Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

War and Epic Poetry

S. L. Khot, M.A.

(St. Aloysius’ College, Mangalore)

There is a certain stage in the history of a race when the atmosphere favours the making of an epic, and once that stage is passed, the epic must become an artificial form. The characteristics of such a period are a warring mode of life, where natural rigours are to be fought with, such as climate, and enemies, and ‘virgin soil’, and parallel with this, an absence of common laws, conventions and refinements. Such a people will possess rudimentary virtues, such as fearlessness, endurance, individual skill in such utilitarian crafts as house-building and ship-building, and a sense of individual responsibility for each man’s actions, since he himself must stand for whatever he does. No wonder, then, if such a people stand almost on an equal footing with the gods themselves. They are nothing less nor more than the mighty, elemental forces of Nature. That is why they were never at odds with themselves, and could enjoy a certain disinterested serenity that is almost foreign to us.

The Iliad, it would seem, is a crude tale of the ‘kingly days’, ‘based entirely’, as Jack Lindsay, in his A Short History of Culture maintains, "on the irresponsible kingly ethic." But what is important for us is not the story so much, as the significance and the revelation of human life at its noblest. The whole point of the Iliad is the marvelous way in which Homer transforms the ‘savage war-lay’, as if by magic, into a perfectly artistic work by giving a rich human significance, added to which, the emotional depth, subtlety of character, poignancy of perception, and creative sensibility, win for it an eternal freshness. There are also the subtle currents of pity interwoven with the gigantic warfare. We note the touching scene of Hector’s last meeting with Andromache. Curiously enough, the Mahabharata also deals more or less with the same theme. Arjuna is drawn , like Achilles, into the struggle which he had rejected, though the treatment is widely different. What the Iliad gives us as a purely human struggle, the Mahabharata gives us in an abstract form. It is indeed illuminating to note the kindred sense of union which informs them both. This speaks largely for the inescapable fact that there is a certain period in the evolution of every nation when an epic is the only right expression of a people’s spirit.

This period, by common consent, is styled as the Heroic Age which, in the words of Prof. Ker, may be described as an ‘Age of pride and courage’. The undeniable note of a heroic age is the height sense of life with all its myriad struggles and an undying zest or everything valorous and glorious. Prof. Abercrombie characterises this spirit as "a vehement private individuality freely and greatly asserting itself". The highest thing the Homeric hero cares for is the achievement of honour paid to himself. "Always to be the best" is his constant endeavour which may as well be termed as heroism. One of the most striking characteristics of heroic poetry, as pointed out by Prof. Chadwick, is a thirst for fame, both during one’s own life and in after-times. As a typical example, we may take a passage from Hector’s speech before his combat with Aias: -

"His corpse will I render to the well-decked ships, that the flowing-haired Achaians may entomb him, and build him a barrow, beside wide Hellespont. So shall one say even of men that be late born, as he saileth in his benched ship over the wine-dark sea: ‘This is the barrow of a man that died in days of old, a champion whom glorious Hector slew’. So shall a man say hereafter, and this my glory shall never die."

The Heroic Age, however, is not to be confused with a primitive one. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as pointed out by Prof. Gilbert Murray, "contain a great deal of ancient matter; but both, as they stand, are the products of a civilised age and a long process of development. They depict a past age, but an idealised past, a pastas Grote says, which never was a present. Those were the days when a hero was really a hero and a princess a princess." The characteristics of such an age, then, are those neither of infancy nor of maturity. The typical man of the Heroic Age is to be compared rather with a youth.

The true epic belongs to a period in which, as Prof. Dixon points out, "the immediate pressure of Nature is felt". The heroes of the Homeric epics and of Beowulf, as Hegel observed, provide themselves with the necessities of life, with horses and weapons and food. That is why the early epic appears in an incomparable morning light. The very freshness of the world in which the Homeric heroes lived is a thing to be amazed at.

All great poetry transports us to the realms of gold. Homer is unique like Socrates; by the words of his poetry alone, he awakens in the hearers (or readers), as Socrates did in Alcibiades, a stirring of the soul. We find Homer’s naive delight in everything in life expressed everywhere. "They stretched out their hands for the ready viands." It is this vitality which expresses itself most characteristically by movements. Heroes walk quickly, their horses fly, a ship runs before the wind.

The stream of life also is continuously kept up by Homer. He has shown how life not only goes forward but also that its progress is continuous. Even in sleep, ‘the brother of Death’, "there is no pause in its current." Homer observes this continuity with the utmost care for which we have ‘no time to stand and stare’. The shade of Patroklos entreats Achilles, "Bury me with all possible speed; let me pass the gates of Hades." This continuum of human life is made possible by routine matters which even in the most intense and hazardous periods cannot be neglected: sleep, dressing, undressing, bathing and meals. The slower and more familiar movements of the body, like sitting, standing, stretching out hands in prayer, are not to be lost sight of. A few sensuous impressions also deserve our attention. The bristling of spears, the flashing of bronze and the gleam of helmets, shields, and breast-plates, the cloud of dust, the cries of exultation and the groans of the dying. "The earth ran with blood, and the dead lay in multitudes, side by side in dust." The analogy between Homer and the Nile drawn by Mr. Lang is quite illuminating. Homer’s is indeed, as J. W. Mackail puts it, "a land of thunder and earthquakes, of God-haunted mountains and seas."

