Editor’s Note: It was just over forty years ago that the poet Christopher Logue published War Music, his “account” of The Iliad, and ten years ago that Alice Oswald published the book-length poem, Memorial, her engagement with the epic. In honor of these anniversaries, and in keeping with our ongoing project “What Is War Poetry?” the poetry team at Consequence envisioned a review essay comparing the two long poems, and considering their place in culture. What Tom Sleigh has done in his ambitious, searching, and even tender essay, “Three Ways Out of Homer and ‘The Poem of Force’: Christopher Logue, Alice Oswald, and Michael Longley,” is so much more than that. Sleigh investigates not only Logue and Oswald’s encounters with The Iliad, but Irish poet Michael Longley’s as well, using the twentieth-century philosopher Simone Weil’s uncompromising reading of the epic as a frame, and taking us from classical Greece to the Spanish Civil War, from Longely’s Troubles to Sleigh’s own experiences as a journalist, and far beyond, to consider the place of war in poetry, and poetry in war.

Readers can also follow [this link] to see Sleigh’s own poetic engagement with The Iliad, the long poem, WIDOWS, which Consequence was proud to publish in its entirety.

—Katherine Hollander, Poetry and Reviews Editor

Is it inevitable that an essay like this should start with Simone Weil? Obsessed, brilliant, reckless Simone Weil whose meditation on The Iliad has become, as Auden said of Freud, “a whole climate of opinion.” The grievous terms of her argument about what she called “the poem of force” annihilate all objections in its race to the finish line: that nothing and no one can help or avoid or escape the forming and deforming hand of force; that only in brief moments can our shared humanity be recovered before being swept down by the overwhelming logic of war; a logic in which every move leads only in one direction, living beings turned to corpses, the spirit reduced to a slave, the slave utterly destroyed by the master’s dominance. Writing in response to the fall of France to the Nazis in 1940, she had ample reason to believe that “The true hero, the subject, the center of The Iliad, is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks back . . . . The human spirit is . . . swept away, blinded by the very force it imagined it could control, misshapen by the weight of the force it submits to.” It is a slashing, imperious, heartbroken testament. When I read it, I feel helpless to answer back: to argue with a testament is like arguing with the dead hand that wrote it.

Besides, the human possibility—or more accurately, its lack—that Weil sketches out isn’t up for argument. You don’t argue with an avalanche as it’s falling on you; you turn and run and hope you survive. But once you’ve fought your way clear from that inundation, the shock reaction imprints the event on your nervous system. And as you think it through and slow the experience down so that you can see the crystalline structure of the tiniest snowflake, such heightened, wide-angled awareness suggests a way beyond her tunnel vision—a vision in which force reigns supreme, the characters’ lives seem utterly overdetermined, their agency nil: kings or foot soldiers, all are enslaved to it. But if you allow an individual character, even a slave like Briseis, to step forward into her own light—kidnapped as a war prize and enslaved by Achilles, then taken from Achilles by Agamemnon in a fit of pique, then returned by him to Achilles—her sense of her own fate is far more nuanced than Weil’s master-slave dichotomy in which the only freedom a slave experiences is to weep at the griefs of the master because a slave is always in a state of grieving.

Of course, in the actual world of slaves and masters, the fact that The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or any number of slave narratives show what might be called Weil’s metaphysics of force to be partial, not to say overweening, doesn’t take away from the human possibility of a slave using as a pretext the master’s sorrows to express the slave’s own griefs. So, I’m not aiming to upend the magisterial terms of Weil’s conception of human helplessness. That helplessness forms the imaginative bedrock of her argument, just as it underlies the destruction of Troy, or the contemporary atrocities committed in Ukraine and Syria. But the extremity of her argument, much as I’m compelled to bow my head to it, leaves a void—a void in which “The imagination, filler up of the void, is essentially a liar”; and not only a liar, but “continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass . . . .”

But is that all the imagination is capable of? Surely, her savor for what she calls The Iliad’s unique flavor of “bitterness,” in which the taste of iron mingles with smoke rising from a pyre, is in its way an imaginative understanding. Could it be that the imagination’s unsettling power to spawn both monsters and angels have made Weil suspicious of its mysterious operations? Did she suspect that her own love of absolutes could bring her perilously close to the mind-set of the conquerors she despised? After all, the imagination is endlessly prodigal of new shapes and forms, some terrible to behold, as in The Iliad’s obsessive chronicling of wounds, of how a blade passes through your windpipe and cuts through your tongue to pierce your palate up and up into your rupturing brain-pan. But when Weil writes of The Iliad “Whoever . . . escapes the dominion of force is loved but loved sorrowfully because of the threat of destruction that constantly hangs over him,” she steps away from her obsession with extremity, of weighing herself down under the yoke of the world’s depravity, and attempts to understand the love of one human being for another. And because this love isn’t pure, but is touched by sorrow, she momentarily shakes free of her own overmastering abstractions. And in that move beyond self, suddenly all things go weightless in the instant of loving another person, however inevitable or imminent that person’s doom might be.

