When Collected Poems and Plays appeared in 1942 on Sri Aurobindo's
seventieth birthday, readers were overwhelmed at once by the rich
and varied content of the two sumptuous volumes. But easily the most
unexpected item was Ilion - an epic fragment running to 381
lines - at the end of the second volume, given as if in illustration
of Sri Aurobindo's views on the adaptability of quantitative hexameters
in English verse. The footnote described it as the opening passages
of "a poem left unfinished". Fifteen years later, the whole
work was published as Ilion: An Epic in Quantitative Hexameters,
comprising eight Books and an incomplete ninth Book. Except for
the portion published in 1942, the rest of the poem hadn't evidently
received final revision at Sri Aurobindo's hands. The conclusion too
remains unconcluded, but K. D. Sethna - who has carefully examined
the manuscript and seen the poem through the press - thinks that perhaps
Sri Aurobindo did complete the poem, though the "last pages have
somehow got lost".
Both Purani and Nirod record a conversation with Sri Aurobindo on
3 January 1939 when the discussion was on the hexameter. Sri Aurobindo
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 perhaps the line: "He like
a god came leaving his ample Olympian chamber" - and this had
led to the composition of Ilion at Pondicherry. Nirod records
that Sri Aurobindo also recited four lines from the poem:
One and unarmed in the car was the driver; grey was he, shrunken,
Worn with his decades. To Pergama cinctured with strength Cyclopean
Old and alone he arrived, insignificant, feeblest of mortals,
Carrying Fate in his helpless hands and the doom of an empire.
Perhaps some passages had been privately seen by Amal Kiran and Arjava,
and they had found the experiment a success. [Note: Purani says 'X
and Y', Nirod refers explicitly to Amal and Arjava.]
Whatever else it may or may not be, Ilion is certainly a tour-de-force,
a Homeric exercise in the heroic but almost out-Homering Homer in
the fullness of the delineation and the gorgeousness of the imagery.
In attempting a continuation of the Iliad of Homer, Sri Aurobindo
was taking no small risk, but it was also an irresistible challenge.
George Steiner has described the Iliad as "the primer
of tragic art", for the Western sense of the "tragic"
has been woven out of its motifs and images: "the shortness of
heroic life, the exposure of man to the murderousness and caprice
of the inhuman, the fall of the City". If the action of the Iliad
is spread over eight days ending with the death of Hector at the
hands of Achilles, Ilion covers the events of a single day, the last
day of the doomed city of Troy. The Posthomerica of Quintus
of Smyrna mentions how, after Hector's death, among those that rushed
to help Troy was Penthesilea the Queen of the Amazons. Later writers
have spun heroic romances round the figures of Achilles and Penthesilea,
and in Heinrich von Kleist's tragedy (1808) - a classic of German
poetic drama Penthesilea first
kills Achilles on the field of battle in an outburst of lust and hate,
then kills herself in revulsion and remorse; and the outer struggle
between Hero and Amazon is paralleled by the intestine inner struggle
between the conscious and the unconscious selves of the heroine. In
Sri Aurobindo's poem, Penthesilea is an Indian Queen who has been
lured to Troy to fight Achilles on the opposite side - and she hates
as well as loves the Phthian hero. Here, however, the outer struggle
is obscurely - but none the less definitively - controlled by the
cosmic purposings of the gods on Olympus. In the Iliad the
"wrath" of Achilles with Agamemnon starts the action (or
occasions the impasse that is the prelude to the action); in Ilion,
the action comprises the "offer" of Achilles to Troy
conveyed at dawn, its rejection in the morning by Troy's assembled
chieftains, the call to arms, the partings, the synod of the gods,
and the fateful death-grapple and the culminating catastrophe. Dawn
rises over Ilion's "mysteried greatness" -
High over all that a nation had built and its love and its laughter,
Lighting the last time highway and homestead, market and temple,
Looking on men who must die and women destined to sorrow,
Looking on beauty fire must lay low and the sickle of slaughter.
The words "the last time" come with an unexpected but fatal
emphasis, and from time to time the words of doom are repeated in
divers contexts - in Troy, in the Greek camp, on Olympus - this
last time, the last of our fights, for the last time, my last
dire wrestle; and "like the insistent tom-tom in an impressionistic
play like Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones, to quote Prema Nandakumar,
"these periodic hammerings of emphasis... organise the cumulative
effect of approaching inevitable doom".[Sri Aurobindo Circle,
Number XX (1926), p. 59, in the article 'Approaches to Ilion'.
