Homer and the Poetry of Forgiveness

Forgiveness is a poetic act. I am going to explain and support this claim in various ways, but here at the start, I want to turn to an unlikely source, the ancient and very pagan epic poet Homer. Forgiveness would seem to be a fundamentally Christian practice—“if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”—and yet it takes on a strange clarity in connection to Homer’s poetry, especially the Iliad (Matt 6:14).

First of all, Homer can help us understand the primal human phenomenon that stands a step or two before forgiveness. That is, indignation. When the French writer Charles Péguy said a century ago that Homer is “new this morning, and nothing is perhaps as old as today’s newspaper,” surely part of what he was thinking of was the freshness of Homer’s moral psychology. His depiction of the mênis (rage, or consuming wrath) of Achilles, specifically, manages to be both larger than life and very lifelike:

Rage, goddess, sing the rage, of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the house of death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds . . .

Destructive conflict, as the poem so vividly shows, erupts from the murky depths of personal indignation: it begins, frequently, as an intelligible response to injustice or transgression—an agreement has been violated, or a close companion killed. And yet, as Homer also makes clear, the indignant rage of Achilles and others is fundamentally dangerous, ever liable to blow past the initial conditions of its uprising and carry the soul off into insensate madness.

Here is part of what Péguy found “new this morning”: Homer’s evocation of the astonishing heights and depths to which anger can carry a person—beyond all intentions, beyond all reasons or explanations. At a climactic point in the Iliad’s narrative, when Achilles has returned to the battle in pursuit of Hector, killer of his closest friend, we find a striking image of the possessive power of indignation in his soul. Mortally wounded, Hector pleads for the mercy of a proper burial, but Achilles cannot even hear it: “Beg no more, you fawning dog . . . . Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now / to hack your flesh away and eat it raw— / such agonies have you caused me!” Beyond humanity, his rage has both elevated him to glorious predominance and paradoxically lowered him to near-bestial oblivion. Achilles’ rage is rooted in a desire for revenge—repayment—but of course, repayment is strictly impossible: the debt Hector owes him for killing his friend Patroclus is unquantifiable, as is the cost of every serious grief. And so we are faced with the spectacle of Achilles’ drastic overreach: he will not only kill Hector, will not simply leave his body for carrion birds, but must drag it three times around the walls of Troy, and preserve the mangled corpse, putrid and unburied, in continual dishonor. As Pierre Manent has observed, his extreme abuse of Hector’s corpse stands parallel to his extreme veneration of Patroclus’ remains: no other fatality in the war receives a magnificent pyre, human sacrifices, funeral games, and so on. In both cases, here at the end of the poem, Achilles is straining to exert an impossible control, to glorify Patroclus beyond the grave, and to continue killing Hector, even when there is nothing left to kill. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet and his uncle Claudius, Achilles wants not only to kill Hector but to damn him, reaching out impossibly for a godlike sway over the afterlife. Here is the power of indignant rage in the soul.

Now, even if Homer’s vision of indignation is strikingly apt and compelling, the drama of forgiveness that can follow it with healing seems like a decidedly un-Homeric imaginative terrain. After all, Achilles’ rage is a very human response to the past—“such agonies have you caused me!” And yet forgiveness seems to be, at least in part, a turn away from the past. The recently deceased German philosopher Robert Spaemann wrote of forgiveness as “the readiness of the injured party, not to identify the offender with what he has become in fact, but to permit him to redefine himself in relation to his deeds. This permission we call ‘forgiving.’”

This is not to say that the forgiver pretends that the past has not happened: the one being forgiven cannot lose his associated character traits, or her history, but forgiveness recognizes that the person is more than these—“more than the sum of [his or her] attributes.” Rather than being frozen in an already finished being—you are this person, who has done these things, and that is all you are— the forgiven one is allowed to stretch out into a new space. Forgiveness, then, fore-gives, gives in advance, a future in which I may become other, or at least more, than what I have been. It does not say, “so that’s the kind of person you are—that’s it, we’re finished!” but “is a creative act and allows the other to be a new person.”

