Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil: With a Chapter on the Gilgamesh Poems

By Charles Rowan Beye | Go to book overview
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3
Poetic Technique

Mother of mine, why do you object to our trusty singer
giving delight in whatever way his mind inspires him?
The poets are not responsible for their subject matter
but Zeus is, who gives to each man what he will.
So don't blame this man for singing the Achaeans' sad fate.
For men are much more going to praise whichever song
comes newest to their ears.

Odyssey 1.346–52

As the reader may now understand, who or how many persons composed the Homeric poems, and how and why, remain utterly elusive questions. The persistent mystery profoundly affects what critics say about the technique of the poetry. What seems a subtle authorial gesture to one is identified as a commonplace mechanical necessity by another. Those who initially solidified and refined the theory of the oral nature of the two poems insisted upon the fact that the Homeric poet must have been illiterate. Their field work with South Slavic oral poetry confirmed them in this view. Jugoslav oral bards were not only illiterate, but when becoming literate—more specifically when they accepted the concept of a fixed text—they seemed to lose the skill and the technique for oral poetry. The consequence for Homer was that there prevailed a theory of composition which envisioned generations of oral poets who kept the meter, the diction, the stereotyped characters and typical scenes and commonplace story patterns as so many components in their brains which they brought together extempore, yet studied in some way and certainly recollected from previous practice and rehearsal, to make poems on the order of the two that survive.

-74-

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