Descriptions of nature can often reveal the timelessness of ancient literature. Earlier today I posted a short article on my Tumblr blog looking at the exquisite cormorant simile from book five of the Odyssey. But this is just one example of Homer bringing powerful scenes from nature into the realm of epic poetry enhancing breath-taking descriptions of gods, pivotal moments in the action, or the prowess of a particular character. However, in this post, I shall look at these as powerful descriptions of nature that we still observe and which still move us today. And I shall not confine myself just to Homer.
First, Homer on the night sky. To see a field, forest, or the sea in the absence of artificial light pollution lit in silver sparkles by the moon is a rare and genuine treat nowadays. It is an experience captured exactly in the following simile from book eight of the Iliad.
“Just as when in the high heaven the stars are exceedingly bright around the shining
moon, at the moment when the air is without breeze. And all the peaks, lofty headlands,
and glades glow visibly; the vast sky is cloven down from heaven, every star is visible,
and the shepherd rejoices in his heart.’
Like the shepherd, as we behold such a sight, we may feel a sense of wonder. Homer is describing the radiant blaze from the fires of the Trojan camp, which brings the reader back to the Trojan War, after stepping into an idyllic, moonlit, pastoral scene.
We come now to Virgil. With the autumn upon us and advancing, we turn to a simile from book six.
“Just as when the many leaves fall in the forests at the first frost of autumn, or when
many birds flock together from the deep to the land, when the cold year puts them to
flight across the sea and sends them forth to sunny lands.”
If you have ever splashed through the fallen leaves in autumn or seen the birds flying in large gatherings over the sea at this time of year, you will realise the truth of what Virgil describes so beautifully. When we are brought back to the action of the poem, we find that the falling leaves and flocking birds represent the mass of souls gathering on the bank of the Styx. Out of context, we have a stunning autumn scene that returns every year.
A lovely farming simile comes from Statius' Thebaid, far less well known than the Aeneid, Iliad, and Odyssey, but a wonderful poem and quite underrated. On its own one might dub the simile, 'farm animals behaving badly':
"Just as when a farmer attempts to join choice young bulls from the savage herd
beneath the plough placed upon them, because either has not yet bowed his lofty neck
down to his sinewy shoulders beneath many a plough, they resent it and pull in every
direction and loosen their chains with equal strength and jumble together the furrows
with their varying tracks."
Now, I might not have seen bulls being disobedient, but I have seen a grumpy young horse resisting the riding bridle for the firs time. The image of the strong creatures resisting powerfully is a beautiful description of two wild, not fully tamed beasts. Nevertheless, it becomes rather sinister in its application to the irreconcilable conflict between brothers Polyneices and Eteocles.
Finally, we return to Homer. A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a bench we have in the front drive and suddenly a group of starlings (in quite a flap, pun-intended) sped from behind the houses, across the road, and out to sea. Hot on their heels was a sparrowhawk. We don’t get many around our way, but this one drops in occasionally. I was reminded of the following simile from Iliad twenty-two:
“Just as when a hawk, nimblest of birds, fully-fledged, flying among the mountains, he
swoops easily on the trembling dove, and she darts off under and away in fear, and he
shrieking shrilly speeds after her close by, his heart urging him on to seize his prey.”
So from Homer to my front garden, such scenes bind us as humans charmed by the world us across nearly three thousand years of time and space.