The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Anne Chafer
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I have thought about this a few times, and I always come back to book 6 of Homer’s Iliad.
When did you first come across this text?
It was one of the reasons I ended up in the field of Classics, actually! I’ve only been doing this for a year and a half, and it all started when I read the Iliad during my summer holidays. Of course, initially what changed my life completely was the whole epic poem, but over time I realised it was book 6 that had a special place in my heart.
Can you tell me a bit about this book and its context?
I’m sure this won’t come as a surprise to any classicists out there, but one of the reasons I love this poem is precisely because it’s one of the oldest pieces of literature we know of. It’s generally accepted to be an epic poem from the 8th century BCE, though the question of how it was originally composed is a much more debated matter. The Iliad as a whole tells the story of a few weeks towards the end of the Trojan War. Book 6 in particular, however, focuses on the Trojan prince Hector and his family; an amicable encounter between a Greek and a Trojan Hero on the battlefield; and some mysterious comments made by Helen in her bedroom. It’s a book of contrasts, I think, and that’s why I like it so much.
What is it about this book that appeals to you most?
I have tried to express this properly and I never seem to manage – it seems like there is a magnitude to the feelings this poem makes me feel, a magnitude that keeps me from finding the right words. As I said, I guess the contrasts are a good place to start. The book starts with Agamemnon (epitome of toxic masculinity if I may) peer-pressuring his brother into killing a young man right when he was about to have mercy and let him live. It’s really intense from the beginning, but then Diomedes, who is renowned among the Greeks for his fierceness in combat, stops to talk to Glaukos, a Trojan, because it seems like they might have common ancestry. Glaukos says that humans are like leaves: even after a generation of them dies there will always be more to come. The cycle of the earth is the cycle of humanity. It feels like the certainty of simultaneously knowing you matter and you don’t, in a way that’s very reassuring to me. Another of my favourite pieces of poetry is Alice Oswald’s reception of this scene:
“Like leaves who could write a history of leaves / The wind blows their ghosts to the ground / And the spring breathes new leaf into the woods / Thousands of names thousands of leaves / When you remember them remember this / Dead bodies are their lineage / Which matter no more than the leaves”
Later, Hector goes up to the city walls in Troy and finds his wife, Andromache. I wrote a song out of this scene, this is how much I love it (if you can forgive my guitar skills, here’s a link: https://soundcloud.com/annechafer/iliad-vi). It’s a beautiful and heartbreaking moment because this is, in my opinion, one of the few scenes in Homer where we see true love. And yet the two characters talk about themselves in a self-aware way, saying they know they will lose the war but wishing it didn’t have to be like this. I think it’s the contrast between the pain of the characters and the love I can see between them, that makes me emotional. And Hector saying that he hopes his son will become “better than his father,” and knowing as a reader that he does not, that he gets thrown off the walls of the city! It’s so much, too many emotions, you know? And I think when a piece of literature can evoke such strong responses in me, I go back to it when I need reassurance, because it reminds me I am terribly human.
The last moment that gets me (and probably my favourite line in the poem, actually) is when Helen says something really, really metapoetic: that “even after this, there will be songs of us for men to come.” It’s the same as with the leaves. Knowing others will take your place, that the weight of the world is not on your shoulders, that everything carries on day after day. Feeling small in a big, big world is very calming sometimes.
Somehow, all of these sad and contradictory emotions are what makes this piece comforting to me. It makes me feel understood, especially when I realise how long ago these stories were invented. The scenes in Iliad 6 capture such humane sorrow and love that it leaves me awestruck at how well they can understand my own feelings. It’s very existential, but in a comforting way. Or maybe I’m just very intense!
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
Sometimes I write or translate poetry and prose (mostly from Catalan and Spanish, as my ancient languages are not as good yet). I also adore singing and writing song lyrics, though I’m still on the lookout for a band! But above all, I love reading for pleasure, and I try to make time for it every day because it gives me a space that isn’t totally consumed by my postgraduate degree. And then, I love chatting about what I read on my YouTube channel. It’s so freeing because I can ramble as much as I want, whereas if I’m talking to a friend I always feel self-conscious.
Anne Chafer is a Catalan MPhil student at the University of Cambridge, and an English and Drama graduate from the University of Exeter. Her academic interests are Homeric and Hesiodic epic, narrative devices and narratology, contemporary scenography, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and the reception of Classics in literature of the 20th and 21st centuries. However, she also likes the Sims, Taylor Swift, and Gilmore Girls, and she runs the YouTube channel Of Words on Paper. It’s difficult to find time for everything, indeed.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.