Those earmarks don't change and haven't changed since the first human drew his own hand on a cave wall by the flickering light of a bison-fat lamp. A classic must be true to itself, must follow its own logic without regard fro the world around it – it's that very egocentrism that will seal it off from the shocks of time and allow it to speak to every successive generation (panderers get fame and money enough to build their Thames-side mansion and entertain in style, but they steal no marches on Helicon and are often as not forgotten before there's even decent ivy on their tombstones).
Classics must also have power, and strangely enough, power isn't always easy to spot – especially after a lapse of many years. That's why my hat's off to the editorial team at Penguin Classics for consistently finding gems big and small that do, in fact, possess power enough to justify the attention of all posterities. Some of their choices mystify me, and others seems self-evident – but the odd ones always delight.
Certainly there could be few odder choices from the whole of the 20th century than The Anger of Achilles by Robert Graves. He first published the book in 1959 calling it a 'translation' of Homer's Iliad, although a quick scan of the first few lines will suffice to show it's not quite that:
Sing, Mountain Goddess, sing through me
That anger which most ruinously
Inflamed Achilles, Peleus' son,
And which, before the tale was done,
Had glutted Hell with champions – bold,
Stern spirits by the thousandfold;
Ravens and dogs their corpses ate.
For thus did ZEUS, who watched their fate,
See his resolve, first taken when
Proud Agamemnon, King of men,
An insult on Achilles cast,
Achieve accomplishment at last.
It's not the rhymed couplets that are the problem here – after all, they were good enough for Pope. No, it's that 'Mountain Goddess' right there in the first line where “Muse” should be that tips the reader off to the fact that this version of the Iliad will be … well, rather heavily interpretive. Who the Hell is this “Mountain Goddess”? Who the Hell knows?
Some of you may already be familiar with the outline of Graves' life, but for those of you who aren't there's only one sentence of any real import in figuring that life out: in 1929, Robert Graves decamped for Majorca, bought a rambling mountain-top ranch, and proceeded to live there for the rest of his life. He wore fraying white shorts, he wore fraying straw bonnets, he drank from dawn until moon-set, and he conducted a peppy correspondence. In other words, he went nutty as a fruitcake.
The bulk of his good poetry was written before he Majorca'd himself, as was his classic memoir Good-Bye To All That. Then he came into the possession of far too much unstructured personal time. Some of it he put to good use – the world of letters would be a poorer place without Hercules My Shipmate or Count Belisarius, and of course the landscape of historical fiction would be virtually unrecognizable without I, Claudius and Claudius the God. But if a man takes himself to Majorca and holes up on the outskirts of a respectful but uncomprehending village, he deprives himself of the one sure safeguard against mental instability: the presence of knowledgeable old friends who'll refer to him as a jackass on a regular basis. Without that safeguard, even the most intellectually formidable men will soon become positive aphasic with mania. In fact, it happens to the smart ones first.
In between the creditable works of historical fiction, there flowed increasingly from Graves' pen a species of prose that bore all the hallmarks of its author possessing no jelly on his toast. Graves delved far too deeply into the twisted by-ways of Greek and Near Eastern mythology, and he emerged from this safari with hundreds of theories about ancient Greek history and mythology that, well, you won't find anywhere else. The first real expression of these carefully-diagrammed lunacies happens in the two volumes of his The Greek Myths – structurally one single book and hands-down the strangest book written in the 20th century. And it was just the warm-up for such impenetrably, lavishly wacko wonder-works as King Jesus and especially The White Goddess.
Not far from those thickets of bubbly to that “Mountain Goddess” crack, and the casual way it's dropped in there is the surest sign that Graves knew perfectly well not all his dogs were barking; that casual tone is the lure, the little tease designed to prompt the unsuspecting listener to ask, “Mountain Goddess? Why, what can you mean by that?” - after which the Sage of Majorca is off to the races with his various ethnographic proofs the Greek cult of the Muses originated in Indo-European mountain-worship, or some such claptrap.
The key to surviving such lures is not to fall for them, and fortunately, The Anger of Achilles has plenty enough to recommend it so that you can ignore any and all pretty shiny lures in order to soak up the narrative vigor with which Graves renders the age-old story. When you do start reading it, the thing you'll notice first is that this version is a combination of prose and verse – the rhymed couplets only make up a tiny proportion of the whole text, the rest being straightforward entirely readable prose. Graves justified it this way:
I have … followed the example of the ancient Irish and Welsh bards by, as it were, taking up my harp and singing only where prose will not suffice. This, I hope, avoids the pitfalls of either an all-prose or an all-verse translation, and restores something of the Iliad's value as mixed entertainment.
This is yet more lunacy (poetry lapsing into prose except for the really poetic bits? Song lapsing into speech except when things are really exciting? To put it mildly, Graves never heard anything like that in Ireland or Wales), but it's also beside the point: the main point is that it all somehow works, probably because Graves could exercise a pitch-perfect ear for dramatic timing, when he felt like it. When his Anger of Achilles breaks into verse, damned if it doesn't lend the whole segment a sudden whoosh of drama. You'll get caught up in this distant cousin to Homer – it's certainly one of the 20th century's most distinctive renderings, and it'll do you good to read it. Just remember: whenever any character starts talking about 'our Holy Mother,' just start whistling for a few paragraphs, until things go back to semi-normal.