Byronic Homer

Article excerpt

This essay addresses the interrelationship between Byron and the Odyssey. The contention is that this interrelation is dialogic, like that of Pope with Horace in his 'Imitations' of Horace or Auden with Byron in his 'Letter to Lord Byron'. The allusion by a later poet to a progenitor opens - mutually - new interpretative possibilities. This mutuality dissolves any sense of definitive entity, the esse of 'Homer' or 'Byron'. There is, rather, a Heraclitean fluidity and tension between polarities.

It is appropriate to enter the subject in medias res:

The Man, for Wisdom's various arts renown'd

Long exercis'd in woes, oh Muse! Resound,

Who, when his arms had wrought the destin'd fall

Of sacred Troy, and raz'd her heav'n-built wall,

Wand'ring from clime to clime, observant stray'd,

Their Manners noted, and their States survey'd.

So Pope began his translation of the Odyssey and presented Homer as an Augustan English gentleman.1 Pope was well-aware, in theory, of differences between the 'heroic' ancients and the 'polite' moderns. But the original 'Homer' was unrecoverable in English. The Homeric epic is the Urtext of the classical world, before which there is only the 'dark backward and abyss' (The Tempest, I, ii, 50) of a literary void. Since classical literary culture is post-Homeric, the Urtext can be known only through the flux of later interpretation. The only parallel in European tradition is another epic, the 'holy writ' of the Judaic Pentateuch. European literature begins, as Eric Auerbach began his study Mimesis, with Homer and the Bible.2 One may compare one original with the other, as Auerbach did, but there is nothing before either by which to place them. There is 'darkness upon the face of the deep' (Genesis 1. 2); then comes the creative 'word'.

In classical culture, after the Homeric 'word' comes (in criticism) Eustathius, Scaliger, Dacier, le Bossu, Perrault, Rapin (inter al.) and, in English literature, Pope upon the entire humanistic tradition.3 In European culture comes that other form of criticism, creative recension: Rome upon Greece, Christian upon pagan, the chivalric ethos upon the classical and (for Byron) Romanticism upon neoclassicism. Byron saw himself as Pope's heir, but even between Byron and Pope there intervened Fielding and the inception of the 'comic Epic-Poem in Prose' (the novel) and the Celtic sublime of 'Ossian'.4 At Byron's shoulder are his contemporaries, both the Schlegels, Schiller and de Staël.5 From thence derived the idea of an original Homeric 'naivety' - objective and unreflective - set against the Romantic 'sentimental' - reflective and subjective; and in the interplay between the naïve and the sentimental, Romantic irony finds a voice. Given such diversity, from Pope to the Schlegels by way of Fielding and Ossian, it is impossible to reconstruct on historical principles what the 'Homer' of Byron was. There is, as it were, too much 'background noise'.

Certain obvious paths, of course, suggest themselves. It is self-evident that the peripatetic Byronic hero of Childe Harold - 'the Man [...] Long exercis'd in woes' (to allude to Pope's characterisation of Odysseus) - is not the object of the poetry (as Odysseus is objectified by Homeric 'naivety') but is closely related to Byron's subjective selfconsciousness. If Odysseus had been 'sentimentally' conceived by Homer he might, between despair and hope, have expressed himself to himself in words like these:

And from the plank, far shatter'd o'er the rocks

Build me a little bark of hope, once more

To battle with the ocean and the shocks

Of the loud breakers, and the ceaseless roar

Which rushes on the solitary shore

Where all lies founder'd that was ever dear:

But could I gather from the wave-born store

Enough for my rude boat, where should I steer?

There woos no home, no hope, nor life, save what is here. …