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Back to top. Get to Know Us. Amazon Payment Products. Since Milman Parry, it is an established fact that much of Homeric verse is formulaic.
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It consists of set phrases which fill the natural metrical units of the lines. Thus, for example, there are forty-six noun epithets to describe Achilles. Each has a different metrical value, and the poet chooses the one most appropriate to the prosody of the line. He creates his epic as he chants it, using a vast stock of traditional motifs and formulas to sustain his invention or his variations on a given epic theme.
Such heroic recitation still exists, notably in Yugoslavia and among the Berbers of North Africa. Narrations of the fall of Troy and the wanderings of Odysseus may have been recited on numerous occasions, each time in a different version. In this light, Homer emerges as one of many itinerant singers improvising on traditional motifs for an illiterate audience: "fortunately, some master of the new art of writing had the wit to set down on papyrus this outstanding singer's renderings of a couple of themes from the repertoire.
Lord in The Singer of Tales. This is a deceptive image. No doubt the Homeric epics contain much that is of an archaic and mnemonic character. And it is true that Yugoslav 6 George Steiner shepherds, squatting in front of tape recorders, have improvised lays of prodigious length. But what does this tell us of the composition of the Iliad? Not enough. The work of Homer, as we know it, is of dazzling intricacy. Its design is tight and deliberate. Set it beside the finest of recorded folk poetry, and the difference leaps to eye. We are dealing in the Iliad with a commanding vision of man, articulate in every detail, not with a tale of adventure automatically or randomly carried forward.
The entrance into action via the oblique theme of Achilles' anger is art of high sophistication. The entire design, with its inner echoes and alter-nance of stress and repose, follows on the particular drama of the opening. It is the merit of Professor Whitman's Homer and the Heroic Tradition to have insisted on this essential truth. He contends that the Iliad is a counterpart, in language, of the famous geometric symmetry distinctive of Greek vases in the period to He argues that "the poem as a whole forms one large concentric pattern.
But his main point is surely valid: the Iliad is a design of extreme complexity and formal control. That there should be embedded in it large sections of traditional, oral poetry is certain; but that the epic as a whole should have been composed and preserved without writing is most unlikely. But in what writing? This, again, is an intricate problem on which scholars disagree. The Ionic script, in which the Iliad and Odyssey were handed down, came into official use only in the fifth century B.
We know scarcely anything of its previous history. This leads Whitman to conclude that the Homeric epics were initially set down in what is known as the Old Attic alphabet and later transliterated this could account for certain oddities in our present text. The first manuscript might date from the second half of the eighth century, "from the time, if not the hand, of Homer himself.
We have no evidence to show that a written text of such length and elaboration could have been produced at so early a date. But the alphabet was available, and trade with Phoenicia could have provided the necessary papyrus. Moreover, if such a manuscript did not exist, how could we explain the startling fact that the Iliad and Odyssey have in them hardly any material, either linguistic or narrative, that can be dated as later than B.
The theory that the two epics were memorized and transmitted perfectly by word of mouth until they could be written down in the fifth century simply won't hold. Let me speculate here, not as a scholar but as a critic seeking to apprehend the genius of the poem. I venture to guess that Homer was the first great poet in Western literature because he was the first to have Introduction: Homer and the Scholars 7 understood the infinite resources of the written word. In the zest of the Homeric narrative, in its superb architecture, flashes the delight of a mind which has discovered that it need not deliver its creation into the fragile trust of memory.
The harsh gaiety of the Iliad and its constant equivocation between shortness of life and eternity of fame mirror the poet's new and proud sense of his own survival.
In the beginning of poetry is the word, but very near the beginning of poetry on the scale of the Iliad is writing. It is entirely possible that the original "Homer manuscript" was something unique and that it was kept in the jealous possession of a bardic guild the Homeridae. The newly established Panhellenic festivals of the eighth century created an audience for the "sons of Homer. Nor need we assume that Homer himself was literate.
He may have dictated to a scribe. Indeed, I would guess that the ancient and persistent tradition of his blindness is connected to this very point. Wishing to conceal from a later, more critical age the fact of the master's technical illiteracy, the Homeridae described him as blind. Above all else, the Iliad and Odyssey proclaim that men's lives go to forgotten dust unless they are given immortality by the song of a poet.
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Is not that the faith of a supreme artist who, for the first time in Western literature, had at his command, if not within his own resource, the full glory of the written word? By far the greater part of recent Homeric scholarship deals with the Iliad.
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Excavation and decipherment seem to lead to Troy rather than to Ithaca. The Odyssey accords neither with the search for a Mycenaean tradition nor with the theory of a geometric style. This is revealing. It points to a conviction which many readers have held from the start. The two epics are profoundly different; different in tone, in formal structure and, most important, in their vision of life.
The Homeric Question, therefore, goes beyond problems of authorship and text. It must deal with the literary and psychological relations between the Iliad and the Odyssey.
What happens when we read the Iliad through the eyes of Odysseus? Archaeologists differ on the way in which the world image of the Iliad was put together. Some assert that the narratives of battle are realistic and that efforts have been made to bring archaic details up to date the classic instance being Homer's awkward treatment of Ajax's body shield, a piece of equipment which went out of use in the tenth century.
Others regard the world of Homeric Troy as a "visionary structure" in which elements ranging from the Bronze Age to the eighth century are woven together by the set formulas and conventions of the heroic style.
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But one thing is clear: the Iliad expresses a specific view of the human condition. And certainly not in the Odyssey. The poet of the Iliad looks on life with those blank, unswerving eyes which stare out of the helmet slits on early Greek vases. His vision is terrifying in its sobriety, cold as the winter sun: "So, friend, you die also.
Why all this clamour about it? Patroklus also is dead, who was better by far than you are. Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?
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Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny, and there shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime when some man in the fighting will take the life from me also either with a spearcast or an arrow flown from the bowstring. He let go of the spear and sat back, spreading wide both hands; but Achilles drawing his sharp sword struck him beside the neck at the collar-bone, and the double-edged sword plunged full length inside.
He dropped to the ground face downward, and lay at length, and the black blood flowed, and the ground was soaked with it. The narration proceeds with inhuman calm. The sharp directness of the poet's vision is never sacrificed to the demands of pathos. In the Iliad the truth of life, however harsh or ironic, prevails over the occasions of feeling. This is strikingly illustrated in the crowning moment of the epic: the night encounter of Priam and Achilles.
There is a stillness in the midst of hell. Looking upon each other, the bereft king and the slayer of men, shadowed by his own near doom, give voice to their great griefs. Their sorrows are immeasurable. Yet, when they have spoken they feel hungry and sit down to an ample meal. For as Achilles says of Niobe, "She remembered to eat when she was worn out with weeping.