Book review: Spear in the Sand – Christopher Logue’s War Music

Christopher Logue, War Music, Faber, £20, ISBN  9780571202188
Reviewed by David Wheatley
War Music by Christopher Logue
War Music by Christopher Logue.

What is the great heroic poem of our age? How about the Iliad, translated by (take your pick) Stanley Lombardo, Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fagles, Stephen Mitchell, Caroline Alexander or Alice Oswald? Suppose, though, I asked what the great anti-heroic poem of our age is? Also the Iliad, let me suggest, but this time in Christopher Logue’s version, War Music. Writers on war poetry often enforce a distinction between the poetry of witness (World War I poetry) and the poetry of opinionation from a safe distance (Harold Pinter) with, most of the time, a degree of disapproval directed at the latter. Logue’s masterwork is both of these things at once. The project began with a commission from the Third Programme in 1959 and was published in instalments from Patrocleia (1963) to Cold Calls: War Music Continued (2005), remaining unfinished at Logue’s death in 2011. Readers of this edition who sniff opportunism in the helicopter on the dust jacket are mistaken: this has always been a topically opportunist poem. The young Logue served with the Black Watch and was posted to Palestine, where he was court-martialled and jailed: the comparison of Ajax, “grim underneath his tan”, to Rommel at El Alamein is practically a “Shelley plain”, as Browning might put it. But Logue is also very much a laureate of the first CND generation, of Ban the Bomb marches, and sixties protest poetry of the kind collected in his Ode to the Dodo. “I shall vote Labour because if I don’t my balls will drop off”, runs a typical line; it could be Logue’s Thersites talking about Achilles round the camp-fire. The dead Patroclus inspires a knob-joke. Where is the “eminently noble” poet we were promised by Matthew Arnold?  

An anti-heroic epic, then, “an Iliad rewritten by Thersites”, as Claude Rawson has called War Music. Questions of seriousness versus flippancy will tend to centre on Logue’s depiction of violence. In ‘The Iliad, Poem of Force’, Simone Weil characterises Homer’s epic as the great poem of force: “force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man’s flesh shrinks away.” The peculiar thing about Logue’s handling of force is that it is often more graphic than Homer but more cartoonish at the same time. Here is the death of Lycon:

   His neck was cut clean through
Except for a skein of flesh off which
His head hung down like a melon.

No melon in Homer; “his head hung by the very skin”, writes the greatest English translator of Homer, Chapman. Do we need the squishy afterthought? A good point of comparison here is that other sixties text of ultra-violence, Ted Hughes’s Crow: “Her promises took off the top of his skull. […] / His vows pulled out all her sinews.” Sometimes it takes a heart of stone not to burst out laughing, as Wilde said of the death of Little Nell. There’s not much mileage in accusing Logue (or Hughes) of a lack of subtlety when overstatement is the point, and not just on the battlefield. There is an amusing Horrible Histories sketch portraying the classical gods as a compensation racket for gullible humans (“Here at Gods Direct we have specialist Roman gods on hand twenty-four hours a day to review your petty, small-minded gripe”), and their portrayal in War Music is not so very different, with the racket run by a bunch of gangsters and their molls. Aphrodite calls Hera Zeus’s “blubber-bummed wife with her gobstopper nipples”, and Hera and Athene retaliate with chants of “Queen of the Foaming Hole”.  

Hera loves the Greeks and insists her husband support them too, Aphrodite bats for the Trojans, and Apollo treats the whole business as a glorified Subbuteo game, getting a two-page spread of his name in mega-caps when he intervenes, in one of the poem’s most dramatic passages, to kill Patroclus. When Joyce disembowels Gaelic myth in the Citizen chapter of Ulysses, the temptation is to assume that he is trampling on the original texts, whereas in reality the originals were already giddily satirical. Three hundred years before Logue, Pope’s Iliad is full of bathos, while Erasmus found Homer’s gods “full of folly”, and so on all the way back to the unknowable source of Homer himself. While the gods flounce and pout, the sexual goings-on down below are fairly strong stuff. Achilles’s epic sulk, lasting most of the book, is over the appropriation of his sex slave or prize “she”, Briseis, by Agamemnon. Sexual injustice is when the wrong man enjoys the booty of war, not the sex slavery itself. The poetry is in the pitilessness.