However, the scale of this love isn’t universal, it’s not an abstract principle; it’s a love fostered by an imaginative leap into another person’s world, the spirit rooted in the body. And it’s this primal reach of the imagination into the realm of the physical that I want to focus on now in Christopher Logue’s War Music, Alice Oswald’s Memorial, and Michael Longley’s half-century engagement with Homer, from his first to his most recent book, and most saliently for this essay, The Stairwell. Longley’s life-long devotion to Homer leads me to point out that this year marks the tenth anniversary of the publication of Oswald’s Memorial, and the fortieth of Logue’s War Music. You could say that it’s a melancholy fact that The Iliad has had such staying power for something like 3,000 years, underlining how war would seem to be a permanent, never ending scourge, one of the constants of human existence. For depictions of war’s savageries, especially Homer’s obsession with the blood-boltered particulars of wounding,The Iliad is unparalleled. But by the same token, you might also say that The Iliad, in its very gruesomeness, can serve as a deterrent against violence—what the poet Allen Grossman characterized as an “eidetic check” to war’s brutalities. But whatever your stance on The Iliad, whether it’s been part of a vast effort over thousands of years to escape the grip of force, and attain to a vision of universal human harmony, or whether The Iliad merely underlines how history would seem to be about as instructive as a slaughterhouse, the poem refuses to be corralled by anyone’s notion of what The Iliad has come to “mean.” In Thom Gunn’s words about a long relationship, The Iliad unfurls “in the slow thrill of learning how to love/What, gradually revealed, becomes itself,/Expands, unsheathes . . ./Invented in the continuous revelation.”

Submitting to this “slow thrill,” all three poets have found their own idiosyncratic ways out of Homer: ways that measure up to Weil’s ungainsayable conviction that the soul, under threat of violent death, has indeed already been turned into a thing. But rather than settling with, or for, that recognition, each one has attempted to redress it in their own uniquely achieved idiom. Weil’s antimony between gravity and grace, in which gravity pulls us down to “the meanest and most pitiful of covetous desires,” while grace lifts us up into a void of selfless renunciation, leaves out the individual imagination’s powers of human inventiveness, its reverence and astonishment at its own fecundity—and, as Weil well knows, its ferocity.

In Christopher Logue’s wildly anachronistic, almost cartoonish version of The Iliad (Apollo’s appearance to Patroclus is announced in huge caps APOLLO! spaced across two facing pages), his exuberant disregard for the gravitas of dying renders death violently absurd. He is worlds away from Weil’s grim rendering of violence as a kind of soul death. His Iliad is a Terminator II Iliad, Achilles a kind of avant la lettre Schwarzenegger cyborg who mows his opponents down with remorseless focus. The quality of adolescent rebellion in Logue’s clipped, jump-cut idiom, in which he scraps the long boasts of the heroes for the immediacy of the physical slaughter, renders the dying and screaming and bursting brain-pans as a kind of terrible black humor. It’s as if Logue knew that by the time anyone is seventeen they’ve seen enough movies and TV to have witnessed hundreds, maybe thousands of corpses dying in glorious, technicolor slo-mo. The death of Manto at the hands of Ajax is typical of Logue’s genius for a contemporary idiom wed to an eccentric, but precise, imagistic rendering of death in battle. The jaunty irony is Logue’s, but the point of view mirrors Ajax’s workaday, degree zero, technical proficiency at killing:

. . . O downy sprat,
That crocodile is Ajax; loathed, but long lived:
And though his mind is worlds away his eye
Has registered your blip long since,
Signalled his back to bend, his fingers to select
A stone, young Manto, bigger than your head,
Rowed back his elbow, thrown it true, and, true,
It did not, was not aimed at you, that hit
The left horse—splat!—between its gentle eyes,
Dead on the hoof and dragged its tracemate down,
And forwarding your body through the air,
Your please-Prince-Hector-help-me open mouth
Swallowed the nose of Ajax’ canted spear . . .

And like a man who thrusts a glowing rake
Into an opened furnace, Ajax picked
Dandiprat Manto off his spear . . .

No one could mistake the mock-heroic “splat” as anything other than cartoonish clowning around. And yet the insouciance of Logue’s voice in depicting Manto’s death is heightened by the fact that Logue himself would seem to have cobbled together various other death scenes to make this one. Interpolated or not, the adolescent boy’s pleading mouth swallowing “the nose of Ajax’ canted spear” is rendered with such casual brutality and accuracy that the complex of feeling seesaws between splatter-fest B movie horror and the awful sensation that the boy’s life cut short is about as meaningful as molten slag being raked at in a furnace. It’s as if Logue had almost completely dispensed with any form of consolatory dignity to be found in the way a man meets his death.

However, lest this tone becomes monotonous, Logue leavens the gore-fest with touches of nuance and more modulated feeling, as in his ready sympathy for the horse and its “gentle eyes”; but as for talk of glory to be won, or fame that lives on, he has trimmed the extended similes and epithets that endorse glory and pointedly tells the story much more closely to the ordinary soldier’s point of view. Rather than allowing the heroes, as Homer does, to dominate, the bigshots’ threats and rallying cries are undercut by the nobodies’ critique as articulated by Thersites: the whole Greek-Trojan quarrel over Helen, not to mention between Achilles and Agamemnon, is from the point of view of the ranks ridiculously trivial—especially since they are the poor bastards doing the dying—and for what?

