Homeric Poetry and its Significance for the Modern world

J. V. Luce

Trinity College

'Michael was for the Trojans against the Greeks, partly on account of the Greek verbs, but principally because he once had a straw hat inscribed H.M.S. Hector...'

This quotation from a Compton Mackenzie novel written nearly a century ago appeals to me particularly because something of its atmosphere permeated my own early schooling at Baymount, a small North Dublin prep school now long defunct, where we used to play a war-game called Trojans versus Greeks. Unlike Michael, I favoured the Greeks - the Irish usually do - and I can remember identifying particularly with Odysseus because of his epithet 'wily'. Guile, I felt, was the quality one needed to ride the rough and tumble of boarding school life. Looking back, I can see that Homer was already at work in my mind weaving his spell, a spell that has held me in its grip ever since.

My interest in the 'tale of Troy divine' was greatly expanded and strengthened when I entered Trinity, and had the benefit of lectures on Homer from Bedell Stanford and Herbert Parke in my first year. Their approaches were very different: Stanford stressed the literary qualities of the epic, and brought out all the charm and subtlety of Odysseus' encounter with Nausicaa; Parke, as befitted an ancient historian, put Homeric poetry in its historical context, and related it to the rising tide of knowledge about the Mycenaean world.

In this way, in my early days as a Trinity student, I was introduced to the great theme of the relationship between poetry and history. And when I first had the opportunity of addressing an audience at the actual site of Troy, I began my talk with the statement: 'For better or worse, Homer and History are now indissolubly linked'. One could hardly say less when confronted by the great wall of Troy VI, while there lay the plain, and the two rivers, and the Hellespont, with Mt. Ida on the horizon, all as Homer described them. I agree with the Irish born Robert Wood, author of the finest Homeric study of the 18th century, who wrote: 'The Iliad has new beauties on the banks of the Scamander and the Odyssey is most pleasing in the countries where Ulysses travelled and Homer sung' ( Essay on the Original Genius of Homer, 1767)

Homer's poetry is firmly rooted in Aegean geography and also, I believe in the facts of early Greek history in the Late Bronze Age. That may be true, the critic might reply, but does it not follow that the Homeric epics can only retain a localised and purely antiquarian appeal? I realise, of course, that one runs the risk of detracting from Homer's artistic merit by a too strident insistence on his authenticity. So I will leave aside for the moment the theme of Homer and history, and try to say something about the epics as great literature.

In the last analysis it must be Homer's art rather than Homer's historical knowledge that remains of permanent significance. The Iliad and the Odyssey were placed by the ancients on a pinnacle of poetic achievement, and they still, in my opinion, retain their rightful place among the finest creations of the human mind.

The modern Analyst school of Homeric criticism has stressed the depth and complexity of the bardic tradition underlying the epics, and this has been a gain. But I cannot follow the Analyst when he dissolves the creative unity of the poems into a number of originally independent lays or ballads, fragments rather ineptly cobbled together by a later 'compiler', or 'editor', or by a committee of rhapsodes assembled by Pisistratus.

Homer's existence and identity as a master poet was never questioned in the ancient world. Given his early date, his floruit lying, I believe, somewhat before 700 B.C., little for certain was remembered about his life, but his poetic pre-eminence was never doubted. What was in question for a time was the extent of the Homeric corpus, but literary criticism soon singled out the Iliad and the Odyssey from a great mass of early epic poetry, and deemed them to be by Homer and Homer alone.

To compose a great epic poem is perhaps even more difficult than to compose a major symphony. As one looks back over more than two and a half millennia of European literature, only five great peaks tower above the region clouds of mediocrity - Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Divina Comedia, and Paradise Lost. Homeric poetry represents the rare triumph of great genius in the most demanding of poetic genres. So long as great literature is studied and valued, so long will Homer endure.

As I read and re-read the two epics I seem to become ever more conscious of a master-mind at work in their composition, a controlling mind that rarely nods, and whose work has suffered only a minimum of interpolation.