Indeed, the creative aspect of forgiveness can be called poetic, and fruitfully compared to certain elements of literary invention. In narrative fiction, plot depends for its life on character, and is itself a revelation or working out of character over time. On a classical, and especially an Aristotelian model, a plot seems “realistic” or lifelike when the characters at its heart behave in accord with expectation or probability. They should make choices that flow from who they are—their êthos, or character—so that the unfolding plot has a kind of intelligibility in its flow from beginning to middle to end. Because of who Antigone is, she is likely to make such-and-such choices in the given situation, and these choices lead to specific outcomes. You can see, or at least feel, it all coming. Both the intelligibility and the ominous sense of necessity in Sophocles’ play emerge from the predictability of character. This makes sense to Aristotle because character, according to his view, comes from habit—or rather, a tissue of different interrelated habits—and these habits themselves are formed culturally and familially: I have been formed to be who I am, and I make choices in accord with that formation. Thus for Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, the quality of my upbringing is all-determinative: “It makes no small difference,” he says, “to be habituated in this way or in that straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference.” On this view, the past may be my blessing or my curse, but one way or another, it will determine me. As Heraclitus said several decades before Aristotle, êthos anthrôpoi daimôn: “character is fate.”

By contrast, forgiveness narrates the other not in terms of character-as-destiny, but character-in-God. The Scriptures set forth God as both origin and end of the person, but also as the form of the person’s perfection: in Heaven, “We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is,” and sanctification is the process of attaining that goal, however partially, in this life (1 John 3:2). In turning from an offender’s past to his or her future, the forgiver is opening a space, a trajectory, of becoming toward God. And this is, to a significant extent, a Christian way of imagining character and plot. In a self-conscious development of the Christian tradition, the German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schlegel distinguished between a “classical,” or classicizing, literature that is “finished” and thus “capable of being fully analyzed,” and a “romantic kind of poetry” that “is still in the state of becoming; that, in fact, is its real essence: that it should forever be becoming and never perfected.” Schlegel’s plot of becoming depends on a central character (among others) who is not finished or merely determined by the past, but oriented toward his or her place in God—that is, toward the ideal, sanctified version of the self caught up in God. Here, the moments of my past—things I have done or chosen—are not powers to damn me, but fragments of a broken life to be recontextualized in a future, divine whole. The author of this kind of plot, then, plays a prophetic role, calling a character out into who he or she can be, but is not yet. It can happen within a work, when a character like Amy Dorrit (in Dickens’ Little Dorrit) calls out the elderly, spiteful Mrs. Clennam to be different, and more, than she has been:

O, Mrs Clennam, Mrs Clennam, [she says,] angry feelings and unforgiving deeds are no
comfort and no guide to you and me. . . . let me implore you to remember later and better days. Be guided only by the healer of the sick, the raiser of the dead, the friend of all who were afflicted and forlorn, the patient Master who shed tears of compassion for our infirmities. We cannot but be right if we put all the rest away, and do everything in remembrance of Him.

Amy sees in the broken pieces of Mrs. Clennam’s angry life not fatal necessity but fragments of a new and greater self, unimaginable to the old woman at the time: she stands, wondering at the younger woman’s challenge. The same kind of openness to becoming is palpable in works as a whole, as in many plays of Shakespeare (as opposed to the relatively closed, determined action of Paradise Lost). And this is the poetic mode of the act of forgiveness as well. It looks forward to the invisible whole in which the visible fragments of the present moment may be caught up. Forgiveness calls us out into the drama of becoming, thus participating in our re-creation.

In lyric poetry, there is a parallel analogy between forgiveness and creative invention. Lyric is of course a richly complex genre, and much goes into lyric making, but one of its key aspects is the seeing and speaking of analogical connections. As the contemporary poet Ryan Wilson has put it, “the poet must” find and draw out affinities between things, echoes that “point toward deeper connections, toward unforeseen likenesses that bring out the nature of the seen object[s], or the nature of the seer himself, or both.” That flashing sense of likeness between otherwise apparently disparate details: this is one dimension we tend to look for in lyric poetry. To take only one example, consider Philip Larkin’s poem “Skin”:

Obedient daily dress,
You cannot always keep
That unfakable young surface.
You must learn your lines—
Anger, amusement, sleep;
Those few forbidding signs
Of the continuous, coarse
Sand-laden wind, time;
You must thicken, work loose
Into an old bag,
Carrying a soiled name.
Parch then; be roughened; sag;

And pardon me, that I
Could find, when you were new,
No brash festivity
To wear you at, such as
New clothes are entitled to
Till the fashion changes.

