INTRODUCTION TO SRI AUROBINDO’S POEM ILION – Part 1

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The Ilion Mystery – Part 1

 

When one approaches Sri Aurobindo’s poem Ilion, one may be captivated by the poem’s epic breath, by its particular musicality, or by some mysterious inner resonance. Indeed, the subject of the poem is the last day of the Trojan War sung almost 3000 years ago by the Greek poet Homer in the Iliad. Although one may be more captivated by the adventures of Odysseus in the Odyssey, the various attempts to end a conflict given the psychology of the characters and the interventions of outside forces can keep one on the edge of one’s seat. Or, if the reader is a poetry enthusiast, he may be surprised by a musicality and rhythm unfamiliar to English poetry, that of ancient Greek poetry. Or he may sense that this poem is not only about a war of the past, relatively modest and usual after all, but also about the uncertain present time, especially since Sri Aurobindo makes many unexpected references to it.

But a multitude of questions arises that confront the reader.

  • Why did Sri Aurobindo compose a poem of nearly 5000 lines in dactylic hexameters, a versification also known as quantitative metre and used by ancient Greek poets such as Homer?
  • Why did he leave it unfinished, as he himself stated in a note when the first extract of 371 lines from Ilion was published in 1942, devoting most of his time to Savitri and his correspondence with his disciples?
  • Why did he choose as the theme of the poem the last day of the Trojan War, sung in the Iliad by Homer?
  • Why did he devote so much time and energy to this poem when he knew that no one would understand its meaning for a long time?
  • And above all, why did he never give the slightest indication of its deeper meaning?

After 30 years of study devoted to the interpretation of Greek mythology in relation to the writings of Sri Aurobindo, I am willing to share some answers in this and the following articles.

We must first recall Sri Aurobindo’s relationship with European culture and his Greco-Latin roots. Sri Aurobindo’s father, Dr. Ghose, wanted his sons to be raised as perfect Englishmen. At home, only English speaking was allowed, and Sri Aurobindo had to relearn his native language on his return to India. Dr. Ghose also wanted high positions for them. To this end, he sent his sons to England for their studies when Sri Aurobindo was just seven years old. Sri Aurobindo first received his education which included Latin from the couple to whom his father had entrusted them. Then, in 1884, at the age of 12, Sri Aurobindo was admitted to St. Paul’s School in London. The headmaster was so pleased with his mastery of Latin that he took it upon himself to teach him Greek and then pushed him rapidly into the higher classes of the school.

Afterwards, Sri Aurobindo joined King’s College in Cambridge. In June 1890, when he was not even 18, he took the Indian Civil Service qualifying examination and scored record marks in Greek. Thus Sri Aurobindo had developed early on a perfect command of the so-called Classics which traditionally refers to Classical Greek and Roman literature and their related original languages, Ancient Greek and Latin. Sri Aurobindo could read Greek in the original and even composed poetry in Greek poetry being a subject of special interest to him since a young age.

But could this passion for poetry alone justify writing a poem of nearly 5000 lines in dactylic hexameters? It is certain that Sri Aurobindo admired the rhythm of the ancient Greek and Latin poets. He himself said: “The rhythm that was so great, so beautiful or, at the lowest, so strong or so happy in the ancient tongues, the hexameter of Homer and Virgil…” (CWSA 26: 322). But he had found that all attempts to transpose the ancient rhythms to the English language had failed. Thus, in his essay On Quantitative Metre, we read:

A definitive verdict seems to have been pronounced by the critical mind on the long-continued attempt to introduce quantitative metres into English poetry. It is evident that the attempt has failed, and it can even be affirmed that it was predestined to failure; quantitative metre is something alien to the rhythm of the language… Accentual metre is normal in English poetry, stress metres are possible, but quantitative metres can only be constructed by a tour de force. (CWSA 26: 317)

A poet trying to naturalise in English the power of the ancient hexameter or to achieve a new form of its greatness or beauty natural to the English tongue must have absorbed its rhythm into his very blood, made it a part of himself, then only could he bring it out from within him as a self-expression of his own being, realised and authentic. If he relies, not on this inner inspiration, but solely on his technical ability for the purpose, there will be a failure; yet this is all that has been done. (CWSA 26: 321)

Sri Aurobindo took up the challenge, achieving this tour de force. He mentioned that it was one of his Cambridge contemporaries, H.N. Ferrar, who had first given the clue to the hexameter in English by reading out a line from Arthur Hugh Clough. Sri Aurobindo was thus the first to successfully adapt this very ancient Greek quantitative metre to the English language. But was it necessary for him to write a poem of nearly 5,000 lines to demonstrate this? The ten or so short poems at the end of his essay would probably have been sufficient.

We must then examine the purpose of writing this poem when Sri Aurobindo knew full well that no one would understand its meaning for a long time. In fact, no study on the meaning of Ilion has been published since Sri Aurobindo left his body over seventy years ago.  Those who have studied Sri Aurobindo’s works to a minimum will no doubt agree that he never wrote anything without a reason and that all his writings were the result of inner experiences. Sri Aurobindo himself stated that: “I am supposed to be a philosopher, but I never studied philosophy – everything I wrote came from Yogic experience, knowledge, and inspiration. So too my greater power over poetry and perfect expression was acquired in these last days not by reading and seeing how other people wrote, but from the heightening of my consciousness and the greater inspiration that came from the heightening” [Nirodbaran: 62]. There is no reason why Ilion should be an exception. Indeed, it seems absurd that Sri Aurobindo should have expended so much energy merely to replace an ancient lost epic poem dealing with the deeds of the heroes of a war that may have taken place over three thousand years ago. This lost poem followed immediately after the Iliad in the suite of epic poems about the Trojan War, a suite that the academics call “The Trojan Cycle”. Of the eight poems in this cycle – The Cypria, The Iliad, The Aethiopis, The Little Iliad, The Sack of Troy or Iliou Persis, The Nostoi (The Returns), The Odyssey, and The Telegony – only two have survived, The Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to Homer.

