The poet of The Iliad adopts an overwhelmingly serious tone, which is fitting given that epic poetry recounts serious events of mythological or historical importance. In the case of The Iliad, the poet uses a serious tone to maintain a sense of reverence for the horrific violence to which the Achaeans and Trojans subject themselves. As such, the clearest examples of the poet’s seriousness appear in the many tense descriptions of battle, like these lines from Book 4:
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood.
Wildly as two winter torrents raging down from the mountains,
swirling into a valley, hurl their great waters together,
flash floods from the wellsprings plunging down in a gorge
and miles away in the hills a shepherd hears the thunder—
so from the grinding armies broke the cries and crash of war.
Here the poet conjures a serious tone, one that is tinged with a sense of awe and foreboding at the violent image of two massive armies crashing together like two wild rivers. The poet emphasizes the seriousness of this passage through the use of an epic simile, which further underscores that war is an intense, violent, and grave matter.
Whereas the poet’s seriousness sometimes invokes awe and intensity, at other times it invokes grief and pity in order to reflect the unavoidable despair caused by war. The many accounts of soldiers’ deaths repeatedly emphasize horrible pain and fear. Take this example from Book 20 when Achilles takes down a Trojan:
speared him square in the back where is war-belt clasped,
golden buckles clinching both halves of his breastplate—
straight on through went the point and out the navel,
down on his knees he dropped—
screaming shrill as the world went black before him—
clutched his bowels to his body, hunched and sank.
In this and many similar passages, the poet makes the dying soldier’s pain and fear palpable. Homer also humanizes the dead and dying; in virtually every killing recounted the poet gives the name and lineage of the soldier who dies. At times, Homer even seems to take a personal interest in individual heroes, much like the gods do from their perch on Mount Olympus. In Book 16, for instance, the poet repeatedly addresses Patroclus in the second person:
[Euphorbus] was the first to launch a spear against you,
Patroclus O my rider, but did not bring you down.
Yanking out his ashen shaft from your body,
back he dashed and lost himself in the crowds.
The poet repeats the phrase “O my rider” later on, a phrase that establishes a tone of lament that will be amplified when Achilles learns of his friend’s demise and decides to rejoin the fight in an attempt to assuage his grief. Here, as elsewhere in the poem, Homer adopts a lamenting tone that implicitly mourns the destruction of war.
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