The Homeric poems, it will be thus observed, give us the nearest approach to an authentic picture of the Heroic Age of Greece in its highest human aspects. This authentic picture is due to the full flowering of a long poetic tradition, uninfluenced by any revolution of thought or new advance in culture. In the Heroic Age, elementary passions are still very near the surface. This causes the tension in the twenty-fourth book of the Iliad. "In spite of the Command, of Zeus," observes R. W. Chambers, "in spite of the laws of hospitality, there is always the possibility that the wrath of Achilles may overmaster him, and that he may slay Priam within his hut."

We picture the Homeric hero of the Iliad as a chieftain who realises his full self in everything that he does; who has acquired so intense an admiration for the passions and appurtenances of this life that he can dream of nothing more desirable; who is never required to "look before and after and pine for what is not," a warrior who has an undaunted faith in himself, with all the throbbing sense of his heroism. The age mirrored in the Homeric poems is the true age of personal enterprise, when the individual acquires ascendancy through his own qualities of strength, beauty, courage, force of mind, natural eloquence; an age when men live more in the open air than in houses and cities, and have to procure subsistence, comfort, and security by energy of body and the inventive resources of their minds. That is why the Homeric epics have maintained a dewy freshness.

The geek warrior survives as the most consistent and successful attempt yet made by man to realise his own grandeur and freedom. Priam, even in his ripe old age, is dispassionately viewing the battle although his sons are being killed. Helen too has joined him. They have no fears, no apprehensions, no evil dreams, no anxieties. Agamemnon has no fear for the anger of Achilles. The poet has, thus, depicted his men and women who found comfort and assurance in the external world, because they were at peace with themselves.

The equipment of the Homeric heroes’ -a factor which ennobles them-deserves our closest attention. It was so dearly prized that its strength or beauty seemed to become a part of themselves. Their helmets shone like a star; the oblong shield of Aias gave him the strength and firmness of a tower; their shields had a layer of copper, which was riveted to the layers of hide with studs of gold, so their aumour lent them dignity through its costly workmanship, as well as its 'imagined safety' through its strength. Hector is twice described as holding a spear whose shaft was ringed with gold, while the bronze point glittered before his face. The breast-plate of Agamemnon was made of three rare metals and engraved.

Nothing is more characteristic of the Homeric warrior than his admiration of horses. As Achilles is the greatest warrior of the whole war, he is imagined to have the finest horses, and it is worth noting that they come from afar. The horses of Aeneas were even more famous. The poet speaks of horses as a theme in which man’s highest aspirations can find their scope. They are almost their comrades in courage and energy. Xantheos and Balios, the two far-famed steeds of Achilles, felt so keenly their comradeship with the greatest warriors that they wept over the corpse of Patroklos.

These pretentious descriptions should not be dismissed as ‘epic exaggeration’. They are the most essential things for epic comprehensiveness and an impressive majesty. Homer’s purpose in adding these details is not to be minute like Scott nor to be precise like Flaubert. He simply unfolds a vista of glowing energy displayed by the warriors through their equipment.

The present war, unique in its own way, "the like of which," as Mahatma Gandhi said, "mankind has never seen," can never produce any epic. I admit that it is fought with an added military equipment, elaborate naval forces and amazing aerial inventions. Before actually dealing with this problem, let us have a look at the formidable number of the art epics fashioned after the imitation of Homer. The nearest approach to Homer is undeniably that of Virgil, though his Aeneid, is explicitly a national laureate poem. "It was solemnly devoted," says J. C. Stobart, in his The Grandeur that was Rome, "to the altar of Rome and Augustus. As such, it is lacking in the pure epic impulse and has embodied in it only the national idea and sentiment, in the imperial position of Rome, in her marvelous destiny, and its culmination in the Augustan Age." "The pride of empire," says Prof. Sellar, "is the dominant mode of patriotic enthusiasm of the Aeneid." The mission of Rome is summed up in the lines:

"Be the charge, O Roman, to rule the nations in thine empire; this shall be thine art, to ordain the law of peace, to be merciful to the conquered and beat the haughty down."

It is only too obvious that there is no trace in Virgil of that keen enjoyment of personal adventure and bodily activity which is present in every page of the Homeric epics. The vast difference in manners, feelings, modes of thought, between the spring and the autumn of ancient civilisation presented insuperable obstacles to Virgil in his attempt to achieve the grandeur of Homer.

