“I shall stay here where my ships are lying, but I shall send my comrade into battle….Grant, O all-seeing Jove, that victory may go with him; put your courage into his heart that Hector may learn whether my squire is man enough to fight alone, or whether his might is only then so indomitable when I myself enter the turmoil of war.”
I am not his pet.
I come when he calls and do as he commands,
True. Yet so does everyone.
Are all men his pets then?—or perhaps his flock
Spread across a pasture, chewing,
Impassive, solitary, deluded by bestial nature
Into the belief that all is naturally well?
No. These men know him as well as
Anyone can (and know what they can’t know),
Know it’s nature he keeps at bay
Through rage and action, rage and rage,
His human nature beating all others—
Unmatched strength, unmatchable rage.
Of their better, an obedient flock know nothing.
His men know him and obey.
I am the one closest at hand. I serve him,
Yes, when he asks and when he doesn’t.
But am I servile? Some say. Many.
Yet by strength of my own, strength and rage,
The battle prizes I have carried home,
Large in number, I myself have won.
This is true. Most know it.
Still they say what they do. Yet if,
A thousand years from now or more, some fool old soldier
Names his horse “Patroclus” on account of
My service and someone else’s glory and rage,
I will not be mortified. I will be dead,
Forever deaf to mockery or praise.
So will Achilles. And soon enough,
The old soldier and his horse.
We have been together since distant youth.
It used to be that people forgot I’m older,
But now my brow and eyes are lined,
My hair grayed at the sides—his, not yet. Or ever.
Picture him as now, in the full flower
Of youthful manhood. He will never change—
Because he will die. So the prophecy says.
Of course they took me for the younger when
Both us had fully bloomed. I knew then
Who he was, and he knew me.
One, the senior in prowess, in bearing,
In beauty too; the other casting a lesser light
But radiant in his glow, and so perforce the
Junior of the two. A common mix-up.
I grew used to it.
We took lessons together
And practiced our arts one against one. Swords, spears,
Horses and wrestling, footraces to the distant cliffs
And back. In childhood I won.
I recall the rue that came upon his face
When, panting at the finish, he looked to me:
“You win this race, Patroclus,
But not forever.” I laughed and so did he.
The day he first beat me? I recall
What my expression said: You win this time,
Achilles—and the next time and hereafter.
So it was. No one beat him, ever.
Achilles, “the swiftest runner”—true.
And he made me a faster runner for keeping up
With the joyfully merciless pace he set.
I know what some will always say:
Lovers. No shame in candor now, not
Where he and I are going soon.
The faces of the bloodless dead don’t blush.
I am older, and for a short, sweet season, between
My coming to manhood and his, I knew from time to time
Exquisite pleasure, yes, from him.
But then his voice began to crack and deepen,
Silky hair to thicken on his loins.
And that was that. We took up girls.
He fathered a son. And soon after, we left
For Troy, for the hardships and pleasures
Of men at war. Sometimes we shared
A battle prize, a concubine,
My pleasure enhanced by the closeness of his.
Nothing came between us, ever.
But no one believes this. They say,
Human nature, surely you were jealous.
This “best of men” stuff must get old.
And they ask—but, tactful, not of me—
What dog has never once been kicked?
I don’t say we never disagreed; two
Human beings must, they’re not the same.
You can’t feed one through the other’s belly.
But long ago, from our earliest years,
We understood each other—where we stood.
Even when I was winning our races,
I knew I wouldn’t for long. On this ground,
We learned we could fashion for ourselves
A lasting way, to the good of us both.
It does no dishonor to me that I
Am the great man’s best-loved friend.
Just the opposite—he honors me.
Son of immortal Thetis, schooled by the centaur Chiron
(Oh please, the nonsense said of him)—
Perhaps a man as great as Achilles
Belongs in the company of gods instead,
perhaps could do without human friends.
But though head above his fellow mortals,
He, alas, remains one of us,
Not of the gods. And above all mortals,
The one he has chosen for friendship
Is me. Have you heard him talk, fantasize really,
Of striding in triumph through the ruins of Troy,
None left alive but the two of us alone? I have.
I have considered this vision of his
Long enough to be terrified by it.
They say Achilles longs for glory—
That prophecy his mother told him: Go home and live
A long and happy life, or die young at Troy
And win deathless glory. By now, it’s clear:
He’s staying. So he must desire glory above all,
They say. And besides, he sulks in his tent
Rather than raging in battle because of
Agamemnon, who stole his honor.
The “lord of men” took back sweet Briseis, his battle prize
(One of those he shared with me).
So, honor and glory mean all to Achilles,
They say. But I think they are mistaken,
Flattering themselves that he values their opinion.
He does at times succumb to glory’s lure.
That stupid row with Agamemnon shows as much.
Achilles, the greatest warrior, called out the greatest king,
Told him the temple priest was right, that
Apollo was angry at him and punishing us all.
Wars have come of lesser effrontery
Than that of Achilles to the “lord of men” that day.
Yet Agamemnon bore it well enough,
Changed kingly course at once, before all—
But not without a reminder to Achilles
That Agamemnon is chief of all contingents.
And so it worsened between the two.
Denied due honor from the greatest king,
Achilles, for once, forgot who he is,
Caging himself in the gaze of another.
But I say no, that’s not who he is.
The authority for my remark is his.
