Milton and Homer: 'Written to Aftertimes'

By Mulryan, John | Cithara, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Milton and Homer: 'Written to Aftertimes'


Mulryan, John, Cithara


Milton and Homer: 'Written to After times.' By Gregory Machacek. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 2011. Pp. 194. $58.

Gregory Machacek's welcome book on Homer has (unfortunately to my mind) a dual purpose: to create a new theory of literary allusion and to apply that theory to our understanding of Milton's use of Homer. As he puts it in the introduction, "The book thus has two complementary aims: on the one hand, employing an enriched understanding of the phenomenon of allusion, I offer an account of the relation between Milton and Homer; on the other hand, I use my examination of the relation between Milton and Homer as an opportunity to refine further our understanding of the nature of allusion" (p. 7) . As a result, large portions of the book do not deal with the Homer-Milton connection at all. Only chapter two, "'Dire Example': The War in Heaven as Admonitory Exemplum," deals with specific references to Homer, and then only in relation to books five and six oí Paradise Lost. In chapter six, " 'Instruct Me': Institutional Considerations in Milton's Evolving Literary Ambitions," Homer is left behind altogether, except as a model Milton allegedly followed in ensuring that his great work would achieve canonical status. I count just three references to Homer's Odyssey in the entire text, two of which are cited in tandem with citations from the Iliad.

Working his way through the thorny terminology of literary theory, Machacek points out that there are no discrete terms to distinguish between the text alluded to and the text making the allusion. Thus he comes up with his own terminology, the "spur" being the text alluded to, and the "reprise" the text making the allusion (pp. 31-36). I myself hope that this precise, unambiguous terminology will be adopted, but I fear that it will not go beyond Machacek's stipulative use of the terms here, doomed to vanish along with many other useful critical constructs.

Chapter three, "'A Fabric Wonderful': The Marvelous and Verisimilar in Milton's Christian Epic," discusses (with little specific reference) Milton's Homer in relation to Milton's Virgil, as well as the later work of Tasso. Here Machacek makes two interesting claims about Milton's allusive practices: one, that many of Milton's allusions to Homer are not really meaningful in themselves ("While many allusions have no local significance, such allusions nevertheless have an aggregate effect" [p. 85]) and two, that Milton breaks with Virgil's practice of episodic imitation of Homer to focus on stylistics: "But Milton seems to have decided that it was not so important for his epic to look like the Aeneid as to sound like the Iliad. He breaks with Virgil in terms of the 'method of imitation' that Virgil's practice has suggested was proper to epic composition. Milton imitates Homer (and other writers) primarily at the level of the phrase rather than of the episode - suggesting by this practice that what makes a particular poem an epic is not a conventional set of episodes, but a particular stylistic or aesthetic effect, one in which wonder combines with familiarity" (p. 79).

Two other significant claims that Machacek makes for Milton's allusive practices are that, first, he follows the example of Virgil in the practice of "topping" Homer, except that he decides to expand the contest by "topping" Virgil as well as Homer. For example, when Homer's Zeus threatens to fling disobethent gods into Tartarus, a place "'as far beneath the house of Hades as from earth the sky lies' [Iliad, 8.] 16), Virgil doubles Homer's measure . …

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