The following is a guest post by Melissa Beck, a Connecticut High School teacher of Latin and Ancient Greek. Originally posted on her blog, The Book Binder’s Daughter, this is one of four posts by Beck in which she reviews Christopher Logue’s War Music, a modern poetic account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad.
Basing his compositions on English translations of the Iliad, the poetry of Christopher Logue (1926-2011) has suffered criticism from classicists for altering both plot and characters not in keeping with Homer’s Ancient Greek. Brazenly sacrilegious, Logue’s loose and gritty narrative audaciously sprays shock and awe in epic-sized adrenaline rushes.
Winningly enticing us to review Achilles’ ascension to glory from Logue’s poetic point of view, Beck increases both our comprehension of kleos and Logue’s contemporary poetic savvy.
The Best of Bests: Kleos In Logue’s War Music
Originally published on The Book Binder’s Daughter
By Melissa Beck
Achilles and Agamemnon, Scene from Iliad Book I. Mosaic, Pompeii
As I discussed in my first post on Christopher Logue’s War Music, it is jarring to read an interpretation of the Iliad that does not begin with the first line of Homer’s epic. Logue instead chooses to begin his poem with a concept of kleos, an idea that is central to understanding the motives of the Bronze Age heroes who agree to follow Agamemnon across the Aegean to scale the walls of Troy.
In most English versions of the Iliad, kleos is translated as “glory” or “fame” but these definitions do not fully capture the complexity of this Ancient Greek word. When Logue begins War Music, Achilles is having an upsetting conversation with his mother about Agamemnon’s violation of xenia and his greedy, selfish behavior which has caused fighting among the Greek warriors. In the course of speaking to his mother, Achilles mentions to Thetis the prophecy about his fate in life: he can choose not to fight at Troy, go home and live a long life but no one will remember who he was or any deeds he accomplished. This path will not give him any kleos. However, if Achilles stays and fights the Trojans, he will die bravely in battle and although his life will be cut short, he will have great kleos. When we view kleos in the context of Achilles’s conversation with his mother, we come to understand that kleos is fame or glory that lasts well beyond a hero’s life. Men for generations will remember Achilles and the stories of his excellence (arête) on the battlefield if that is the fate he chooses. Kleos is derived from the Ancient Greek verb kluein, “to hear” so kleos can also be defined as what other people hear about a man, for generations after his death.
In order to better understand kleos, we have to look at the Bronze Age view of the Underworld as it is presented to us in the Odyssey. When Odysseus recalls various shades from the after life, Achilles is one of the old friends he meets and speaks with. Achilles tells Odysseus that he would rather be a slave or a man of humble means on earth than a king of the dead. The Homeric view of the afterlife is a very bleak one, the heroes wander around in a type of limbo and there is no chance for reincarnation such as that presented in Vergil’s stoic version of the afterlife.
So the heroes who fight at Troy believe that they get just one life, just one chance to do something brave and heroic, something that people will remember long after a hero has died. The opportunity for this type of fame, or kleos, presents itself in the form of valor on the battlefield. That is why they agree to cross an ocean to help capture a city that has not done anything to personally provoke them. Helen’s beautiful face many have launched Menelaus’s ship, but getting her back is an opportunity for the other warriors to fight on the battlefield at Troy and earn kleos.
James Redfield in his pivotal book Nature and Culture in the Iliad, argues that there is a social aspect to kleos, a man must earn his kleos from the society in which he lives. Redfield writes:
Kleos is specially associated with the gravestone. Society secures its memories of the dead man by creating for him a memorial to perpetuate his name, and remind men to tell his story. He will not be utterly annihilated. Thus the kleos of the hero is to some extent a compensation to him for his own destruction.
There is one final aspect of kleos that Achilles brings up when his shade speaks to Odysseus from the grave. Achilles is eager to hear about the heroic exploits of his only son, Neoptolemus, and when Odysseus confirms that the young man has proven himself to be a valiant warrior in his own right, Achilles is most pleased. Kleos, therefore, is also carried on from father to son, it is something that is nurtured and fostered and carried on from one generation to the next. A man’s kleos can become greater if his son carries out heroic deeds. Part of Medea’s motivation for murdering her own children is that she will not allow Jason’s kleos to continue on through their son. Also in the Odyssey, Telemachus eagerly awaits the homecoming of his father because it is his paternal kleos that he is eager to carry on.
Logue not only begins War Music with the theme of kleos, but he deftly weaves it throughout his interpretation of the Iliad. Logue captures the notion of kleos on the very first page of War Music, with his fast-paced, heavy hitting poetry. Achilles says to his mother:
You had had me your child, your only child,
To save him from immortal death. In turn,
Your friend, the Lord our God, gave you His word,
Mother, His word: If I, your only child,
Chose to die young, by violence, far from home,
My standing would be first; be best;
The best of bests; here; in perpetuity
Notice that Logue uses some of his favorite poetic devices to emphasize Achilles’ kleos which will be greater than any other man’s. Anaphora, for instance, is used to highlight the fact that Achilles is to Thetis her “only child.” “His word” is also repeated which shows Achilles desperately clinging to the promise made by Zeus himself that he will have kleos. Achilles’ will “be best,” “The best of bests.” And my favorite of Logue’s literary devices, which is pervasive in War Music, is asyndeton. Logue’s elimination of any and all connective words makes this entire speech dramatic and urgent and puts an exclamation point on the reason, the only reason, that Achilles stepped foot on the beach of Troy in the first place—to gain kleos. And finally, attaining kleos is the one thing that keeps Achilles from carrying out his threat launched at Agamemnon to sail home and not help sack Troy.
Why don’t the Trojans just pack Helen up, open the gate and send her back to Menelaus? Their reasons for fighting this war are not simply to let Paris keep his stolen wife or to defend their famous walls. In Book II, Logue turns his attention to the Trojans who also desire kleos. Hector gives a speech in which he says that he is tired of hiding behind the walls of Troy and wants nothing more than to fight the Greeks in combat:
We are your heroes.
Audacious fameseekers who relish close combat.
Mad to be first among the blades,
Now wounded 50 times, stone sane.
Hector wants kleos just as much as any Greek but he does have one additional motivation to fight Greece. Up next, my post will be about Hector, my favorite Homeric hero, and the concept of aidos. And in the future other aspects of War Music that I would like to explore are the role of the gods and fate and the role of women as prizes and wives.
My day job is teaching Latin and Ancient Greek to high school students in Connecticut. In addition to being an avid reader, I am a N.Y. Giants fan, and a Rush (as in Canadian prog. rock) fan. I enjoy books in various genres, but especially literary fiction, literature in translation, historical fiction, history, short stories and travel writing and poetry.
Here’s a bonus YouTube treat:
This is an excerpt from War Music, brilliantly performed by Alan Howard (1937–2015). Captured from a 1981 BBC Radio 3 recording, it was uploaded to YouTube by tatumtate.
[Top Image: Screenshot of Christopher Logue’s 2015 compilation, The Collected War Music. Credit: christopherlogue.co.uk]