The Courts of Common Sense (Poem by Isaac Ewan)

A Reading from Homer (1885) by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

The Courts of Common Sense

by Isaac Ewan

The Courts of Common Sense, from the Caravanserai collection by Scottish poet Isaac Y. Ewan, is a critique, in verse, of the ancient Greek poet Homer (circa 7th Century BC). Homer’s influence on Western civilisation has been incalculable. He inspired many of its most famous works of literature, music, and visual art. The Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, exerted the greatest influence on ancient Greek culture and education. Plato called Homer the one who “has taught Greece”.

Isaac Ewan approaches Homer from a Biblical perspective. He notes that Homer was “ignored by God’s more learned Paul”. Homer’s gods “were only fallen angels in disguise”. Ewan lists other worthies of literature – Shaw, Pope, Shelley, Gray, Wordsworth – all of whom “stub a philosophic toe upon a spar of wood that bears the mark of nails”. Ewan’s evaluation is insightful, powerful and ultimately devastating.

(We have added some bold emphasis and the odd square-bracketed note to make the poem more accessible to readers unfamiliar with the theme)

I ne’er had dipped a pen to write on it
Had I not felt the challenge in my soul
To meet in honest thought and artless word
The sinister idolatry that marks
The lore of ancient Greece, the lofty sphere
Where Homer reigns supreme. He set the course;
And by sheer weight of excellence he drew
A host of lesser wordsmen in his wake,
Apprenticed in the worship of his gods.
Their skill of diction let who will assess:
I have on hand the things they had to say.

Some count the matter but a harmless myth
To be ignored by educated men
In these enlightened days. It still exists,
A cult of yet more ancient origin,
To steal from God, the One Creator God,
That which belongs to Him, and Him alone –
The adoration of the human heart;
To blind the minds of men and plunge their souls
Into the darkness of eternal night,
Cut off from every ray of light and hope.

Some say that Homer wrote to ridicule
The silly demon-gods of pagan Greece.
If that be so he hid his meaning well.
But I’ve my doubts on it. With open mind.
Let’s put it to the test of common sense:
What influence had Homer’s mighty pen
Upon his race. Was there a falling off
In deep disgust ‘mong thinking, reasoning men
From altars raised and sacrifices made
To petty, peevish, sulky, moody gods
With morals low and mongrel progeny?
Hear hist’ry’s answer, and abide by it.
It would have paid him well to speak it out
And make his meaning plain, if so he thought;
Yea, even though it only earned for him
A full-brimmed hemlock cup. He would have stood
A mighty beacon in a heathen world,
The greatest witness outwith Holy Writ
And dumb creation’s silent eloquence
To warn away the milling multitudes
Of hapless shapes upon the waters dark
From ruthless ruin on eternal shores,
From running headlong ‘gainst the rocks of truth,
Allured by lies, deceived by phantom lights
Kindled in cruelty by that dread foe,
That worship-seeking enemy of souls,
The prince of death. Here is a mystery,
A something that I would investigate.
What’s this that seized the man and through him poured
That mighty cataract of Stygian source,
Mysteriously turbulent and dark
With gushing human blood and violent death
Without a trace of anti-climax found
In all the turgid course of it? ‘Tis true
That human histories are often grim,
But what is this that gluts sadistic souls
With seas of blood and heaps of stinking dead
In ghoulish satisfaction, page on page,
Book after book, line upon lurid line
And takes a pride in it? If war must be,
And there’s no remedy ’tis man’s disgrace,
And he should hang his head for very shame
And blush for it. Most elevating this
To dwell upon – the disembowelled boy
Clutching with piteous hands and terror wild
His reeking entrails strewn upon the ground;
His glazing eyes upturned to heaven dumb. [Homer, Iliad 21.180]
Most elevating this – the severed head
Still hanging by the skin in glorious war. [Homer, Iliad 16.342]
And such things from the master-poet’s pen!
A weighty pen that lacked a worthy theme.
The satire Battle of the Frogs and Mice
Sums up the Iliad. But who wrote that?

