For not to have been dipt in Lethe lake,
Could save the son of Thetis from to die;
But that blind bard did him immortal make:
With verses, dipt in dew of Castaly.
Spenser, Ruins of Time.
IN 1870 (a year when his countrymen were less well employed) a German business-man began digging the hill of Hissarlik to find Homeric Troy. For even as a poor grocer's lad in Mecklenburg Heinrich Schliemann had loved Homer. German scholars smiled pityingly at the credulous amateur. They knew that Troy and Homer were alike fables. Yet the faith which, year after year, moved mountains of soil from Hissarlik, was astoundingly rewarded. Schliemann and his young Greek wife found, not one, but seven Troys. With equal success he next unearthed the treasures of Homer's 'golden Mycenae' and the palace of 'Tiryns of the mighty walls.' Only obstructive landowners prevented him from excavating Cnossus also. Most of his finds we now know to be pre-Homeric. But Schliemann's dream had come true -- Homer's world was not a dream.
So with Homer himself. Following Wolf ( 1795), nineteenth-century scholars busied themselves reducing the Iliad to a scrapbook and multiplying Homer into a team of bards (just as Shakespeare has been divided into seven Shakespeares). But these men were better at splitting hairs than poems. Poets like Goethe, Schiller, Tennyson, Arnold, knowing better how poetry is written, were less easily convinced; though Coleridge (in my heretical belief a much overrated critic) accepted the idea. But much modern scholarship, while admitting possible later interpolations in certain places, has gradually swung back from this paradoxical notion that the two bestconstructed epics in the world were somehow constructed like patchwork quilts. A masterpiece involves a master. Critics have talked about rehandling by a series of poets as if it were an easy process. The rehandling of good poetry is a good deal more likely to spoil it than to improve. Chaucer could remould Boccaccio; Shakespeare, Kyd; but only because they were still better writers -- even Dryden only degraded Chaucer and Shakespeare when he tried revising them in turn. Shakespeare, indeed, may be our best analogy for Homer -- a final genius taking the rude brickstructures of older days and rebuilding them in marble.