This excellent 30-page study and K. D. Sethna's "Sri Aurobindo
and the Hexameter" (included in The Poet Genius of
Sri Aurobindo, 1947) are indispensable to an understanding of
Ilion.] Sinister and ominous, Doom is the shapeless ruthless
unseen - it nears, it glowers, it prepares for a swoop - and Doom
is the dark and terrible monster of surprise and finality:
... Doom in her sombre and giant uprising
Neared, assailing the skies: the sense of her lived in all pastimes;
Time was pursued by unease and a terror woke in the midnight: ...
Under her, dead to the watching immortals, Deiphobus hastened
Clanging in arms through the streets of the beautiful insolent city,
Brilliant, a gleaming husk but empty and left by the daemon.
Even as a star long extinguished whose light still travels the spaces,
Seen in its form by men, but itself goes phantom-like fleeting
Void and null and dark through the uncaring infinite vastness,
So now he seemed to the sight that sees all things from the Real.
Troy is doomed, Deiphobus is doomed, and he
is already dead in the eyes of the gods though not as yet in the eyes
of men. A man is dead, but till the news appear people think he is
alive. A star is extinguished, but people see it shining still since
the light takes long to travel the infinite spaces and reach their
eyes, like a letter being received days after the death of the writer.
"It is a question," says Sethna, "whether in the entire
range of similes there has been one so grandly apt and penetrating,
so cosmic in its beauty and its glimpse of the supra-terrestrial."
The whole poem reverberates with this sense of doom, for although
the principal characters talk most eloquently, make striking gestures
and engage in desperate actions, it is as though they are thistledowns
carried hither and thither, now lifted up now cast on the ground,
by a prepotent force that has decreed the doom of Troy on this last
day of her proud history.
When, after the death of Hector, Achilles retires once more to sulk
in his tents, Penthesilea presently proves a terror to the Greeks.
She is the fierce new hope of the Trojans -
Noble and tall and erect in a nimbus of youth and of glory,
Claiming the world and life as a fief of her strength and her courage.
The Penthesilea-Achilles motif had been obscurely essayed by Sri Aurobindo
earlier in the narrative poems Uloupie and Chitrangada,
both incomplete, referred to in an earlier chapter (IV. vi). The
warrior-woman, and the heroic hero - the forged antagonism, the fateful
attraction! In Ilion, Penthesilea pursues Achilles in love
and in hate, but Achilles is in love with Polyxena, daughter of Priam,
and for her sake would gladly spare Troy. There are hawks and doves
both in Troy and in the Greek camp, and even Olympus is divided on
the issue. Like the debate in Hell described in the second Book of
Paradise Lost, the speeches in the Trojan Assembly, as also
those of the Greek chieftains, present forcefully divergent attitudes
that have a universal currency. In Troy, the elder statesman Antenor
and his son Halamus advise the acceptance of Achilles' offer, but
the hawks Laocoon, Penthesilea, Paris - carry the day. Rebuffed by
Troy, Achilles sends an insolent message to Agamemnon, and the Greek
chieftains debate whether they should join Achilles in his attack
on Troy or sullenly stand aside from the conflict. Menelaus feels
demoralised and strikes a wholly defeatist note, some of the chieftains
rail against Agamemnon and some rage against Achilles. It is left
to Odysseus to show the way of prudence and calculation. Agamemnon,
fallible mortal though he may be, remains the chosen leader of Greece,
not "a perfect arbiter armed with impossible virtues", but
"a man among men who is valiant, wise and far-seeing". Achilles'
prowess is another asset that shouldn't be cast aside in a mood of
petulance but exploited for the success of the common cause. Like
Paris in Troy, Odysseus wins here, and the climactic death-grapple
For almost ten years the war has been going on, this see-saw between
victory and defeat, and hope and despair:
All went backwards and forwards tossed in the swing of the death-game.
Vain was the toil of the heroes, the blood of the mighty was squandered,
Spray as of surf on the cliffs when it moans unappeased, unrequited.
And now, on the eve of the final battle, the gods too assemble in
full force to confabulate and decree:
Hera came in her pride, the spouse of Zeus and his sister.
As at her birth from the foam of the spaces white Aphrodite
Rose in the cloud of her golden hair like the moon in its halo.
And others too, "aegis-bearing Athene, shielded and helmeted",
"Artemis, archeress ancient", "immortal Apollo",
Themis, and Ananke, and Hephaestus, and the "ancient Dis",
"into the courts divine they crowded, radiant, burning".
