‘Epic Simile’ is twenty-one lines long and not confined to any particular rhyme scheme or pattern of meter. It is written in free verse with the only consistent factor being the length of lines and a similarity in the number of syllables each line contains.
The poem begins with the narrator describing the pains the hero is experiencing due to his hard day of fighting. The man is covered in blood and is wrapped up tightly in his armor. The day appears to be a success, even though the hero’s current physical state is weakened and somewhat miserable.
The hero is being carried along on his chariot and after seeing the snowy mountains that ring the landscape takes on a different perspective on the scene. He feels the wind and hears it like he would if instead of spears, it was rustling through trees. The hero is seeing the world differently.
In the final lines of the poem, it becomes clear that even though the hero has won the battle he did not get what he wanted. What the man wanted more than anything was to achieve the elusive “prize” of a hero’s death. He did not want to survive the day,. He would rather have died heroically and been remembered for his brave actions. This desire, and the loss of opportunity, is played out through the manifestation of a horse that leaps away from him across a river. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Epic Simile
Lines 1- 5
Right shoulder aching with day-long butchery,(…)His beard—the armor deadweight all around him;
The narrator of this piece begins by describing the end of a day’s work for an “Epic” hero. The reader is thrust into the story as it is coming to a conclusion and is faced with the aftermath of a gory battle.
The hero is feeling the pains of the battle he just participated in. His “Right shoulder [is] aching” from the day of “butchery.” As a first-line to this poem, it serves to shock the reader into continuing on, if for no other reason than to understand why this person has had such a day. The second line of the poem jumps to his other shoulder which is experiencing an opposite sensation. It is “numb,” from the blows inflicted on his shield. The reader now has a clearer picture of this person and how he does battle. He wields his sword with his right hand and supports his shield with his left. He is carrying himself unevenly and experiencing both sides of the pain spectrum. He is physically split, as he is split mentally (to be expounded on as the poem continues).
This original insight into how a person in his situation would be physically feeling after battle is intriguing. Additionally, the “hero is,”
…fouled with blood, his own and others’
The blood that covers him was at first “slick,” then it become “sticky,” and finally it started to “cake” into his skin and “mat / His beard.” This terribly uncomfortable situation is made worse by the “deadweight” of his armor that is all wrapped “around him.” This represents the weight of all the things that one takes on during one’s life. They are bearable at first but then begin to become less tolerable
His teeth grit and rattle with every joltOf bronze-rimmed wheels behind the shit-flecked horses.(…)While a banner slips its staff and hangs in the blueLike a kestrel or a contrail. The hero’s death,
The hero is, as would be expected, putting on a brave face. The next lines of the poem inform the reader that he is now moving away from the battle on his horse-drawn chariot. This old-fashioned vehicle “rattles[s]” as it rolls over the landscape. The shock of every bump in the road travels through the chariot into his body. He is gritting his teeth against this sensation.
The narrator continues to provide the reader with details of the scene. The chariot in which the hero is riding has “bronze-rimmed wheels” and from where he stands he can see that his horses are “flecked” with “shit.”
The perspective starts to move away from the chariot, and the narrator is able to provide insight into what the hero thinks and feels as he views the landscape around him. As the chariot is flying across the ground he is able to “glimpse,” the snowy mountains in the distance. After seeing this,
A blackness swoons upon him, and he hears
Nothing by the white vowels of the wind
After leaving the environment that he has been entrenched in for an unknowable number of hours his system experience a kind of shock upon seeing something so opposite from what he had grown used to. The landscape he views inspires in him a change in the way he sees the battlefield.
Now, the wind, as it flows “through stands of spears,” spears that are stuck in the ground, sounds the same as it would if it was “Brushing through…conifers,” a type of tree. It is a sound of peace, not war. His shifted perspective also allows him to see the slipping “banner” of either his own army or the enemies, hanging in the air, “Like a kestrel or a contrail.” Kestrel refers to a type of bird similar to a falcon, and “contrail” to the lines left in the sky by airplanes. This push into the contemporary world invites comparisons between the heroes of the past and today.
Lines 14- 22
The prize, elusive quarry of his life,Stands stock-still in her cloven tracks in snow(…)And snowfall scrims the scene like a mist of tears,Like a migraine, like sweat or blood streaming into your eyes.
In the last section of the poem, the narrator speaks of the importance of dying a hero’s death and the emotions associated with not finding one’s purpose.
The narrator begins by describing how the “hero’s death” is something that the main character has been seeking. He desires a chance to die honorably and be remembered for his great deeds. The hero of the poem has survived the battle and death remains “elusive.” It is so important to him that death is considered a “prize” and personified as a horse that flees from him.
The image of the horse works in two different ways, it is something that the hero is familiar with and that he associates with battle and strength, but it is also an imagery of escape. It is a way to move from one world to another.
The horse, representing the prize of death, is standing “stock-still” staring at the hero. It is as if she is waiting for him to move on alongside her. She is placed by the narrator in a landscape of snow. Before the hero has a chance to mount or follow her, she is distracted by something on the “creek’s far bank.”
One of her ears is turned towards the noise and the other remains trained on the narrator. She is ready to move on. Her eyes remain on him, “like a sniper’s sights.” With the sound of a branch cracking on the other side of the river she “leaps away” from him, “like luck,” and lands on the other side of the river.
The scene is closing in on the hero, he has not been able to follow with the horse and now snowfall is beginning to obscure or “scrim” the scene as a “mist of tears” would to one’s eyes. It is as if he is experiencing a “migraine” or is plagued by “sweat or blood streaming into” his eyes. This seems to have been his best chance to end up how and where he desperately wanted to, it is now lost and fading from view.
The hero in this story is representative of all those that struggle against odds, either for the good of the world or against it. It is an important message on the fact that although one may seem to succeed in the eyes of others, they still may have not achieved all they set out to. The hero may have survived the battle, but he has lost the “elusive” prize that has become the “quarry of his life.”
About A. E. Stallings
A. E. Stallings, full name, Alicia Elsbeth Stallings, was born in 1968 in Decatur, Georgia in northeast Atlanta. She went to the University of Georgia and Oxford University where she studied classics. Throughout her life, she has published three collections of poetry, Archaic Smile, Hapax, and Olives. Olives was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her translation work has been favorably received and she has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a MacArthur “genius grant.”
Her poems have appeared in a number of publications such as Best American Poetry, The New Atlantic Monthly, and Poetry Magazine.