Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Singer of Tales has its origin in work begun by Albert B. Lord’s teacher Milman Parry. It was Parry’s theory that the language of the Homeric poems is to a large extent a language of traditional formulas, created over a long period of time by poets who composed their songs without the aid of writing. Homer, according to Parry, was an oral poet who composed as he performed, using ready-made and largely inherited phrases varying in length from one or two words to several lines. In the approximately twenty-eight thousand verses that make up the eighth century b.c.e. Iliad and Odyssey, about one-fifth of the verses are repeated word-for-word from one place to another; there are also some twenty-five thousand repeated phrases. It is the repetition of verse or phrases that makes it a formula and marks it as a product of oral poetry.

Between the years 1933 and 1935, Parry made two trips to Yugoslavia to confirm the conclusions he had formed about the Homeric texts by observing a living tradition of epic poetry as practiced by illiterate (for the most part) Serbo-Croatian singers of tales. At the time of his accidental death in 1935, Parry had collected 12,500 texts—some on phonograph records and some taken down during dictation—which form the Milman Parry Collection in the Harvard University library. Parry had been able to publish some of his work, but it was supplemented and carried on by one...

(The entire section is 570 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context, 1977.

Foley, John Miles. Introduction to Oral Traditional Literature: A Festschrift for Albert Bates Lord, 1981.

Kirk, G.S. The Songs of Homer, 1962.

Parry, Adam, ed. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, 1971.

Young, Douglas. “Never a Blotted Line? Formula and Premeditation in Homer and Hesiod,” in Essays on Classical Literature Selected from “Arion,” 1972. Edited by Niall Rudd.