There are a few things in life, the difficulties of which, without attempting, through aspiration and desire, could never be understood. One of those is the art of conveying an event poignantly in poetic form.
Homer’s epic runs into many books – rather divided into many books- not just a poignant poem, yet in the course of the flow, which is swift and precise in expression, there appear descriptions which suddenly knock us out of our knowledge and plunges us into an experience.
At school, I’m sure we had all read of Cyclops in the “adventures” of Ulysses. The story tells us how Ulysses got trapped inside the cave of Polyphemus, a Cyclop, and how he and his mates made good their exit by scorching the eye of Polyphemus with a stake.
When we read Homer, it is no more a life saving tactic of an adventurer or the payback time for a giant for having mercilessly killed Ulysses’ mates.
The following lines, immediately makes us reach out for our own eyes, a participation in human predicament. Maybe, the scorching is justified, yet when a human being’s eye is scorched with a fiery brand while in a drunken stupor, startles us.
It is that poignancy of human predicament, when brought out in all its gore, which rouses us from mundane knowledge to an experience we would like to spare ourselves from.
Here are the lines from Homer:
“And as when armourers temper in the ford
The keen-edged pole-axe, or the shining sword,
The red-hot metal hisses in the lake,
Thus in his eye-ball hiss’d the plunging stake.”
If one believes that these poetic expressions are flashes in a ocean of words, the poem being an Epic, one is lost. Here is the description of the very act of Ulysses and his mates on the hapless Polyphemus:
“The stake now glow’d beneath the burning bed
(Green as it was) and sparkled fiery red,
Then forth the vengeful instrument I bring;
With beating hearts my fellows form a ring.
Urged my some present god, they swift let fall
The pointed torment on his visual ball.
Myself above them from a rising ground
Guide the sharp stake, and twirl it round and round.
As when a shipwright stands his workmen o’er,
Who ply the wimble, some huge beam to bore;
Urged on all hands, it nimbly spins about,
The grain deep-piercing till it scoops it out:
In his broad eye he whirls the fiery wood;
From the pierced pupil spouts the boiling blood;
Singed are his brows; the scorching lids grow black;
The jelly bubbles, and the fibres crack.”
Is the scene not redolent of what happened to Samson, the Judge of Israel? Look at the verse where Samson’s plight at the hands of the Philistines is expressed:
21 But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house.
Prose, gives knowledge to the reader. If one were to let one’s imagination on every information, there might be possibilities whereby one wouldn’t be able to reconcile the threads of facts with the fabric of the full narration. That’s where an Epic Poet like Homer with his craft, imagination and ethics blends it with balance.
The scene of Ulysses preparing and punching the only eye of Polyphemus may momentarily elicit sympathy, but when one had read the preceding stanzas where Polyphemus had brutally killed four of Ulysses’ mates, it gratifies the reader on two counts that the action taken by Ulysses was essential – as there was no other way; and secondly, the innocent guests were killed for no necessity of Polyphemus and those innocent wayfarers, who had strayed as uninvited guests into his cave, were without justification brutally killed and consumed.
Epics may be tedious, but if one gets involved in the poetic content, the imagery would be elevating and eye opening.