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The Odyssey Reading Club -- Entry 18 -- Big Ideas: The Homeric Simile

Hello fellow Odyssians! Or something.

You may be expecting this slot to be taken up by a gloss on Book VI, the current assignment in the year-long quest called The Odyssey Reading Club. However, I'm ending the gloss posts, effective, well, now.

Why? Well, because, simply, I don't think you need them anymore. That's assuming that any of you even did in the first place. You've now successfully navigated 5 books of Homeric language and are traversing your 6th, so I think you're ready for me to take the training wheels off, as it were. I will continue, at least for the time being, updating the glossary and cast of characters, cause I know it's a lot to keep track of. Hell, I consult it with some regularity, so even if no one else needs it, I do.

On the upside (depending on your perspective), ending the gloss posts means I have more time to focus on things that don't fit neatly into the "end of book" posts I do but that are still worth talking about in some depth. For lack of a nicer phrase, I'm calling them "Big Ideas." They could be over-arching themes, in-depth character exploration, or, as is the case with this post, a slightly deeper look at one of Homer's most famous poetic techniques: the Homeric Simile. As always, my interpretations of the poem and its images are my own, and you should feel no qualms about challenging them on Twitter, on the FB page, or in the comments.

Metaphor and simile (the simile requiring a connecting word and thus leaving a distance between the two ideas being compared) are the bedrock of much poetic speech in language the world over. They both fundamentally take the thing being described and compare it to something unrelated with which the reader is familiar. So the basic structure is generally "X (the thing being described) is like Y (an image familiar to the reader)." The Homeric Simile, however, is something a little different. Whereas in English, the simile generally takes the form of X is like Y, Homer inverts it, stating that as Y is, so is X. Let me give some examples, and I think what I mean will be clearer.

First for the "traditional" English poetic simile: In "A Dream Deferred" by Langston Hughes, Hughes compares the titular dream to a series of items that are rotting, crusting over, and festering. But the dream is always in the first half of the simile:

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

This is a starkly beautiful poem, no doubt, and its repeated similes have a sort of cumulative weight. But the dream is always the central image--the similes give it depth, but they don't really transform the image.

The Homeric Simile is something different. Homer chooses to implant the secondary image firmly in the readers mind before telling you what it is that it's being compared with. By this technique, he allows readers who've never experienced battle or been tossed on the high seas to understand it as a variation on what they already know.

These Homeric Similes are more common in The Iliad, where the need to bring home the horror of war calls for more effort on the poet's part, but they are not absent from The Odyssey. Take this example from Book V (Fitzgerald translation, lines 411-6):

What a dear welcome thing life seems to children,
whose father, in the extremity, recovers
after some weakening and malignant illness:
his pangs are done, the gods have delivered him.
So dear and welcome to Odysseus
the sight of land, of woodland, on that morning.

Here, Homer takes an experience from everyday life--albeit an emotionally resonant one--and expounds upon it at some length before telling us what it is in the narrative that is like it. By doing so, he grounds us so deeply in the image that it doesn't take any leap of imagination to understand *exactly* how Odysseus feels upon spying land.

Let's take another example, this one where the simile arguably has even more work to do. In a passage from Book VIII of The Iliad, Homer talks about the death of one of Priam's many sons--Gorgythion, whom Homer calls "Gorgythion the blameless" and is introduced only to die by an arrow aimed at his half-brother Hector. Homer has to make the reader realize the absolute horror of watching a young man die because someone's aim was a little off, and he does so by taking an image from nature (Iliad, Book VIII, lines 306-8, Lattimore translation):

He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains in springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm's weight.

We've all seen flowers collapse under their own weight, when their stems can no longer bear the full weight of the bloom--so to does Gorgythion the blameless die, the flower of Trojan youth unable any longer to support the weight of his helmet after a arrow aimed for someone else has pierced his chest.

And here's the genius of the Homeric Simile--it allows Homer to speak of things that are, in some ways, unspeakable and to make the listener experience them as if they were there. The brilliant thing is that he does so by allowing them to access the world he's creating through images of their own. If he'd written "His held fell to the side under his helmet's weight, like a poppy bends beneath the weight of its bloom," the poppy image would be secondary to the image of Gorgythion--we'd imagine the slain soldier and then have to compare him to a poppy, essentially making the listener do the work of drawing the connection themselves. By inverting the simile, Homer takes the image of the poppy and transforms it into our mind's eye into a young man collapsing under the weight of his own helmet. This inversion also helps guarantee that the thing being described is what's in the listener's mind as he moves his tale along, as opposed to leaving the reader with an image of an unrelated thing.

So, keep an eye out for these Homeric Similes as we continue to progress through the work, and maybe take a second to think about how the image would be different if instead of saying "as Y is, so is X," he'd written "X is like Y."

There are a few more "Big Ideas" that I have floating about in my head, but if there's anything in particular you'd like me to write about, just let me know. I am planning on doing *some* research for these (well, more than I do for the regular posts), so don't hesitate to suggest something that might be slightly beyond the scope of the text itself.


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