Eothen, by Alexander William Kinglake

Chapter IV

The Troad

Methley recovered almost suddenly, and we determined to go through the Troad together.

My comrade was a capital Grecian. It is true that his singular mind so ordered and disposed his classic lore as to impress it with something of an original and barbarous character — with an almost Gothic quaintness, more properly belonging to a rich native ballad than to the poetry of Hellas. There was a certain impropriety in his knowing so much Greek — an unfitness in the idea of marble fauns, and satyrs, and even Olympian gods, lugged in under the oaken roof and the painted light of an odd, old Norman hall. But Methley, abounding in Homer, really loved him (as I believe) in all truth, without whim or fancy; moreover, he had a good deal of the practical sagacity

“Of a Yorkshireman hippodamoio,”

and this enabled him to apply his knowledge with much more tact than is usually shown by people so learned as he.

I, too, loved Homer, but not with a scholar’s love. The most humble and pious among women was yet so proud a mother that she could teach her firstborn son no Watts’ hymns, no collects for the day; she could teach him in earliest childhood no less than this, to find a home in his saddle, and to love old Homer, and all that old Homer sung. True it is, that the Greek was ingeniously rendered into English, the English of Pope even, but not even a mesh like that can screen an earnest child from the fire of Homer’s battles.

I pored over the Odyssey as over a story-book, hoping and fearing for the hero whom yet I partly scorned. But the Iliad — line by line I clasped it to my brain with reverence as well as with love. As an old woman deeply trustful sits reading her Bible because of the world to come, so, as though it would fit me for the coming strife of this temporal world, I read and read the Iliad. Even outwardly, it was not like other books; it was throned in towering folios. There was a preface or dissertation printed in type still more majestic than the rest of the book; this I read, but not till my enthusiasm for the Iliad had already run high. The writer compiling the opinions of many men, and chiefly of the ancients, set forth, I know not how quaintly, that the Iliad was all in all to the human race — that it was history, poetry, revelation; that the works of men’s hands were folly and vanity, and would pass away like the dreams of a child, but that the kingdom of Homer would endure for ever and ever.

I assented with all my soul. I read, and still read; I came to know Homer. A learned commentator knows something of the Greeks, in the same sense as an oil-and-colour man may be said to know something of painting; but take an untamed child, and leave him alone for twelve months with any translation of Homer, and he will be nearer by twenty centuries to the spirit of old Greece; HE does not stop in the ninth year of the siege to admire this or that group of words; HE has no books in his tent, but he shares in vital counsels with the “king of men,” and knows the inmost souls of the impending gods; how profanely he exults over the powers divine when they are taught to dread the prowess of mortals! and most of all, how he rejoices when the God of War flies howling from the spear of Diomed, and mounts into heaven for safety! Then the beautiful episode of the Sixth Book: the way to feel this is not to go casting about, and learning from pastors and masters how best to admire it. The impatient child is not grubbing for beauties, but pushing the siege; the women vex him with their delays, and their talking; the mention of the nurse is personal, and little sympathy has he for the child that is young enough to be frightened at the nodding plume of a helmet; but all the while that he thus chafes at the pausing of the action, the strong vertical light of Homer’s poetry is blazing so full upon the people and things of the Iliad, that soon to the eyes of the child they grow familiar as his mother’s shawl; yet of this great gain he is unconscious, and on he goes, vengefully thirsting for the best blood of Troy, and never remitting his fierceness till almost suddenly it is changed for sorrow — the new and generous sorrow that he learns to feel when the noblest of all his foes lies sadly dying at the Scaean gate.

Heroic days are these, but the dark ages of schoolboy life come closing over them. I suppose it is all right in the end, yet, by Jove, at first sight it does seem a sad intellectual fall from your mother’s dressing-room to a buzzing school. You feel so keenly the delights of early knowledge; you form strange mystic friendships with the mere names of mountains, and seas, and continents, and mighty rivers; you learn the ways of the planets, and transcend their narrow limits, and ask for the end of space; you vex the electric cylinder till it yields you, for your toy to play with, that subtle fire in which our earth was forged; you know of the nations that have towered high in the world, and the lives of the men who have saved whole empires from oblivion. What more will you ever learn? Yet the dismal change is ordained, and then, thin meagre Latin (the same for everybody), with small shreds and patches of Greek, is thrown like a pauper’s pall over all your early lore. Instead of sweet knowledge, vile, monkish, doggerel grammars and graduses, dictionaries and lexicons, and horrible odds and ends of dead languages, are given you for your portion, and down you fall, from Roman story to a three-inch scrap of “Scriptores Romani,” — from Greek poetry down, down to the cold rations of “Poetae Graeci,” cut up by commentators, and served out by schoolmasters!

It was not the recollection of school nor college learning, but the rapturous and earnest reading of my childhood, which made me bend forward so longingly to the plains of Troy.

Away from our people and our horses, Methley and I went loitering along by the willow banks of a stream that crept in quietness through the low, even plain. There was no stir of weather overhead, no sound of rural labour, no sign of life in the land; but all the earth was dead and still, as though it had lain for thrice a thousand years under the leaden gloom of one unbroken Sabbath.

