Poet's Choice

By Robert Pinsky
Sunday, February 26, 2006

Hedonism and heroism correct one another. Politicians use "hero" as an approving label, but the word can mean superhuman, and superhuman undertakings such as the Cultural Revolution and the Inquisition were heroic in that sense. Fascism is notoriously, grotesquely heroic. And Homer's warriors do not always behave in ways that make an alert reader wish to give them medals.

The leering, brilliant hedonist John Wilmot (1647-1680), Earl of Rochester, knew that those Homeric heroes were not necessarily models of good conduct. He wrote:

Grecian Kindness

The utmost Grace the Greeks could shew,

When to the Trojans they grew kind,

Was with their Arms to let 'em go,

And leave their lingring Wives behind.

They beat the Men, and burnt the Town,

Then all the Baggage was their own.

There the kind Deity of Wine

Kiss'd the soft wanton God of Love;

This clapp'd his Wings, that press'd his Vine,

And their best Pow'rs united move.

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