The Mortal Hero: An Introduction to Homer's Iliad
A new surge of interest in the poems of Homer, especially the Iliad, has gathered pace during the last dozen years or so. In midcentury, say between 1935 and 1970, it was outsiders, rather than professional scholars, who were the champions of Homer. John Cowper Powys in The Pleasures of Literature (1938), a collection of some of the lectures he had been giving for years in the United States, insisted that “none who has read Homer can say that swords and spears and chariots and horses are the only poetry he knows,” and that the poet lavished no less care on “the recurrent amenities of life within our gates, the preparation of fire and food…the handiwork of women….” Powys, characteristically, claimed to have discovered the secret:
What I have presumed to call the “secret” of Homer is indeed the isolation of, and the poetic deepening of our consciousness of, those recurrent situations, necessities, significant human gestures, in the span of any ordinary life that in the nature of the case have been repeated since the beginning. What the Homeric way of thought delivers us from is that accursed habit of taking the essentials of life for granted which cheapens, debases, and vulgarises all….
For Simone Weil writing L’Iliade ou le poème de la force1 in 1939–1940 “nothing of all that the peoples of Europe have produced is worth the first known poem to have appeared among them.” The “secret” she found in the Iliad (its “true hero, the true subject”) was “la force,” violence, the impersonally destructive. But while la force is pervasive in the Iliad, Weil insists that it is not glorified; it is the individual human response to it that is glorified. The Iliad has a transcendent equity which does not tip the poem toward victor or victim: both are respected. “There is keen regret for whatever violence kills, or shall kill,” as she put it.
Erich Auerbach wrote Mimesis in Istanbul between May 1942 and April 1945 without an academic library—in fact he admitted that, given a full library, he might never have written the book. The opening chapter looks at one stretch of the Odyssey where the story of Odysseus’ scar interrupts the narrative of his adventures, and argues for a fundamental difference in manner and significance between Homer and the Old Testament. For Auerbach, Homer’s secret is that he conveys no background, no implicit meanings beneath the surface: “men and things stand out in a realm where everything is visible.” Auerbach was trying to pin down those qualities of pace, vividness, and seriousness in Homer which Matthew Arnold found paramount.
No doubt there are distortions and exaggerations in the views of all three of these twentieth-century thinkers (particularly perhaps in Auerbach’s). But all three have insights, and all are trying to catch what makes Homer great poetry, not just in his own day, but for all time. For them its greatness lies in an inextricable combination of expression and substance, in material…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.