National Epics
By Kate Milner Rabb

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Public Domain Books

Selections From the Iliad


Paris, moved by the reproaches of Hector, proposed that the nine years’ indecisive war be settled by single combat between himself and Menelaus, the victor to take Helen and the treasure. Greeks and Trojans agreed to this proposition, and the tidings of the approaching combat were borne to Helen by Iris.

  In the heart of Helen woke
  Dear recollections of her former spouse
  And of her home and kindred. Instantly
  She left her chamber, robed and veiled in white,
  And shedding tender tears; yet not alone,
  For with her went two maidens,–Aethra, child
  Of Pitheus, and the large-eyed Clymene.
  Straight to the Scaean gates they walked, by which
  PanthoŁs, Priam, and Thymoetes sat,
  Lampus and Clytius, Hicetaon sprung
  From Mars, Antenor and Ucalegon,
  Two sages,–elders of the people all.
  Beside the gates they sat, unapt, through age,
  For tasks of war, but men of fluent speech,
  Like the cicadas that within the wood
  Sit on the trees and utter delicate sounds.
  Such were the nobles of the Trojan race
  Who sat upon the tower. But when they marked
  The approach of Helen, to each other thus
  With winged words, but in low tones, they said:–

  “Small blame is theirs, if both the Trojan knights
  And brazen-mailed Achaians have endured
  So long so many evils for the sake
  Of that one woman. She is wholly like
  In feature to the deathless goddesses.
  So be it: let her, peerless as she is,
  Return on board the fleet, nor stay to bring
  Disaster upon us and all our race.”

  So spake the elders. Priam meantime called
  To Helen: “Come, dear daughter, sit by me.
  Thou canst behold thy former husband hence,
  Thy kindred and thy friends. I blame thee not;
  The blame is with the immortals who have sent
  These pestilent Greeks against me. Sit and name
  For me this mighty man, the Grecian chief,
  Gallant and tall. True, there are taller men;
  But of such noble form and dignity
  I never saw: in truth, a kingly man.”

  And Helen, fairest among women, thus
  Answered: “Dear second father, whom at once
  I fear and honor, would that cruel death
  Had overtaken me before I left,
  To wander with thy son, my marriage bed,
  And my dear daughter, and the company
  Of friends I loved. But that was not to be;
  And now I pine and weep. Yet will I tell
  What thou dost ask. The hero whom thou seest
  Is the wide-ruling Agamemnon, son
  Of Atreus, and is both a gracious king
  And a most dreaded warrior. He was once
  Brother-in-law to me, if I may speak–
  Lost as I am to shame–of such a tie.”

