In the ninth simmer of the Trojan War Achilles withdrew his forces from the Greek Confederacy hecause Agamemnon appropriated one of his female slaves. Thereafter the Trojans gained the upper hand. Hector raided the Greek beachhead, crossed the ditch surrounding their fleet and burtied one of their ships. For a moment it looked as though he would burn them all; and so Patroclus came to Achilles and begged for his help.
Now hear this:
While they fought around the ship firom Thessaly,
Patroclus came crying to the Greek.
“Why tears, Patroclus?” Achilles said.
“Why hang around my ankles like a child
Pestering mother, wanting to he picked up.
Expecting her to stop what she is doing, and,
In the end, getting its way through snivels?
“Save your hate, Achilles. It will keep.
Our cause is sick enough without your grudging it my tears.
You know Odysseus and Diomede are wounded?
Eurypylus, too—his thigh—and even Agamemnon.
And you still ask “Why tears?” Ach,
Is there no end to your obdurate grudge, Achilles?
They are dying, Achilles. Dying like flies.
If you can’t think of them, think for a moment
Of those who will come after them, what they will say:
“Achilles The Grudgebearer”—can’t you hear it?—or,
“Achilles The Strong”—and just as well for that,
Because his sense of wrong was very heavy—or,
“Some people say Lord Peleus and Thetis,
Lovely among the loveliest of women.
Were his folk. But if you want the truth,
His father was a long bleak rock
That after centuries was moved
By the even bleaker, always discosolate
Pestering of the Sea, until she had a son,
Why make me talk to you this way?
If it is true that God or your sainted Mother
Whisper persuasive justifications for desertion in your heart.
It’s also true they do not mention me.
Let me go out and help the Greeks, Achilles?
Let me take our troops? Half of them, then!—
And let me weear your weapons…
Man, it will be enough!
Me, dressed as you, leading the Myrmidons…
The sight of us will make Troy hesitate and say
“It’s him,” a second look will check them, turn them.
Give the Greeks a rest (although war has no rest)
And, once they have turned, nothing will stop us till
They squat inside their walls.”
In this way, in words
Something like those written above,
Patroclus begged for death.
You mind your tongue,
And not make God sound like a fool
Servicing my resentment.
And they stared each other down until he said:
I’m so full of resentment that I ache.
Tell me, have I got it wrong?
Didn’t he take the girl I won?
And didn’t all my so-called friends agree that she was mine
Who cut a town in half to get her?—
(That was something!)—yet,
When it comes to it, they side with him,
The Royal thief
Who robs the man on whom his commonwealth depends.
But done is done; I cannot grudge forever, love.
Take what you want: men, horses, cars, the lot.”
You could see the grudge was almost gone,
“Muster the troops and thrust them, hard.
Just here”—marking the sand—” between the enemy
And the fleet. Aie!… they are impudent,
These golden Trojans.
They stroke our ships.
Fondle their slim black necks and split them—
Yes! Dear Agamemnon makes me absent.
My absence makes them brave. And so, Patroclus,
Dear Agamemnon makes his enemies secure. All right:
If not Achilles, then his vicar.
Forget the spear. It’s not your weight. Take this”—
Choosing one half as long—“instead.
You say Diomede is out? That’s bad. And Ajax too?
He’s all that’s left then… No wonder all I hear is
Hector, Hector, Hector, Hector, everywhere Hector,
As if he was a god split into sixty!
Hurry, Patroclus, or they will burn us out—
No. Wait. Listen to me. You’re listening? Good.
Here’s what I want.
Win my apologies. My rights and my apologies.
That’s all. You hear? I want the Greeks saved, yes,
And then I want to see them at the tent here,
Every single one, with Briesis, virgin, in the front.
And many other gifts. You’re clear on that?
Good. And one more thing before you go:
Don’t overreach yourself, Patroclus.
Without me you are something, but not much.
Let Hector be. He’s mine—God willing—
In any case he’d make a meal of you
And I don’t want you killed, you hear?
But neither do I want to see you shining
At my expense. So, here’s my order.
No matter how, how much, how often, or how easily you win.
Once you have forced the Trojans hack, you stop. That’s clear?
The mercenaries can do the mopping up.
And while he talked Ajax was beaten.
The ship was burned.
The hungry province grows restive.
The Imperial army must go to the frontier.
The Captains ride in with their standards,
A tiger’s face carved on each lance-butt,
And equipment for a long campaign
Is issued to every soldier.
Men stand behind the level feathers of their breath.
A messenger runs from the gold edged tent.
And the Captains form a circle: reading.
The eldest one points north. The others nod.
Likewise the Captains stood around Achilles: listening.
And the Myrmidons began to arm and tramp about the beach.
First sunlight oft the sea like thousands of white birds.
Imagine wolves: an hour ago the pack
Smelt out a stag and tore it into shreds.
Now they have snuffled through its corpse
They want a drink to wash the curry down; so,
They sniff out a pool and loll their long
Thin, sharp-pointed tongues in it; and as they lap
Little crimson billows drift off their chops.
