Poetry and war are joined in this; both are fame businesses. The same epithets are attached to these fame-seeking heroes across the whole enormous continent: he was "man-slaying" in Ireland and Iran, and "of the famous spear" in Greece and India. He stood as firm and immovable in battle as a mighty tree in Homer, Russian and Welsh. Like the Greeks, Irish heroes raged like a fire. In Anglo-Saxon, Greek, Vedic and Irish, that rage could emerge as a flame flaring from the hero’s head. Proto-Indo-Europeans saw the great man as a torch. Across the whole of Eurasia his weapons longed for blood, even while this blood-seeking vengeance wreaker was to his own family and clan, wherever they might be, the "herdsman of his people" and their protective enclosure. There were no city walls in this world; the hero himself was their protection and their strength.
From one end of Eurasia to another, men stand like trees, but enemies are also felled like trees, in the way a carpenter or woodsmen would fell them. When death arrives, a darkness comes on the hero. Life itself for the Proto-Indo-European consciousness is inseparable from light, especially the light of the sun, and that is the energy the heroes share with the universe. For all of them, courage is not something that appears casually in everyday life. Only when battle summons them, and when the noise of battle reaches up to heaven, as it does in all these daughter traditions, does courage appear and the hero find himself "clothed in valor."
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and new we lie
In Flanders Fields.
Take up your quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.
— John McCrae
The subject of heroic poetry is the hero, and the hero is a man who behaves in certain ways, pursuing specified goals by his personal courage and bravery. However, the hero lives in, and is moulded by, a social system and a culture, and his actions are intelligible only by reference to them. That is true even when the poet’s narrative appears to ignore everything and everyone but the heroes.
No one who reads the Iliad can fail to be struck by the peculiar character of the fighting. There are tens of thousands of soldiers on hand, yet the poet has eyes only for Ajax or Achilles or Hector or Aeneas. In itself, such a literary device is commonplace; it is a very rare artist who has both reason and genius enough to re-create masses of men in battle. Nor is there historical objection to the individual combat between champions, as between Achilles and Hector, or, even more interesting in some ways, between Ajax and Hector, ending in a draw and an exchange of gifts. The false note comes in the full-scale fighting. There the confusion is indescribable. No one commands or gives orders. Men enter the battle and leave at their own pleasure; they select their individual opponents; they group and regroup for purely personal reasons. And the disorganization, unlike the chaotic movements in a war novel like Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, does not stem from the breakdown of an original plan of action but from the poet’s concentration on his heroes as individuals. He must bring in the army as a whole to maintain the necessary realism of the war story, but he returns to the central figures as quickly as possible.
The Iliad is not just a glorious poem—it is a textbook, and was taken as such throughout the history of the ancient world. How should you defend a gate? Like Telamonian Ajax. How should you follow up an attack? Like Hector, “flame-like,” when he drove the Danaans back on their ships. How should you handle your most powerful weapon? Not, presumably, as Agamemnon handled Achilles.
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
— John Donne
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced or cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and will find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How changed with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
— William Earnest Henley