Tonight’s “supermoon” puts me in mind of a passage from the Iliad. A long day’s battle has been raging outside the walls of Troy, but by the end of Book Eight, the Trojans have taken the field and determinedly set up camp. They sit around their fires, and Homer gives us what has been called “the most beautiful night-piece that can be found in Poetry.” As Robert Fagles translates,
And so [the warriors’] spirits soared
as they took positions down the passageways of battle
all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them.
Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering
round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory
when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm …
all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs
and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts
the boundless bright air and all the stars shine
clear and the shepherd’s heart exults—so many fires burned
between the ships and the Xanthus’ whirling rapids
set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls.
A thousand fires were burning there on the plain
And beside each fire sat fifty fighting men
poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats
and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots,
stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne.
The analogy between the stars and the watch-fires strikes me as especially inventive, since it encompasses not only the brilliance but also the numberlessness of each, all of it spread out in prospect before us. I have had this experience myself. From Morgan’s Steep in Sewanee, you can look out on a clear night and see a great many stars in the sky seeming to mirror the street-lamps of Franklin County beneath. It’s always a heartening sight.
The passage’s pièce de résistance, of course, is the moon illuminating the lands below it, the refulgent lamp of night, as Alexander Pope had put it in his own translation, that O’er heaven’s pure azure spreads her sacred light. Such light, Homer observes, delights the herdsmen, who otherwise would have to stand guard in the dark. It is hard not to recall here the shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night in the Nativity story (to whom another sort of light would appear). We forget in our modern age how the husbandry that was done nocturnally not even so long ago would be made so much easier by a moon-lit sky. The warrior’s work, too, was far different in the pre-electric age, and only the stallions champing their oats might still feel at home in Homer’s world.
What I have never seen from Morgan’s Steep, of course, is the very thing Homer describes. In fact, nobody has ever seen a full moon with stars visible all around it. Does this make the simile a failure? Certainly Wordsworth thought so, and he shook his head about a poet who felt that “the visible universe was of so little consequence … that it was scarcely necessary for him to cast his eyes upon it.” Even so, Pope had defended Homer’s impulse a century before. “A Poet is not obliged to speak with the exactness of Philosophy, but with the Liberty of Poetry,” he observed, speaking of this very passage from the Iliad.
Pope’s invocation of poetic license here seems about right. Sometime later Robert Frost would write in “Birches,” But I was going to say when Truth broke in / With all her matter-of-fact, then asking in plaintive parenthesis, (Now am I free to be poetical?). Homer hardly needs our permission to be poetical, I suppose. Still, on a night like tonight, with its rare supermoon, it is easy to imagine the landscape he’s talking about, one in which stars and watch-fires or maybe street-lamps are so numerous that they seem to come together into a single whole, burning with such intensity that even those in the lonesome darkness (soldiers, field-workers, or perhaps just professors grading finals) find some comfort in the serviceable light.