The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson – review

Following his own Homeric epiphany, Nicolson gives a reading of the Iliad and Odyssey that is preoccupied by masculinity. It is full of insight and passion

October 1816. John Keats is 20, working as a surgeon's assistant at Guy's. He goes to visit his friend, Charles Cowden Clarke – who has in his rooms early folio editions of the then neglected translations of the Iliad and Odyssey made by George Chapman (1559-1634). Keats knows Homer only through Pope's translation – which seemed then, as it does now, to pretty-up the raw rough power of the epics in a frill of politeness (despite Pope's insight that Homer's verses "pour along like a Fire that sweeps the whole Earth before it"). The friends spend the night plunging into Chapman's verse, letting its cool, stimulating, unknowably vast expanse wash over them. Next morning, Keats writes his famous sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer". The night had made him feel "like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken". It was an epiphany, and a crucial moment in Keats's self-realisation as a poet.

My Homeric epiphany came seven summers ago, on a road trip to Cornwall, reading Robert Fagles's translation aloud and having it read to me over the immense chugging of an old camper van's engine, and then at night, by the light of an oil lamp. Like Adam Nicolson, I had read it in Greek when young, teasing out the sense like "picking bones from fish", a lovely image that the author of the Odyssey – but not the Iliad – might have used. I'd never got the sweep and the scale, though: the way the Iliad carries you through death and death and death, thousands of lines of horror and human pity, and then turns on the colour, the special effects, the all-day permanent red (to steal a phrase from Christopher Logue) when Achilles, that tender-hearted, grim-hearted killing machine, embarks on his grief-fuelled rampage. I think I needed Homer to be relieved of the dictionary, to be remade as a story told aloud by the light of a flickering flame.

Nicolson's epiphany came as he sailed his boat up the west coast of Ireland – a latter-day Odysseus battling the ferocious and unharvestable sea. There is a literal recognition here: Odysseus, that most salt-caked of ancient heroes, is surely a companion to anyone who has felt the exhilarating terrors of steering a boat under sail at night. But there is also a metaphorical recognition: he begins to see the Odyssey as a poem about the journey through the uncharted waters of one's life. It became a kind of scripture to him: "as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world … you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life." Nicolson had had a Keatsian moment of revelation that the Odyssey was telling him "the unaffected truth … speaking about fate and the human condition in ways that other people only seem to approach obliquely". I agree. When I listen to Radio 4 and think about my own Desert Island book, it's obvious to me that, along with Shakespeare and the Bible, it would be Homer, because all that is human is in the lines of these poems. Plus, the Odyssey contains detailed instructions on how to construct an escape raft.

Nicolson has written a beautiful study: full of insight, generosity and unaffected passion. The writing is exhilarating. This is a book about what Homer means to him and, in some profound way, about what life means to him. There is a wonderful sense of a community of readers of Homer handing on their insights through two millennia – of the dead talking to the living, of the taking up of a conversation that has never quieted.

Nicolson has a theory about Homer: he does not believe that the poems are purely the product of the eighth century BC, when they were almost certainly first written down. He argues that the epics derive from the historical moment when the beginnings of Greek culture emerge from the fusion of the "hero-based culture of the Eurasian steppes" and the "sophisticated, authoritarian and literate cities and palaces of the eastern Mediterranean". The epics as we have them are derived, via a long oral tradition, from the cultures of perhaps 2000BC, he believes. Personally (and perhaps this is a matter of individual temperament), I am less interested in his attempt to trace the poems in time and place than his ability to inhabit their spaces imaginatively. I suspect Nicolson, if pinned down, would admit to preferring the Odyssey to the Iliad – he compares the viciousness of the Iliad's characters to the rhetoric of modern urban gangs, in which the gratifications of sex and violence intermingle troublingly. He enjoys, however, the resourcefulness and intelligence of his favourite character: Odysseus the polymetis, (the many-skilled), the polymechanos (the ingenious) and the poikilometis (the dappled-skilled).

Nicolson's reading is preoccupied by a pleasure in, and anxieties about, masculinity. His Odysseus is "manly" (a word he actually uses to describe Homer's wide landscapes). This manliness is about being capable, a survivor who moves restlessly through the world, evading or embracing the "terror-allure" of women; troublingly, however, it is also about enacting appalling violence. Reading Nicolson made me think of the unconscious and entirely automatic mental acrobatics women readers perform when reading these heroic texts. Still, as Sappho showed as early as the sixth century BC, in her important poetic reworkings of Homer, the epics are there to be read and reimagined by us all, man and woman. As Nicolson writes, "Homerity is humanity".

• Charlotte Higgins's Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain is out from Vintage.


Charlotte Higgins

The GuardianTramp

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