Other Literary Forms
Homer is noted only for his magnificent epic poems.
Homer’s extant poetry consists of the Iliad, an epic of about sixteen thousand hexameter lines, and the Odyssey, a twelve-thousand-line poem in the same meter. A number of other poems attributed to Homer in late antiquity—the epigrams (twenty-six short poems contained in the Life of Homer that were attributed to Herodotus), Margites, Batrachomyomachia (battle of the frogs and mice), and the Homeric Hymns (thirty-three narrative hexameter poems in honor of various Greek divinities)—can be shown on the basis of style to postdate him. These latter poems may be either imitations or independent compositions in the general epic mode of the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Despite minor inconsistencies of detail—“even Homer nods,” explained the Roman poet Horace—both the Iliad and the Odyssey give the impression of being complete compositions, unified in theme and elaborate in structure, which combine the powers of dramatic narrative poetry with the delicacy and nuance of lyric. Their aim is nothing less than to offer to posterity the world of the heroic past. This they accomplish with such force and conviction that the imaginative representation of the Trojan War and its aftermath becomes a kind of immortality: Just as the heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey predict that they will become the subject of song, so Homer’s song lives on. The supreme self-confidence of the genre, which exhibits heroes battling in order to gain the glory of being mentioned in epic poetry, must have been built upon the facts of social life in a highly critical, reputation-conscious culture. Homer was the ultimate representative of that culture. More than anything else, literacy may have caused its decline. It was Homer’s achievement, then, to have composed so well that his work survived the onset of a new order, in which the poet’s status as arbiter of the heroic, repository of tradition, and sole source of history, was drastically reduced. In terms of intellectual history, Homer may have been the genius who translated what was essentially “oral poetry” into a new medium: the written word.
Although his art is on a much larger scale, Homer still resembles the bards whom he portrays: Demodocus, Phemius, and Odysseus himself in the Odyssey and Achilles in book 9 of the Iliad. Like Achilles, who sings the heroic deeds of the ancestral heroes while sitting in his tent, Homer produces commemorative poetry. The naming of all the combatants in the Trojan conflict, in book 2 of the Iliad, is a relic of the sort of “catalog poetry” which must have been predominant in the traditional poetry of Greece before Homer. Comparative study has shown that the long and detailed battle scenes of the middle books in the Iliad represent a poetic genre that is paralleled by the heroic verse of many other cultures. Who fought a particular battle, which side won, and what the exploits were that brought about victory—these are the main concerns of such epics. Homer surpasses these martial epics. In the Iliad, he produces a poem which, while commemorating the fall of Troy (a historical event well known to ancient Greeks), he dwells more on the problem of human mortality and its ramifications than on national pride over victory. One senses a profound and sympathetic poetic intelligence at work as Homer portrays the deaths of Hector and Patroclus and prefigures the death of Achilles. This universal sympathy extends even to the minutiae of the incessant killings in Iliadic battle scenes. There, no one dies without remark: One warrior is described as handsome, another’s wife and children at home are mentioned, a third is an only son. It is difficult to judge Homer’s achievement because nothing of his predecessors’ poems survives, but it is clear from other epic verse, ancient and modern, that the Iliad is a masterpiece of the genre precisely because it goes beyond generic constraints and refuses to be mere praise of battle glory.
Like Odysseus, who narrates his adventures for the pleasure of the Phaeacian court in the Odyssey, Homer also delights his audience. In this, he surpasses comparable “adventure” narratives in both complexity and tone. His art lies in his ability to combine the themes of revenge, escape, initiation, and reunion in the Odyssey, in the same way that Demodocus, the Phaeacian bard, recounts epic tales (the Trojan Horse story) as well as amatory tales (the Ares and Aphrodite story). The Odyssey, then, shows that side of Homeric poetry which most resembles Odysseus himself, the “man of many turnings.” It weaves multiple plots, centered on three major characters (Telemachus, Odysseus, and Penelope), whereas the Iliad concentrates on the single theme of Achilles’ wrath and its consequences. The tone, also, of the Odyssey distinguishes it from the folktales, romances, and picaresque tales of travel with which it is often compared. The Odyssean sense of purpose gives moral value to the poem: Odysseus must return home to affirm the value of Greek culture. His slaying of the suitors, often criticized as excessive in Homer’s rendering, is justified as divine retribution for the mistreatment of strangers (Odysseus himself being the “stranger” in his own land). Thus, the poem is aesthetically and culturally satisfying, although in a different mode from that of the Iliad: Odysseus, and by implication Greek intelligence, is seen to be invincible.
