Homer on Life and Death

Homer on Life and Death

Homer on Life and Death

Homer on Life and Death

Excerpt

Nobody who writes on Homer has read everything, ancient and modern, that has been written about the poems. Each of us finds some more suggestive and helpful, some less, among the works of his predecessors. A feature of this book which perhaps deserves comment is the little that is said in it about the formulaic theory of the poems' composition, which since the work of Milman Parry has, in the last forty years, increasingly dominated discussion in English. Impressive as this large body of work has been on its own technical ground, I am perhaps not alone in feeling disappointment at the amount of light it has shed on the poems themselves. I think that it has been made very likely that the Iliad and the Odyssey represent the end of a tradition of oral poetry. That has some importance, as suggesting a line of explanation for some features of the poems: the repeated lines, the fixed and recurrent epithets, the typical scenes. Negatively, it rules out certain kinds of nineteenth- century analysis, which by pressing on verbal repetitions and minor inconcinnities dissolved the poems into fragments; it also should make us cautious about basing other kinds of argument on such repetitions. It serves, that is to say, as a check upon subjective approaches, but it does not and cannot rule them out in principle.

Even if the poems represent the end of a tradition of oral poetry, that does not tell us how the epics which we have were produced. It has been claimed that 'at a deeper level, all literary criticism of the Homeric poems must be radically altered by the Parry-Lord hypothesis', and even that a new 'oral poetics' must come into existence before we can, without absurdity, presume to tackle the poems at all. But the production of a new 'poetics' has proved difficult, and some recent writing on . . .

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