Some Assimilations of the Homeric Simile in
Later Twentieth-Century Poetry
Epic similes seem easy enough to recognize. And it is generally taken for granted that they maintain a tradition, the 'Homeric simile', descended more or less directly from Homer, through Virgil, Dante, Tasso, Milton to Tennyson and…Philip Pullman.1 A basic template would lay down that epic similes are long; that they correspond closely, sometimes multiply, to their narrative setting; that they may contain self-generated detail and ornament, wandering digressively; and that they draw on the familiar world of the poet and audience rather than the remote world of the epic narrative. And yet there are significant ways in which this 'taille-unique' sketch does not apply to most of the similes in Homer—in other words the similes of Homer are not straightforwardly 'Homeric' similes. Yet it is the peculiarly Homeric, rather than generally epic, features that have, as I hope to show, been most productively absorbed or assimilated or counterpointed by some contemporary poets, especially Christopher Logue, Michael Longley, and Derek Walcott.
The first cliché to challenge is that of the decorative meandering. Ever since ancient times there has been talk of how Homeric similes
1 There is fine pair when the two leading armoured bears have their great duel in
Pullman (1995: 350–4). Here is the second: 'Like a wave that has been building its
strength over a thousand miles of ocean, and which makes little stir in the deep water,
but which when it reaches the shallows rears itself high into the sky, terrifying the
shore-dwellers, before crashing down on the land with irresistible power—so Yorick
Byrnison rose up against Iofur' (353).