The climax of Logue’s transformation of The Iliad is in fact an anti-climax: he focuses on a moment when the soldiers are waking up just before going into battle. And suddenly the pose of irony is dropped for that clear-sighted “incurable bitterness” that Weil brilliantly proposes as the poem’s source of uniqueness, its harsh integrity, “a bitterness that proceeds from tenderness and that spreads over the whole human race, impartial as sunlight.” This forms the bedrock underlying Logue’s version, a version set parallel to Homer, but not so distant as to lose the essential quality of that impartial brilliance. It’s a brilliance like the flash of a missile just as it explodes, a brilliance in which a city’s destruction is the worst experience that any human being can undergo. After all, who can be said to experience the full meaning of “global warming” or “nuclear war?” Our perspective is mercifully foreclosed so that our imaginings of the very worst our age will inflict on future generations is still vague and shadowy. It’s as if the scale of coming catastrophe flickering back from the future is a kind of magic lantern show in comparison to what is actually coming. And yet this limited perspective is ennobled by this “coloring of bitterness,” a bitterness that nonetheless never drops “into lamentation.” Here is Logue articulating in his own way the precise contour of that bitterness, but made all the more poignant because sleep, the great equalizer, has momentarily leveled the ranks:

Whatever caught and brought and kept them here
Under Troy’s ochre wall for ten burnt years,
Is lost: And for a while, they join a terrible equality;
Are virtuous, self-sacrificing, free;
And so insidious is this liberty
That those surviving it will bear
An even greater servitude to its root:
Believing they were whole, while they were brave;
That they were rich, because their loot was great;
That war was meaningful, because they lost their friends.

The tough-minded and tender nature of these contradictory realizations honors Weil’s concept of bitterness, but they go beyond the automaton nature of force to reduce human beings to mere corpses. These lines articulate the losses of the nobodies and the bigshots alike while at the same time acknowledging the insidiousness of a liberty that supposedly makes war meaningful because each person’s grief for the violent deaths of their comrades quickens one’s own sense of being. But at what cost?

How that cost is measured forms the basis of Alice Oswald’s Memorial. Purged of narrative, stripped down to each soldier’s moment of death refigured as a memento mori, Oswald’s poem constitutes what she calls an “oral cemetery.” The name of every soldier killed, both Greek and Trojan, flows down the opening pages page after page, as if Memorial weren’t so much a cemetery as a kind of mass grave, the dead thrown into it in a hurry, nameless and without histories, and then the dirt heaped up along the grave’s lip quickly bulldozed into the open trench. Denuded of any hint of the man’s individual quirks, character, or private history, the anonymity of the names would seem to subscribe to Weil’s conviction that force—defined as “that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing”—is a kind of universal absolute underpinning what she calls “the rule of inert matter.” Furthermore, the uncertainty of a non-Greek reader (most of us, I imagine) as to how to even pronounce the names is a further estrangement of these dead soldiers from their own past lives.

But there is more at work in Oswald’s list than Weil’s annihilating terms can account for. What you soon realize about this apparently dehumanizing list is that it isn’t random, but strictly follows the order, one after the next, of each soldier’s death as it occurs in The Iliad. The recuperative work of Oswald’s poem, then, is to put in place of the x that “turns man into a thing” the flashes and gleams of each man’s compressed biography. The poet conjures for just one instant the few particulars of a man’s life and death that point to all the vivid and vivifying circumstances surrounding every life—whether of the hero or the ordinary soldier, no matter.

Furthermore, countering Weil’s notion that the greatness of The Iliad lies in its impartial, life-annulling bitterness, Oswald’s very title, Memorial, becomes something of a contradiction in terms: to memorialize is profoundly not what Oswald achieves. As anyone who experienced first-hand the devastation of the World Trade Tower shortly after it collapsed knows, the current memorial serves more to estrange you from your memory of the smoking voids, charred plastic, and drifting ash than to bring that reality up close again. In fact, most memorials tend to estrange the viewer from the immediacy of catastrophe, such that the memorial supplants that primal intensity with a collective emotion more conducive to a distanced form of civic grief.

But Oswald’s Memorial reverses those terms. Her insistence on the vitality of language to summon up the dead, even against the annihilating hand of force that in Weil’s terms reduces us to mere nullities, re-embodies the dead soldiers for one brief moment—a moment that restores to them, if not a fully incarnated past, the few charged, distilled details that conjure up all the rest. Thus Oswald cuts the war councils, the heroic boasts, the intrigues among the gods, the domestic worlds of Trojans and Greeks as they adapt to the circumstances of war, and focuses exclusively, man after man, in a sort of imagistically honed obituary recounting the peculiar nature of each man’s death as refracted through a few choice details about his life. Her devotion to each man in a separate act of laser-like attention lifts all the dead beyond Weil’s relentless pursuit of the annihilating x factor. In a sense, both Oswald and Logue, and, as I’ll suggest later on, Michael Longley, all put into orbit highly particularized counter-worlds that resist the black hole of Weil’s metaphysics. Weil’s profound, but overdetermined, insistence on nullity would seem to have blinded her to Homer’s genius for imagistic presentation—what Dante would later call visibile parlare, speech made visible. The lens through which Weil views Homer’s hexameters penetrates deep beneath the imagistic surface to what you might call the poem’s primal structure, but it misses the ghostly swirl of atoms shaping themselves into the body of Achilles as he kneels down to weep over Patroclus’s gashed and battered flesh. Nothing could be more antithetical to a sensibility like Oswald’s than Weil’s drive toward abstraction; Oswald is always intent on registering the world as it delivers itself through the keenness of her senses: it’s as if, in her distillation, the luminous particulars gleam and faintly sparkle against the spectral background of the entire course of each soldier’s life.