Stylistically, War Music is a varied affair. Like The Cantos, it alternates between rolling verse paragraphs and jewelled fragments. Logue does battle scenes to match any Kurosawa film, often in long, loping lines, but keeps an accelerando effect at the ready for when the drama intensifies. But there is real weightiness here too, the weight of the world and the weight of the word. How much of an adjustment, I wonder, would be required before this battle scene from ‘GBH’ could be passed off as an offcut from Geoffrey Hill’s own ‘War Music’:

     Impacted battle. Dust above a herd.
Trachea, source of tears, sliced clean.
Deckle-edged wounds: ‘Poor Byfenapt, to know,’ knocked clean
Out of his armour like a half-set jelly,
‘Your eyes to be still open yet not see,’ or see
A face split off,
Sent skimming lidlike through the crunch
Still smiling, but its pupils dots on dice.

The identity of ‘Byfenapt’ escapes me, but tinkerings with Homer’s names and other anachronisms abound: an argument in heaven starts with George Solti bringing down his conductor’s baton; Napoleon’s cavalry officer Joachim Murat is ridiculed for packing “50 pots of facial mayonnaise” for battle; and the joy of combat is likened to that of an “Uzi shuddering warm against your hip”. As in Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, anachronism contributes to the anti-heroic mood, serving up a junk shop of broken images, fractured allusions, and knocked-off grandeur. It also helps smooth the connections between the “ineffable imbecility” of the two empires Pound had in mind in 1919, ancient Roman and contemporary British.

War Music was described by its author as an “account” of the original rather than a translation (Logue had no Greek), but in his notes we see him honouring the epic convention of prepared similes “to be kept in reserve for some appropriate moment that never came”, as his expert editor, Christopher Reid, writes. They’re not the only lacuna in the text. Logue omits the description of the shield of Achilles from Book 18, at which point readers may wish to call an intermission while they reread Auden’s great poem on that subject. Despite taking several times longer over his text than the ten years of the Trojan war, Logue never got as far as the combat of Achilles and Hector and all that flows from that, as so memorably condensed into Michael Longley’s sonnet ‘Ceasefire’. Desunt cetera, as we say in Latin. Ezra Pound’s posthumous cantos have amounted to a handsomely proportioned volume, but Logue’s leftovers are sadly slim pickings.

Given those absences, the poem’s structure as it now stands suffers from some lopsidedness: the opening forty pages, for instance, are largely devoted to a plague of insects in the Greek camp while Agamemnon and Achilles quarrel over Briseis. The descriptions of Troy awaiting attack, the back-and-forth between the Greek and Trojan camps, and the arguments in heaven are orchestrated as finely as any George Solti performance, and the skirmishes of ‘All Day Permanent Red’ are thrilling stuff, but nothing compares to the fourth section, ‘War Music’, in which first Patroclus is killed and then Achilles overcomes his battle-shyness, to predictably terrible effect.

The paradox of Logue’s achievement is that War Music is one long anti-war satire, without his ever proving that protest poetry as we now understand that term formed any part of Homer’s intention. All we are saying is give peace a chance, as Achilles and Priam don’t say. Once again, I fall back on the idea of anachronism. Logue is someone who can bring to a Homeric battle scene the snarky outrage of someone posting a comment on Facebook, and to the rowing of a shower of puffed-up blokes the steely poise and permanence of a classical hexameter. The author’s notes follow the same logic of promiscuous mixing, pointing us towards his precursor translators but also unexpected sources such as August Kleinzahler, Emily Dickinson, and a Jacques Brel song translated by Logue’s wife, Rosemary Hill. Mention of Logue’s precursors reminds me of the long tradition of one translator finishing off another’s work: Chapman finished Marlowe’s Hero and Leander, and Pope had dogsbodies to help him with his Homer. It’s hard to say who could step into the Attic breach for Logue and steer this wonderful masterwork to completion. Better perhaps to ponder the note of beautiful mutability and transience on which the published text ends:

    And Achilles, shaken, says:
‘I know I will not make old bones.’

    And laid his scourge against their racing flanks.

    Someone has left a spear stuck in the sand.

The Poetry Review spring 2016First published in The Poetry Review, 106:1, Spring 2016 © The Poetry Review and the author. David Wheatley’s latest collection is A Nest on the Waves (Gallery, 2010).