Spreading through the water like red smoke.
Likewise the Myrmidons as they stood for Patroclus,
While Achilles moved along their ranks; here,
Tightening a shoulder strap; there, dressing a sword.
Over in the north the ship was burning.
Achilles led fifty ships to Troy.
Fifty swift ships, each holding fifty men,
And the force divided into five, under five Commanders.
The Myrmidons paraded.
The five Commanders on Achilles’ right;
Patroclus on his left; in front of him, the troops.
And the onshore wind carried his voice:
In the last few weeks you have been jeering at the Trojan soldiers
and gossiping about myself.
When I was called self-righteous, none of you denied it. When
it was said that the hardness of my heart proved that I was weaned
on acid, most of you smiled wisely. And some of you said that if I
were to keep heroes like yourselves out of the fight, you’d sail home.
However, more men are threatened than struck; and now that you
are going to be employed, I hope that none of you will find it more
difficult to beat the Trojans than to threaten them.
You will clear the enemy from our camp by dusk.”
And he turned his hack on them and walked into his tent.
The columns tightened.
The rim of each man’s shield
Overlapped the face of his neighbour’s shield
Like ashlar work—as masons call it when they lay
Bonded walls, proof against wind.
As they moved off
The columns tightened more, till, from far off,
It seemed five wide black straps studded with bolts
Were being drawn across the sand.
When Achilles sailed to Troy,
His mother packed and put aboard his ship
A painted oak box filled with winter clothes—
Rugs for his feet, a fleece-lined windcheater,
You know the sort of thing—and in this box
He kept an eye-bowl made of ivory and horn
Which he, and he only, used for communion.
When he had spoken to the troops he took it out,
Rubbed its inside with sulphur chrystals.
And washed and dried his hands before
Rinsing it in fresh water and filling it with red wine.
Then, he prayed:
Our Father, who rules In Heaven,
Hallowed be your name.
Because your will is done in Earth and Heaven,
Grant me this prayer.
As you have granted other prayers of mine.
As you did grant me Agamemnon
Humble in my stead.
I ask that you stay by me now.
Even as you go with my men.
And my Patroclus.
Give him this day your victory.
And let him show Prince Hector he can win
Without me at his side.
And grant, above all else, O Lord,
That when the Trojans are defeated, he
Shall come home safe to me. Amen.
God heard his prayer and granted half of it.
Patroclus would rout the Trojans, yes.
But not a word was said about his safe return.
No, my Achilles, God promised nothing of the kind;
As you carefully dried your cup, carefully
Put it away and stood outside your tent and watched
Your myrmidons and your Patroclus go by.
Swarming up and off the beach Patroclus swung them left
At the ditch; keeping it on their right they streamed
Along the camp’s main track; on one side, the embankment
On the other, ships—a line of slender necking
With the huts clutched under the tense black hulls.
Things were so close a man could hardly see in front of him,
And Patroclus on the foot-plate of his chariot, cried—
As the two sides closed.
The Trojans lay across the ship,
Most of them busy seeing that it burned.
Others slid underneath and were so occupied
Knocking away the chocks that kept it upright
They did not see Patroclus swoop
Out of nowhere on their necks.
But those above did.
Between the time it takes to dip and light a match
Achilles’ helmet loomed under their wretched chins.
With Myrmidons splayed out on either side
Like iron wings.
Dropping the pitch
They grabbed up javelins, knives—boathooks, too—oh,
Anything to keep Achilles off!
Had he and Agamemnon patched things up?
Likely enough …
And are we covered from the rear?
Too late to ask.
Patroclus aimed where they were thickest.
That is to say, around a Macedonian
Chariot commander called Pyraykemese,
Tough, one of Troy’s best. But, just as Patroclus aimed
The ship’s mast split from stem to peak—Aoi!—and fell
Lengthwise across the incident.
Its fat waist clubbed the hull’s top strake,
And the whole ship flopped sideways.
Those underneath got crunched.
And howling Greeks ran in
To stick the others as they slithered down
Into their lap.
But not you, Pyraykemese; no,
Heaven had something special up its sleeve for you.
Because the mast’s peak hit the ground no more than six
Foot from Patroclus’ chariot bub, the horses shied,
Spoiling his cast. Nothing was lost. God blew the javelin straight
At Pyraykemese as he pitched downwards twenty feet,
Headfirst, back arched, belly towards the Greeks—who laughed—
The tab-ends of his metal kilt dangling across his chest.
Whether it was the fall that scared him.
Or the vague flare Patroclus’ javelin made
As it drifted through the morning air towards
His falling body like a yellow-headed bird.
We do not know. Suffice to say he shrieked until,
Mid-air, the cold bronze apex sank
Between his teeth and tongue,
Parted his brain, pressed on, and skewered him
Against the upturned hull.
His dead jaw gaped. His soul
Crawled off his tongue and vanished into sunlight…
Aoi! It was good to kill him!