Perhaps you’ve seen the famous optical illusion with the rabbit. Or is it a duck? In any case, the image involves double-sight. Most people will see one animal without effort but can also force their mind to see the other image. Which one does the drawing truly represent? both. The image allows us to see two pictures, one atop the other.
Poetry’s use of image and metaphor creates the same effect, allowing it to communicate multiple layers of meaning. Poetry is not constrained by the literal meaning of the text, but by the imagination as it works upon the poem’s symbols. This is one of the great delights in reading poetry, but it is also the cause of frustration to many. Some readers demand clarity and strain to see with double vision. It provides layers of meaning that take imagination and insight to perceive and must be read accordingly.
Homer’s poetry demands this double-vision. He sees the world in images and patterns and teaches us to see them too. His clarity of perception belies his blindness. Homer leverages this insight to show us how to perceive truth in the mundane occurrences of life which we observe, but do not really see. In his similes, he connects two realities and allows us to recognize both at once. When Diomedes attacks the Trojans, Homer trains us to see a lion entering the pen of sheep. As the Trojans and Greeks pull at the body of Patroklos, we ought to see men pulling a bull hide, stretching the skin as far as it will go. His poem breathes in symbol and image; this is its power. It is not limited merely to the events in the waning year of the Trojan war, but endures as a treasure for all time because its pictures communicate eternal realities.
But the blind bard’s double vision is not limited to his epic similes. One of the most compelling examples of this double vision involves Achilleus’s armor. As Achilleus chases Hektor around the city of Troy, what do you see? If you are a literalist, you see Achilleus chasing Hektor. But remember that Greek armor covers and conceals the wearer. The soldier beneath is all but invisible, recognized only by his build and armor. Patroklos could be mistaken for Achilleus. How else would the ruse have worked? Thus, as we watch Achilleus chase Hektor, we may see the suits of armor representing numerous possibilities.
The new Achilleus, a being between god and man covered in heavenly armor and fed on ambrosia, chases the old Achilleus, bitter and unrelenting. He must pursue his old self around the city three times in a deadly race. Then, in the culmination of the chase, he must plunge his sword into Hektor who wears the old armor. Because Hektor looks like Achilleus, this one act doubles into both Achilleus’s murder of his old self and his present death. Thetis warned him that his “death must come soon after Hektor’s” (XVIII.96) In killing Hektor, Achilleus has twice killed himself.
We may also see the image from another vantage point. As Achilleus apotheosizes into Hades (IX.156-161), the new armor represents Hades pursuing Achilleus. For all his running, he cannot escape. The same shadow lying upon Hamlet has covered Achilleus from the first book of the Iliad, “If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come—the readiness is all.” Hades and Death will come. Achilleus from his first disagreement with Agamemnon has been trying to escape death. He has told us how much he despises the doors of death (IX.311-312) even though his mother has told him that his life will be short (I.416). When he kills Hektor/Achilleus, Fate/Achilleus catches his prey.
Continuing this layering of imagery, Homer adds another interpretation to the armor motif. Before Hektor stole the armor, Achilleus sent out Patroklos wearing it. Now, as Achilleus pursues the Trojan around the city three times, he trails after his beloved companion but cannot catch him. As in a dream, he follows without gaining. Patroklos will never return from death. In mimetic, doubling agony, Achilleus must put Patroklos to death a second time as he drives the sword into his armor. “Him have I killed.”
This one image generates numerous possibilities of interpretation, bound only by the imagination and ability to see. In this way of reading, Achilleus does not merely revenge his companion, but transforms into something more: a raw, devouring force that consumes everything. He is killer and killed, friend and betrayer, a dead man yet Death itself. He is no mere mortal, but Anger unleashed. He will not be sheathed again until, glutted with blood, he fills ravenous Hades with the dead.
Truth is like the sun, fractured into numerous rays and colors of experience through the prism of poetic vision. Poetry teaches us to see these colors intertwining and refracting and to trace them back to their source. It lifts our eyes from the mundane and earthly to consider heavenly realities concealed by everyday encounters. Poetry takes us on a trip to the optometrist. We stand before the lines of text and must answer the question, “what do you see?” In many cases, we discover that our vision isn’t as sharp as we hoped. Paradoxically, the cure is to sit before the blind bard as he teaches us to see.