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.

While each brave Greek embrac'd his Punk,

Lull'd her asleep, and then grew drunk.

Heroism reaches upward, ambitiously, toward being less like mere humans and a little more like gods; hedonism looks downward, desirously, toward animal satisfaction. Wilmot's poem takes the form of a mordant, funny debunking of Homer's noble Greeks and Romans. What's superhuman is Wilmot's cynicism, doled generously to husbands and wives, Greeks and Trojans, victors and vanquished.

In a very different key, American poet J.D. McClatchy also ponders the comic and the heroic, high aspirations and base desires, wants and lacks, all stirred together:

The News

By seven the old women were leaving

the cathedral's side door, behind them

Christ in a fringed paisley loincloth

and the flaring spray of gold and silver

votive hearts, hundreds of them,

like drops of blood shaken from his face,

and a handful of men were clustered

around the zocalo's only newsstand

to read about the government scandal

on the front page of the morning paper

hung up on a wire with clothespins,

beneath which, on the vendor's plastic table,

are stacked the rows of pornographic

comic books whose covers work

their variations on last night's fantasies.The comic books, like John Wilmot's account of the Trojan war's aftermath, involve sex and violence -- though the modern pairing of those two nouns tends to be more fantasized, less realistic, than either "Grecian Kindness" or the Homeric epics.

John Wilmot's poem "Grecian Kindness" can be found in "The Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester." Harvard University Press. J.D. McClatchy's poem "The News" is from his book "Hazmat." Knopf. Copyright © 2002 by J.D. McClatchy.

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