Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Iliad as a Poem of Protest

In my lecture the other day I tried to suggest that the Iliad might be read as a protest poem.  A protest poem is a poem that questions conventional values and ideals, particularly those associated with authoritative bodies—the government, for instance.  During the Civil Rights Movement in this country, protest poems like Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” or the spiritual “We Shall Overcome” helped clarify the longing for change and unite those who were clamoring for it.  Here’s Bob Dylan, American bard:

In arguing that the Iliad is a protest poem, I was thinking of all those moments, small and great, throughout this text where Homer seems to be calling attention to the horror of war and questioning the honor system which, in part, makes war possible—the increasing brutality of the battle scenes, those necrologies mourning the loss of warriors, statements by the women of the poem that reveal the devastation caused by war on non-combatants, the similes in which even images of home and of the natural world seem defiled by war.  And at the center of this text we have the greatest warrior, Achilles, questioning the worth of fighting, weighing whether his life is worth those spoils of war that will be his if he returns to battle.  It’s going too far to say that the Iliad is an anti-war poem in the way that “Blowin’ in the Wind” is an anti-war poem, and yet this epic does recognize that war is a source of devastation and suffering.

But I also wanted to suggest that in the Iliad, Homer is protesting something more universal than the devastation and suffering wrought by war.  He’s protesting this bleak vision of human existence, embodied in Glaucus’ recognition that

Human generations are like leaves in their seasons.
The wind blows them to the ground, but the tree
Sprouts new ones when spring comes again.
…Their generations come and go.   (Iliad 6.149-151)

And he’s protesting this related vision of the inevitable obliteration of all human endeavor by the gods, embodied in the wall built by the Greeks that Poseidon washes away.  Homer protests this vision of the “human situation” by making poetry.  The kleos aphthiton, the undying glory, of these warriors is remembered and recorded.  And so it cannot blow away, like “leaves in their seasons;” it is not washed away, like the wall which “could not endure for long.”
—Kim Meyer


  1. Joseph (Tyler) CampbellSeptember 14, 2010 at 7:10 PM

    Although there are moments of the war being protested, wouldn't the overall theme still be of war? There are many places in the Iliad where Homer shows the "fight" still in the Greeks and Trojans.

  2. Absolutely! The Iliad is a poem of war. I'm not disputing that in any way. I'm proposing, though, that the poem could be read as a CRITIQUE of war's devastation and of the honor system that feeds it. Further, I see the kleos that this culture prizes as being won IN battle and then memorialized in the poet's song.

  3. The idea that "human generations are like leaves in their season" is something that I had never considered, but that rings perfectly true the first time you read it. That millions of people across the planet still read and/or are familiar with Homer's tale goes to show you how powerful the written word is. In this day of the internet, it may be that no generation need ever be lost again by the mere whims of "The wind blows them to the ground".