  She said, the aged man admired, and then
  He spake again: “O son of Atreus, born
  Under a happy fate, and fortunate
  Among the sons of men! A mighty host
  Of Grecian youths obey thy rule. I went
  To Phrygia once,–that land of vines,–and there
  Saw many Phrygians, heroes on fleet steeds,
  The troops of Otreus, and of Mygdon, shaped
  Like one of the immortals. They encamped
  By the Sangarius. I was an ally;
  My troops were ranked with theirs upon the day
  When came the unsexed Amazons to war.
  Yet even there I saw not such a host
  As this of black-eyed Greeks who muster here."
  Then Priam saw Ulysses, and inquired:–
  “Dear daughter, tell me also who is that,
  Less tall than Agamemnon, yet more broad
  In chest and shoulders. On the teeming earth
  His armor lies, but he, from place to place,
  Walks round among the ranks of soldiery,
  As when the thick-fleeced father of the flocks
  Moves through the multitude of his white sheep."
  And Jove-descended Helen answered thus:–
  “That is Ulysses, man of many arts,
  Son of Laertes, reared in Ithaca,
  That rugged isle, and skilled in every form
  Of shrewd device and action wisely planned."
  Then spake the sage Antenor: “Thou hast said
  The truth, O lady. This Ulysses once
  Came on an embassy, concerning thee,
  To Troy with Menelaus, great in war;
  And I received them as my guests, and they
  Were lodged within my palace, and I learned
  The temper and the qualities of both.
  When both were standing ’mid the men of Troy,
  I marked that Menelaus’s broad chest
  Made him the more conspicuous, but when both
  Were seated, greater was the dignity
  Seen in Ulysses. When they both addressed
  The council, Menelaus briefly spake
  In pleasing tones, though with few words,–as one
  Not given to loose and wandering speech,–although
  The younger. When the wise Ulysses rose,
  He stood with eyes cast down, and fixed on earth,
  And neither swayed his sceptre to the right
  Nor to the left, but held it motionless,
  Like one unused to public speech. He seemed
  An idiot out of humor. But when forth
  He sent from his full lungs his mighty voice,
  And words came like a fall of winter snow,
  No mortal then would dare to strive with him
  For mastery in speech. We less admired
  The aspect of Ulysses than his words."
  Beholding Ajax then, the aged king
  Asked yet again: “Who is that other chief
  Of the Achaians, tall, and large of limb,–
  Taller and broader-chested than the rest?"
  Helen, the beautiful and richly-robed,
  Answered: “Thou seest the might Ajax there,
  The bulwark of the Greeks. On the other side,
  Among his Cretans, stands Idomeneus,
  Of godlike aspect, near to whom are grouped
  The leaders of the Cretans. Oftentimes
  The warlike Menelaus welcomed him
  Within our palace, when he came from Crete.
  I could point out and name the other chiefs
  Of the dark-eyed Achaians. Two alone,
  Princes among their people, are not seen,–
  Castor the fearless horseman, and the skilled
  In boxing, Pollux,–twins; one mother bore
  Both them and me. Came they not with the rest
  From pleasant Lacedaemon to the war?
  Or, having crossed the deep in their goodships,
  Shun they to fight among the valiant ones
  Of Greece, because of my reproach and shame?"
  She spake; but they already lay in earth
  In Lacedaemon, their dear native land.


The single combat between Paris and Menelaus broke up in a general battle unfavorable to the Trojans, and Hector returned to Troy to order the Trojan matrons to sacrifice to Pallas. He then sought his dwelling to greet his wife and child, but learned from one of the maids that Andromache, on hearing that the Greeks were victorious, had hastened to the city walls with the child and its nurse,

  Hector left in haste
  The mansion, and retraced his way between
  The rows of stately dwellings, traversing
  The mighty city. When at length he reached
  The Scaean gates, that issue on the field,
  His spouse, the nobly-dowered Andromache,
  Came forth to meet him,–daughter of the prince
  EŽtion, who among the woody slopes
  Of Placos, in the Hypoplacian town
  Of ThebŤ, ruled Cilicia and her sons,
  And gave his child to Hector great in arms.
  She came attended by a maid, who bore
  A tender child–a babe too young to speak–
  Upon her bosom,–Hector’s only son,
  Beautiful as a star, whom Hector called
  Scamandrius, but all else Astyanax,–
  The city’s lord,–since Hector stood the sole
  Defence of Troy. The father on his child
  Looked with a silent smile. Andromache
  Pressed to his side meanwhile, and, all in tears,
  Clung to his hand, and, thus beginning, said:–