Versatility in approach, attention to detail, control and seriousness of tone, the ability to incorporate and exceed earlier generic elements of his tradition—these are only a small part of Homer’s achievement. More than this, Homer may be credited with crystallizing for later generations of European poets the genre of epic, regardless of whether those poets imitated him. In fact, many did. His influence on later Greek, Latin, and vernacular literature is enormous, a fact well documented by such scholars as Gilbert Highet. Apollonius Rhodius, Ennius, Vergil, Dante, Ludovico Ariosto, Pierre de Ronsard, Edmund Spenser, John Milton, and Ezra Pound are among the epic poets in his debt. Drama from Aeschylus on, lyric poetry, history, and the modern novel often reflect the brilliance of Homer’s creations. This is not surprising; Aristotle had seen that the poems exemplify certain universal tendencies of plot, which he classed in the Poetics (probably between 334 and 323 b.c.e.) as tragic (Iliad) and comic (Odyssey). A writer in any mode that touches these two views of life, therefore, could conceivably use Homer as a model.
In terms of his own culture, Homer’s achievement is best illustrated by the paucity of epic poetry not contained in the Iliad or Odyssey that survives today. Various literary and critical sources, among them Attic tragedy and Alexandrian commentaries, make clear the existence in ancient Greece of a body of traditional epic concerning the Trojan War and surrounding events. Of this wealth of material, only fragments under the collective title of the Epic Cycle survive. Clearly, the prestige of Homer’s compositions eventually effaced all other poetic treatments of the Trojan War story, leaving only hints in the works of some ancient authors that there had once been other stories told of Achilles, Odysseus, and the other heroes of Homeric epic.
Nothing is known about the poet (or poets) of the Iliad and Odyssey. It should be noted that in ancient times, as well as in modern scholarship since the nineteenth century, opinion has varied on whether both epics were the creation of one poet. In Alexandria during the third and second centuries b.c.e., a group of critics known as the Chorizontes (separators) denied that one person composed both poems; at the same time, Aristarchus, one of the most influential editors of the text of the poems, maintained that the cross-references from the Odyssey to the Iliad do show the epics to be the work of one poet. It is not impossible that the works are by different poets, each a master; it is perhaps wiser to side with Aristarchus and the majority opinion of antiquity in attributing the Iliad and the Odyssey to one composer. The British scholar D. B. Monro demonstrated in the nineteenth century that the Iliad and the Odyssey never describe the same minor incidents relating to the Trojan War but instead form a series of similar vignettes. “Monro’s Law,” as this phenomenon has come to be called, might indicate that Homer consciously sought to avoid repeating himself; on the other hand, one could argue that the two poems represent narrative traditions so well known in the world of early Greece that any composer, while working on one poem, would automatically avoid a topic which he knew to be in the other one. Thus, the question of authorship remains open to debate, part of the larger Homeric Question which continues to fascinate students of these poems.
The dearth of biographical detail which might have explained the genesis of these remarkable works, although perplexing to scholars since antiquity, may actually have helped the poems to survive, for it enabled Greeks of all city-states to adopt them as their own “history”—one which clearly did not favor one region at the expense of another, or the traditions of one city-state exclusively, but rather attempted to integrate all the various versions of the Trojan War. Homer could never be dismissed as a biased observer whose local associations led him to trim the truth.
