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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4
The Iliad

Cattle and fine flocks may be had for the stealing,
tripods are easily come by, even horses' tawny manes.
But a man's life is not to be snatched back again
nor captured when once it has fled the barrier of his teeth.

Iliad 9.406–9

The Iliad sometimes seems to have developed like churned butter, bits and pieces sticking together until a perceptible amount, clearly butter and no longer cream, clings to the paddle. By simple accretion, new words and phrases explain or define more fully what has gone before. In this sense, over fifteen thousand lines of hexameter verse become the spontaneous amplification and redefinition of the poem's initial word, "wrath." This theory of composition does not necessarily require a poet with a strong sense of unity; certainly the Iliad does not have a tight plot. The episodic quality of the narrative bothers some, although one could argue that "real life" itself can be read as so many random happenings, which the Homeric poet mirrors. More to the point, a narrative style of this sort bears marked affinities with the way any raconteur overheard on elevator, subway, or bus tells his or her story. Achilles' absence from Books Two through Eight seems to some to require explanation, yet the Odyssey poet also leaves his main character out of the first four books. The phenomenon may represent a commonplace predilection or an instance of influence or the mark of some narrative genius whom we will reluctantly posit as the man who gave shape to these two poems. Readers of the Iliad should probably resist the impulse to look for signs of the kind of overarching and all-inclusive unity that is expected to inform most literary pieces. The aesthetics of the Greek archaic age are not, it

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