In this darkly humorous little poem, Larkin makes our skin stand forth as clothing, first and foremost, but also as analogous to an actor who must “learn [his or her] lines,” a geological formation being altered by a “sand-laden wind,” an old, worn-out bag, and a young person with the right to have a good time. With each metaphorical turn, Larkin clarifies his object by placing it in a new context, just as Shakespeare or Dickens might do with a character.

This kind of glancing insight Friedrich Schlegel compares to the placing of two topographical locations on the same globe: “Most thoughts,” Schlegel says, “are only the profiles of thoughts”—too shallow, too localized. To be opened up, “they have to be turned around and synthesized with their antipodes.” Seeing the two antipodes all of a sudden in relation, we become aware of the same mysterious, spherical whole of which they are parts. Skin and clothing are two things I wear, but do not usually associate that way. By collocating them as Philip Larkin does, he lets me see myself anew as a creature who moves between different kinds of covering, and wonder, who am I under here? Like the novelist and playwright, the lyric poet re-envisions our fragments into a new whole, though not necessarily a narrative whole. In the act of forgiveness, one encounters a similar sort of insight: my life is not simply this terrain here, with its faults and petty violence, but a part of a larger divine whole that can redeem all the problems by contextualizing them. The terrains of my past become, as it were, the beginning of the path forward toward God.

Actually, though, in terms of the model we have been tracing out, Achilles himself seems to be doing something almost like forgiveness in a famous scene at the close of the Iliad. When the elderly Priam of Troy comes in secret to plead for the body of his son, Hector, the Greek Achilles is so awestruck at his appearance that Homer uses a remarkable simile to describe it:

As when dense disaster closes on one who has murdered
a man in his own land, and he comes to the country of others,
to a man of substance, and wonder seizes on those who behold him,
so Achilles wondered as he looked on Priam.

Here, Achilles’ and Priam’s positions are marvelously exchanged: Achilles, slaughterer of Priam’s sons, is as startled by Priam’s appearance as a man would be one who encounters a murderer in his own home. Thus, Homer suggests that Achilles has been forced out of his previous, altogether inimical mindset, and is now imaginatively putting himself in the place of his enemy. As the scene unfolds, Priam’s words lead him still further, to see his likeness to the slain Hector, and Priam’s likeness to his own father, Peleus. It is a moment of profound lyric insight, not unlike that described above: Achilles glimpses his own antipodes in Priam and the two come into the same mysterious world, a common one in which fellow feeling and even a kind of love seem to be possible amid the suffering. It is a moment of creative reimagining and transformation, but is it forgiveness? Achilles does in part permit the enemy king to redefine himself, as Spaemann would say, not merely condemning him to his past. But there is something really lacking in the scene as well.

Of course, the one thing needful is Christ, the one who reveals the true meaning of humankind in his own person—in the Word that he is. When the poetic work of liberating the other to be herself is informed by a vision of Christ, the true human, the path of becoming extends beyond any imaginable human improvement, into the infinite abyss of God’s goodness. Hence, as Schlegel holds, the truest kind of story must cherish an endless vision of becoming “as its real essence,” ever further and ever deeper into the divine. In the first chapter of the epistle of James, the apostle bids us to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only”: the Greek for that first phrase is poiêtai logou, literally “poets,” or “makers of the Word.” When we see ourselves in the mirror of the Word, he goes on to say, and remember what we have seen, we do and make accordingly (James 1:22–25). This is finally the work of forgiveness: to participate in God’s own poetic remaking of the world in our own little way by seeing him in all things and not forgetting what we have seen, but calling it out in our own words and works.

Featured Image: Briseis taken away from Achilles, wall painting from Pompei, taken by ArchaiOptix; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Dwight A. Lindley III

Dwight Lindley, Ph.D., is associate professor of English at Hillsdale College. He teaches courses in the Great Books core program, as well as nineteenth- and twentieth-century British literature.

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