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Welcome Homer!

Homer: The Iliad

translated by Robert Fagles, introduction and notes by Bernard Knox
Viking, 683 pp., $35.00

The Iliad for Speaking Steingrabenstrasse 20, 8036 Briebrunntam Ammersee, Germany)

translated by Michael Reck
Porpentine Press, 436 pp., $40.00 (available from the publisher, Porpentine Press,

The Odyssey of Homer

a new verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
University of California Press, 526 pp., $35.00


Homer has never lacked readers, not even during the long period in which the essential unity of his poems was denied, and all the problems presented by the poems were solved in terms of conflicting theories of multiple authorship, so that finally scholars questioned even his ability to depart from a limited collection of traditional set phrases. Each new generation is bound to produce new translations and new interpretations; these are not necessarily better than the old, but must be tested against them by careful comparison. Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad (1951) and Odyssey (1965)1 were considered by many as the best available translations into modern English verse, and Robert Fitzgerald’s translations2 have also had admirers. Now here are new versions of the Iliad by Robert Fagles, who has translated the Greek lyric poet Bacchylides, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and the Theban plays of Sophocles, and by Michael Reck, who is known as a poet and as a friend of Ezra Pound, and of the Odyssey by Allen Mandelbaum, who has translated the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy, as well as Ungaretti and Quasimodo.

Fagles’s version has the great advantage of being prefaced by an excellent introduction by Bernard Knox, which provides the general reader with a reliable account of the present state of Homeric studies. The eighteenth century, he tells us, saw two striking departures from previous attitudes to the Homeric poems. First, its strict rationality led it to discover in the poems many inconsistencies and illogicalities, which led to the belief that they could not be the productions of a single author. Secondly, the preoccupation with folk tradition and popular poetry that set in toward the middle of the century, whose most startling result was the craze for the sham Scottish folk poetry of Ossian, encouraged the notion that the Homeric poems were the creation of “the people,” an accretion of shorter poems composed by various authors and later loosely put together. The suggestion that the poems had been composed orally had been put forward as early as the first century of the common era by the Jewish historian Josephus, and now it was revived, the first systematic theory of oral composition being put forward in 1795 by the famous German classical scholar Friedrich August Wolf.3

Throughout the century that followed the debate initiated by Wolf continued. In 1832 the great scholar Gottfried Hermann, like Wolf a friend of Goethe, argued that the original nucleus of the poems continued to be amplified over a long period of time. This remained the most popular view for the remainder of the nineteenth century, though different scholars gave different accounts of how this had occurred. In 1916 another great German scholar, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, argued that the nucleus of the poems had come into being not at the beginning but in the middle of the development of the tradition of heroic poetry, and for a long time this view became the most fashionable. But in England and America certain scholars defended a unitarian point of view, some of them attempting to win support for their opinion by an appeal to anti-German prejudice.

In 1928 a young Californian scholar, Milman Parry, published in French two books that in time came to transform the entire discussion. He gave substance to the case for oral composition by showing that many features of the language, style, and dialect of the poems could be explained only by the assumption that they were dictated by its needs. Continental scholars for a long time clung to their traditional ways of analyzing the poems, but in English-speaking countries Parry’s theory found wide acceptance. Parry had certainly proved that the poems belonged to a tradition that had begun by being oral, and many people assumed that they must have been composed orally.

During the last years before his untimely death in 1936, Parry was engaged in studying and recording the last phases of the Serbo-Croatian tradition of heroic poetry, the last in Europe to retain its oral character. After his death the work was continued by his assistant Albert Lord, who later became Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard.

Lord, in his book The Singer of Tales4 and elsewhere, continued to argue that the poems must have been composed orally. For many years he maintained that the coming of literacy meant immediate death to any oral tradition; he therefore suggested that Homer must have dictated his poems to another person. Other scholars have thought that the poems were transmitted orally over a long period before being written down. Our earliest specimens of Greek writing in the Greek alphabet date from the second half of the eighth century BC, and it has long been fashionable to suppose that it was adapted from the Phoenician syllabary at that time.

