts the occasional clever phrase. “Blood like a car-wash” sums up one clash. Logue pokes fun too. “And as for the Ithacan boat-boy’s undercurved preceptatrix,/ She hates Troy because my statue stands on its acropolis.” So Love puts down Hera in one catty Olympian exchange before the throne of Zeus.

As for brevity, Logue transfers some of Homer’s memorable martial clashes into pithy messages. “Fate caught Panotis’ body; death his head.” At Patroclus’ burial, the pace slows into a solemn tribute. “Gold on the wrists that bear the prince aloft./ Tears on the cheeks of those who lead with wands./ Multiple injuries adorn the corpse. And we, the army, genuflect in line.” Any teasing or languid aspects never linger long, as conflict propels this from satire and sass back to muscular brawls and terse memorials.

Near the end, Achilles’ helmet flashes so bright and violent it can be seen across three millennia, in Logue’s depiction. Similarly, he leaps out from the Trojan shores to connect those scenes with later ones. Skopje and Napoleon, Bikini Atoll bombs and California earthquakes, Antarctic waves and Iwo Jima depths swirl our globe into this Near Eastern showdown. Bubblegum and Panda, Cumin and Tu fight alongside the Myrmidons, as Logue speckles nicknames among the ranks of T’lespiax or Thersites.

Ultimately, these modern touches enforce a moral message relevant to today’s audience. Athena splits Ithaca’s voice so that all troops hear it in their own heads. “You are the best. You hold your ground./ You were born best. You know you are the best/ Because you rule. Because you take, and keep,/ Land for the mass. Where they can breed. And pray. And pay/ You to defend them. You to see custom done./ What cannot be avoided, you endure.” Encouragement mingles with submission, not only for those under rule of the armored, but the forces themselves, resigned despite power to fate.

A God’s-eye view ends the All Day Permanent Red inclusion. In a segment named after a lipstick, Logue ascends to a lovely if poignant lookout. A divine perspective scans the distant, insignificant coasts around the campaign. They are empty, “save for a million footprints.” Similarly, War Music hangs halted prematurely in silent air, verbal testament despite gaps, to drumbeats and clatters of combat ever since Homer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Ireland’s Empire: by Colin Barr

This masterful history unravels the diplomacy which has long linked the Irish with the Cat…