The English poet Christopher Logue called himself a “Catholic atheist.” Were he religious, he said, he would look out for God in creation. “Did the ancient Greeks believe in their gods as I believe in the ancient Greeks?” he wondered. One of the Lasallian Brothers at his Catholic school in Southsea told him about the elaborate ornamentation hidden from view on cathedral roofs, “safe in the sight of God until Judgment Day.” This information convinced the young Logue to work from that day in the spirit of the medieval carvers: without justification. “That I did not know what I wanted to do was unimportant,” he wrote.
Logue, born in Portsmouth in 1926, described his father as “a devout Irish-English Catholic.” His paternal grandfather, a Catholic from Coleraine in Northern Ireland, spent twenty-two years in the British Army. His Irish aunt Margaret taught him to read and write. “Atheism?” she once admonished him. “There’s no such thing. A silly boast God finds no trouble in forgiving.” Logue never stopped believing in God, he said, because he had never started believing in Him. “I find the idea of a beginning as impossible to credit as that of an end.” His own atheism left him unimpressed. He preferred the company of people whom he knew to be religious.
Logue always envied people with a purpose. It was not until 1959, after a stint in a military brig and a period writing pornography in Paris, that he found his. In his early thirties and already feeling old, he was asked by the classicist Donald Carne-Ross, then working for the BBC, to adapt a passage from the Iliad for an English version he was broadcasting on the Third Programme. Doris Lessing, a close acquaintance, had told Logue that the Iliad, if not the task of its translation, suited him well: “Something to do with heroism, tragedy, that sort of thing.” But Logue found Homer boring. Carne-Ross proposed a section of Book XXI in which Achilles attacks the river Scamander, provided Logue with a prose crib and advised him to read published translations to get a sense of the story. “A translator must know one language well,” Carne-Ross told Logue. “Preferably his own.”
Logue’s account of his approach is harrowing. Out for a walk, he would run through the sequence of events backward as well as forward, “as painters hold a canvas to a mirror to inspect its composition afresh.” He was after the essential structure, in search of the red thread. Once he grasped it he found himself writing “backwards, or rather, back upwards” to fill in the details. “The sweat ran out of me,” he wrote. “I forgot myself entirely for hours on end. The moment I stopped I disregarded the work and its principal source—the various translations I was studying. Perhaps I was afraid of it.” Logue undertook other work—poster poems, protest poems, occasional verse, song lyrics, theatrical numbers, screenplays, even film acting—but the Iliad was his aristeia. Logue died in 2011, having spent the rest of his life facing up to his fear. Farrar, Straus and Giroux have now published this lifework in a single volume, entitled War Music.
Achilles’ own aristeia arrives in Book XXI, when he takes on the whole Trojan army by himself. Logue never got far with his take on the event, but a draft of a Homeric simile survives from his repeated efforts, printed in an appendix to War Music:
Think of the moments when
A 50-foot-high cliff of ice
Collapsed into the River Noa’tak,
And by the half-a-day it took to reach the sea,
Its flow—according to the tide-mark that it left—
Became a wave some 1500 metres high
That stripped the land on either side of it
Down to the rock.
The anachronism is outrageous, but then Homer is full of anachronisms in the “original.” In the age of calving glaciers, Logue’s invention calls out ever more urgently from beyond his grave. Achilles is a force of nature as impersonal as they come. The death of Patroclus has drained away all his feeling for humanity. He’s all but a god, and the river god Scamander rises to greet him as an equal: “Forcing its bank, an avid lip of water slid / After him, to smother his Greek breath for Trojan victory.”
