By HAROLD NICOLSON
T is a comforting thing, in war-time, to read again those books
which were familiar to one thirty years ago, especially those books which deal with the struggles and anxieties of another age. The immense popularity acquired in recent years by Tolstoy's War and Peace is evidence that the frayed and fretted mind of today does in fact derive solace from the contemplation of similar confusion, similar apprehensions and similar impatience in the past.
I have this week been reading again with great enjoyment the Iliad of Homer. It is the fashion today to deride our former school curriculum and to contend that the many hours spent in boyhood construing Greek texts or, with the help of a Gradus, turning out execrable hexameters, were wholly wasted hours,—hours that could have been better spent in the study of Norwegian or Czech. I do not share this view. I believe that the intricate accuracy of the classical languages does provide a mental training which is not offered to a comparable degree by any modern tongue. I agree with Alain that the muscles of the adolescent mind are tautened, and at the same time rendered more flexible, by what he calls " la dificulte vaincue," and that the Greek and Latin languages do in fact offer the best of all gymnastics. But the days of liberal education are now leaving us, and for men who are not scholars to profess an interest in classical literature will shortly, I suppose,
be regarded as a proof of intellectual snobbishness. I am sorry about this, since there must be many men of my generation who,
while totally unable to construe a chorus 0 Aeschylus, do none
the less retain sufficient memory of the Greek language to read their Leaf of Loeb with heightened appreciation. And for them the Greek language, even when aided by the crib, will always have about it a quality of light and outline such as is not provided by the clouded vocabularies of Nordic tongues.
* * * A It is curious, moreover, to observe how, in reading again the whole of the Iliad after thirty years, the qualities which struck one as a boy as so magnificent appear artificial or merely repetitive, whereas certain aspects of the epic which as a boy one scarcely noted stand out like immense promontories striding into the sea. As a boy I was entranced by the actual pugnacity of the heroes of the Iliad, by the speed and ferocity with which they hurled their darts and spears. Re-reading the poem with a less excitable mind I am struck, not so much by the lethal power of the heroes, as by the facility with which their opponents died. It is credible, for instance, that a man who received a spear in his heart or lungs should immediately collapse while his armour clangs around him. Yet the heroes of Homer die quite suddenly from a blow in the mouth. I had forgotten also how large a part is played in Homer by the use of stones. Again and again do we find some Greek or Trojan taking a stone from the ground and hurling it at his assailant with such force that it crushes the helmet and the breast- plate and breaks the ribs. The Troad, I am well prepared to believe, was rich in stones. Yet the part played by these missiles in the armoury of the opposing forces is one which exceeds the bounds of credibility. As a boy, moreover, I had not realised the consummate meanness of the Gods. It seems strange to me today that we,—who were brought up upon principles of chastity, honesty and fair conduct—should not have been more shocked than we were by the really atrocious behaviour of the Olympians. At every point did these Gods and Goddesses violate the code of continence and honour which we were being taught. And yet, so slightly developed is the sense of comparison among the young, it never struck me at the time that the iniquitous actions of the Olympians should be regarded with disapproval rather than with
delight. * * * *
The atmosphere of the Iliad, as I remembered it, was one of extreme natural beauty. I retained in my mind the stock quotation regarding " a light that never was on land or sea " ; it had seemed to me that the climate of the Iliad was in fact one of eternal summer. This impression remained with me even after I had visited the area and learnt from bitter experience how cold is the wind which blows across the Thracian downs, the wind which in Istanbul today is still known by the name of " Boreas." I have known also the white mist which comes with the south wind, the wind they still call " Naos," when the sky loses all colour and becomes a tent of opal white. I retained the impression also that in contrast to the dust and turmoil of battle, in contrast to the clash and fury of those three miles between the ships and the Skaian Gate, Homer had pictured a windless outer world, in which not a leaf stirred upon the poplar and in which at night-time the stars shone clear in the deep ether. Yet in fact Homer refers but rarely to the amenities of nature ; his similes are drawn almost exclusively from storm and rain and hail and fog. Troy itself is always described as " windswept " and, while Homer is acutely sensitive to the direction of the wind, while he notes always whether it blows from east or west or north or south, these winds are seldom temperate ; they blow across the battlefield with the shriek of a gale. Nor in the Iliad is there- any mention of sunshine ; the sun rises with its accompanying epithets and sinks again " at the time of the loosening of the oxen," but Homer takes no note of its brightness ; he might be describing Oban and not the Isles of Greece.
* * * *
On re-reading the Iliad as a whole and carefully, I am at a loss to find from what my impression of great natural beauty was derived. It is true that in his description of sea and sand, in his sudden evocations of great distances when the stars shine over the pro- montories, Homer does reflect the amazing beauty of the Aegean. Yet his references to natural objects are sparse and cold. Only twice in the whole poem does he mention flowers. There is a passage about the poppy drooping its head aside " being heavy with fruit and the showers of spring " ; and there is the description of the improvised bed of Zeus upon the summit of Gargaros which was made of "new grass and dewy lotus, and crocus, and hyacinth, thick and soft." These are the only flowers mentioned in the Iliad. nor do trees fare much better. We have the famous oak-tree and the equally famous fig-tree which served as landmarks of battle outside the walls of Troy. He mentions elms, and ash, and pine, and olive, and poplar, " and the smooth-barked cornel tree," which I presume is what we now call dogwood. But the plane-tree, which today forms so lovely a feature in the Greek and Turkish land- scape, is not mentioned in the Iliad. Homer's trees were frail and small. And round them, even in the blaze of noon, stretch ", the grey sea and the sheer cliffs." And from distant Ida flashes continual lightning and the rumble of thunder echoes through the Straits.
* * *
The impression of warmth and sunshine, which, in spite of its fog-laden climate, the Iliad still leaves upon us, is perhaps due to effects other than any direct description of natural beauties. Each Homeric word is sunlit, and the very names that slide so lightly through his lines (Thaleia, Nesaia, Kymothoe and ox-eyed Halle) bring sunshine in their wake. We assume that all these happenings are taking place in arid sunlight, and when Homer slides into one of his descriptions of deft physical actions we see the thighs and fingers of his heroes throwing sharp shadows on the sand. In place of the beauties of nature we have the physical beauty of the Gods and Goddesses, the handmaidens and the heroes, who fill his stage. We have " a generation of men half divine " ; we have " the head and beautiful face of a man divine, even of Achilles." Homer had little sense of colour; his ships were not, as Flecker supposed, " coloured the deep-sea blue and shore-sea green" ; they were black. Th' delicate colouring of rose and saffron which tinges his sunrises and his sunsets is not often reflected in the objects which he so minutely describes. He tells us only of " a black ship on a great sea." It is our imagination which sees the ship as iridescent and the sea eternally purple, whereas, on so many occasions, he describes it as either grey or green_ Even so does our imagination line the Medjerda valley with almond trees, and pictures a sheet of tulip under the olive trees of Sfax.