In the third week, students are introduced to the epic simile: the technique of making a detailed and complex comparison, unfolding over several lines. The week is structured around four 20th century poets who have each reworked or re-contextualised similes from the Homer, Virgil and the Anglo Saxons. Each poet finds different ways to connect the ancient poetry of their source material to modern times. These contemporary re-workings of epic draw students’ attention to the epic simile as a legacy of epic poetry, a particular thing that grows out of it. The week thus continues a theme from Week 2 – the idea that techniques from poetry are adapted and developed across time – and provides new models for students to engage with poetic history. A focus throughout is on the question: How does an extended simile work? How can it both naturalise something strange and make strange something natural?
Example 1: From Alice Oswald’s ‘Memorial’
Like snow falling like snow
When the living winds shake the clouds into pieces
Like flutters of silence hurrying down
To put a stop to the earth at her leafwork
Like when a mother is rushing
And a little girl clings to her clothes
Wants help wants arms
Won’t let her walk
Like the high unescapable eye
Of the eagle
Under whose beam
The shadow-swift hare can’t hide
Pressed flat to the floor
Of a leafy wood
That loitering eye looks once
Notes on Oswald
Alice Oswald’s Memorial is a selective translation or ‘excavation’ of Homer’s The Iliad. Oswald fillets Homer’s original text and removes from it just two elements: his epic similes, and his dead soldiers. That is, she lists all the people who die in the original text – Scamandrius the hunter, Deicoon the Trojan, Pylaemenes and his driver Mydon – and juxtaposes this memorial-like list with Homer’s poetic imagery: ‘like snow like falling snow’; ‘like when a mother is rushing and a little girl clings to her clothes’; ‘like the high unescapable eye of the eagle’. Ask students to consider the contrast of these two chosen details. Why are they put together like this? What is the effect of taking these details out of the original context of the Iliad?
Another technique to draw students’ attention to is how the poet repeats everything twice. Ask students to consider the effect of this double repetition. What is it for? At first it seems very strange, but the cumulative effect of it, perhaps, is to add to the elegiac feeling of the poem.
Discuss with students how the epic simile is used here to normalises the strange. The snow, for example, is a very peaceful image, yet it is being used here to talk about death. The second one, the mother and child is the same. What are the effects of using natural language in this way? Why does Oswald want to ‘naturalise’ the horrors of war?
Example 2: From Christopher Logue’s War Music
There is a kind of ocean wave
Whose origin remains obscure.
Such waves are solitary, and appear
Just off the cliff-line of Antarctica
And now we see one! – like a stranger coast
Faring towards our own, and taste its breath,
And watch it whale, then whiten, then decay:
Whose thunder makes our spirits leap.
It was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear
The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia.
Think of the noise that fills the air
When autumn takes the Dnieper by the arm
And skein on skein of honking geese fly south
To give the stateless rains a miss.
So Hector’s moon-horned, shouting dukes
Burst from the tunnels, down the counterslope,
And shout, shout, shout, smashed shouted shout
Backward and forth across the sky; while pace on pace
The Greeks descended from the ridge towards the strip
With blank, unyielding imperturbability.
Take an industrial lift.
Pack it with men fighting each other,
Smashing each other back against its governors
So the packed cage shoots floors up, then down,
Then up again, then down, lights out, then stops,
But what does not stop are the blows,
Fists, feet, teeth, knees, the screams of triumph and of agony
As up they go, then stop, then down they go.
No place on earth without its god.
Notes on Logue
Logue’s War Music is a very free and creative version of The Iliad, which often modernises Homer’s original epic similes, finding for them contemporary equivalents, such as the addition of ‘an industrial lift’. Such a detail is a great example of Logue’s own play with similes: it conveys the idea of dissent working on two levels, heaven and earth, gods and men (‘no place on earth without its god’), while simultaneously evoking the closeness and horror of a battle (‘pack it with men fighting each other’).
The poem is also full of natural similes. Whereas Oswald uses natural imagery to normalise, Logue here uses natural imagery to create a shocking image: the ‘ocean wave whose origin remains obscure’, the ‘hoop of tidal light’ and ‘fields of light that sometimes sheet low-tide sands’. Logue’s poem creates a kind of modern nature film, the sense of a catastrophic tsunami; through his natural imagery, he brings a sense of modern warfare to Homer’s battle.
