Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre

By Steven M. Oberhelman; Van Kelly et al. | Go to book overview
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Homer, Achilles, and Statius

W. R. Johnson

My chief purpose in this paper is to suggest some possible means of dismantling what has come to seem a no longer very helpful literary bipolarity, that of oral epic/written epic. When the idea of oral epic was in full flower in this century, there can be no doubt that, despite its being deeply rooted in Romantic Hellenism, it succeeded in illuminating many things about the Homeric epics—their language, their themes, their scenes—and seemed also to explain much about their composition and their composers. Now that its bloom has begun to fade, it is time to take stock of what the idea of oral Homeric composition accomplished for our understanding of the nature and conventions of ancient epic, and to try to decide what use it may continue to have for us when we go about reading ancient Greek and Latin epic poetry.

That the tradition the Homeric epics belonged to what was in fact an oral tradition resists, after the demonstration of Parry and his followers, all and any doubt; but, as the implications of the fact that we possess and can possess no ancient oral epic become increasingly clear to us, we are coming to view the Homeric epics, not as examples or even reflections, whether clear or dim, of their oral epic tradition, but as transformations of that tradition (whose essential nature we can only speculate on), and we are beginning to sense that what we need now is to close with questions that eluded the proponents of Homeric

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