When but a thinking boy I learned to shun
The sordid novelist. To me he was
A man who left a scar upon my mind,
A festering scar that horrified my soul,
Whose pregnant brain brought forth a monster foul.
The progeny of ugly thoughts. They stand
Parent and child, no matter what men say.
What deeds such dark conceptions may have bred
Deep in the shadows of sub-conscious minds
When cultured by hot animosities.
How many offspring has the monster had?
How often have those deeds been done again?
Are there not crimes and tragedies enough
In this sad scene of sorrow and of sin
Without inventing more to entertain
The morbid instincts of the human heart?
Some say that virtue is the better seen
When viewed in close proximity to vice;
That evil is that good may be discerned.
Then hell’s a grim necessity to heaven;
And all is but comparison. The thought
Is foreign to all truth and common sense.
No subtle blend of evil and of good
Could e’er survive the glance of Him Whose eyes
Are as a flame of fire. He is the Judge.

Homer, in his more temperate Odyssey.
Though praising virtue and condemning vice,
Permits his hero, and without reproach,
Adultery with Circe; has him go,
With swine’s-blood offerings, down into hell
To interview his mother, gone before.
That’s odious spiritism in reverse,
Amazing in its dark stupidity.
Why should the living seek unto the dead?
With brilliant utterance he tells his tale
Of quarrelling gods accepting sacrifice;
Which thing the angel of the Lord refused
When he the birth of Samson had announced.
When John fell down to worship at his feet
Again he said, “See that thou do it not.”
And added, “Worship God.” There is but One.

Who wastes his time with princes and with kings
Who neither kingly were nor princely lived
But pushes round the cumbrous furniture
Of unimportant aristocracy.
And, for his living, that’s what Shakespeare did;
Though, in the doing of it, oft he touched
Rare works of art in unadorned grace,
The soul-utensils of the common folk,
The lovely treasures of the lowly life
That old heart-warming nature still provides
For rustic knights of cottage, hearth and home.
Clean rags make nobler wear than soiled silks;
Honour in tramps is honour at its best;
Conceit betokens emptiness of soul,
A lofty kite, a plaything of the wind.
The truly great know true humility,
The mighty power hid in little things.

Had Homer penned a paragraph about
A happy husbandman behind the plough,
Treading the hopeful furrow, sweet and fresh,
A spring-song in his soul, his oxen sane
With slow, harmonious foot moving in peace
And pausing not to heed the godless din
That rose from yonder Troy, indiff’rent all
To crested helms on big bad-tempered men,
Glorious in war and famous for their rage;
Had Homer but done that then Homer were
A poet better far than Homer was.
In all his thund’rous eloquence there is
A most depressing lack of artlessness.
He has his little pastoral asides,
But even there his evil altars rise
In testimony to the evil powers
To which they bowed them in their awful guilt,
In ignorance all inexcusable.
On nature’s bosom, written to be read,
The signature of God is everywhere.