Let me pick out two of his similes to characterise Homer's technique and his mind as I sense them. 'Your spirit', says Paris to Hector, is 'like a tireless axe' plied in the hands of a skilled carpenter.' (Il.3,60-2). That to me expresses Homer's mind at work, as, over thousands of lines, he hews and trims his complex material into enduring form. And for the godlike glance of his far-darting mind I turn to an unusual psychological simile, the illustrious ancestor of our modern cliché 'as quick as thought'. Hera, he says, went swiftly and eagerly from Mt. Ida to Mt. Olympus, moving as rapidly as 'the well-stocked mind of a much travelled man, who thinks with longing of the places he has visited, and says in his heart: "Oh to be there, or there"'! (Il.15,80-2) In this simile, I like to think, we catch a rare glimpse of Homer himself, a wandering bard who had travelled widely through Hellas, and like Odysseus, had 'seen the cities of many peoples and learned their mind.' (Od.1,3) If, like Milton, he lost his sight in later life, that would lend added poignancy to the phrase: "Oh to be there, or there"!

Tradition and originality - those are the twin factors that must always be kept together and balanced out in any critical assessment of Homer's achievement. To us, as we look back over the centuries, he seems to stand at the very dawn of European literature, and some have called him primitive. His style has the rapidity and directness of youthful utterance. Yet his metre is complex, his language is richly ornate, and in content his thought is highly sophisticated. This seeming contradiction can best be explained if we remember that he stands at a pivotal point in the evolution of Greek society from a preliterate to a literate condition. He is a poetic pioneer in having his work transmitted in the brand new technique of alphabetic writing, while at the same time he stands as the last great heir to a centuries old bardic tradition of oral verse.

There are strong arguments for dating him to the second half of the 8th century B.C., and for placing him in Ionia. In his day the city states of Ionia were beginning to bud and blossom, and they were soon to play a leading role in the development of Greek lyric poetry, Greek philosophy, and Greek politics. Homer is the first of those greatly gifted Ionians, who, together with their Athenian cousins, laid the foundations of Western European thought.

The 8th century was the early Renaissance period of Greece. After centuries of mere subsistence in a depressed and fragmented world the Greeks were on the move again. There was a population explosion in Greek lands, old trade routes to the Levant were re-opened, the shores of S. Italy and Sicily were planted with colonies, and new markets were fostering industrial development in the older cities.

Homer is imbued with the forward-looking spirit of his age. Like Shakespeare, he is a Renaissance man. But at the same time the conditions of his craft as a bard demanded that he preserve and transmit orally the fame of a long-vanished heroic age. He can do this because he has a comprehensive grasp of the full rich range of Greek mythology embodied in an unbroken chain of oral tradition and oral verse that stretched far back into the Bronze Age. Every now and then, particularly in the Iliad, he indicates in summary outline other songs he could compose (and perhaps had): the exploits of the youthful Nestor and the Wrath of Meleager, to name but two (Il. 7.132ff., 9.527ff.). In the Odyssey he mentions the Argonaut saga (12.69f) on which his own wanderings of Odysseus are clearly modelled, and lists the topics which a good bard would use in telling the story of the Wooden Horse (8.499ff), thus giving us a precious insight into his own mode of composition.

In view of the great antiquity of the bardic art, Homer, and indeed all Greek poetry down to Euripides, may be viewed, in the words of a modern critic, as 'the culminating phase ... in a long accumulation of highly sophisticated preliterate wisdom'. This 'long accumulation' reaches back almost to the first incursions of Greek-speaking tribes into Hellas, and continued to grow with the establishment of the Achaean kingdoms as an important force in the international world of the Late Bronze Age. The tradition was then retained, amplified, and to a considerable degree systematised, by a succession of oral bards, despite the vicissitudes of migration in the dark centuries of the Early Iron Age. Through all these years and wanderings the Hellenes repeated, memorised, and retained that highly sophisticated treasury of stories and themes that we call Greek Mythology. The ancient deposits of this shared frame of reference and cultural life-line were shaped and re-shaped by a succession of skilled singers in the oral mode. The Greek myths present information and ideas in a vast and varied range from accounts of how the world and the gods came into being, through lively folk-tale, to authentic saga memories about personalities and episodes in earlier Greek history, and all these facets are to be found in Homer.

The critic that I quoted a moment ago, John Herington, has a good characterisation of this preliterate wisdom. He calls it 'the wisdom that results from leisurely sharp-eyed observation of the way human beings act, in lively communities totally undistracted by books.' 'The extraordinary power and charm', he continues, 'that [early] Greek poetry exerts over us ... is surely in part attributable to those fathomless depths from which it draws. Greek poetry holds a lofty mountain pass between two great epochs in the history of mankind, looking at least as far backward into the experience of being human as it looks forward' (Poetry into Drama (Berkeley 1985) 66ff).

