The similes of Homer's Iliad online

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I.Iiss Frances M• Molera


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W. C. GREEN, M.A.,





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Such is the fascination which Homer exercises upon his
admirers that they still continue to transl^e him ; chiefly
perhaps for their own pleasure, but also because, as
tastes vary in the matter of translation, they hope their
new versions may win some sort of a hearing. Be this
my excuse for the present attempt to put an attractive
part of Homer into an English dress which may find
some acceptance.

The comparisons, or similes as they are called, in the
Iliad, although most effective in their special places and
when read with their context, may yet be very well taken
by themselves. They comprize some of Homer's finest
descriptive passages ; and modern readers, who would find
the details of old legendary battles and much of the bulk

G. I



of the poem tedious or unsuited to their taste, will appre-
ciate descriptions of Nature that are true for all time, and
never long enough to weary or severely task the attention.

Homer may, I think, be called the Father of simile ;
for, whatever date we assign to the Homeric poems, their
author will remain the earliest Greek poet who has
elaborated the simile ; and from him, in matter or manner,
those that came after have directly or indirectly borrowed.
Hence his similes are of peculiar interest ; and they seemed
to be worth grouping together and illustrating from other
and later poets, especially from our own.

Metaphor, simile, and the like ornaments, belong to all
poetry. Indeed they seem to be not only ornaments, but
of its very essence. With metaphors even prose cannot
long dispense, and poetry not at all. Simile is something
more deliberate ; being a formally instituted comparison,
an illustration of the scene or action before us by some
other scene or action. It finds its place chiefly in epic
and descriptive poetry ; where by the transference of the
reader's imagination to a different scene it is often a
pleasing relief : whereas in the drama it is not wanted ;


and accordingly similes, or at least elaborate similes, are
there seldom found.

In the Iliad of Homer the similes are as thickly-
scattered as in any poet : there is an average of between
seven and eight to each book. The form of the Homeric
simile is generally the same. The commonest outlines are

"As when So", "As So": occasionally it is as the

following: "They stood like to clouds which So

stood they." And once we find this : "Not so loud roars

the wave As was the noise of the onset." But if there

is small variety in form, there is great variety in matter.
The elements and forces of nature in different aspects ;
winds, waters, fire, storm, calm ; animals, birds, beasts,
fishes ; scenes of human life, warlike, peaceful, public,
private ; even the homeliest and commonest employments —
all furnish Homer with images. And though he be de-
scribing the actions of heroes and gods, he does not hesitate
to take a homely, nay, it may be, to modern apprehension a
low and vulgar image, if it strikes him as clear and forcible :
as for instance where Apollo is compared to a child build-
ing sand-castles on the shore, or Ajax to an obstinate ass.


In Homer's similes there is one striking• point of like-
ness to the matter in hand; this determines the poet's choice
of the illustration. He then works out the picture, often
with most elaborate details, which bring it vividly before
the reader, but have little or no bearing upon the thing
illustrated. As Professor Blackie well puts it, "the Homeric
similes seldom rest contented, as our modern similes do,
with flashing out the one point of analogy required for the
occasion, but generally indulge in painting out the picture,
for the pure imaginative luxury of looking at the object in
its completeness." These details must not be pressed as
simile : useless pains have sometimes been spent in trying
to find in the action which the poet is illustrating counter-
parts for the small particulars of the simile. In this matter
Heyne, to my mind, is a most clearsighted and sensible
interpreter of Homer. He has a keen eye for hitting on
the true point of likeness, and avoids refining on fancied
resemblances in details merely ornamental.

A glance at almost any simile will shew Homer's
characteristic manner of enlarging the picture. Take, for
instance, δ. 141. The contrast of colour between the fair


skin and red blood is imaged by the contrasted colours in
ivory artificially stained with crimson. But, in order vividly
to present to his hearer's mind this sort of work, Homer
specializes it as a cheek-piece for a horse, an ornament
which a king might covet. Or take λ. 473, where, though
the comparison is double, the details must not be pressed
too far ; indeed some particulars in the illustration — as is
pointed out in the note on that passage — are quite opposite
to the result in the thing illustrated.

" Secure of the main likeness Homer makes no scruple
to play with the circumstances," says Pope. And readers
of Homer who bear this in mind will not complain that his
similes are unlike their originals, unless they unreasonably
exact that simile shall be simile, allegory allegory, and
parable parable, down to the minutest details.

The Homeric simile being such, it will be interesting
to notice how far poets of other ages and countries resemble
or differ from the Greek bard in their use of the simile.
And it is here not to imitations or close parallels that I
would draw attention — these have been placed in the notes ;
— but rather to the general manner and style.