In Sri Aurobindo's play, Eric, as we saw earlier (Chapter VI),
the end-note is "not Thor... but Freya"; in Perseus the
Deliverer, the change is from ruthless Poseidon's to enlightened
Pallas Athene's rule. There is on the terrestrial as well as the cosmic
scale a continual push of evolution - from war and revenge to peace
and compassion, from the reign of violence and hate to the rule of
reason and enlightenment - and behind the monumental clash of arms
and the destruction of the towered city and the doom of empire, obscure
forces are at work to usher in a new era, to compel new life to rise
phoenix-like out of the ashes of the old. On a superficial view, some
of the divinities - Ares, Aphrodite, Apollo - are on the side of the
Trojans, while others, Poseidon and Hera and Athene, are with the
Greeks. And above them all are the "awful three" - Themis,
Dis and Ananke - and Zeus of course is above everybody. These gods
and goddesses have their divers powers and personalities, yet they
are not, the ultimate Power - as Agni, Vayu and Indra are made to
realise in the Kena Upanishad. In the Council of the Gods when Zeus
tells Athene that she shall rule as the light of reason the Greek
and the Saxon, the Frank and the Roman, the goddess answers that she
knows that she too (like the rest) is but a subordinate power ordained
to function only for a limited term:
Zeus, I see and I am not deceived by thy words in my spirit.
We but build forms for thy thought while thou smilest down high o'er
Even as men are we tools for thee, who are thy children and dear ones.
This too I know that I pass preparing the paths of Apollo
And at the end as his sister and slave and bride I must sojourn
Rapt to his courts of mystic light and unbearable brilliance.
Earlier during the debate, "the beautiful mystic Apollo"
had accepted his temporary fading out and also prophesied his future
Zeus, I know that I fade; already the night is around me. ...
I will go forth from your seats and descend to the night among mortals
There to guard the flame and the mystery....
Jealous for truth to the end my might shall prevail and for ever
Shatter the moulds that men make to imprison their limitless spirits.
Dire, overpowering the brain I shall speak out my oracles splendid.
Then in their ages of barren light or lucidity fruitful
Whenso the clear gods think they have conquered earth and its mortals,
Hidden God from all eyes, they shall wake from their dream and recoiling
Still they shall find in their paths the fallen and darkened Apollo.
Mystic Apollo will withdraw awhile and leave the stage to Pallas Athene
and the reign of reason - but reason too will one day be compelled
to recognise its insufficiency, and then will come the time for Apollo's
return signifying the age of sovereign intuition. Apollo will be all
the purer and stronger for a temporary eclipse, for this will be the
means of tempering on the anvil of intellectual reason his old oracular
insights and thereby evolving the higher intuitive or (shall we say)
supramental intelligence. From magic and mystery to reason and science
and so on to the supramental light and force! The language is recognisably
Homeric, but the Aurobindonian touch of creative thought gives the
whole debate the look of a dialectic and even of a prophecy. [See
also Sethna, Sri Aurobindo - The Poet, pp. 319ff.}
It is Sri Aurobindo's deeper artistic intention to insinuate through
hints and nuances of surmise that human motives and actions are not
autonomous but are involved in the movements and purposings of the
gods. Poseidon heaves within us, Ares starts fires in us, Aphrodite
causes a mad flutter in our hearts, Apollo kindles a sudden transfiguring
light. The occult and the terrestrial planes intersect unexpectedly,
the subliminal is a sea within and without us, there are invasions
from the 'overhead' planes, there are minglings, matings, meltings,
partings. In the foreground is played the shattering last act of the
Trojan War. The women Helen, Hecuba, Cassandra, Polyxena, Creusa,
Briseis - are carefully delineated. The Trojan heroes are mythic figures,
and of them Aeneas alone stands apart - he is the hope of the future.
For the rest, the chieftains and warriors are so many, on the field
of battle there are advances and retreats, there are alarums and diversions,
but the foci of attention are still Penthesilea the Indian warrior
Queen and the intrepid irresistible Achilles. As the battle proceeds,
what grips the reader's gaze is the tantalising progress of the murderous
courtship of Penthesilea and Achilles - yet the poem breaks off before
they meet face to face. Their cars approach each other and yet fail
Even in defeat these were Hellenes and fit to be hosts of Achilles,
But like a doom on them thundered the war-car of Penthesilea,
Pharatus smote and Surabdas and Sambus and iron Surenas,
Down the leaders fell and the armies reeled towards the Ocean.
