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(Poetry Criticism)

Homer Circa Eighth Century B.C.

Greek poet. See also Iliad Criticism.

Homer's two epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, have greatly influenced the style and content of Western literature and are considered two of the greatest literary artifacts of Western civilization. Taken together, the Iliad and the Odyssey display comic as well as tragic elements, and cover a broad range of themes that are still relevant today: war, religion, honor, betrayal, vengeance, and humanity's quest for immortality. Over the centuries, the poems have left an indelible imprint on the fields of literature, art, philosophy, and ethics. Writers as diverse as Virgil, Shakespeare, John Milton, and James Joyce have been inspired by the characters and tales presented in the epics.

Biographical Information

Almost nothing is known about Homer, but scholars hypothesize that he was an Ionian Greek (probably from the coast of Asia Minor or one of the adjacent islands), that he was born sometime before 700 B.C., and that he lived in approximately the latter half of the eighth century B.C. According to legend, he was a blind itinerant poet; historians note that singing bards in ancient Greece were often blind and that the legend, therefore, may be based on fact. It is also possible that Homer may have lost his sight only late in life or that his purported blindness was meant to mask his illiteracy. Biographies of Homer exist in the form of six early "lives" and assorted commentaries by ancient and Byzantine scholars, but the information they contain is considered unreliable and mostly mythical. Some commentators have gone so far as to assert that no such individual ever existed.

The paucity of information regarding Homer and his relation to the Iliad and the Odyssey has incited much scholarly inquiry and has brought together the efforts of experts in such fields as archeology, linguistics, art, and comparative literature. As a result of their research, three main theories regarding the composition of the poems have emerged: the analytic, the Unitarian, and the oral folkepic. Until the publication of the Friedrich Adolph Wolf's Prolegomena ad Homerum in 1795, the notion that Homer was the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey was largely undisputed. However, citing certain inconsistencies and errors in the texts, Wolf asserted that the two works were not the compositions of one poet, but the products of many different authors at work on various traditional poems and stories. Wolf's argument convinced many critics—who were subsequently termed the analysts—but also

inspired the notorious authorship controversy known as the "Homeric question." Although Wolf's view prevailed throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was ultimately challenged by an opposing group of critics, the Unitarians, whose primary spokesman was Andrew Lang. The Unitarians insisted that a single individual of genius composed the Homeric epics, and they supported that claim by citing a unified sensibility, original style, and consistent use of themes and imagery in the poems.

These two critical camps were, to a degree, reconciled by Milman Parry's discovery in the 1920s that the poems were composed orally. Parry established that Homeric verse is formulaic by nature, relying on generic epithets (such as "wine-dark sea" and "rosy-fingered dawn"), repetition of stock lines and half-lines, and scenes and themes typical of traditional folk poetry. Comparing Homer's poetry with ancient oral epics from other cultures, Parry deduced that Homer was most likely a rhapsode, or itinerant professional reciter, who improvised stories to be sung at Greek festivals. As a public performer, Homer probably learned to weave together standard epic story threads and descriptions in order to sustain his narrative, and relied on mnemonic devices and phrases to fill the natural metrical units of poetic lines. Parry's theory, like that of the analysts, stressed the derivative, evolutionary character of Homer's poetry; but like the...

(The entire section is 44,452 words.)