Christopher Logue’s War Music is not ‘a translation in the accepted sense’. It’s not clear why, having said this, he should invoke Johnson’s remark that a translation’s merit should be judged by ‘its effect as an English poem’, since Johnson was talking about translations, whereas Logue’s poem is a variety of ‘poetical imitation’ and belongs to a perfectly good tradition of English poems based on or played off against an older (often Classical) original. A modern model might be Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, which it resembles in its style of selective ironic commentary and in some Poundian mannerisms, as in the jeering lyricism of the scene where Thetis calls together her sister Nereids, ‘kith of King Nayruce’ (Nereus).
War Music is an abridged and telescoped version of Iliad, 16-19, the first major block of a larger substructure which runs from Book 16 to the end at 24, and which deals with the linked episodes of the slaying of Patroclus by Hector and (outside Logue’s version) of Hector by Achilles. Major themes of mourning and revenge, and a preoccupation with the proper disposal of the slain hero’s body and armour, give this final portion of the Iliad a particularly powerful and haunting cohesion. The poem here raises especially acutely the question of Homer’s attitude to heroic violence, the elusive blend of admiration for the ferocity of warriors and of recoil from the more blood-curdling things: acts or threats of decapitation, dismemberment, even cannibalism.
The exact proportions of the blending are open to dispute, though few read Homer’s poem as an unadulterated onslaught on war or the heroic ethos. Logue’s imitation comes close to being that. It is naggingly satirical, like an Iliad rewritten by Thersites. Logue begins with the Trojans in the ascendant, with both Zeus (angered and sorrowing over the death of Sarpedon) and Apollo on their side and Patroclus vanquished at the climax. The gods’ favour to the Trojans is highlighted, indeed crowed over:
You overreached yourself, Patroclus.
Yes, my darling,
Not only God was out that day but Lord Apollo.
‘You know Apollo loves the Trojans ... ’
The point is emphasised on the next page with enlarged typography and later by a double page with APOLLO’S name Pounding across it in huge block capitals, like Chinese characters in The Cantos.
The divine partisanship, gloating and gloated over, also involves Zeus, whom Logue calls God. Achille’s prayer to Zeus to let Patroclus win fights and return safely is rendered as a sarcastic parody of the Lord’s Prayer, and the Homeric routine in which a god grants half the suppliant’s prayer becomes a vindictive equivocation:
God heard his prayer and granted half of it.
Patroclus would rout the Trojans; yes;
But not a word was said about his safe return.
No, my Achilles, God promised nothing of the kind ...
Such divine partisanships, not in themselves out of the ordinary or especially reprehensible in Homer, are turned into disreputable cases of influence in high places, and Logue’s Christianising adds suggestions of a military-religious cabal against which no soldier stands a chance. He later introduces Zeus and Hera with the words ‘God and His wife (who is His sister, too)’. Homer’s passing appositional reference to a well-known fact about the Olympian family becomes a leering disclosure of perverse doings among the great, a sort of sexual Nectargate.
Such transformations are in principle a legitimate feature of ‘poetical imitation’. Ironic misapplications of a noble original to modern reality have always been one of the rich resources of the genre, as have secondary suggestions that the revered ancients may after all have been as ignoble as their modern avatars. What grates in Logue’s version is the nervous overemphasis. Something is being proved by overkill and the fact diverts attention from the poem, old or new, to the jumpy performing tricks of the poet. The real failure is not in the fidelity of War Music to Homer but precisely in ‘its effect as an English poem’.
A recurrent illustration is provided by Logue’s handling of Homeric similes, which he announces his intention of replacing ‘with local counterparts’ (whatever that may mean). Homer says Achilles’s Myrmidons are like ravening wolves, who eat flesh raw and tear a stag to pieces. Logue translates:
Imagine wolves: an hour ago the pack
Hustled a stag, then tore it into shreds.
And now that they have gorged upon its haunch
They need a drink to wash their curry down.