Wroth he cried to his coursers and fiercely they heard and they hastened;
Swift like a wind o'er the grasses galloped the car of Achilles.
The last we hear is the Hellene shout and the name of Achilles, but
the end of the affair is left to be inferred by the reader.
It is probable enough that Sri Aurobindo intended to conclude the
poem following the main lines of tradition. Achilles kills Penthesilea
after a fierce engagement, Paris kills Achilles by aiming an arrow
at his vulnerable heel with Apollo's connivance, and the Greeks practise
deceit and enter Troy the same night and set fire to it. All this
is prefigured in Cassandra's prophesies and Briseis' visions and Aeneas'
dream. Thus his prophetic sister to Paris about Achilles:
Yes, he shall fall and his slayer too shall perish and Troy with
Thou shalt return for thy hour while Troy yet stands in the sunshine.
She then returns to her chamber and cries in her pain:
Troy shall fall in her sin and her virtues shall not protect her...
Woe is me, woe for the flame that approaches the house of my fathers!
Aeneas dreams that llion's streets are on fire and foemen are around
him, and Briseis sees thrice a bow releasing an arrow that strikes
Achilles' heel. And Cassandra sees "centuries slain by a single
day of the anger of heaven".
Like the Iliad and the Aeneid, Ilion too - whether
left incomplete, or is now found incomplete - is a monumental relation
of events, of intimate human interest underlining the play of human
egoism, pride and hatred and the mysterious workings of destiny. As
other epics do, Ilion also occasionally weaves the magic of
poetry out of exotic proper names:
Astyoches and Ucalegon, dateless Pallachus, Aetoi.,
Aspetus who of the secrets divine knew all and was silent,
Ascanus, lliones, Alcesiphron, Orus, Aretes ....
Hyrtamus fell, Adnietus was wounded, Channidas slaughtered;
Cirrhes died, though he faced not the blow while he hastened to shelter.
Itylus, bright and beautiful, went down to night and to Hades.
As for the similes in Ilion, they are no doubt immediately
explanatory and decorative, but they are also integral to the scheme
and texture and meaning of the epic recital. The best epic similes,
besides answering the demands of the narrative through the employment
of apt images and detailed description, become (in B. A. Wright's
words) "substantial parts of the story.... They are not digressions
the poet can forget as soon as they are over; he cannot afford to
forget any image or word he uses, for each at once becomes an element
in the growing forces of the narrative". There is, for example,
the simile in the opening Book about the herald Talthybius' urgent
High and insistent the call. In the dimness and hush of his chamber
Charioted far in his dreams amid visions of glory and terror,
Scenes of a vivider world, - though blurred and deformed in the brain-cells,
Vague and inconsequent, there full of colour and beauty and greatness,
Suddenly drawn by the pull of the conscious thread of the earth-bond
And of the needs of Time and the travail assigned in the transience
Warned by his body, Deiphobus, reached in that splendid remoteness,
Touched through the nerve-ways of life that branch to the brain of
Heard the terrestrial call and slumber startled receded
Sliding like dew from the mane of a lion.
The invasion of Deiphobus' world of privacy by the intrusive summons
of the outside world is compared to the invasion of the bitter-sweet
infinitudes of the subconscious dream-world by the aggressive pull
of everyday actuality. The dreams melt away, slumber slips away -
and isn't "life" itself "such stuff as dreams are made
on", to be shattered any time by the assertive will of the immortals
who pull the strings of the human drama from the occult world behind?
Sometimes double similes occur to produce particular effects. For
example, Antenor's speech in the Trojan Assembly is likened to the
billows that are like "the hooded wrath of serpent". Odysseus
in the Greek camp is likened to an oak, a peak, a conqueror, a mortal
Atlas, and finally to
... the Master who bends o'er his creatures,
Suffers their sins and their errors and guides them screening his
Each through his nature He leads and the world by the lure of His
The similitudes come not single but in battalions - it is a superb
As regards the metre, what was said about Sri Aurobindo's handling
of the hexameter in the section on Ahana applies to the maturer
parts (notably Book 1) of Ilion as well. Some scattered lines
that have caught the true hexametric rhythm - its majestic heave and
flow - are cited below:
One and un|armed in the | car was the | driver; | grey was he,
Ilion, | couchant, | saw him ar|rive from the | sea and the | darkness...
Regal and | insolent, | fair as the | morning and | fell as the |
Long I had heard in my distant realms of the fame of Achilles...