The subject of the Iliad concerns the last days of the last year of a war that lasted ten years. With Ilion, Sri Aurobindo began to compose a poem that recounted the events following those described in the Iliad. He took up the theme of the Aethiopis composed by Arctinus of Miletus in the eighth century BC. According to the surviving summaries of the Aethiopis, the poem opened shortly after the death of the Trojan hero Hector with the arrival of the Amazon warrior Penthesilea  who had come to support the Trojans. She had a moment of glory in battle, but Achilles killed her. The poem Posthomerica of Quintus of Smyrna, dated 3rd century AD, also begins with the arrival of Penthesilea. Sri Aurobindo however does not relate the death of this Amazon queen because he completed only eight songs out of the probable twelve or even twenty-four that were to constitute the poem Ilion according to tradition.

Let us look at the history of the composition of the poem.  According to Sri Aurobindo himself, Ilion, whose title was then “The Fall  of Troy : An Epic”, was “commenced in Jail, 1909, resumed and completed in Pondicherry, April and May 1910” [CWSA 2: 707], so a few years before he started Savitri. The first known manuscript of Savitri is dated 1916.

It is not known whether, lacking the means to write in prison, he “entrusted it to his memory” as he said he had done with other poems, writing it down only after his release. Sri Aurobindo did indeed have an extraordinary memory, as many accounts attest.

We need to emphasise an event that occurred during his internment, as he himself tells us: “A moment’s illumination in Alipore jail opened my vision and since then I have understood with the intuitive perception and vision” [CWSA 35: 264]. It is therefore logical to consider that this moment opened the doors to an understanding of the profound meaning of Greek mythology, of which he already knew all the themes in depth. Having solved the problem of versification and the problem of the hidden meaning of Greek myths, he was able to continue the work of the ancient Greeks who, as we shall see later, translated into stories the spiritual path up to the yoga in the depths of the vital.

Between 1910 and 1917, Sri Aurobindo transformed these early verses into an epic poem comprising several books, while giving priority to the monthly magazine Arya. In the ‘Notes’ of the volume of his Complete Works titled Collected Poems, we read:

During the twenties and thirties, Sri Aurobindo worked on Ilion from time to time. Even up to 1935, he complained, not without humour, that he could not spare even an hour a day from his correspondence: ‘In three years, Savitri, Ilion and I don’t know how many more would be rewritten, completed, finished to perfection’” [CWSA 2: 708]. He in fact never found time to complete Ilion, but in 1942 he revised the beginning of the first book that was to serve as an illustration of the quantitative hexameter in “On Quantitative Metre” an essay that was published in Collected Poems and Plays in 1942 and also in a separate booklet issued the same year. This revised passage of 371 lines was the only portion of Ilion to appear in print during his lifetime. The full text was transcribed from his manuscripts and published in 1957. A new edition, corrected against the manuscripts and with the addition of the opening of the fragmentary ninth book, was brought out in 1989. [CWSA 2: 708]

Although Sri Aurobindo had intuited the deep meaning of Greek mythology, but he explained absolutely nothing about Ilion. If he had to explain the deeper meaning of Ilion or even suggest that it had a hidden deeper meaning, he would have had to reveal the symbolic content of the whole Greek mythology, which would have taken him far too long. Refusing to give any explanation about Ilion, Sri Aurobindo knew that it would probably be decades before this poem would be understood. However, Sri Aurobindo never completely abandoned Ilion, a sign that he considered the poem to be of great interest to future humanity.

Lacking this intuitive understanding of the symbolism of Greek mythology, and without any explanation by Sri Aurobindo, the author of this article took over thirty years to discover the hidden meaning of this mythology, gradually uncovering the coding keys. The full interpretation was published in French in three volumes under the title “Mythologie Grecque, Yoga de l’Occident” (Greek Mythology, Yoga of the West). It is available in its entirety on the website greekmyths-interpretation.com where it is updated regularly.

The symbolism underlying this episode near the end of the Trojan War covered only a specific moment in the spiritual path related to the great reversal of Yoga from the heights of the Spirit to Yoga in the body. Sri Aurobindo could not, therefore, include the totality of his infinitely wider vision and experience. That is probably one of the reasons why he turned his full attention to his poem Savitri. Moreover, the original legend of Savitri and the Indian mythology were relatively more known and accessible.

Greek mythology as a pictorial description of the spiritual journey

 

Before turning to Ilion, we need to understand the context in which the poem is set, and in particular, the position and symbolism of the Trojan War in the spiritual journey. It is not the intention here to give an exhaustive interpretation of the meaning of the Greek mythology, which, as has been said, can be found on the website greekmyths-interpretation.com, but only what is essential to approach the poem Ilion.

Greek mythology is built around genealogical lineages. The evolution of animal consciousness is described in the lineage of Pontos. The evolution of human consciousness is described in the lineage of Ouranos and his children, the Titans. The Titans do not have the meaning that Sri Aurobindo gives them, namely, powers of darkness working for division. In Greek mythology, they are the powers of creation arising from the infinite Consciousness symbolised by the starry sky, Ouranos. The children of the Titans represent the powers and processes that govern the world of forms, including gods and deities of all kinds. They may also begin the evolutionary lineages.

Among these evolutionary lineages of Titans, two are of particular importance because almost all the myths are i