Of course, the grief inherent in the loss of all those individual quirks and strangenesses embodied in every human life can’t be wrested back from the void at the heart of war. But without Oswald’s attempt to recuperate at least a handful of those individual traits, it becomes impossible to calculate what each life lost, and given that loss, the cost not only to each man, but to their surviving fellow soldiers, their bereft families, and in fact the whole trembling web of affinities and affections that connect each of us to our unique, and uniquely vital, private and social anchor points. Here, for example, is the compressed life and death, not of one of the bigshot heroes, but of the nobodies:

What was that shrill sound
Five sisters at the grave
Calling the ghost of DOLON
They remember an ugly man but quick
In a crack of light in the sweet smelling glimmer before dawn
He was caught creeping to the ships
He wore a weasel cap he was soft
Dishonest scared stooped they remember
How under a spear’s eye he offered everything
All his father’s money all his own
Every Trojan weakness every hope of their allies
Even the exact position of the Thracians
And the colour and size and price of the horses of Rhesus
They keep asking him why why
He gave away groaning every secret in his body
And was still pleading for his head
When his head rolled in the mud

The relentlessness of this passage describing Dolon and his mourning sisters portrays a weak, ordinary Trojan soldier acting as a pre-dawn spy on the Greek ships who then gets caught by the Greeks and interrogated. Dolon puts up no heroic resistance but blabs everything he knows in the desperate attempt to save his own skin. But even though this particular soldier would seem to exemplify precisely what Weil means when she says, “When a man stands disarmed and naked with a weapon pointing at him; this person becomes a corpse before anybody or anything touches him,” even a Dolon has sisters who are mourning him; sisters who may grieve at his cowardice, but grieve anyway; sisters who know his flaws, acknowledge that yes, he may have been ugly and stooped, but he was also quick; a man who had tastes and fancies like any other man, which is succinctly embodied in his preference for a weasel-skin cap. And despite the brutality and shamefulness of his death, Oswald leavens it with a moment of physical description in which Dolon, too, would seem to take pleasure in the “crack of light in the sweet smelling glimmer before dawn.” So while Weil accurately reflects Dolon’s terror, Oswald restores to Dolon his six grieving sisters, the tiny pleasure of a sensuous pre-dawn sweetness, his predilection for weasel skin over other kinds of fur, as well as his liking for a cap over a bronze helmet.

Of course the fact that Dolon’s humanity lives on in his sisters’ collective memory, ashamed though they may be of him, offers no solace to his bloodied body. So in some absolute sense, it’s hard not to concur with Weil’s contention that an unarmed man with a sword at his throat is already a corpse. But I will never forget reading Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, about her life with her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, who died of starvation and disease in a transport camp during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s when hundreds of thousands died in Stalin’s work camps. Midway through Hope Against Hope, she wonders if a person about to be executed should or shouldn’t scream just as they are killed. And her conclusion, bleak as it may be, is that you should scream, if only as a final assertion of your humanity. By those lights, even Dolon’s terror can be seen as a rejection of his corpsehood. And until Dolon draws his final breath, the itchiness or warmth of his weasel skin cap continues to assert the singular nature of his being.

Oswald’s obvious relish for rendering such homely details as weasel skin caps tends to militate against the typical goal of memorial, which is to commemorate and idealize the dead, particularly the manner of their deaths. But there is nothing remotely elegiac or transfiguring or redeeming in this description of a man abjectly begging for his life. But that lack of redemption, that refusal to idealize poor Dolon, cowardly, weak of character, and soft though he may be, is what makes him so vividly present, so alive—and never more so than in the moment of his death when his moving lips still beg for his head even as his head is being lopped from his shoulders and rolls into the mud.

Another vital element of Oswald’s anti-memorial Memorial is the way she plucks the Homeric similes out of their narrative context and juxtaposes them against the thumbnail biographies of each of the dying soldiers. So directly following Dolon’s death is this simile of a fly thirsting for blood presented not just once, but twice:

Like the fly the daredevil fly
Being brushed away
But busying back
The lunatic fly who loves licking
And will follow a man all day
For a nip of his blood

Like the fly the daredevil fly
Being brushed away
But busying back
The lunatic fly who loves licking
And will follow a man all day
For a nip of his blood

Of course the lack of punctuation is supposed to give the effect of actual speech unmediated by the conventions of writing (after a while one grows used to the convention and the lack of punctuation just becomes another effect—if you squint hard enough, you can say that it heightens the poem’s orality, but still, the words are printed on a page and the conventions of the written prevail, except as a faint analogue to oral tradition), but more crucial than that is the way the repetition transforms the first utterance in comparison to the second. The first iteration of the simile seems like a directly ironic comment on the bloodlust of the soldiers, to the point where the fly has gone berserk for blood and keeps relentlessly charging at a soldier all day long, obsessed with slaking its unslakable thirst. But the second repetition tends to float free of Dolon and becomes a more general comment on the poem’s overall brutality, its fevered pursuit of blood for blood’s sake, regardless of returning Helen to Menelaus or plundering Troy’s riches or, on the Trojan side, driving the Greeks into the sea. Any goal other than bloodletting gets drowned out by the buzzing of flies.

