Glaukos the son of Hippolokhos addresses his prospective enemy,
Diomedes the son of Tydeus,
at Iliad 6.146-149:
οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοίη δὲ καὶ ἀνδρῶν.
φύλλα τὰ μέν τ’ ἄνεμος χαμάδις χέει, ἄλλα δέ θ’ ὕλη
τηλεθόωσα φύει, ἔαρος δ’ ἐπιγίγνεται ὥρη·
ὣς ἀνδρῶν γενεὴ ἣ μὲν φύει ἣ δ’ ἀπολήγει.
As is the generation of leaves so also is that of men.
Some leaves the wind sheds to the ground, others the forest,
in its flourishing, begets, and the season of spring comes forth.
In this way a generation of men now is begotten, now ceases.
People – like the nameless literature teacher a former student of mine had in high school – who think they know that anything to do with war is categorically ‘bad’ have long condemned (if they’ve heard of but obviously not read it) Homer’s Iliad as “that dreadful macho poem glorifying war” … and so it goes. Well, it’s certainly true that the poem is about war, but then again to maintain that the Iliad is all about and glorifies war is kind of like saying that Hemingway’s 1951 The Old Man and the Sea glorifies and is all about marlin fishing. Yes, it’s there, but it’s just the foundation on which the structure is erected.
I first read this simile percipiently back in the mid-fifties in the early springtime of my life, and it struck — and stuck with — me then as powerfully as it still does now in life’s late fall verging into winter. In the interim, forests of leaves have come to birth and existence and passed on to decay and death. Homer, the first and arguably the greatest poet in the Western literary tradition, has a way of analogizing the toilsome lives of humans and human families with the diurnal and seasonal cycles in nature – of wind and water and weather, of decline and demise and dying, of birth and becoming, of animals, of plants. It is a catholic and encompassing view of reality that situates man and his emotions and doings in a context of concerns larger than himself but still comparable to and commenting on his own trajectory.
For the lengthy tradition of Homeric poetry reaching far back into Indo-European or even proto-Indo-European times [for a fairly ‘technical’ analysis of this point, see my earlier discussion here], war and the dying of so many youths, war and its many military and civilian cruelties, war and its numberless indeterminacies shape a harsh but salient canvas on which to paint a vision of how life is and how life still can be in spite of its transience, its ephemeral nature.
For me personally nothing captures the validity of such a view, a belief – indeed, of such an opinion — about Homeric poetry more concisely than today’s exquisite epigraph with its simile about the lives of leaves and the measures of men.