The latter half of the eighteenth century brought new conceptions of the early poet and poem. Formerly thought of as a great "conscious" artist, Homer was being characterized as an ideal example of the irrational, spontaneous bard of a primitive people. His Iliad and Odyssey, once regarded as being essentially above time and place, were now being viewed as important sources for information about early literature and society.
A few years ago in investigating the claims of some of Wolf's followers, it seemed to me that there was an evident hiatus in our knowledge of Homeric criticism, that a good deal, at any rate, remained to be said about the gradual development of the historical approach to Homer and the ways in which that approach was used by different authors at different times. It was apparent that no one, including Georg Finsler, author of Homer in der Neuzeit, had discussed the contributions of more than three or four British critics of the eighteenth century--at least in sufficient detail. This fact would seem to justify the study which follows, a study beginning with the historical comments on Homer by such writers as Mme. Dacier, Fénelon, Parnell, and Pope, continuing with Blackwell important Enquiry and the Scotch primitivists whom he influenced, and concluding with the English critics, especially Robert Wood, to whom the German critics were heavily indebted. Because the historical interpretation of Homer made its most pronounced advances in England and Scotland during this time, only occasional consideration of the Continental critics would appear to be warranted.
But it is not merely my purpose to cast some light on our modern historical and scientific treatments of this poet. One should remember that a vast new movement in literary theory was under way in England in the early and middle eighteenth century, that literary scholarship was rapidly moving forward, and that Ossian, Chaucer, Shakespeare, and even the poets of Scandinavia and Persia were being reëstimated in accordance with historical standards. To some extent even anticipating the criticism of these poets, the historical approach to Homer is obviously linked with, and a part of, this much larger development and is hence of interest to the student of general literature as well as to the student of the classics. Not only were many of the Homeric critics also critics of the early British poets, and the same methods applied to the study of Homer as to these poets, but direct comparisons were even made between Homer and Ossian . . .