Students can compare these extended natural similes to Oswald’s, exploring the very different ways in which an extended simile can work: how a metaphor can work to both naturalise something strange, but also to take something ordinary and show how strange it is, to make it shocking.
It is also interesting to ask students to reflect on Logue’s practice as a poet. He worked on this work for most of his life, starting it in the 1960s, without having any Greek himself but working from a whole range of translations. He added in imagery which he found and took from his own lifetime. The final work is unfinished, with unplaceable fragments (like the fina two stanzas above, marked ‘unplaceable’) which don’t fit exactly into the rest of the poem. What kind of long-term, lifelong projects might students see themselves undertaking? Is it important, always, to finish a poem, or can the process of writing it be just as worthwhile?
Example 3: From Seamus Heaney’s Aeneid Book VI
Then when they came to the fuming gorge at Avernus
They swept up through clear air and back down
To their chosen perch, a tree that was two trees
In one, green-leafed yet refulgent with gold.
Like mistletoe shining in cold winter woods,
Gripping its tree but not grafted, always in leaf,
Its yellowy berries in sprays curled round the bole –
Those flickering gold tendrils lit up the dark
Overhang of the oak and chimed in the breeze.
There and then Aeneas took hold of the bough
And although it resisted greedily tore it off,
Then carried it back to the Sibyl’s cavern.
Notes on Heaney
Whereas Oswald and Logue work from Homer, Heaney is here working from Virgil. Yet there are many similarities in the approach, particularly in the reliance on natural imagery: ‘mistletoe shining in cold winter woods’, ‘a remote grove, bushy rustling thickets’. Heaney here is working within a Romantic tradition, bringing the natural world alive through sensual description. Yet, of course, he is also still describing war. Ask students to consider what the purpose of these natural images are: is Heaney, like Oswald, using them to naturalise what might seem impossibly strange and distant events, and thus make us feel them as real, or is he using them to make strange and shocking something which previously seemed ordinary?
Example 4: From J.O. Morgan’s At Maldon
Just as matched magnetic poles brought close
reluctantly repel, so the armies
each pull away from the water’s frothy brink.
Two armies, like two halves of an egg-timer,
the ford a pinch in the glass, through which
a few grains only at anyone time may pass.
Consider the shrink of a war-horde:
invisible diminution of clustered invaders,
sucked towards the vacuum of their boats.
Notes on Morgan
Morgan’s poem is a ‘re-interpretation’ of an Anglo-Saxon poem describing the Battle of Maldon. As such, it comes out of a different tradition that the classical sources of the other three example – although it is similar in its sense of the heroic, and its emphasis on war.
Morgan’s similes are more like additions; he retains the original similes from the Anglo-Saxon text, but adds his own improvisations on top of it, such as ‘the little figure of the spokesman’, who emerges ‘brush[ing] out the creases in his suit, clear[ing] his throat’. Morgan is also playing with the originals’ rudimentary characters here, toying with ideas about class and stereotype. In the movement of people in battle he finds lots of room for metaphor – for example, the sucking of a vacuum for the men in retreat, heading back to their boats. This metaphorisation of human movements is something particularly rich for students to draw on. How might they describe the movements of people around a city using their own extended similes? This final question leads students to the week’s main task…
Ask students to experiment with their own extended similes by taking a contemporary scene of action and trying to find a way to describe it through a detailed, extended comparison. They should choose a place or event where there is a great deal of human movement, as in the great battles on which the original epic poems were based. Some examples might include:
- A political demonstration or riot
- The crowd at a sporting event
- Street dancing at New Year’s Eve
- A battle scene from a big-budget movie
- Crowds pouring out of an underground station at rush hour
- The movement of people around a busy supermarket
- A festival or concert which is sold out
- The Black Friday sales before Christmas
Students should note down as many possible similes as they can for their chosen event or moment, and then, choosing the best simile, try and draw from it as much detail and resonance as possible, shaping it into a stanza or poem of several lines.