Again, I can see Weil nodding in agreement at the utter pointlessness of war—but Oswald’s quietly brilliant use of “nip,” or “busying” as a kind of verb, underscores how completely Oswald is committed to presenting the moment in all its complex physicality, its primal reach into the somatic such that whatever symbolic weight the fly supposedly carries is nothing but a literary shrug before Oswald’s need to present a completely embodied moment. Weil, on the other hand, admirable and profound as she may be, seems to lose sight of Homer’s workaday physicality, his genius for yoking violence to the peacetime activity of oxen, say, treading the grain from barley on a threshing floor. Her passion for the absolute would subsume the hoof’s downward pressure into the total number of foot-pounds it takes to crush the human spirit. The fact that the same hoof separates the grain from the chaff gets lost in her drive toward the universal. So while in many ways her illumination of The Iliad shines as brilliantly as ever, her failure to appreciate the local, the particular, the irreducible stoniness of bruising your toe while kicking a stone, marks off the precise terrain that Logue, Oswald, and Longley, each in their own unique way, have chosen to inhabit.

One could say then that Oswald’s guiding light is almost the opposite of Weil’s genius for what Czeslaw Milosz once called “the general human perspective.” There is nothing generalizable in Oswald’s understanding of Homer, though the particularity of her response to The Iliad builds up a supremely detailed, fully articulated structure that restores to the dead, for one fleeting moment, the full measure of their physical lives. As Wallace Stevens once said, “The greatest poverty is not to live/In a physical world.” I think it bears pointing out that Oswald would almost certainly appreciate the irony of the line break, in which the first line seems to be lamenting the fact of death, only to reverse itself in the second line and turn back toward the world of the fully embodied, in which John Keats’s desire for “a life of sensation rather than thoughts” can also be one of Oswald’s pursuits. She not only mourns the consequences of war, but momentarily restores to each of the dead their unique individuality.

Before I go on to consider Michael Longley’s version of Homer as a form of anamnesis, the past and present set cheek by jowl in a kind of middle way between Logue’s insouciant but ultimately sorrowing rebelliousness, and Oswald’s more distanced, stately, but deeply personal investment in each soldier’s fate, I want to mount a defense, a sort of corrective brief, that underlines the integrity of Weil’s feeling for what war’s logic does to an ordinary soldier. Unlike most philosophers, moralists, and commentators of all kinds, she put her body where her ideals were. Temporarily renouncing her espoused pacifism, she herself took up arms with an anarchist brigade during the Spanish Civil War. Something of a disaster as a soldier, it’s easy to look askance at her martial pretentions, the nearsightedness that made her comrades wary of allowing her to man the heavy machine gun, or the clumsiness that caused her to stumble over an open cooking fire and put her foot in a pot of cooking oil, burning her so badly that she had to leave her unit so that her parents, who’d followed her to Spain, could take care of her. And even though large numbers of Spanish women, as well as some foreigners like Weil, saw active combat roles on the Republican side, a woman involved in battle was still something of an anomaly. De Gaulle shrugged her off as “crazy” for suggesting a corps of ten nurses who would parachute into the front lines to help the wounded, and whose selflessness and bravery would serve as a moral counter example to Nazism’s brutality. But a somewhat similar idea resulted in a select corps of nurses giving aid to the wounded and dying during the deadly German bombardment of Anzio in 1944. She wrote in her proposal that “The project may be impractical . . . ” but “risk is an essential need of the soul.” Clumsy or not, impractical or not, foolhardy or not, for me her contradictions, the way the tragic and heroic in her life also conjure the absurd, are what make her such a galvanizing writer—as well as something of a cautionary twin.

I confess that in my own forays into journalism about refugee issues, where not infrequently one finds oneself in or on the edge of a war zone, I can completely identify with her clumsiness, as well as her self-abnegating idealism, even while I back away from it. That her genius is a form of profound alienation from the actual conditions of day-to-day life makes her yearning for spiritual intensity that much more isolating, but that much more profound. Absurdity and originality, alienation and incapacity for daily life, often go hand in hand. Weil’s form of moral heroism, in which even at the age of ten she denied herself sugar as a gesture of solidarity with the soldiers at the front in World War I, wasn’t the armchair or social media kind, but a spiritual recklessness so extreme that she had no choice but to starve herself while sick from tuberculosis, throw herself into war with a brigade that was killed to a man a month after her clumsiness saved her, or join the workers as a maladroit machinist turning out piecework on an assembly line in a Renault plant.

But maybe it wasn’t spiritual recklessness or a death wish: maybe it was a form of self-knowledge so radical that she couldn’t rest until it was actualized in physical terms—the very terms that Logue and Oswald in their writing so stalwartly honor.

I realize that for most of this essay, I have used her as a figure, not so much to argue with, but as an aid in framing and firming up my discussion. But I want to say unequivocally, before moving on to consider Longley, that Weil’s need to carry her ideals beyond the study and out into the world—however clumsy, inadvertently comic, or ill-advised they may have been—seems wholly necessary not only to her spiritual integrity, but to her writerly self. You can think of her as a quasi-mystic, a religious philosopher, an uncompromising idealist willing to push herself and her ideals to the very brink of her physical and emotional endurance: what other thinker has anatomized with such unsparing clarity the brutality that underlies many of our social arrangements, but who also went out to confront those arrangements first-hand by stepping up to the factory assembly line and war’s front line? But for me, what is most impressive about her desire to transform her political convictions into realities felt on her pulses is how it bolsters the luminous clarity of her work as a writer. And it’s her luminous presence on the page—the genius of her essentially spare style grounding the mystic, the philosopher, the idealist—that grants her such a singular listening post from which she can not only take the full measure of force, but can fully measure up to it.