  “Too brave! thy valor yet will cause thy death.
  Thou hast no pity on thy tender child
  Nor me, unhappy one, who soon must be
  Thy widow. All the Greeks will rush on thee
  To take thy life. A happier lot were mine,
  If I must lose thee, to go down to earth,
  For I shall have no hope when thou art gone,–
  Nothing but sorrow. Father have I none,
  And no dear mother. Great Achilles slew
  My father when he sacked the populous town
  Of the Cilicians,–ThebŤ with high gates.
  ’T was there he smote EŽtion, yet forbore
  To make his arms a spoil; he dared not that,
  But burned the dead with his bright armor on,
  And raised a mound above him. Mountain-nymphs,
  Daughters of aegis-bearing Jupiter,
  Came to the spot and planted it with elms.
  Seven brothers had I in my father’s house,
  And all went down to Hades in one day.
  Achilles the swift-footed slew them all
  Among their slow-paced bullocks and white sheep.
  My mother, princess on the woody slopes
  Of Placos, with his spoils he bore away,
  And only for large ransom gave her back.
  But her Diana, archer-queen, struck down
  Within her father’s palace. Hector, thou
  Art father and dear mother now to me,
  And brother and my youthful spouse besides.
  In pity keep within the fortress here,
  Nor make thy child an orphan nor thy wife
  A widow. Post thine army near the place
  Of the wild fig-tree, where the city-walls
  Are low and may be scaled. Thrice in war
  The boldest of the foe have tried the spot,–
  The Ajaces and the famed Idomeneus,
  The two chiefs born to Atreus, and the brave
  Tydides, whether counselled by some seer
  Or prompted to the attempt by their own minds.”

  Then answered Hector, great in war: “All this
  I bear in mind, dear wife; but I should stand
  Ashamed before the men and long-robed dames
  Of Troy, were I to keep aloof and shun
  The conflict, coward-like. Not thus my heart
  Prompts me, for greatly have I learned to dare
  And strike among the foremost sons of Troy,
  Upholding my great father’s fame and mine;
  Yet well in my undoubting mind I know
  The day shall come in which our sacred Troy,
  And Priam, and the people over whom
  Spear-bearing Priam rules, shall perish all.
  But not the sorrows of the Trojan race,
  Nor those of Hecuba herself, nor those
  Of royal Priam, nor the woes that wait
  My brothers many and brave,–who all at last,
  Slain by the pitiless foe, shall lie in dust,–
  Grieve me so much as thine, when some mailed Greek
  Shall lead thee weeping hence, and take from thee
  Thy day of freedom. Thou in Argos then
  Shalt at another’s bidding ply the loom,
  And from the fountain of Messeis draw
  Water, or from the Hypereian spring,
  Constrained unwilling by thy cruel lot.
  And then shall some one say who sees thee weep,
  ’This was the wife of Hector, most renowned
  Of the horse-taming Trojans, when they fought
  Around their city.’ So shall some one say,
  And thou shalt grieve the more, lamenting him
  Who haply might have kept afar the day
  Of thy captivity. O let the earth
  Be heaped above my head in death before
  I hear thy cries as thou art borne away!"
  So speaking, mighty Hector stretched his arms
  To take the boy; the boy shrank crying back
  To his fair nurse’s bosom, scared to see
  His father helmeted in glittering brass,
  And eying with affright the horsehair plume
  That grimly nodded from the lofty crest.
  At this both parents in their fondness laughed;
  And hastily the mighty Hector took
  The helmet from his brow and laid it down
  Gleaming upon the ground, and, having kissed
  His darling son and tossed him up in play,
  Prayed thus to Jove and all the gods of heaven:–
  “O Jupiter and all ye deities,
  Vouchsafe that this my son may yet become
  Among the Trojans eminent like me,
  And nobly rule in Ilium. May they say,
  ’This man is greater than his father was!’
  When they behold him from the battle-field
  Bring back the bloody spoil of the slain foe,–
  That so his mother may be glad at heart."
  So speaking, to the arms of his dear spouse
  He gave the boy; she on her fragrant breast
  Received him, weeping as she smiled. The chief
  Beheld, and, moved with tender pity, smoothed
  Her forehead gently with his hand, and said:–
  “Sorrow not thus, beloved one, for me.
  No living man can send me to the shades
  Before my time; no man of woman born,
  Coward or brave, can shun his destiny.

  But go thou home, and tend thy labors there,–
  The web, the distaff,–and command thy maids
  To speed the work. The cares of war pertain
  To all men born in Troy, and most to me."
  Thus speaking, mighty Hector took again
  His helmet, shadowed with the horsehair plume,
  While homeward his beloved consort went,
  Oft looking back, and shedding many tears.
  Soon was she in the spacious palace-halls
  Of the man-queller Hector. There she found
  A troop of maidens,–with them all she shared
  Her grief; and all in his own house bewailed
  The living Hector, whom they thought no more
  To see returning from the battle-field,
  Safe from the rage and weapons of the Greeks.
                          Bryant’s Translation, Book VI.