Logue treats Homer as one would a tsunami. He runs in the opposite direction, as Hector flees Achilles in Book XXII. But he goes out of his way, again and again, to instigate an encounter with the source of his deepest fear, eager to catch its wave. This horror of fascination, or fascination by horror, is a baton passed to Logue from Blaise Pascal, who made it the point of his Pensées to snatch fear from the jaws of Jesuit courage. “True fear comes from faith; false fear comes from doubt,” Pascal wrote in the seventeenth century, and: “To fear death without danger, and not in danger, for one must be a man.” Logue, out to assay his manhood, heeds this call for an absolute fear. Pascal produced it with his wager, the prospect of losing a zero-sum game. Logue performs it in his poem, a gamble of epic consequence that gets away with faith without fidelity, entertaining no doubts at all about its propriety. War Music is a piece of poker-faced bluff, a picture of perfect self-possession. In running the risk of exposing itself to its own worst nightmare—the fear of being found out as a fraud—it establishes its own heroic code, of which recklessness is the chief virtue.
Logue was committed to the idea of the poem as an act—he was proud of his speaking voice, honed by boyhood elocution lessons, and he claimed to be among the first of modern poets to accord at least as much attention to the recitation of his work as to its composition. “A poem’s life is as much a history of performances as a history of reprints,” he wrote, and he superintended the performance-history of his poems. A frequent performance piece, Logue’s Iliad is an act of bravery. The freedom the poet brings to each refreshed trial of the impossible task of translation is the effect of his decision to let the Iliad intimidate him right down to the ground, no matter the cost. And the cost falls chiefly on the head of literality. Each relapse of the poetic act sacrifices the letter on the altar of the spirit. Logue presides at the altar like a priest, whose elaborate ritual attracts some of the poem’s most vivid imagery:
See the bull at the stone
‘Lord of Light!’
See its gilded horns
‘Lord of Light!’
See the axe.
Cue The Doors. This scene of propitiation to Apollo spills across three pages:
Now the lustral water is on their hands,
And the barley sprinkled on the bull’s wide head.
‘Lord of Mice!’
‘Lord of Light!’
As the axe swings up, and stays,
Stays poised, still poised, and—
As it comes down:
Covers the terrible thock that parts the bull from its voice
As the knife goes in, goes down,
And the dewlap parts like glue
And the great thing kneels
And its breath hoses out
And the authorized butchers grope for its heart
And the choir sings:
‘Pour the oil and balm –’
War Music is a translation that takes no prisoners. No line of Homer’s survives unannealed by the application of English. Like Homer, Logue is absolutely unapologetic about the business of bloodletting. This attitude complements his insusceptibility to beauty. “In verse (as elsewhere) beauty will serve any view and give it a glamour,” he wrote, pondering the case of Ezra Pound. “We should not be afraid to call it whorish.” Logue takes courage in this matter from the example of the Iliad. “The Greeks are not humanistic, not Christian, not sentimental,” Xanthe Wakefield told him on the occasion of his first looking into Homer. “Please try to understand that. They are musical.” Logue sets himself the challenge of converting the sounds of slaughter into the chimes at midnight. This requires an acute sensitivity to fate untinged by timidity. In one of his working notes Logue reminds himself to supply, at a certain point in the poem, a simile for “how far courage can take you.” In truth his whole work stands as an extension of that simile, almost to its breaking point. “In poetry,” Logue once asked an interviewer, “what is the point of asking if you don’t ask for too much?”
Prayer operates on the same principle of all or nothing at all, and it comes as no surprise that Logue’s prayers in War Music are a touch too much:
‘Our Father, Who rules in Heaven,
Because Your will is done where will may be
Grant me this prayer
As You have granted other prayers of mine:
Give my Patroclus Your victory;
Let him show Hector he can win
Without me at his side;
And grant, above all else, O Lord,
That when the Trojans are defeated, he
Returns to me unharmed.’
This is the petition of Achilles, Catholic atheist, to Zeus, who goes by “God” in this book and who, Logue goes on to say, “heard his prayer and granted half of it.” In his autobiography Logue gives a candid portrait of himself as a shrinking violet, often cripplingly recessive in the presence of the women who attract him most. He admits to sometimes overcompensating for his shyness by means of boorishness. This parody of the Lord’s Prayer may well prove his self-insight right, but it succeeds in its own excess.