So her heroism and absurdity, or her heroism as absurdity, can’t be separated. In fact, the two together account for the uniqueness of her vantage in her quest to find a counter-balance to human viciousness and depravity—but a flexible counter-balance, in which, according to Weil in Gravity and Grace, you must first shrewdly and accurately assess “in what way society is unbalanced” before you proceed “to add weight to the lighter scale . . . we must have formed a conception of equilibrium and be ever ready to change sides like justice, ‘that fugitive from the camp of conquerors.’”

And it’s that quality of shrewd assessment as to how to make the seesawing of the balance scale reach a still point that animates Longley’s use of Homer as a kind of alter-ego, a way of speaking to his own political and personal circumstances, but in a way that splits the difference between Logue’s rhetorical pyrotechnics and Oswald’s impersonal restraint.

Akin to Logue and Oswald, his central concern with Homer throughout his writing life has never been to serve as a faithful translator. His most famous poem about the Northern Irish Troubles, “Ceasefire,” boils down two-hundred lines in Homer to a sonnet-like fourteen lines, the quatrains and concluding couplet forming their own self-contained sections that reprise the action of Priam coming to Achilles to beg for his son Hector’s body. However, Longley has reversed the sequence of events, such that he begins with the moment when Achilles and Priam look at each other in a kind of wonder and burst into tears, sharing their mutual grief, Priam for his son, Achilles for Patroclus. Then Longley’s poem works its way backward from the way the events occur in The Iliad to the first instant of meeting, when Priam says in what is Longley’s concluding couplet, “I get down on my knees and do what must be done/And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.” Longley has commented on how he wanted this poem, in its own small way, to contribute to the peace process. The rumor that the IRA in 1994 finally seemed willing to consider a ceasefire sparked in Longley the desire to respond, to add the ineffable, but not inefficacious, weight of poetic utterance to the lighter pan of the scale of justice in the hope that the balance beam might finally—after forty years of tit-for-tat sectarian violence—come to equilibrium. And that impulse has inspired scholars like Maureen Alden in her essay “Michael Longley’s ‘Ceasefire’ and The Iliad” to further draw the parallel between Achilles and Priam and the families of victims and their murderers in the Northern Irish conflict.

But whether forgiveness is possible, whether it even exists as a category in Achilles and Priam’s world, would seem to be a virtual impossibility in Weil’s conception of The Iliad:

Force is as pitiless to the man who possesses it, or thinks he does, as it is to its victims; the second it crushes, the first it intoxicates. The truth is, nobody really possesses it . . . . In this poem there is not a single man who does not at one time or another have to bow his neck to force.

In her essay, Alden chronicles instances of family survivors forgiving the lost one’s murderers, but toward the end of her essay, she hardheadedly points out that Priam is always in Achilles’ power, that there is no question of equality between the two, and that the only reason the reconciliation has taken place is because the gods insist on it. And that perception, which aligns with Weil’s understanding of force as a kind of universal hammer smashing everything into uniform bits, dovetails more closely with the final couplet of “Ceasefire” than the more hopeful initial quatrain, which, as I mentioned earlier, is the climax of Achilles’ meeting with Priam:


Put in mind of his own father and moved to tears
Achilles took him by the hand and pushed the old king
Gently away, but Priam curled up at his feet and
Wept with him until their sadness filled the building.
Taking Hector’s corpse into his own hands Achilles
Made sure it was washed and, for the old king’s sake,
Laid out in uniform, ready for Priam to carry
Wrapped like a present home to Troy at daybreak.
When they had eaten together, it pleased them both
To stare at each other’s beauty as lovers might,
Achilles built like a god, Priam good-looking still
And full of conversation, who earlier had sighed:
‘I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.’

Despite Longley’s avowed purpose of promoting peace and reconciliation, might his canny reversal not also be read as, if not a tacit endorsement, at least a sympathetic shudder for Weil’s tragic conclusion that force is all-powerful, all-destroying, and all-consuming, no matter your good intentions; or more desperately as in Dolon’s case, your whingings and whinings and writhings to escape it? And it’s this version of the poem—especially when you place it alongside Oswald’s anti-memorials and Logue’s wised-up, full volume, but ultimately anti-heroic portrayal of mayhem—that seems to have gotten lost in the rush to press upon it a more hopeful meaning than the poem itself would seem to allow.

Having said that, my point isn’t to suggest that the question of reconciliation is soft-headed; rather, I’m interested in how Longley’s poem enacts Weil’s notion of justice as a kind of balancing act, as an acute reading of the social and political, of an arrival at understanding where the imbalances lie, and then finding a way to put your weight in the lighter pan, but without falsifying or oversimplifying your own personal ambivalences. And I would say that Longley’s instinct to separate his sonnet into four sections, each walled off from the other, tends to enact his ambivalence about the prospect of forgiveness on a scale wide enough to effect not just a personal cessation of hostility, but a general laying down of arms. It’s as if each section were a kind of prison cell, in which you can hear on the other side of the wall a faint tapping as of a private code being relayed cell to cell—as Weil notes in Gravity and Grace, “every separation is a link.” But the linkage in “Ceasefire” isn’t straightforward since the tapping is at best a mixed message; the poet’s suspicion that Weil may well be right in thinking that the logic of force precludes even the possibility of forgiveness undercuts his solidarity with the societal imperative that forgiveness must positively exist. However that may be, Achilles pushing Priam away is an ambivalent gesture at best, reflected back to him in the way that Priam is forced to kneel to Achilles and kiss the hand of his son’s murderer.