No glory abides in his fantastic vision—
The bodies of all the Trojans and Greeks
Staring lifeless upon a blood-soaked plain
As we two alone stride through ruins we have made.
This is the Achilles I know and sometimes fear
(Though I myself have nothing to fear)—
Not one resentful at some mere slight,
Not one hungering for acclaim from those
He knows will never measure up to him.
His satisfaction was Troy destroyed
And no one left to cheer Achilles—
Self-sufficient in the greatness of himself,
In the power of his rage—plus, beside him, me.
And if I step inside his fantastic vision,
Stride with him through Troy’s ruined towers
And two whole armies of breathless dead,
How does it sit with me? Not the same.
I feel his satisfaction but none of my own.
There lies Agamemnon dead, and
Odysseus and Nestor, Telamonian
Ajax, Eurypylus (brave warrior, whose wounds
This day not in fantasy but in fact I bound),
And Menelaus too, for whose honor
Justice was done and the world perished.
All of them dead, our Myrmidons too,
The Argives wiped from memory far from Argos.
This he prayed for. And the Trojans: Hector, Paris, Priam,
Through enmity and rage, all slain.
All gone, in that fantastic vision.
And to what end? Shall Patroclus and Achilles
Settle down in Priam’s lovely town,
A sweet spot on the coast grown rich off
Ships that pay to tarry until the wind is fair?
No, no more town, so his vision decrees.
Achilles will pull its towers to the ground!
I guess I am supposed to help.
Were we ourselves immortal Olympians,
Having conquered the world and put the Titans down,
Maybe his vision would yet make sense,
And we could repair forever to our mountain abode,
To fiddle as we please in the affairs of men.
But men we are and soon must die like all the rest.
What a wasteland his fantasy entails.
Of all the lesser kings at Troy
In service to the “lord of men,” the one
I always trusted least is Nestor.
Odysseus, true, would lie to your face—
But do so smiling, as if to say,
We both know the truth, and that wasn’t it.
The first neck Odysseus saves is his own—
And probably the last one, too. But Nestor—
Old Nestor, his dissimulation sparkles.
He natters on so, almost drooling,
Barely able to keep to his thread,
His palsied arm resting on a shoulder for support—
Until ready to bury in that sympathetic back
The knife he’s all along concealed.
His joy comes from the surprise, I think.
He reminded me today of my father’s injunction
To give good counsel to the great Achilles—
As if I could somehow forget those words.
No, I have followed them to the letter—
Though counseling Achilles requires art.
He does not take advice as such, rather
Pushes back—he’s right, I’m wrong. How
Could anyone ever conclude to the contrary?
But wait a day, and see what course
Achilles chooses for himself. (I don’t remind him,
But he knows. As I said, we have our way.)
But now, the Argives greatly imperiled, Trojans
Bearing down to torch the ships, I’ll admit,
Nestor riled me up, stirred in me a fighting spirit,
With the plan he seemed to contrive on the spot.
Of course he had not. The contrivance was
Long before. (This I concluded while tending
Eurypylus for an arrow-wound from Paris’s bow.)
When Nestor proposed that I put on
The armor of Achilles, and lead our
Myrmidons, fresh from unwanted rest,
To halt the Trojan advance and save the Argive ships,
He knew exactly what he sought: Achilles
Back in the fight, he whose rage alone
Could carry the day now the Trojans
Had made the choice of open battle.
And no, not for one moment did
Artful old Nestor believe the Trojans
Would mistake me for Achilles and run away.
One way only to bring Achilles back:
Patroclus dead. Nestor reasoned rightly, of course.
The rage of Achilles in pursuit of vengeance
For the loss of his dearest friend—of me
—Would drive an army of twice these Trojans
Back on their heels, if not at headlong run for Troy.
To die and release the rage of Achilles,
Who saves the Argives this direful day—
A useful part for me to play, by Nestor’s light.
On the way back to Achilles
I came upon Eurypylus, in bad shape.
Of course I stopped to help, to cut the arrow free.
So many Achaean kings lay wounded this day—
Diomedes, Odysseus, Agamemnon himself,
So many lesser lords as well, brave fighters,
In grave need. No man could tend to them all. What then?
When I told Achilles Nestor’s plan,
He liked it well enough—his Myrmidons,
Myself in command, turning the battle’s tide.
But I must not advance too far, he said.
For Agamemnon would soon see the need
To make amends with his greatest warrior—and so
At last would Achilles return to the fight.
(In the modified plan, I don’t count for much.)
His armor, his army—his honor rightly restored
At last by the lord of men. Now, why Agamemnon
Would honor him, not me, did not occur to Achilles.
Why would it? And this is fine with me.
I could counsel him differently,
Explain to him he’d lost sight of who he is.
But the Achaeans don’t have until tomorrow.
There is that other prophecy—
Well, dozens more, I reckon, soothsayers seeking
To cover all contingencies to redeem their art—
But one in particular, which he doesn’t like. It holds:
The best man among Myrmidons will die
At Troy, while Achilles yet lives on.
I don’t doubt but he’s forgotten it;
It casts him in a lesser light.
I thought of it as I put on his armor.
Best of the Myrmidons? Better than Achilles?
What is it that Achilles lacks
That demands to acknowledge someone better?
This I leave for others to consider.
I fire my rage for battle now, and his will follow—
We have prophecies to meet.