Iliad Book 6 450-590
by Carol Ann Duffy
These words, like shadows, followed Hector’s stride
all through the town, along the avenues, ducking down
cool alleyways, his helmet’s sudden flash,
his cape’s dark swish, disappearing round the corner
of walled lanes, until he reached the Skaian Gates
through which he’d pass, a warrior, to the battlefield.
Then- running feet- he turned and saw, vivid with love,
his wife Andromakhe, daughter of big-hearted Eetion
who’d ruled the forest lands at Thebe below Mount Plakos.
She clung to her husband, felt the cold press
of his bronze against her breasts as on her wedding day.
Behind her stood her maid, nursing their infant son-
in Hector’s eyes, the world’s reward, a swaddled star,
this child he always called Skamandrios but who was known
to other men as Astyanax, Prince of the City, his father being
the shield of Troy. So on his baby, Hector, silent,
smitten, smiled. Andromakhe clutched Hector’s hands.
He felt her hot tears cooling on each palm and heard her cry:
“Stop, Hector! You’re possessed! This lust for bravery
will see you dead. Why not take pity on your son? On me?
How will I live when you’ve been butchered by the Greeks?
You’ll see me wear a nightgown of cold earth, climb in
a bed of soil, lie down with grief? My father’s dead, slaughtered
by swift Achilles when he ransacked Thebe.
He spared his corpse and armour, torched them
and his finely crafted weapons in a pyre, then built a mound.
Elms were planted there by Zeus’s mountain nymphs.
My mother’s dead. My seven brothers entered Death’s House
in a bloody line. Achilles killed all seven as they grazed their herds,
their silver sheep, their lumbering cattle with their bells,
then seized my mother, who’d been Queen of tree-rich Thebe,
as spoils of war. He freed her quickly for a priceless sum,
but as she ran into her father’s marble halls, Artemis,
playing with her arrows, shot her dead. Father, Hector?
I have only you. Mother? I have only you. Brother,
brother, brother, I have only you. Lover- warm and living-
I have you. Be merciful! Climb to the lookout here!
Don’t orphan your defenceless child and widow me.
Gather the Trojan army by the wild figtree: it’s where
the city wall is low and vulnerable. Three times
the Greeks have stormed us there, their best men led by
two named Ajax, famed Idomeneus, Agamemnon,
Menelaus and brave Diomedes. Either the oracle
or their furious bloodthirst led them there.”
Hector’s helmet flamed with sunlight as he said:
“ Lady, mother of my son, these shadows
darken my mind too. But I would die of shame
if Trojan noblemen and Trojan women
in their lovely, trailing gowns saw me back down
from battle. Nor do I want to for myself. War
is in my blood, bred in the bone from boyhood, to fight
and be first forward for my father’s honour and my own.
My heart tells me the day will come when Troy will fall,
when Priam’s ash-spear falters in his fist
and he and all his people die. What makes me suffer now
is not the thought of all their agonies- the Trojan people,
Hecabe herself, King Priam, all my brave brothers
bleeding to nothing in the dust before our enemies-
but you, the day some sweating bronze-clad Greek
drags you in tears away from freedom’s light- drags you
to Greece to squat before another woman’s loom
or carry water from a well, at Messeis or Hypereie,
the yoke of slavery chafing your neck. “That’s Hector’s wife,”
they’ll say, seeing you weep. “Hector was bravest when they fought
on stallions at Troy.” They’ll say that and your heart
will break again, hearing the name that could have kept you free.
No! Let grave-dirt clog my mouth and eyes and ears
before I hear them dragging you away, your helpless cries!”
As these words left his lips, Hector bent his soldier’s head
and held his arms out for his child. The baby wailed,
cowered on his nurse’s breast, terrified at seeing his father
helmeted in dazzling bronze, a bristling horsehair plume
alive on top. But loving Hector laughed
and then Andromakhe laughed too. Hector pulled his helmet
from his head and knelt to place it, sparkling, on the ground.
He kissed his child and swung him in the air
then said this prayer:
“Zeus and all you gods, allow this child, my son,
to grow into the Lord of Troy. Let him be strong and brave,
like me, and rule with power, and let men say
“The son is better than the father” when he rides home victorious
from battle, with some dead warrior’s bloody armour
slung across his horse to make his mother proud.”
Hector passed the infant to his mother like a gift.
She held him to her perfumed breast, laughing now
despite her tears, and Hector’s pity ached. He held her face
between his hands and said:
“Andromakhe, dear love, don’t cry for me
with such despair. No man will send me to the place of Death
before my time. And no man living can escape his fate.
Coward or hero- that hour is with him from his birth.
Go home. Sit at your loom and do your woman’s work
and set your women to their tasks as well. War
is the work of men, for every man who’s born of Troy,
and most of all for me.”
He bent and picked his blazing helmet from the earth.
CAROL ANN DUFFY