In contrast to Logue and Oswald then, who are content to let their version of The Iliad resonate against whatever social or political or spiritual malaise is currently “obsessing our private lives” (to quote Auden), Longley wants his Iliad to reflect his own immediate circumstances. Yes, Logue’s version is a reaction to the violence of the Vietnam War—but then his engagement with the poem over many years as he added volume after volume outwore his initial response and became an obsession in its own right. And as for Oswald, it would seem that her involvement with the poem was an attempt to come to terms, not only with the poem’s violence, but the place of orality in our present day of computer banks and digitalization. Semioticians may insist all they want on the difference between signs and signifiers, but for Oswald poetic utterance as total imagistic embodiment is akin to the Word made flesh. Her commitment to an aural, incarnational language, in which Rilke’s “tall tree in the ear” branches and flourishes with all the authority and haecceity of an actual oak tree, extends to the fact that The Iliad was originally an oral epic—a quality that she herself insists on when she gives public recitations of Memorial completely from memory.

By contrast, Longley’s stake in Homer has always been immediate, always idiosyncratically personal—almost a kind of conversation between analysand and analyst, in which he’s able to map onto The Iliad not only his concerns about the troubled world, but how that troubled world relentlessly insinuates itself into his most private obsessions and cares. He takes this to an extreme in viewing The Iliad as an analogue to what his own father went through as an underage boy-soldier in the First World War. In The Stairwell particularly, the brief five or ten- or fifteen-line vignettes that he adapts from The Iliad are arranged as direct counterpoints to his father’s and his fellow Tommys’ “up the line” experiences.

For example, on the same page as his adaptation of the death of Erymas at the hand of Idomeneus—a poem he entitles “Face”— he also has an answering poem called “The Tin Noses Shop,” which I’ll discuss in a moment. But first, in the purported translation, the utter destruction of Erymas’s face is chronicled in graphic detail:


Idomeneus takes perfect aim
And hits Erymas in the mouth
And the spear penetrates the brain
And splits the white bones, and the teeth
Blow out and from the eye-sockets
Blood squirts and open-mouthed he
Vomits blood from lips and nostrils
And death’s black cloud encloses him.

Homer gets no nearer than this
To the anonymous Tommy,
His human face blasted away.
What can surviving hands reach up
To touch? Tongue-stump? Soul-meat?
Homer’s ghost has nothing to say.

In this brutally direct, but subtly phrased evocation of how a spear does its work, Longley’s consummate skill as a plain style rhetorician is on full display. The thrust and cut of the syntax, the way “the teeth” in the following line suddenly “Blow out”; or how from “the eye-sockets” “Blood squirts”;  and the way those two phrases echo and reinforce each other in succeeding lines show Longley’s deft control in making his syntax enact an action as opposed to commenting on it. This is a quality that he shares with both Logue and Oswald, and you might say that such syntactic embodiment is at the very heart of what binds all three poets together.

Where they differ is the lengths to which Longley is willing to go to bend Homer to his own personal troubles—not in contrast to The Troubles, but coextensive with them, just as anyone who has lived under such conditions understands. Just because car bombs are going off doesn’t mean that you don’t need to go to the grocery store. And in fact, the death of an ice-cream man, or a Catholic greengrocer, appear in his chronicle of The Troubles as continuous with ordinary daily troubles. This volley back and forth between the private and the public is beautifully exemplified in the companion piece to “Face,” “The Tin Noses Shop”:

Give us golden masks, eyebrows and eyelids
Hammered out of gold, and Schliemann claiming
‘I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon.’

In these few lines, Longley plays off the tragedy of the ordinary Tommy whose face has been mutilated against Schliemann’s discovery of what he deemed to be Agamemnon’s golden death mask. What is most impressive is Longley’s canny use of Erymas in “Face” as a kind of disfigured proto-Tommy. The tin noses shop, of course, was soldier slang for the ateliers where early prosthetics were first crafted, often by extremely skilled sculptors eager to help returning, wounded veterans who may have suffered terrible facial burns and mutilations. I once saw at an art exhibit about World War I a sorrowfully workaday photo of a wall hung with a wide assortment of carefully carved and painted noses, cheeks, foreheads, chins, and mouths. It’s as if Erymas hadn’t died from his spear wound and, upon returning home, had to find a way to live with his disfigurement. By implication, the “we” of “The Tin Noses Shop” would seem to include Erymas, particularly when the last line of “Face” feels like a quietly aggressive gesture. In attempting to take Homer’s measure, Longley points out in a restrained but direct indictment how “Homer has nothing to say” about the war’s brutality.

