(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Mark W. Edwards’ Homer: Poet of the Iliad, one of a series of commentaries on major literary works published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, sweeps away esoteric details which commentaries often include in order to provide a good grounding in stylistics as well as insightful comparisons which demonstrate the unity, logic, and coherence of the Iliad. Though part 1, a primer on Homeric style, deals with both the Odyssey and the Iliad, part 2 provides commentary on only ten of the Iliad’s twenty-four books, those which Edwards considers essential to the poem’s meaning. This focus allows sharper comparisons and illustrates that Homer often transcends formula through metaphor, sound, even symbolism and wordplay.

One distinctive feature of Homeric style is contraction of time. The Iliad covers a period of fifty-three days, the Odyssey forty. This is in marked contrast to other epics on the Trojan War. For example, the eleven books of the Cypria, written by some successor of Homer, considered events from the gods’ decision to cause the war to the point at which the Iliad begins. The Iliad, on the other hand, considers only Achilles’ departure from battle and his companion Patroclus’ death, which causes Achilles to return. Since it ends with Hector’s death, the Iliad does not even deal with Troy’s fall. This was considered in another lost epic (the “Little Iliad“) by another Homeratid (or “Little Homer”) in its four books. (Richmond Lattimore discusses these lost works based on summaries, quoted fragments, and ancient commentaries in his translation of the Iliad, 1951.)

Homeric style expands these limited time frames by recounting the background of ongoing episodes. In the Iliad, this often occurs through a deity (such as Thetis, Achilles’ goddess-mother, who reminds her son of the short but glorious life he is destined to live if he returns to battle). In the Odyssey, expansion appears in the six days of Telemachus’ adventures (Iliad 1-4) as he searches for news of his father, Odysseus, later in Odysseus’ relating of his own adventures to the Phaeacians, and later still in the dialogue of Odysseus and Eumaeus the swineherd, which occurs after Odysseus has returned to Ithaca.

Edwards makes valuable comments on the oral nature of Homeric verse. How much did the rhapsodes, professional reciters of epic, alter the content of the poetry, and to what extent were such changes introduced in its codified (or written) version? What mnemonic devices (memory aids) were available to the rhapsodes, and how conscious was Homer of the rhapsodes’ role in delivering his verses? Edwards notes the privileged place the rhapsode holds in the Odyssey. There are two named in the poem: Demodocus (“he who is received by the people”) in Odyssey 8 and Phemius (“prophetic utterance”) in Odyssey 22. Demodocus clearly has a privileged place at the Phaeacian court. A herald announces his presence (Odyssey 8.43-45; 62-63). Phemius appears, in contrast, to be a member of Odysseus’ court. Though he has entertained the suitors in Odysseus’ absence, his life is spared. A third rhapsode, unnamed, makes a brief appearance in Odyssey 3 and inspires tears at Menelaus’ court with his song of the Trojan War. All this suggests that the rhapsode’s role was a highly responsible one, perhaps akin to that of high priest and spokesman for the gods. Edwards provides useful references to the work of Denys Page and Milman Parry in this area.

Despite high social standing and relative independence in methods of presentation, it appears that the rhapsodes did not greatly increase the number of variants in the Homeric lines. This suggests that the poetry assumed an almost sacred character from a relatively early period. Though variations in dialect appear, those affecting content are rare. By the mid-second century b.c.e., the codifiers at Alexandria, Egypt, had established a written version, though to what extent their text was based on the oral version of the reciters is impossible to say. There may, Edwards suggests, have been a written version as early as the close of the sixth century b.c.e., that of Theagenes of Rhegium, one of the Homeridae, individuals who, obviously tenuously, traced their origins back to Homer.

Homer’s own voice intrudes relatively little on the narrative he relates, as Edwards notes. This distance allows the principals to comment often on their own situations as events unfold. Though it is often written that Helen, presumably the world’s most beautiful woman, remains undescribed, the fact is that, aside from brief epithets attached to the names of some of the poem’s personalities (“ox-eyed Hera,” “golden Aphrodite,” “swift-footed Achilles,” or “wily Odysseus”), there is next to no description of any individual’s features in the Iliad and only occasional indirect descriptions of some of the more grotesque personalities who inhabit the Odyssey. Even so, Edwards writes,...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 8)

Choice. XXV, October, 1987, p. 302.

The Christian Science Monitor. September 9, 1987, p. 21.

Library Journal. CXII, September 1, 1987, p. 183.