Similes are not sacrosanct, but they take for granted the primacy of the literal narrative, which they exist to illustrate or amplify. The removal here effects no economy, since the content (as distinct from the form) of the simile is preserved and given a new prominence as substantive information. The fussiness of the conversion, as well as some of its details, produce a situation in which what is now evoked is not the reek of war but the poet’s jaunty presence. ‘Imagine wolves’ has a false, elbow-jogging urgency. The poem is full of such things: ‘Now hear this,’ ‘Consider planes at touchdown.’ The narrator is trivialised into a raconteur. Perhaps ‘planes at touchdown’, like ‘curry’, are ‘local counterparts’. But ‘an hour ago’ is bogus, since the instruction to ‘imagine wolves’ makes it clear that it didn’t happen, and the pretence of recent news adds yet another layer of phoney immediacy.
Another simile, in which the Myrmidons are compared to a swarm of wasps, is turned into an extra-mural biology lecture or Third Programme talk: ‘Hornets occasionally nest near roads. In the late spring they breed ... ’ Various parts of Logue’s poem were written for and broadcast by the BBC, and the medium seems to have overdetermined the message. There are shades of the newscaster too, and the movie director or scriptwriter: ‘Cut to the Fleet.’ Nor are you allowed merely to ease yourself into each authorial disguise. Logue tells you, and tells you why he tells you:
Jump cuts like these may give
Some definition to the mind’s wild eye
That follow-spots Achilles’ holy pair.
This follows the sequence containing ‘planes at touchdown’, an oddly concocted series of simile-substitutes without an apparent original. The movie director becomes an authorial confidant, intimating that his film imagery not only replaces Homer’s similes but is itself metaphorical of his narrative method, both tenor and vehicle in one. For ‘cuts’ are instructions ‘outside’ the text, like stage-directions, and inserting them into the poem to announce a change of scene is a mannered way of likening the action itself to a movie. The Shandean lecturette compounds the mannerism by drawing elaborate attention to it as a mannerism. All of this is apparently intended to make the ‘voices come alive and to keep the action on the move’.
Similes are part of a Homeric amplitude, combining the pleasures of analogy and illustration with those of digression and variety. They enlarge perspectives, sometimes offering glimpses of a mode of life alternative to or larger than that of the battlefield, much as the scenes depicted on the Shield of Achilles do in Book 18. Logue omits the description of the Shield, along with other parts of that Book, contracting 17 and 18 into ‘600-odd lines devoted almost entirely to mass action’. This is consistent with the simplifying of the original into an anti-war satire. From this point of view, the opening of windows on to scenes of peaceful and harmonious existence in the Shield and in some similes would have been distractions.
The final section, corresponding to Book 19, starts with Thetis delivering Achilles’s new armour, which makes a sound like Made in Heaven, as though to show that the military-religious conspiracy is merely one of the guises of the military-industrial complex. Then everyone assembles:
Even the chariot mechanics,
Tentmakers, priests and whores came up
To hear their Lords say pax.
Achilles is being reconciled with the other Greek leaders after his long sulk, and ‘pax’, the title of Logue’s final section, is schoolboy language for truce. The traditional equation of epic doings with schoolboy pranks is at work, but without the vivid sense of schoolboy ruthlessness which appears in Lord of the Flies or in rhymes collected by the Opies, and which one might have thought especially appropriate to Logue’s poem. The schoolboy dimension of ‘pax’ is somehow unassimilated, crackling angrily in a void of its own making.
Like Ted Hughes, another poet much possessed by ‘violence’, Logue also writes children’s books, though neither poet seems often to enter that uncompromising world where children’s cruelty is for real. Both poets are ostensibly harsh and unevasive in portraying man or nature red in tooth and claw, but the imagination of violence in both sometimes spills over into a coyly genial whimsy, whether in their formal children’s books or not. Here is a typical gory scene from War Music:
The cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue, parted his brain,
Pressed on, and stapled him against his upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight.
This conflates several Homeric passages, but the last bit is half Walt Disney. In Hughes’s latest children’s collection, Under the North Star (delightfully illustrated by Leonard Baskin, the artist of Crow and Cave Birds), there are poems where animal energies or a human death involve similar interstellar trips of the mind, similarly realised with the easy plasticity of an animated cartoon: the puma climbing her screech’s ‘icy shivering summit ... looking for her Maker’, or the dead trapper’s soul snatched
To the shuddering lights
That fly with the Pole.