Softly and sadly the poor, dumb, patient stream went winding and winding along through its shifting pathway; in some places its waters were parted, and then again, lower down, they would meet once more. I could see that the stream from year to year was finding itself new channels, and flowed no longer in its ancient track, but I knew that the springs which fed it were high on Ida — the springs of Simois and Scamander!

It was coldly and thanklessly, and with vacant, unsatisfied eyes that I watched the slow coming and the gliding away of the waters. I tell myself now, as a profane fact, that I did stand by that river (Methley gathered some seeds from the bushes that grew there), but since that I am away from his banks, “divine Scamander” has recovered the proper mystery belonging to him as an unseen deity; a kind of indistinctness, like that which belongs to far antiquity, has spread itself over my memory, of the winding stream that I saw with these very eyes. One’s mind regains in absence that dominion over earthly things which has been shaken by their rude contact. You force yourself hardily into the material presence of a mountain, or a river, whose name belongs to poetry and ancient religion, rather than to the external world; your feelings wound up and kept ready for some sort of half-expected rapture are chilled, and borne down for the time under all this load of real earth and water; but let these once pass out of sight, and then again the old fanciful notions are restored, and the mere realities which you have just been looking at are thrown back so far into distance, that the very event of your intrusion upon such scenes begins to look dim and uncertain, as though it belonged to mythology.

It is not over the plain before Troy that the river now flows; its waters have edged away far towards the north, since the day that “divine Scamander” (whom the gods call Xanthus) went down to do battle for Ilion, “with Mars, and Phoebus, and Latona, and Diana glorying in her arrows, and Venus the lover of smiles.”

And now, when I was vexed at the migration of Scamander, and the total loss or absorption of poor dear Simois, how happily Methley reminded me that Homer himself had warned us of some such changes! The Greeks in beginning their wall had neglected the hecatombs due to the gods, and so after the fall of Troy Apollo turned the paths of the rivers that flow from Ida and sent them flooding over the wall, till all the beach was smooth and free from the unhallowed works of the Greeks. It is true I see now, on looking to the passage, that Neptune, when the work of destruction was done, turned back the rivers to their ancient ways:

“ . . . [Greek verse],”

but their old channels passing through that light pervious soil would have been lost in the nine days’ flood, and perhaps the god, when he willed to bring back the rivers to their ancient beds, may have done his work but ill: it is easier, they say, to destroy than it is to restore.

We took to our horses again, and went southward towards the very plain between Troy and the tents of the Greeks, but we rode by a line at some distance from the shore. Whether it was that the lay of the ground hindered my view towards the sea, or that I was all intent upon Ida, or whether my mind was in vacancy, or whether, as is most like, I had strayed from the Dardan plains all back to gentle England, there is now no knowing, nor caring, but it was not quite suddenly indeed, but rather, as it were, in the swelling and falling of a single wave, that the reality of that very sea-view, which had bounded the sight of the Greeks, now visibly acceded to me, and rolled full in upon my brain. Conceive how deeply that eternal coast-line, that fixed horizon, those island rocks, must have graven their images upon the minds of the Grecian warriors by the time that they had reached the ninth year of the siege! conceive the strength, and the fanciful beauty, of the speeches with which a whole army of imagining men must have told their weariness, and how the sauntering chiefs must have whelmed that daily, daily scene with their deep Ionian curses!

And now it was that my eyes were greeted with a delightful surprise. Whilst we were at Constantinople, Methley and I had pored over the map together. We agreed that whatever may have been the exact site of Troy, the Grecian camp must have been nearly opposite to the space betwixt the islands of Imbros and Tenedos,

“[Greek verse],”

but Methley reminded me of a passage in the Iliad in which Neptune is represented as looking at the scene of action before Ilion from above the island of Samothrace. Now Samothrace, according to the map, appeared to be not only out of all seeing distance from the Troad, but to be entirely shut out from it by the intervening Imbros, which is a larger island, stretching its length right athwart the line of sight from Samothrace to Troy. Piously allowing that the dread Commoter of our globe might have seen all mortal doings, even from the depth of his own cerulean kingdom, I still felt that if a station were to be chosen from which to see the fight, old Homer, so material in his ways of thought, so averse from all haziness and overreaching, would have MEANT to give the god for his station some spot within reach of men’s eyes from the plains of Troy. I think that this testing of the poet’s words by map and compass may have shaken a little of my faith in the completeness of his knowledge. Well, now I had come; there to the south was Tenedos, and here at my side was Imbros, all right, and according to the map, but aloft over Imbros, aloft in a far-away heaven, was Samothrace, the watch-tower of Neptune!

So Homer had appointed it, and so it was; the map was correct enough, but could not, like Homer, convey THE WHOLE TRUTH. Thus vain and false are the mere human surmises and doubts which clash with Homeric writ!

Nobody whose mind had not been reduced to the most deplorable logical condition could look upon this beautiful congruity betwixt the Iliad and the material world and yet bear to suppose that the poet may have learned the features of the coast from mere hearsay; now then, I believed; now I knew that Homer had PASSED ALONG HERE, that this vision of Samothrace over-towering the nearer island was common to him and to me.

After a journey of some few days by the route of Adramiti and Pergamo we reached Smyrna. The letters which Methley here received obliged him to return to England.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kinglake/alexander_william/eothen/chapter4.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44