But doesn’t this indictment set off a subtle boomerang effect, such that it recoils backward on the poet’s head? Longley himself, after all, has conjured up Erymas’s disfigurement. The surviving hand is none other than his own as it reaches up to see what’s left of the warrior’s shattered face. It’s as if Longley recognizes his own complicity with Homer in how skillfully his English renders Ermyas’s mutilation and death. And this deep sense of complicity, as opposed to trying to whitewash his own fascination with war’s force, lifts the poem beyond the usual maneuvering of what you might call “outrage-speak.” This ability to see yourself as part of what you deplore has always struck me as a kind of sublime gift, one denied to most poets who self-consciously seek to portray themselves as the representative sufferer. Longley, as well as Logue and Oswald and Weil, all recognize that to make the scale of pain come to a rough equilibrium with the scale of justice requires a hard look not only at the prevailing social conditions, but at the way in which poetic utterance must do more than give a printout of those same conditions—a printout which, in Seamus Heaney’s words, all too often leaves out the poet’s own “responsible tristia.”

So it’s not enough for a poem to be adequate to its occasion; it should also aspire to put in relation an imaginative response that lifts both reader and writer, however fleetingly, beyond the constraints those conditions impose. And in that sense, Longley goes beyond the implicit critique of The Iliad as evinced in both Logue’s and Oswald’s stylistically vexed relation to Homer, in which the liberties they take are both a gesture of respect, but also a refashioning of Homer to measure up to our own time. Longley is more the overt moralist than either of them, a kind of plain-speaking Kent to Shakespeare’s King Lear, only his artful truth telling is directed at Homer’s perceived ethical shortcomings. The fact that Longley’s political convictions have led him to abhor violence doesn’t preclude his admiration of the ordinary soldier’s physical courage and quiet valor. So even as he rebukes the warrior ethos that The Iliad portrays, he nonetheless walks wary of moral grandstanding so as to extend the circumference of his sympathies to not just one side, but to all sides at once.

That said, none of these three exemplary poets go to the extremes that Weil does in her critique of The Iliad when she makes of force a kind of metaphysical absolute—one that she deplores and devotes her life to passionately resisting, but an absolute that would seem to foreclose to her any reconcilement with either daily life or the atrocities of history. In that sense she is truly heroic—but she paid a high price, dying as she did at thirty-four from tuberculosis, the course of which she speeded by refusing to rest, by continuing to fast as a gesture of solidarity toward the starving, and by attempting to carry on with the full load of her war work. But as the wife of a friend of mine who killed himself once said, It was what he wanted. No one should feel sorry for him or me. In the end, what all four of these rare sensibilities have in common is that impartial bitterness that seemed to animate my friend’s refusal of consolation, as if consolation were a sort of insult to an intention acted through to its extreme end.

The clarity of that bitterness continues to shine out of The Iliad and across our world from Syria to Ukraine to Yemen to Libya to Somalia to south Sudan, illuminating in cones of individual light each isolated act of suffering in a vast shadow play of ordinary people who, despite the fact of war, faithfully and without fanfare go about their daily lives in their ongoing struggle to make the scales come to a balance. That too is Homer’s burden, as when in the middle of a passage about slaughter between Greeks and Trojans, in which first one side, then the other gains the upper hand, he inserts this apparently incongruous simile drawn from domestic life. In Oswald’s rendering, the furiously shifting fortunes of battle are likened to a mother weighing out wool in the shifting pans of a balance scale:

Like that slow-motion moment
When a woman weighs the wool
Her poor old spider hands
Work all night spinning a living for her children
And then she stops
She soothes the scale to a standstill

In this homely and home-body image of a scale, the weight of the social, the polis, as well as the private world of family, friends, husbands, wives, and lovers weighs down one pan while the other bears the murderous weight of force that threatens to destroy all ties but the ones that bind enemy to enemy. And yet Homer’s surprising use of a domestic image to express the seesawing back and forth of warring armies has about it a touch of the visionary: it’s as if the woman as she weighs her wool slowly materializes above the dust, screams, and killing, an image of home life and work life rising up out of the murderous in which the woman’s “poor old spider hands” keep on spinning the way an actual spider keeps on spinning, no matter how many times its web is torn away. Here, if in no other place and time, Weil’s scales of justice, uneasily shifting back and forth, begin to slow; and in the very midst of slaughter, and as the woman’s hand soothes the scale, suddenly the balance beam comes level and, for just that instant, hovers unmoving, in perfect equilibrium.

*   *   *


Logue, Christopher, War Music: An Account of Books 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad, Penguin Books, 1984.

Longley, Michael, Collected Poems, Wake Forest University Press, 2007

Longley, Michael, The Stairwell,  Wake Forest University Press, 2014.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda, Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, translated by Max Hayward, Atheneum, 1970.

Mandelstam, Nadezhda, Hope Abandoned: A Memoir, translated by Max Hayward, Atheneum, 1974.

Oswald, Alice, Memorial, W. W. Norton, 2012.

Weil, Simone, “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force,” translated by Mary McCarthy, Chicago Review, 19:2 (1965), pp 5-30.

Weil, Simone, Gravity and Grace, translated by Emma Crawford and Mario von der Ruhr, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952, p 17.              https://boxes.nyc3.digitaloceanspaces.com/wp-content/uploads/Gravity-and-Grace.pdf

Tom Sleigh

Tom’s many books include House of Fact, House of Ruin; Station Zed, Army Cats (John Updike Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters); and Space Walk (Kingsley Tufts Award). His new book of poetry, The King’s Touch, was published by Graywolf Press (2022). His most recent book of essays, The Land Between Two Rivers: Writing In an Age of Refugees, recounts his time as a journalist in the Middle East and Africa. He teaches in the MFA Program at Hunter College.

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