Living things stretch their being across immense spaces, and huge energies of the self peter out in a friendly handshake with the cosmos: so the Snow-Shoe Hare meets the Moon and the White Bear embraces all the North.
In Logue’s Homer, the touch of whimsy springs from an inability to take the heroic seriously, even as a thing to attack. A recent poem from his ‘Abecedary’, reprinted in Ode to the Dodo, offers Homer, and Milton, and more, in this nutshell:
Hermes streaked to Olympus and said:
‘The Humans are avid for war.’
‘Not that business at Troy all over again?’
Said the Beard. ‘What a bore ... what a terrible bore.’
And Jetankle whispered: ‘Not Troy –
This time they want Paradise Coast.’
‘They are coming for Us?’
‘They are coming for Us –
And Boney is lording their host.’
The passage suggests that Logue’s characteristic form for heroic themes is not the epic but the epigram. The poems of 25 years in Ode to the Dodo also reveal an attractive low-pressure anecdotal gift, suspiciously over-fluent with wry or ‘poignant’ ironies. It is a very readable but rather forgettable book, which brings reminders, however, of forgotten earlier pleasures: for me especially the adaptations of Neruda, called Red Bird, which were performed as poetry-jazz. I replayed the record, which has worn well. The Homer imitations, previously published in shorter units, made a stronger impression when they weren’t presented as a larger structure, even the curtailed structure or ‘miniature version’ of the Iliad represented by War Music.
This miniature has taken some twenty years to complete and variously suggests an inability or unwillingness to encompass and sustain a large-scale heroic composition. Pope, one of Logue’s models, couldn’t finish any attempt at an epic of his own, though he completed translations of both the Homeric poems, with a little help from his friends. (Logue’s friends helped too.) Pope’s admiration for Homer and for the epic had to be expressed by proxy (through translation) or behind a protective screen of irony (in mock-heroic poems). These two modes were kept largely separate, and Pope was able to complete his compositions in each. Logue blends the two, and his irony, unlike Pope’s, radically condemns the heroic original. Unlike Pope, he leaves even this ‘unfinished’. His sympathy for Homer is evidently not a thing he will surrender his imagination to at anything resembling Homeric length, even in the qualified or backhanded form which gives him some of the freedoms Pope took in his mock-heroic satires. Presumably you cannot sustain a heroic ‘imitation’ if you are radically unsympathetic to heroic values. Translation, where a self-effacement which is outside Logue’s range is called for, is perhaps another matter. It is interesting to discover that the list of translations on which Logue relied, from Chapman and Pope to the present, does not include Lattimore, the only modern translation which combines considerable literal fidelity with a fair claim to poetic achievement ‘as an English poem’. Could it be that this threatened to bring Logue too close to an original which he sensed that he would dislike?
Hughes does not seem to dislike the heroic as Logue does. In early poems there is sometimes a shallow predilection for it which is perhaps equally removed from a genuine imaginative sympathy. In ‘The Ancient Heroes and the Bomber Pilot’, the pilot who can destroy whole cities ‘at a turn of my wrist’ is humbled by the thought of ancient heroes who are much like Logue’s Homeric Myrmidons, ‘tearing boar-flesh and swilling ale’ and thinning down ‘their fat fulsome blood in war’: humbled not because his bombs are more deadly but because he does not experience the same immediacies of bloodshed. This is a recent variant of the perennial tendency, already evident in the Homeric contempt for archers, to downgrade the new missile against the old prowess of close fighting. The new technology is not scorned because it is more deadly, but because it is experienced as less deadly, at an impersonal or cowardly distance from the killer.
There is in Hughes a mock-heroic impulse, superficially similar to Logue’s, which deflates ‘King, honour, human dignity, etcetera’ and timid commemorations of ‘heroisms on horseback’. But the point of such things is their pallor compared with more awesome or compelling apprehensions of power or contained violence, in Terrifying ... sleek thrushes’ or ‘Mozart’s brain’ or ‘the shark’s mouth’ or an overwhelming private grief.