The anonymity of Homer is that of the epic genre itself. Evolving over generations of oral performance before an audience which knew poetry well, the art form which culminated in the Iliad and Odyssey conventionally made no mention of its performers. It is not accidental that even the name of Homer soon became a subject of speculation among the Greeks. Some ancient sources equated Homeros (the Greek form of the poet’s name) with a noun meaning “hostage” and appended a story about the poet’s early life to support the etymology. Others said that the word meant “blind.” There is no evidence to support either guess. Indeed, the traditional picture of the blind bard is exactly that: a tradition—which is to say that it is still important “evidence,” but not an established fact. It may reflect an ideology which conceives of the poet as “blind” to all contemporary, external influence, one who depends instead on what he “hears” from the Muse whom Homer addresses in the prologues of both poems. The Muse (another obscure word, perhaps related to the Greek root meaning “to remind” or “to remember”) embodies and transmits Greek traditional stories through the epic poet. In the final analysis, then, for both Greeks and moderns, who Homer was is not important; what he transmits, is. Freed from the biographical method of criticism, the student of Homer can concentrate on the poetry itself.
The tradition of Homer’s blindness can also be interpreted on another level—the social. The composition and performance of poetry was perhaps one of the few crafts available to the sightless in early Greek society. The figure of the blind bard Demodocus in the Odyssey (sometimes taken to be Homer’s “self-portrait”) could reflect a real situation: Such poets may have sung for aristocratic courts. Therefore, a conventional picture of the blind bard or an actual description (in general terms) may lie behind the story of Homer’s handicap.
The problem of convention versus actuality (or individual observation of reality) is the main critical problem of Homeric poetry. How much is actually Homer’s “invention” and how much belongs to the long tradition which he inherited? To what extent does Homer defy the tradition? The question is partially unanswerable, since Homer’s predecessors have not survived. Nevertheless, some light is shed on Homeric innovations in traditional motifs by the comparative study of epic poetry. Thus Albert B. Lord, in his The Singer of Tales (1960), is able to bring parallel motifs from modern Serbo-Croatian heroic songs to the interpretation of certain episodes in the Iliad and Odyssey. The absence and return of Achilles, for example, can be seen as a “story pattern” that Homer has conflated with another pattern, the “death of the substitute”—in this case, Patroclus.
Such studies have increasingly shown that the poems are almost entirely “traditional” in their themes and motifs; at the same time, they exhibit a distinctive dramatic control which has modified themes so as to develop essential meanings. Thus, while Homer may have inherited the story of Achilles’ wrath or Odysseus’s wandering, only his own arrangement must be responsible for final narratives which, by a sophisticated counterpoint of themes—war and peace, life and death, fathers and sons—create complex worlds of significance. Although one knows nothing about the poet, his presence is immanent in the poems.
Before proceeding to analyze the poems themselves, something must be said about the nature of the poetry. That the Iliad and the Odyssey bear the marks of oral traditional poetry is now generally admitted, although opinions differ concerning the way in which this “oral” poetry was transcribed and transmitted. An understanding of oral poetics helps one to appreciate certain features of Homeric epic, such as repetition, which might be faulted were the poetics of written literature applied to the texts.
The origin of Homeric verse in oral poetry, composed before the art of alphabetic writing was brought to Greece (probably in the eighth century b.c.e.), has been the subject of academic discussion since the time of German philologist Friedrich A. Wolf, whose Prolegomena ad Homerum of 1795 began the modern era of Homeric study. Scholarship in the century after Wolf, however, chose to mine the larger vein which Wolf had opened in his work—namely, the thesis that the Homeric poems, as they exist, represent a collection of shorter lays on simple themes such as the wrath of Achilles which were edited or expanded early in antiquity. Thus, following Wolf, “analyst” criticism (as it came to be known) developed in response to the bulk and complexity of Homer’s poems.
A highly literate society’s Romantic ideas of the “primitive,” illiterate bard did not accord well with these elaborate epics, so it was denied that one masterful poet produced both the Iliad and the Odyssey, or even one of them, alone. It is true that about a third of the poems, taken together, are repeated lines. Nineteenth century analyst criticism explained these internal repetitions as “borrowings” done by a series of editor-poets who had read other parts of the poems when those parts existed as individual lays. In a way, analyst criticism foreshadowed modern work on oral poetics, which can show that individual themes develop distinctive phraseological patterns that are then repeated whenever the theme recurs (although sometimes in modified form): a scene of sacrifice, for example, or the launching of a ship; a scene of...