Men, these are visions of lackbrains; men, these are myths of the
Back to the ships and the roar of the sea and the iron-hooped leaguer...
Peal forth the war-shout, pour forth the spear-sleet, surge towards
Lo, in the night came this dream; on the morn thou arisest for battle...
And in the noon there was night. And Apollo passed out of Troya...
Loud with the clamour of hooves and the far-rolling gust of the war-cry
Most of Ilion didn't receive finishing touches at the poet's
hands, and accordingly the tongue trips off and on, and the dactylic
changes unawares into the rising anapaestic rhythm. But a little practice
helps, and in any case there can be no question about the total effect
which is overpowering. It is, however, only when reading a passage
of some length - like the magnificent Exordium - that the full force
of the rhythmic plenitude can slowly sink into the awakened consciousness:
Dawn in her journey eternal compelling the labour of mortals,
Dawn the beginner of things with night for their rest or their ending,
Pallid and bright-lipped arrived from the mists and the chill of the
Earth in the dawn-fire delivered from starry and shadowy vastness
Woke to the wonder of life and its passion and sorrow and beauty,
All on her bosom sustaining, the patient compassionate Mother.
As if by sleight or artistic intention, Ilion has been shaped
by Sri Aurobindo as the saga of the Indian Queen, Penthesilea. It
is she who fills the ample spaces of the epic with her aggressive
and radiant power and presence. In the opening Book she is seen coming
out of her chamber of sleep "capturing the eye like a smile or
a sunbeam". To Laocoon in the Trojan Assembly, she is heaven-sent
and a continent in herself. We see her in Priam's Palace surrounded
by her chieftains Surabdas, Surenas, Pharatus, Somaranes, Valarus,
Tauron, Sumalus, Arithon, Sambas and Artaboruxes. Her challenge to
Achilles is delivered by the herald in Book V:
Sea of renown and of valour that fillest the world with thy rumour,
Dread of the world and my target, swift-footed glorious hero! ...
O, I have longed for thee, warrior! Therefore today by thy message
So was I seized with delight that my heart was hurt with its rapture,
Nay, if thou hast that strength, then hunt me, O hunter, and seize
But if thou canst not, death of myself or thyself thou shalt capture
In the Greek camp, Menelaus despairingly asks: "Who in the dreadful
field can prevail against Penthesilea?", while the Locrian swift-footed
Ajax calls her "this hell-bitch armed by the furies". Zeus
himself takes in his eternal gaze "the beauty of Penthesilea".
And Book IX is mostly filled with the ambience of her prowess and
personality. The bold "unwomanly" woman, woman as uncompromising
Shakti, had been sketched earlier by Sri Aurobindo in Vidula (after
the Mahabharata), in Chitrangada, in Cleopatra of Rodogune,
of Aslaug of Eric, in Cassiopea of Perseus the Deliverer;
and Andromeda was the portrait of a woman fearless as well as
compassionate, her Shakti playing the role of triumphant Grace rather
than that of ruthless power. But Penthesilea still stands apart in
her fiery epic grandeur. She comes partly as the would-be saviour
of Troy and partly - or chiefly - as the seeker of Achilles, half
in hate and half in love. Staking all, daring all, she is the committed
uncalculating woman made up of beauty and love and valour and hate.
Nevertheless, she is neither the whole nor the really wholesome efflorescence
of Woman as Shakti. In the Western tradition, Penthesilea could be
linked with Atlanta and Artemis and even Ishtar of the still earlier
myths. But Sri Aurobindo sees her in other possible lights as well.
In European literature, the Iliad and the Aeneid led
up to The Divine Comedy and its sanctified heroine, Beatrice.
"Sri Aurobindo's Penthesilea too," writes Prema Nandakumar,
"is but the forerunner of the more than Beatrice-like power of
Savitri, the immaculate Woman who redeems Satyavan, the besieged Troy
of the triune Satyam-Sivam-Sundaram. Beyond the 'tragic art'
of Ilion looms in white radiance the 'divine comedy' of the
spiritual action in Savitri."
K.R. Srinivasa Iyengar
from "Sri Aurobindo - a biography and a history"
revised and enlarged fourth edition August 1985
(The first edition in 1945 had been carefully revised by Sri Aurobindo
himself before publishing)
Chapter 25 "Poet of Yoga" - Subchapter 4 (pages 618-625)
published by Sri
Aurobindo Ashram - Pondicherry
diffusion by SABDA