Such energies are small-scale or ‘personal’. But their point is that they are experienced as enormities. When pitted against the traditional manifestations of heroic pomp or prowess, they do not challenge the heroic values, as we might expect, so much as outdo them in intensity or éclat – or murderousness, for that matter. Hughes is certainly able as Logue is not to write about violent killings without moral outrage or liberal loftiness, and this ability, like it or not, is probably a precondition for any writing which tends to the heroic in the old sense. A way has to exist for the fact of carnage to be respected, not programmatically, as in some anarchist or fascist ideologies, nor in the nourishing of personal hatreds or extermination fantasies, but as part of the ‘vehement activity’ of existence. This respectful acceptance is the business of Hughes’s imagination, and the area where the acceptance borders on a kind of awed admiration is in some ways analogous to that in which the complexities of heroic admiration may once have flourished. Hughes senses the link when he says in an interview in Faas’s book: ‘you’d have to begin with Homer ... When is violence “violence” and when is it great poetry?’
Hughes lets himself off a shade too easily in such a comment, as when he says elsewhere: ‘My poems are not about violence but vitality.’ ‘The Ancient Heroes and the Bomber Pilot’ is a measure of the potential complacency. Critics often pass over this poem, though it gets a sensible if fleeting comment in the new book by Gifford and Roberts. But Hughes’s heroic imagination is not often exercised on ‘heroes’ of the warrior sort, ancient or modern. It is usually displaced, if that is the word, to animals or to inanimate ‘cosmic’ forces, thus neutralising the awkward impulse to moral judgment. In later poems from Wodwo or Crow which do touch on warrior-heroism, ‘the famous bulging Achilles’, the references are less simply respectful, the risk of heroic pretension undercut by wry humour or a wider ironic awareness (neither should be mistaken for Logue’s sar casms).
Critics have been aware for some time of Hughes’s interest in trickster heroes of various tribal mythologies, and in a large miscellany of shamanistic lore. Tricksters are not ‘heroes’ in the sense in which Achilles and Hector are. They are ‘low’ figures, readily adapted by modern writers into rogue individualists who challenge or undermine the respectable arrangements of their culture from below, whereas heroes of the sort celebrated in epic and occasionally glamorised in Hughes express conceptions of human value which are, in the old phrase, ‘above the life’. The shamanistic activity in Hughes’s poems concerns equally unepic states of private vulnerability and psychic restoration. Even ritual, conceived by Hughes as keeping destructive energies ‘under control’, is a personal rather than a tribal thing. ‘Rituals, the machinery of religion. The old method is the only one’: except that the old methods did not require one to recapture ritual through sophisticated animal lyrics or the learned and eclectic study of varied mythologies (Classical, Amerindian, Tibetan, Germanic). The survival of a live heroic idiom depends on a certain rootedness in common ideals. It presupposes shared assumptions, though not necessarily of a local or tribal sort. The syncretism of Renaissance epics which blended Classical and Christian elements reflected deep cultural predilections naturally and widely felt across learned Europe. It was not the product of a personal shopping-spree in the mythological supermarket, any more than the Neoclassic mock-heroic poems resembled the mixed and multi-national literary products on display in The Waste Land.
Hughes’s mythologies, like the allusions in Eliot’s poem or the metaphysical systems of Yeats, require a good deal of expounding, and here, too, an exegetic flood is no doubt to be expected in time. They are studied in all three of the critical books under review, but most fully in Hirschberg’s Myth in the Poetry of Ted Hughes, a work which collects useful information but is less sure on the delicate nature of its bearing on the individual poems. Ekbert Faas offers a shorter study whose chief value resides in comments skilfully elicited from the poet himself in two interviews. Faas, who is preparing an edition of Hughes’s criticism, also reprints some well-chosen extracts from the poet’s essays and reviews. Gifford and Roberts provide a broader critical examination of the poems, more sensitive than either of the other two to the nuances of Hughes’s verbal art. It will rival Keith Sagar’s more informative but more uncritical book as the standard introduction.