Logue’s long exposure to Homer cautioned him not to count your chickens before they hatch; asked the most important lesson life has taught him, he replied: “Count your blessings.” Logue, who marched to Aldermaston against the Bomb, understood that the rumor of war is an eternal murmur ever about to erupt into the wrath of Achilles, whose talking horse here pledges to leave his heroic master “not for dead, but dead.” More than disgust, violence as Homer saw it inspired in Logue a fatal hopelessness: war was the only god he could believe in; it alone was awesome enough to inspire his holy dread. He identified in the Iliad a stoic resignation to war’s ongoingness that attracted and revulsed him in equal measure. Logue innovates by transposing this dynamic into explicitly erotic terms. (His half-jealous Aphrodite calls our attention to Hera’s “gobstopper nipples.”) Rivalrous fear and sexual self-loathing will always be with us; in both love and war alike they manifest themselves as “the hatred human animals / Monotonously bear towards themselves.” What Logue admired most in Homer was his preternatural ability to match his muse against this terror on its own terms. “Homer keeps you on the move,” he said.
He found this same nerving, and unnerving, flickering quality in the work of Samuel Beckett, a friend. “It is not verse. It is not prose. It ‘floats,’” is how Logue once characterized the dialogue in Beckett’s plays unmetrical, but “broadly rhythmical,” and to that extent in sync with the jolting rhythm of life and death as it is felt along the heart. Less curt than Beckett but in search of the same sensation of verbal whiplash, Logue worked perpetual variations on a loose pentameter line. The reader should feel present, “there” in the fray, carried along by the carnage—and by the jokes. “Except humorously, our times cannot deal with these creatures,” he said of Homer’s gods and heroes. The poem should summon all potential energies, comic as well as tragic, to exhaust the reader. “If it does not, well, then, perhaps it’s no good.” Borrowing—or perhaps stealing (“If I want something, I take it.”)—a line from his colleague Kenneth Tynan, Logue defined tragedy as “Big Men Falling a Long Way.” His poetic project was to immortalize their descent by catching us up in their slipstream.
Poetry, for Logue, is the continuation of war by other means. The poet understood war to be the permanent and universal condition of human life, and his unblinking response was to translate it into verse that turns violence to the advantage of literary historiography. Translation, for him, is the violent enforcement of “a terrible equality” between what is dead and what is living. Bloodshed is the lowest common denominator of past and future. The artistic act of translation can, at best, “absolve” us of our mutually assured destruction by solving for the thing that joins us through time and across borders. A poem can’t hope to solve the problem of war, our tragic downfall, but it can articulate a refusal to make loss meaningful—a refusal that must be continually renewed in the act of retelling or rereading. In its utter indifference to the literal meaning of Homer’s words, Logue’s Iliad stands as a poetic gesture of defiance. War is Greek to us—our incomprehensible common inheritance—and must never cease seeming at once uncanny and familiar.
In Book II of The Iliad the nebbish Thersites dares to speak truth to Agamemnon’s hollow power and receives in return for his efforts an ensemble jeer from the other Greek soldiers and some memorable blows from Odysseus, who takes the speaker’s scepter to his
Nape, sides, back, butt, stroke after slow accurate stroke,
And pain, lewd pain, a weeping pain, your smash-hit
High-reliability fast-forward pain.
Logue pitches his voice squarely between the tears of Thersites and the entreaties of Odysseus, who, turning to Thersites and us all, says, of Zeus and Agamemnon, respectively the commanders-in-chief of heaven and this patch of hell on earth: “Fear God—fear him. Fear him—fear me. Fear me— / And those like me—and save yourselves.” Logue’s poem performs a miraculous transubstantiation of this counseled “fear” into the special way of being afraid that Homer called arete. It has the courage of each empty conviction it refuses.