Can Homer be excused for lack of light?
What sort of books were written in his day?
Were there no evidences for his eye
That could convince his mighty intellect?
He had the Book of Works, if not of Words
That volume vast of earth and sea and sky,
Amazing in its detail and its scope,
That laid his compeers, in adorning awe
Face downward in the dust. Nor were they fools
Because they knew no modern theories,
For aught that would, with hypothetic art,
Exalt itself against the witnesses
That bore on every hand, though marred and dimmed,
The handiwork of their Creator God.
Conscience within and circumstance without
United in corroborating proof
Of their responsibility. Their thoughts
Accusing or excusing in their breasts
Declared them guilty one and all, with nought
To plead for it. Where comes in Homer here?
Homer, ignored by God’s more learned Paul,
Inspired by evil powers clothed in light
To glorify idolatry; to speak
Great things of heathen gods; and most at home
In nether worlds of occult influence
To dazzle eyes that look for oddities
With fireworks in the dark. Error hath speech,
And might eloquence to overawe –
Creation’s witness tells another tale.
Because of this the glory of the Greek
Crashed in the dust. God blew on it. ‘Tis gone.
And every shrine and image follows suit;
Not just as others who have had their day:
Though knowing no such philosophic flights,
The much more ancient Egypt is preserved
To rise again. But not so Greece. ‘Tis gone;
No more in pride of intellect to lift
It haughty head on high. The gods of Greece
Were only fallen angels in disguise
That played upon depraved credulity
In fallen men. Thus willingly deceived,
They sacrificed to demons, not to God.
But bring in Homer with his mighty pen,
Apostle of the gods of poetry.
Yea, bring him in, and all his ancient school.
We’ll try them in the courts of common sense.
Though ordinary mortals at the best
We’ll call our witnesses. We too are men;
Can form our estimates and speak our minds
Without high scholarship’s apologies.
They stood opposed ere Homer saw the light
Six cubits and a span in brazen mail –
A boy, and one smooth pebble from the brook.
Though [Alexander] Pope declared, “Read Homer and you need
Read nothing else.” Shall Pope decide for us?
Read nothing else, forsooth! ‘Tis evident
That there are learned fools as well as those
Who wear their paper hats and turn their thumbs,
And think that none are quite so wise as they.
Read nothing else, and leave unseen, unknown,
The all-important volume of the Book! [the Bible]
Perhaps he did not mean quite all he said
For “great men are not always wise”. Said Pope,
“One truth is clear whatever is, is right.”
Was ever man more evidently wrong?
In Homer’s case he obviously let
His admiration run away with him.
Of what? Majestic phrase and ordered words
In masterly array. But what are words
But indicators apt, whose highest use
Is to express eternal verities,
And pass from mind to mind great thoughts on them.

It ill becomes a scribbler to decry
The famous literary excellence
Of ancient Greece. I have had but a glimpse,
Have laughed with Aesop; wept with Sophocles,
Heard of deductions, thoughts and theories,
Philosophies and reasonings profound.
With these I raise no argument at all.
But what’s this wisdom that keeps company
With folly of the foremost magnitude?
That mocks itself and glories in its shame?
Some, in defence of him, protesting say
Perhaps no Scriptures ever reached his ear,
For when did Homer live? Let’s call in Job;
That man who scaled the heights and ploughed the depths;
That mighty thinker of the ancient east
Who sat as king before whose noble face
The princes laid their hands upon their mouths
And held their peace. All ears were blessed that heard
That great, good man and his philosophy.
There were no Scriptures written in his day
For none are quoted in the book that tells
How patiently he sat him in the dust
And scraped the boils that tortured all his flesh,
Bereaved and beggared and the song of fools.
Contrast them in the courts of common sense –
The reverent thought that fills the book of Job,
And Homer’s gory Iliad. But then,
Some say, such were the days in which he lived.
What then the yet more ancient days of Job?
Another says, “What of the Amorites
On whom the fearful sword of judgment fell
At God’s command?” What of the Amorites!
These ancient spiritists! Ah, here’s a clue:
Four hundred years and their iniquity
Was full. Then judgment fell on them. Their babes
By death were saved from something worse than death.
What was their sin? The same as that of Greece,
If less sophisticated in its form:
Idolatrous communication with
The powers of wickedness acclaimed as gods;
Their altars red and reeking with their guilt,
Their incantations sinister and dark
Offensive to the very air they breathed.
Unholy demons sought to raise on high
Their pseudo claims before the gaze of men;
To advertise in superstitious gloom
Themselves as mystic gods to be adored,
Demanding Altar worship on the earth.
Their head [Satan], the enemy of God and man,
That led the ancient Amorites to sin
Till righteous judgment wiped them off the earth
Laid hold on Homer’s mighty intellect,
And, not against his will, developed it
To suit his ends. Through him with cunning art
His soul-intoxicating brew he poured,
Commingled well with fiery elements
And primitive heroics stern and grim
That weave the garland glories that adorn
Like lotus lilies on a cesspool foul
The welter-pot of war; all to commend
The half-bred gods of Greek mythology.
Truth rides not on a chariot of pomp,
But on an ass’s colt – “The unknown God.”