The Song of Roland, the French epic, is filled so much with crusading zeal, Christendom against Islam that it does not attain that dignity which we witness in the Iliad. Roland, with all his bravery and deeds of heroism, even at the moment when he dies after having blown his horn terribly loud, is only a shadow of the Homeric hero. Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, an Italian epic, reiterates the same crusading zeal, and is filled with too many romantic episodes to be an epic at all. The Spanish epic, The Cid, invokes a certain glow of admiration in us for Cid who thrusts the lion into the cage. But how limited is his heroism! The German epic, the Nibelungenlied, celebrates the heroic exploits of Siegfried, but the effect produced is never that of awe, much less of sublimity. The Finnish epic, the Kalevala, has something really admirable in it, but it is all a world full of magic and wizardry, where Wainamoinen, himself a magician, does wonderful things. The Persian epic, the Shah-Nameh, is full of brave deeds of Zal and Rustum, but never achieves the full-fledged glory of the Homeric battles. Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Milton’s Paradise Lost are informed with too much religion to deserve the name of epics, save for their technique.

None of the epics enumerated above, achieves the excellence of the Homeric epics. The inescapable fact is that the wide diversity in opinions, religious beliefs, customs, and occupations make it no longer possible to secure that comprehensive grip on the whole world that the epic poet needs before he can start. As Mr. Chesterton has said, "There was more unity in those times in a hundred men than there is now in one man. Then a city was like a man; now one man, is like a city in a civil war."

In modern times, the inwardness of life leading to thought and its restraining effect on action has changed the simple epic attitude and the unhampered exercise of the will. Not only this; the man of thought does not feel inclined to take the conflicts of life as unavoidable and therefore is not actuated with the spirit of fighting which is the essence of an epic.

Moreover, the growing intellectuality of the post-Renaissance days, with the attendant scepticism and irreverence, began to strike at the root of hero-worship and the conception of heroism. In the nineteenth century, the forces of democracy gave a death-blow to hero-worship. The revival of dictatorship in Europe seems to have brought the spirit of hero-worship, but I doubt its intensity and depth. Another quarter from which the epic received destructive shocks is science. The development of the mental sciences, especially psycho-analysis in recent times, has led to much disillusionment regarding the greatness and glory of man. What looks bold and heroic is often discovered to be a reaction to a sense of inferiority complex concealed in the subconscious mind. James Joyce’s Ulysses, with all its pre-occupation with the sub-conscious, provides an excellent example of the failure to revive the Homeric grandeur.

Prof. Albert Guerard, however, is over-enthusiastic to discern the spirit of the epic in some modern authors. In his, A Preface to World Literature, he maintains that "certain historical novels like Tolstoy’s War and Peace are unmistakably epic." "It is impossible," he continues, "to read certain passages from Gibbon without being impressed by their truly epic majesty. There is something truly epic about Les Miserables. Zola was a true epic poet." My contention is that Prof. Albert Guerard brings with him too much of logic and precision in judging the qualities of an epic.

To return to the problem,-whether the present war will produce any epic-let us first see in what respects it differs from the Homeric war. The present war, as pointed out above, is unique, but only from one particular point of view, namely, its marvelous record of victims. Innumerable people are being killed in no time and with the least trouble on the part of the enemy. The enemy is far away, either hovering somewhere in the void of the perfect blue dropping bombs, or sunk beneath the surface of water discharging torpedoes, but never perceiving the actual scene of misery and terror he causes. "Modern War," says Joad, "has become impersonal." A button is pressed somewhere in a dark corner and forthwith poisonous gases are spread miles away, and hundreds of people are put to death. But is this what we should call heroism? The present war, being mostly chemical, affords no scope for real heroism to be displayed. The enemy never fights face to face. Can the ‘Panzer’ units ever hope to attain that confidence, that solidarity, dash and ‘go’ which inform Achilles, Hector, Aias and Sarpedon? With each advance in efficiency, war loses something of its grandeur. The Homeric hero was thrilled with a high sense of confidence in his strength and valour, was filled with an exhilaration and a sense of glory such as rarely, if ever, we have an opportunity of enjoying. The modern mechanical and chemical inventions such as tanks, bombers, cruisers, have deprived modern war of that sense of pride and mastery which informs the Homeric epics.

We are deeply conscious that these modern inventions are belittling man. In modern war, it is not the pilot officers nor the naval ones who inflict mighty destruction, but the means they make use of. They are simply the agents through whom it is achieved. The difference between a modern and Homeric war is best illustrated by Routh when he draws an analogy between a flight in an aeroplane and climbing a mountain. The gradual abatement of enthusiasm in the case of an aeroplane-because of the unconscious discovery that it is a machine which sets us soaring aloft-is undeniable. But our interest in climbing a mountain is not only inexhaustible but varied.

Thus an epic can never be composed on any modern war, much less the present one. The arts of Greek war reminded the warrior of his own skill and strength, and of the glory of his equipment. That touch of infinite grandeur has vanished from the world. If the spirit of the epic is to be revived, the world must be created afresh.

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