From our perspective Homer tends to be viewed as the fountain-head of this myth-based poetry, but he is much in debt to past tradition. By his easy mastery of the riches of Greek preliterate wisdom, he has created a poetic world that can still enchant, and perhaps instruct us.

Operating totally within the Christian tradition, Dante and Milton also created formidable and influential worlds, seeking as Milton put it in his lordly way, to 'assert eternal providence and justify the ways of God to man.' Theirs was a vast enterprise reaching far out to the margins of human existence, and attempting to body forth profound Christian dogma about the Fall of Man, about Temptation and Evil, and about the 'four last things' of Eschatology: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Their poetry is more elevated and less varied than that of Homer. I do not deny that there are many warm human touches, particularly in Dante, perhaps not so many in Milton, but I find that the theology dominates to the point of oppressiveness. It is just the opposite with Homer. The gods are there, interacting powerfully with mankind, but human beings hold centre stage. That, I think, is why modern secular western man probably finds it easier to enter and appreciate the world of Homer than that of Dante or Milton, and why modern translations of Homer sell by the million. Homer's world knows nothing of corporate capitalism or computer technology, but is not for that reason irrelevant to the deeper concerns of human beings. Perhaps its very remoteness is a large part of its charm, and the points in which it differs most in emphasis from our world may be just the areas in which we have something to learn from it.

Our century has been called the century of the common man; Homer insists on the value of high and heroic endeavour. We press the rights of the individual to the point where we risk anarchy; Homer stresses the value of group loyalty. Modern genetics and post-Freudian psychology combine to sap the foundations of any theory of personal responsibility; Homer believes in the reality and importance of free moral choice. It is no accident that the great moralist Socrates, in his address to the jury at the crisis of his trial, reached for a Homeric analogy, and compared himself to Achilles in his principled preference of death to the dishonour of pleading guilty to outrageous charges (Plato, Apology 28c-d).

Homer lives because his work is so true to life, and he himself is so sensitively aware of the 'human predicament' and the well-springs of human behaviour.

How can one best come at Homer to-day? Many of you know Greek, and you will perhaps agree with me that to read and savour Homer line by line is one of life's most agreeable occupations. But the task is arduous, and in going slowly one tends to lose the full sweep and surge of the narrative. Ronsard wrote a nice sonnet announcing his intention to immure himself in his lodgings for three whole days in order to read the Iliad from start to finish. I once took Lattimore's translation of the Iliad to hospital, and did just that during convalescence. All the familiar scenes and incidents that I had studied piecemeal coalesced into an unforgettable whole, and I experienced for the first time the full impact of the poem's tragic grandeur. Devotees of Wagner must enjoy a somewhat similar experience when they attend a performance of the Ring at Bayreuth.

A modern experiment in which the Iliad was read in Greek by a team of reciters has shown that it takes three 8-hour days to complete it, and that must have been the way it was performed in Athens at the Panathenaic festival. Such a performance is no longer feasible, but thanks to modern technology, one can gain quite a good idea of what it must have been like to hear Homer recited by a skilled rhapsode with due theatrical emphasis. I refer to the Iliad now available on tape, six cassettes in all, very well read, with varied voice characterisation, by Derek Jacobi. The translation is the new American one, also available in Penguin, by Robert Fagles. An Oxford reviewer called it 'eloquent, rhythmical, and full of power', a judgement I would heartily endorse. So may I suggest you give yourself a Xmas present of the spoken Iliad, and take it home or on holiday, and listen to nothing else for three days, and you will come closer to how the ancient world experienced Homer!

Next I wish to say something in general about the gods in Homer. The names and cult of the major Olympians were inherited by the bards as a religious and poetic datum of great antiquity and sanctity. But Homer enhanced the tradition by his vivid and powerful portrayal of the divine family under the headship of Zeus, and by using divine intervention as a major source of motivation in the action of the epic. Herodotus (2.53) makes the striking judgement that Homer and Hesiod together were the main source of Greek theology. Hesiod, to judge from his surviving work, systematized the successions and the inter-relationships, while Homer's main contribution, I would suggest, was to develop the Olympian pantheon to the point where it could be viewed as an embodiment and personification of the major powers and forces that shape, and still continue to shape, human history and human destiny. Thus Aphrodite embodies the power of sexual passion. Ares is a symbol of violence and aggression. Poseidon through storm and earthquake is the cause of what we call natural disasters, and with California and Kobe in mind, who can say that humanity is not still very much at the mercy of such forces? However, with Athena, who personifies Intelligence, and Zeus (Providence) on our side, we may hope, like Odysseus, to steer a safe course past Scylla and Charybdis.

