Tradition and Design in the Iliad

By C. M. Bowra | Go to book overview

VI
THE SIMILES

IN European literature the simile is so familiar a feature that we do not often trouble about its use and origin. It has justified itself by its intrinsic beauty; it sheds a new light on its subject by comparing it to something in a different order of things. The simile of Milton or Dante is drawn from Virgil, and Virgil drew his from Homer. So what we take for an essential part of poetry has derived life and strength from a single source. It is therefore important to examine Homer's use of the simile, and see from what he derived it and how he employs it. We have seen that in other ways he takes a primitive form and adapts it to his own uses. Can the same be said of the simile? Is it too a survival, put to new uses? Or is it largely his own invention? In most primitive narrative poetry similes are very rare. In the Song of Roland for instance they are few and simple. The most adventurous is that which compares the whiteness of Baligant's complexion to that of a flower in summer ( l. 3162). Of the full-dress simile there is no trace. The seven similes in Beowulf are no more elaborate than this. In the Kalevala and in the Nibelungenlied they hardly exist. On the other hand they are found at certain great moments in the Edda poems. When Gudrun weeps for Sigurd, in the First Song of Gudrun, she celebrates his greatness in comparisons:

So high stood Sigurd over Gjuki's son's
As the spear-leek over the thirsty grass,
As the glittering diamond outshines the gold,
The pale circlet of the chieftain's crown.

This has something akin to the Homeric practice, but the Edda poems are more songs than epic. On the whole, early narrative verse seems to eschew the simile, and for obvious reasons.1 The story has at all costs to be made clear, and the simile of any length tends to distract the listener and break the thread of the narrative. In a song which concentrates

____________________
1
In the later French epics and in Layamon Brut similes are quite frequent, but their presence is probably due to imitation of classical models.

-114-

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Tradition and Design in the Iliad
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Preface vii
  • Contents ix
  • I - Tradition and Design 1
  • II - The Origins of the Epic 27
  • III - The Hexameter 53
  • IV - Some Primitive Elements 67
  • V - Repetitions and Contradictions 87
  • VI - The Similes 114
  • VII - The Language 129
  • VIII - The Historical Background 156
  • IX - The Characters 192
  • XI - Homer and the Heroic Age 234
  • XII - Homer's Time and Place 251
  • Index 275
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