But heathen poets showed a strange respect
For heathen priests, howe’er grotesque and weird
Their ritual and incantations were.
Dark superstition still can hypnotise
Intelligence; and many are impressed,
And praise such dread as worthy reverence;
Nor see the sin of it; for sin it is;
A monstrous sin it is that humankind
Should bow him down to any god but God;
The Living and the true Creator God.
What if some scorner wisely smiles and says
There is no true and living God at all.
Wisdom would not discuss with such a fool
The sacred things that brook no argument,
Whose proofs are living and infallible
And multiplied on every hand. To him
I’d speak about the weather and pass on.
He will not want his friends, such as they are;
The devil has no quarrel with his own.
The light brought ruthless war upon his camp,
And there’s no compromise. But what is light?
A bondman of the lie [Pilate] said, “What is truth?”
And turned away from it still uninformed.

But here my pen must pause, confronted with
A tragedy unutterably sad;
A mighty tragedy; most statuesque:
The ancient sphinx of heathen poetry
Staring with empty eyes into the night,
The long, dark, hopeless night, without a ray
Sightless of eye and soul: Homer the blind:
Homer the blind the leader of the blind;
For millions more, in intellectual pride,
Have blindly followed on into the night;
Too wise to learn; too haughty to be taught.
Their children arrogantly said of Paul,
“What will this babbler say?” Now in the dust
The Grecian glory lies, an empty skull
That once had housed the brilliant brains of which
They were so proud; a mere museum piece.
The evil still survives in varied forms.
The strange, unholy marks of it have stained
The pages of the poets to this day;
And men imagine it is wondrous wise,
An evidence of high sagacity
To recognise and speak of heathen gods
As quite respectable. Satan is served;
And human vanity is gratified.

That there are spirit-beings good and bad
Inhabiting the unseen universe
All men may know; the Scriptures speak of them;
But God alone is God o’er heaven and earth.
No altar may be raised save unto Him.
The lowest depth the heart of man can touch
Is that of damnable idolatry;
Except for that one deeper depth it reached
When ’twas exposed, stark naked to the heavens,
Around Golgotha’s Holy Sufferer.
The Book of God is full of common sense.
Left to himself, how would man’s mind react
Toward his one Creator, Owner God,
Whose air he breathes, Whose are his faculties –
To think, to speak, top read, to write, to do?
Suited at first for His companionship,
But now estranged, he’d turn his back on Him,
Think out a God according to his tastes,
Conformed to him; a made-to-measure god,
And take his care-free journey to his doom.
The Pagans’ altar-offerings surpass
Their every sin for fearful heinousness;
For these most sacred things belong to God,
The One True God. They touch the basic truth,
The firm foundation of the world to come,
The blood of the atonement that allows
The throne of everlasting righteousness
To act in sovereign grace. Find but one flaw
In that foundation well and truly laid,
In that one sacrifice that leaves no room
For repetition and all is undone.
Dispense with the atonement! What a thought!
Could Homer’s horde of bogus deities
Dispose of that, the whole vast universe,
Earth, atoms, stars and flying nebulae
Would tumble into chaos in a flash.
Seen from eternity in holy light,
The certitude of its accomplishment
Provided righteous ground to gratify
The heart of Love upon the throne of grace.

