EUROPEAN literature begins with Homer, and Homer is the epic. That is to say, all subsequent poetry which can be as epic is so described in proportion as it resembles the Iliad and Odyssey. Homer is the origin of it all and the standard by which it is judged.
Yet in some (and these very important) respects Homer is unique. The Iliad and the Odyssey were composed in and for a society that no longer exists; consequently the conditions for reproducing such poetry no longer exist. They ceased to exist in ancient Greece itself after the Homeric age, and they never existed at all in Roman times. There was an approximation to them in certain countries--Iceland for example--in the middle ages, but nothing issued from them comparable in artistic competence to the Homeric poems. In modern times, in civilised countries, the conditions have, of course, entirely disappeared. The Roman epic, then, and the modern epic, so far as they model themselves upon Homer, are imitative, are 'artificial'. For that very reason they cannot be understood except after study of their model. And their model Homer cannot be understood except after study of the conditions which made such poetry possible.
This sounds too difficult for the ordinary student, unless he happens to be a Greek scholar. But the elements of the problem can be understood by anybody. The exercise of a little imagination will convince us that in an unlettered community, such as Homer addressed, the poet must give his audience what it wishes to hear; otherwise it will not listen at all, and what is he to do then? He cannot appeal from that audience to the