Homer composed The Iliad in an elevated style that befits the gravity of the events his epic poem recounts. The poem’s lofty language appears from the beginning, when the poet invokes the muse (or the goddess, depending on the translation) in a formal gesture meant to boost his authority and lend his retelling legitimacy. The poet repeats this gesture at other crucial moments in the poem. For example, in Book 2, the poet calls on the muses for assistance with recounting the many leaders of the Achaean—and, later, the Trojan—army:
Who were the captains of Achaea? Who were the kings?
The mass of troops I could never tally, never name,
not even if I had ten tongues and ten mouths,
. . .
never unless you Muses of Olympus, daughters of Zeus
whose shield is rolling thunder, sing, sing in memory
all who gathered under Troy.
Just as the poet uses an elevated style, so do the various characters who speak in the poem. The human heroes frequently deliver speeches either to boast of their accomplishments or urge their fellows on in battle. But no matter the subject of their speech they use an elevated style in keeping with the seriousness of the situation and their own dignity. The same is true for the gods, who generally speak and act as the humans do.
Among the most famous stylistic features of Homer’s verse is the epic simile. The term epic simile refers to a formal simile that develops a sustained comparison between a primary and secondary subject. Homer originated this form of simile, which is often also called a Homeric simile, and later poets, such as Virgil and Milton, imitated it. Epic similes appear frequently in The Iliad, and they have an intensifying and often ennobling effect that enhances the heroic status of events and individual accomplishments. In Book 11, for instance, the poet uses an epic simile to emphasize Ajax’s prowess on the battlefield:
Wild as a swollen river hurling down on the flats,
down from the hills in winter spate, bursting its banks
with rain from storming Zeus, and stands of good dry oak,
whole forests of pine it whorls into itself and sweeps along
till it heaves a crashing mass of driftwood out to sea—
so glorious Ajax swept the field, routing Trojans,
shattering teams and spearmen in his onslaught.
As this example indicates, Homer’s epic similes often go on for several lines. They also have a particular structure in which the primary subject of comparison gets deferred until after the secondary subject of comparison has been developed. Here, the poet conjures a lively image of a swollen river sweeping through a whole forest before bringing the comparison back to Ajax. The formal structure of Homer’s epic similes allows the poet to build tension and anticipation while heightening the importance of his tale.
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