Himself the master of the virile verse,
Who nearest came to Homer’s lofty line,
Lord Byron broke his heart o’er Greece’s dust,
The withered corpse of that colossus high
That once bestrode the intellectual world
In proud possession of the final word.
Would he had known the meek and lowly One,
The full expression of the heart of God.
Apart from Him men lack an anchorage,
And drift about with every wind that blows.
They know not whither bound; without a chart;
All more or less grotesque and out of line,
Misshapen in their thoughts and strangely blind
To God’s free gift of everlasting life –
Thomas a Kempis feeling for the sky;
Or Bertrand Russell groping for the wall;
Or even bold, abandoned Bernard Shaw
Who braved Niag’ra on a lotus leaf;
Or Alexander Pope the couplet king;
Or skylark Shelley who had more respect
For Milton’s devil than for Milton’s God;
Or thoughtful Tennyson of lovely phrase,
That prince of mourning mortals for a friend,
Who found all inconsistency because
He could not countenance the fall of man;
Or even Thomas Gray who laid to rest
His weary head upon the lap of earth –
A poet’s thought; but ah, they rest them well
Whose heads are pillowed on the breast of God.
The lap of earth is cold; the ground is cursed
Though William Wordsworth might think otherwise,
And Pantheists may smile at simple souls
Who cannot see what’s not there to be seen;
May heap on coffin lids the blooms that leave
The grim reality beneath unchanged;
And, strolling through the garden of the earth,
May stub a philosophic toe upon
A spar of wood that bears the mark of nails.
One touch of truth can blast the flow’ry lies
That such prefer to it. The ground is cursed,
And man has not an inch to stand upon
Before an infinitely Holy God.
Poor Robert Burns, who knew beyond them all
The art of artlessness, who knew too well
The power of nature’s fire within his soul,
Who poured as none before him ever poured
The human heart upon the poet’s page
Well proved the fact. He, fettered to the earth,
Soared to the heights, yet rolled him in the ditch
And sang of sordid things. Alas, alas,
When folly’s imp turns wisdom out of doors!

Who are the spirit gentry of John Keats?
Why did he give them countenance at all?
Must poets patronise those heathen gods
And buy their reputations mystic wrapped
From demon dignities with whom they’ve supped
And knew it not? O folly most profound!

Idolatry, abhorred in Holy Writ,
Is latent in the heart of fallen man.
He seeks a something that will hold his eye,
An object, an obsession strong enough
To rule his motives, dominate his thoughts
A something that will fill his darkened mind,
Desirable enough to stir in him
The adoration he should give to God.
A woman makes an idol of her son
And blindly pampers him to worthlessness;
Casts in her doting folly far away
The rod that might have saved his soul from hell,
And reaps with him their mutual misery.
A man may sell his soul for sticks and straws,
Gain for his object, mammon for his god,
Amass his wealth, a beggar in disguise,
To lie a pauper in a winding-sheet
With nothing but his sins. But what of him
Who dares to raise an altar on this earth
With evil offerings and evil fire
Ascending in the face of open heaven
To evil spirits seeking worshippers
‘Mong men preferring darkness to the light?
The devil offered to the Son of God
The kingdoms of this world and all their wealth
If He would but fall down and worship him.
The Master gave him answer, “Get thee hence.
For it is written, Thou shalt worship (One)
The Lord thy God; Him only shalt thou serve.”
Dismissed, the mighty tempter went his way.

Herodotus suggests that Homer’s pen
Was first to introduce the demon cult
Of polytheism with pompous phrase
Among the unenlightened sons of Greece.
The virus spread. A forest soon appeared
Of copying quills all diligent to show
The master hand in lofty ignorance;
And scarce a man arose to indicate
The shameless, godless folly of it all.
Why should the learned who should have more sense
Dip their fair pens in ink-pots old and foul
That stain their names and soil their reader’s minds,
(Like Geoffrey Chaucer and the wife of Bath).
Why raise the rotten carcase to the light
And vitiate with its immoral stench
The fragrant air God bids His beings breathe?
Keep then your heathen gods of poetry
And leave to me the daisies and the stars,
My pilgrim staff, my home-song and my Book,
Great thoughts and little trifles warm with love,
My day by day communion with my God
Whose Holy Word is full of common sense.