The most ancient poetry from which I can draw ex-
amples of the simile is the Hebrew poetry of the Old
Testament. Of this, some is certainly before Homer, some
coeval with him, some later. Now between the comparisons
of the Hebrew writers and those of Homer, there is in one
respect a striking likeness, in another a striking unlikeness.

The likeness is in the boldness with which the homeliest
illustrations from common and domestic life are introduced.
The unlikeness in the shortness and the unadorned plain-
ness of the Hebrew comparisons. " They do not often
(I quote Bishop Lowth) enlarge copiously by many adjuncts
a single comparison, but rather heap together several com-
parisons parallel or cognate, each one of which they give
briefly and plainly."

And hrst as to the use of homely and familiar images.
This feature, common to the Biblical poetry and Homer,
might be illustrated by examples to any extent. Images
from ploughing, sowing, reaping ; from all the details of
Eastern agricultural life, will occur to every one. Common
arts and manufactures often suggest images ; nay, even the
most ordinary household work. For instance in 2 Kings


χχί. 13 : "I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish:
he wipeth it and turneth it upside down." Forcible this is,
though homely. So Homer draws an illustration from com-
mon dairy work, when he compares (e. 902) the staunching
of blood to the curdling of milk. From the threshing-floor
we find similes taken both in the Bible and in Homer.
Those who have written on the Bible poetry compare with
//. V. 495 Isaiah xli. 15, 16 : " Behold, I have made thee a
threshing-wain sharpened and new, having teeth; thou shalt
thresh the mountains and beat them small, and shalt make
the hills as chaff; thou shalt fan them, and the wind shall
carry them away, and the whirlwind shall scatter them."
The illustration of destructive vengeance by corn-threshing
is certainly like Homer's comparison, though far bolder :
and the scattering of the grain by fan and wind supplies
Homer with two similes (e. 499 and v. 588). Instances
might be multiplied where the Hebrew poets in metaphor,
comparison or symbolism, take the homeliest actions to
illustrate high things. Homer often does the same. So
far there is a likeness in their similes.

But there is also a decided unlikeness in the manner of


the Biblical similes as compared with Homer's, or indeed
with those of other classical poets. Lowth (Lect. xii. on
Hebrew poetry) has well described it : "The Hebrew poets
use comparisons far more frequently than any, but they
compensate their frequency by their brevity. Where others
are copious, full, and luxuriant, there the Hebrews are
rather brief, terse and quick : and are forcible, not by long
flow of language, but, as it were, by repeated blows."
The truth of this criticism is at once seen by looking at
any of Homer's pictures. Luxuriance in details not ne-
cessary to the comparison is certainly their characteristic,
whereas this is rare in Hebrew poetry. Lowth quotes as
an exceptional instance of a comparison with unnecessary
adjuncts Ps. cxxix. 6 — 8 : " Let them (the haters of Ζ ion)
be as the grass upon the house-tops, which withereth afore
it groweth up : wherewith the mower filleth not his hand,
nor he that bindeth the sheaves his bosom ; neither do they
which go by say. The blessing of God be upon you ; we
bless you in the name of the Lord." And one might
remark that even here the rejection of the grass by the
mower and sheaf-binder, the withholding from it the cus-


tomary "God bless you" given to the reaper, are particulars
not quite beside the comparison, but may without violence
be applied to the haters of Zion. But of course there is no
rule without an exception : and if in simile the Hebrews
are sparing of ornament and un-Homeric, in metaphor and
allegory they are sometimes very full and particular (e. g.
in the vineyard of Ps. Ixxx. and Is. v.): and there is one
simile in Job which, being exceptionally Homsric, I will
quote in full :

My brethren have dealt deceitfully, as a torrent :

As the stream of torrents they have passed away;

Which are turbid by reason of the ice.

Wherein the snow melts and is hid :

Yet what time they wax warm, they vanish ;

When it is hot, they are extinguished out of their place.

The caravans turn from their way,

They go up into the desert and perish.

The caravans of Tema look for them.

The companies of Sheba rest their hope on them :

They are ashamed of their trust,

They come thither, and blush. Job vi, 15 — 20.

Job's friends fail as the torrent fails; this is the gist


of the comparison : but then details are added quite in
Homer's manner: the summer drought is contrasted with
the winter flood : the picture is further adorned by the de-
scription of how the thirsty wayfarers seek the accustomed
stream and meet with blank disappointment.

A Greek version, however imperfect, may serve to bring
out clearly the Homeric character of the passage.

7/ pa νΰ μ βξέλιττόρ re και ίζαττάτησαν eralpoi,
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Online LibraryHomerThe similes of Homer's Iliad → online text (page 1 of 12)