The Homeric world view is not scientific, but neither is it naive. It is god-fearing, but it does not grovel. And with its doctrine of destiny, and its pictures of Elysium and Hades it shades into suggestive ambiguity on the ultimate margins of human experience, those margins where fate and free-will intersect, and where death merges into the after-life. One should not, I think, dismiss it out of hand as outmoded superstition, but view it sympathetically as a serious and creative attempt to picture the totality of human experience in relation to the unseen world of mind and spirit.

Modern readers often find the battle scenes tediously repetitive, if not positively repulsive in their gory and explicit descriptions of combat and slaughter. But Homer has chosen to set his action against the background of a great war with all the slaughter and brutality that such a conflict entails. One should also remember that the Iliad is rooted in the genre of 'heroic song', a world-wide type of oral literature that grows out of the conflicts of martial peoples. The function and aim of this type of poetry is to glorify the memory of those 'heroic' individuals, be they Achaean, or Teutonic, or Tartar, or Viking, or Norman, who are good at what Homer calls 'the works of war'. That is the given or traditional element in the Iliad. Homer accepts that this is an important part of his task as a professional singer, and indeed is proud to think that he can immortalise the prowess of the heroes. As Horace well says: 'Vixere fortes ante Agamemnona ... many brave men lived before Agamemnon, but they lie unwept and unknown because they lacked a sacred bard.' (IV.9,25)

Homer has ensured that those who took part in the Trojan War have not been forgotten. He praises courage but this is not to say that he glorifies or sentimentalises war. I think he simply accepts it as a fact of life, as one of the permanent parameters of human existence, and who at the end of our own century can say that he was wrong to do so. And having accepted war as a fact, I think his main interest is to see how men and women react to it, and to show how they are either brutalised or ennobled by its strains and stresses.

I think I can go some way to proving that point by looking at the descriptive epithets he uses for polemos. Liddell & Scott list 19 such epithets from agrios 'savage' to phthisenor 'man-destroying', and the only one that is neutral is homoiios - war the leveller. All the rest are strongly pejorative. War to Homer is bloody, vexatious, unabating, tearful, destructive, cruel, woeful, evil, wretched, sad, horrific, bitter, furious, mournful, and hateful. After such a litany who could say that Homer is pro-war?

It may even be doubted whether Homer is strongly pro-Greek. In the numerous duels more Trojans bite the dust than Achaeans. A typical combat scene shows a Greek warrior on foot killing two Trojans in a chariot. But on the whole there is no evidence of jingoism, or even of fervent patriotism. In fact the balance of sympathy on the part of the reader lies with Hector for his gallant defence of hearth and home, and I suspect that may ultimately be Homer's attitude also.

Overall I detect a pacific and constructive attitude and intent at work in the total structure and movement of the Iliad. In his great panorama of the Trojan War the battle scenes, which are so gruesomely vivid (like recent televised glimpses of fighting in Kuwait or the Balkans) occupy somewhat less than half of the poem. There is no general engagement until the start of Book 4. Book 1 details the course of the Quarrel and the fateful granting by Zeus of Thetis' request on behalf of her son that Agamemnon and his army be humiliated. Book 2 is filled by the Assembly that Agamemnon calls to test morale, and by the historic Catalogue. In Book 3 we have a truce and the decently ordered duel between Paris and the injured husband Menelaos, and the book concludes with a marvellous scene between Helen and Menelaos in the privacy of their home.

