Last night we watched a DVD ‘Helen of Troy’. Historian Bettany Hughes toured the viewer around the historic sites of the Greek World in 1,300 BC in search of the facts behind ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.
The legends of the Trojan war are fascinating. Ever since I studied Greek History, Art and Culture it has been a source of interest to me. Homer immortalised what was probably a minor skirmish into a masterpiece with interplay between gods and humans.
I’ve been to Mycanae twice. The Lion Gate, two lions rampant carved into a massive stone, is an imposing entrance to the ruins of what is claimed to be Agamemnon’s citadel. I’ve seen the gold and other treasures in Athens museum taken from the site indicating the wealth and power of the military fortress.
It was not only Homer. The ancient playwrights highlighted the passions and actions of the ruling family at Mycanae. I drew upon them when I wrote this poem about Helen. I have never been to the ruins of Sparta and the nearest I got to Troy was in a plane aloft over the Dardanelles enroute from Istanbul to Athens. Hughes stresses the Hittite influence. Subsequent reading has widened my picture of the influences shaping that ancient Greek society but at the time I wrote the poem I was very much in full flight of pan-Hellenic glory. I should further add the poem was written during an idyllic week’s summer holiday in Paihia.
I can’t sleep. Spartan
nights are warm in August.
Illustrious Menelaus roisters
again with his cronies; clattering
around in harsh armour they boast
of burnt and blackened Troy.
It’s my fate to share this unheroic age.
The gods alone know when some
tall singer of tales will blindly
celebrate that savage raid: Hector’s
corpse mutilated by vain Achilles..
He’ll ignore my beloved Paris,
already the butt, the blamed,
the cause; boot-licking Odysseus
saw to that before he vanished
into the tempestuous sea and
that’s the last we’ll hear of him.
I remember my father Tyndareus
once saying as we collected honey
from smoke-dazed bees, ‘likely lass
they’ll not remember us: fame
is mainly chance.’ My husband
spreads nursery stories, ravishing
great swans, my real self spirited
away for ten years, deep-bosomed
goddesses offering gifts – a futile
attempt to save his sweat-stained
reputation. My rustic maidenhood,
olive harvest frolics, sufficed
the fox-souled son of Atreus,
I could milk ewes, churn soft-white
cheeses, render lard, was comely,
of fertile stock, (he wanted sons
so overlooked my meagre dowry).
It was so long ago, grey flecks
now in my raven locks. His family
was always quarrelling –witness
the massacre at Mycanae. Those
who malign me forget his cruelty.
He was mean also, counting
quinces for our guests. Those
same ill-tongues claim that Paris
was effeminate. They are wrong.
He was cedar-wood and stone, a royal
city, battle-furious when aroused.
When desire (that uninvited stranger)
struck I resisted, in fact we both
resisted for some while, until
Menelaus left us (for boar-hunting
so he claimed). The rest you know.
Such passion demands obedience.
Now beside the weeping Scamander
fallen masonry beds the fugitive
cyclamen and scarlet poppy;
badgers burrow in the ruins
where we once loved so tightly.
Women curse me; I am the whore
who led their men, sons, lovers,
husbands, direct to that
nonsensical cavern of dark and
lonely Hades. It was not my intent.
Nothing is what it once was.
Released, I am captive in my
own country. Even the rain
is different, it falls with much
less force: little affection
or tenderness here. My critics
forget that I also have reason
to weep over my embroidery.
Let it all be said, but also
recall our sturdy ship
cresting the rollers of
the wind-swept Aegean, for
royal escort diving gannets,
leaping dolphins; the strength
and delight of oak-hearted Paris.
Remembering that brief joy
I do not regret what I have done.
The 2018 Book Council Lecture
2 days ago