“The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.”

The Odyssey relates the adventures of Ulysses on his return to Ithaca after the Trojan war.

It consists of twenty-four books, the first four of which are sometimes known as the Telemachia, because Telemachus is the principal figure.

The difference in style of the Iliad and Odyssey has caused some critics to assert that the latter is not the work of Homer; this is accounted for, however, by the difference of subject, and it is probable that the Odyssey, though of a later date, is the work of the same hand, “the work of Homer’s old age,–an epic bathed in a mellow light of sunset.”

If the Odyssey alone had come down to us, its authorship would have passed unquestioned, for the poem is so compact, its plot so carefully planned and so skilfully carried out, that there can be no doubt that it is the work of one hand.

The Odyssey is as great a work of art as the Iliad, and is even more popular; for the Odyssey is a domestic romance, and as such appeals to a larger audience than a tale of war alone,–the romance of the wandering Ulysses and the faithful Penelope. Interwoven with it are the ever-popular fairy tales of Ulysses’s wanderings and descriptions of home life. It is marked by the same pagan enjoyment of life, the same freshness and charm that lend enchantment to the Iliad.

Bibliography and Criticism, the Odyssey.

F. B. Jevons’s History of Greek Literature, 1886, pp. 17-25;

A. Lang’s Homer and the Epic, 1893, chaps. 8-13;

J. A. Symonds’s Studies of the Greek Poets, ed. 3, 1893;

J. E. Harrison’s Myths of the Odyssey in Art and Literature, 1882;

W. J. Stillman’s On the Track of Ulysses, 1888;

F. W. Newman’s The Authorship of the Odyssey (in his Miscellanies, vol. v.);

J. Spence’s Essay on Pope’s Translation of the Odyssey, 1837.

Standard English Translations, the Odyssey.

The Odyssey, Tr. into English blank verse by W. C. Bryant, 2 vols., 1871;

The Odyssey, Tr. according to the Greek, with introduction and notes by George Chapman, ed. 2, 2 vols., 1874;

The Odyssey, Tr. by William Cowper;

The Odyssey, Tr. by G. H. Palmer, 1894 (prose);

The Odyssey, Tr. by Alexander Pope, with notes by Rev. T. W. A. Buckley, n. d.;

The Odyssey, Tr. by S. H. Butcher and A. Lang, 1879 (prose).


Preface  •  The R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the R‚m‚yana  •  Selections From the R‚m‚yana  •  The Story of the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  Selections From the Mah‚-Bh‚rata  •  The Iliad  •  The Story of the Iliad  •  Selections From the Iliad  •  The Story of the Odyssey  •  Selections From the Odyssey  •  The Kalevala  •  The Story of the Kalevala  •  Selections From the Kalevala  •  Selection From the Aeneid  •  Beowulf  •  The Story of Beowulf  •  Selection From Beowulf  •  Selections From the Nibelungen Lied  •  The Story of the Song of Roland  •  Selections From the Song of Roland  •  The Story of the Shah-Nameh  •  Selections From the Shah-Nameh  •  The Story of the Poem of the Cid  •  Selections From the Poem of the Cid  •  The Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Hell  •  The Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Purgatory  •  The Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  The Story of the Divine Comedy - The Paradise  •  Selections From the Divine Comedy - Count Ugolino  •  Selection From the Orlando Furioso  •  The Lusiad  •  The Story of the Lusiad  •  Selections From the Lusiad  •  The Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of the Jerusalem Delivered  •  Selection From the Jerusalem Delivered  •  The Story of Paradise Lost  •  Selections From Paradise Lost  •  Apostrophe to Light  •  The Story of Paradise Regained  •  Selection From Paradise Regained