Up to this point the accepted rules of war have operated, but Homer knows how war tends to corrode even the modicum of moral restraint inherent in such rules, and the truce is broken by the treacherous arrow shot by Pandarus against Menelaos. Single acts like this can indeed affect the whole course of a war as we saw recently in Sarajevo where one ghastly shot with a mortar shell led to the Nato air strikes, and subsequent cease-fire. Thereafter, in Homer, the battle rages more ruthlessly, with the passion for revenge getting more and more out of control. We have seen the same in our own century with the bombing of Dresden 'justified' by the prior attack on Coventry. But even so, whole books pass without any fighting, the Embassy to Achilles for example in Book 9, while the apprehension of Dolon in 10 is conducted with little carnage. The constant battling of Books 11-13 is relieved in 14 by the seduction of Zeus by Hera and their union on the flowery peak of Gargara - splendid sex at the highest level. Then the drama focuses ever more sharply on the fateful trio of Hector, Achilles and Patroklos. Patroklos fights and dies in Achilles' armour, and new armour is forged by Hephaistos in a passage containing some of the finest poetry of all when the great Shield with its blazoned panorama of human life is pictured for us. (Il. 18,478 ff.)

After the death of Hector the action is redeemed from despair in the last book by the outcome of the face to face encounter between Priam and Achilles (Il. 24,468ff.). Priam comes by night as a suppliant for his son's body, and is received with astonishment, and incipient awe. As the two men face each other, and begin to talk, the implacable anger of Achilles begins to soften, and finally melts away as he views the grief of the bereaved father, and thinks of his own father, so soon to suffer an even bitterer bereavement in the loss of his only son. Finer feelings prevail, and the corpse of Hector is given back for decent burial. Both men have realised their shared humanity, and have faced up to the need for a reconciliation. A conflict has been resolved, and the great poem ends quietly in calm of mind, all passion spent.

Did it really happen like this? I do not know, but like to think so. Reason reminds me that the Iliad is poetry not history, and I remember what Aristotle says about the difference between the two (Poetics chap.9). The concern of history, he says, is to tell what actually happened; the concern of poetry is to represent the sort of things that can happen. And so, he surprisingly concludes: 'Poetry is more philosophical than history.' More philosophical, because it must handle what is potential or general, rather than what is merely factual. But need we separate the categories so sharply? I do not believe that historical writing can ever be as totally objective as, say, the report of a scientific experiment.

History is to me the story that is told, and accepted, about the past, and its reliability depends on the calibre of the narrator and the quality of the evidence. But the evidence, the so-called facts, are themselves reports, and these facts must be to some extent poeticised in the telling before they can become meaningful for us. They must, that is to say, be touched and vivified by that creative imagining which is the soul of poetry. And the genius of the poet, as I see it, is to seize the particular and use it to illuminate the universal, to view the thing of beauty with an inward eye, and turn it into a joy for ever.

We know that heroic poetry is spun out of particular events. We know that there was a Troy, and nothing in the archaeological record prevents us from accepting the ancient tradition of a Trojan War. Some think that it may have been just a border raid or a minor piratical exploit. But a visit to Mycenae is a useful corrective to such scepticism, not to mention the recent findings from Troy that reveal a fortified area ten times larger than previously supposed. The Trojan War was, I believe, a great war, and Homer's genius rose to tackle a great theme.

Consider finally the parallel of Shakespearean tragedy. In Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra Shakespeare created some of his finest poetry out of his readings in ancient history. Take the death scene of Cleopatra: Antony has just expired in her arms, and as she nerves herself to take her own life, she conjures up the shame of being led in a Roman triumph. Then, turning to her ladies in waiting, she speaks three of the noblest lines ever penned:

"We'll bury him, and then what's brave, what's noble,
Let's do it after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us."

Did she really say that? That is not, I suggest, the appropriate question to ask in this context. Her words are all totally in character, and what is important for us, I think, in our appreciation of this great scene, is the knowledge that there really was a proud Greek Queen of Egypt who willingly followed her Antony to the grave rather than give Octavian the satisfaction of haling her off in chains to Rome.

My approach to the Iliad is precisely parallel. No one knows what words really passed between Achilles and Agamemnon, or between Achilles and Priam. But such a quarrel is all too likely on a foreign campaign, and such a reconciliation can be snatched from the jaws of the bloodiest conflict. And for me the whole significance of the epic drama is heightened by the belief - dare I say knowledge? - that Achilles and the rest were real actors on the stage of history, and that the Trojan War really happened, in broad outline, and at times, in intimate detail, as Homer has pictured it.

This a shortened version of Professor Luce's address to the Classical Association of Ireland delivered in November 1995.

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