Those people, who have been referred to as “hard-core Parryites,” were led by their belief that the Homeric poems contain a very great number of frequently repeated “formulas,” convenient for improvisation, into taking a very limited view of the artistic possibilities which this left open to the poets; they held, to use the words of G.S. Kirk, that “a large number of crystallized formulas are used with an astonishing economy and lack of unnecessary variation.” 5 Lord delivered a solemn warning against what he called “the subjective interpretation and appreciation of the Homeric poems.”

Lord was not a professional Greek scholar, but others who were went still further in this direction. “For subtlety of soul, complexity of character, true portrayal of personality,” wrote Sir Denys Page, at that time Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, “for these we must wait until the practice of the art of writing affords the poet the necessary leisure and necessary means for reflexion for planning the future in some detail and for correcting the past.” “Intricacy of design and subtleties of soul,” he added later, “wholly alien to the oral technique of composition have been sought (and found) in him.” These words imply that they were not there; but the pronouncement runs counter to the collective judgment of Homer’s readers throughout the centuries.

Parry had proved that the Homeric poems belonged to a tradition that had originally been oral; but had he proved that they had been composed without the aid of writing? Sir Maurice Bowra in his book Heroic Poetry,6 which discussed not only Serbo-Croatian heroic poetry but the heroic poetry of many different peoples, argued that they had not; and the detailed studies of many different heroic traditions which, largely as a result of Parry’s work, have been carried out in recent years offer powerful support to this opinion. Ruth Finnegan in her book Oral Poetry7 has drawn attention to early English and modern Bantu poems that have many features associated with oral techniques, but are known to have been composed with the aid of writing. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain elaborate links between their different parts, which seem very unlikely to have been produced by oral composition; and it has been shown that many of the inconsistencies and awkwardnesses alleged to provide evidence for multiple authorship can be explained by anyone who is willing to study the technique of heroic poetry patiently and to distinguish it from the techniques proper to other poetic genres, such as that of tragedy.

That Homer used writing was the opinion of the distinguished Austrian scholar Albin Lesky, the author of a standard history of Greek literature, who was the first eminent German-speaking scholar to take proper account of Parry’s work. It was also the opinion of Parry’s gifted son, Adam Parry, who in 1971, the year of his lamented early death, brought out a collection of his father’s writings, translating those which had been written in French and adding an introduction which is a most important original contribution to Homeric scholarship.8 Everyone who has examined the concept of the “formula” with real care has been forced to the conclusion that it is extremely flexible and adaptable; and Parry’s “theory of economy” has been effectively criticized by David Shive.9

The basic unity of the poems and their freedom from the narrow constraints once held to have been imposed by their oral composition are upheld by the authors of three of the finest modern studies of Homer: Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death, Colin Macleod’s Homer, Iliad Book XXIV, and Uvo Hölscher, Die Odyssee: Eposzwischen Märchen und Roman10 Alfred Heubeck in the admirable introduction to the valuable commentary on the Odyssey first published in Italian by the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla and now appearing in an English translation11 gives a full-account of the whole modern discussion, with which Knox’s introduction is very much in harmony.

I have mentioned that most classical scholars believe that the Greek alphabet came into existence as late as the eighth century BC, from whose second half most of our earliest specimens of Greek writing date. They have remained strangely indifferent to the opinions expressed by certain Orientalists, who believe that this date is too late. In 1973 Joseph Naveh argued from the study of Semitic inscriptions that the Greek alphabet was invented as early as the second millenium BC; that seems to be too early a date, but a strong argument for placing it not later than the ninth century BC is put forward by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. as long ago as 1975.12 After all, the Greek hexameter verses inscribed on the so-called cup of Nestor found at Ischia and dating from the late eighth century suggest that hexameter poetry was familiar to the society in which it came into existence.

In all probability the alphabet was devised for commercial purposes by persons engaged in trade with the Phoenicians; and when one considers the nature of the earliest writing materials, which were perishable in a high degree, it is hardly surprising that the earliest specimens should not have survived. Yet the poets must have seen how useful writing could be to them.

In later times, the two great epics were recited in their entirety by relays of speakers at the Athenian festival of the Panathenaea. They may well have been originally designed for recitation at such a festival; H.T. Wade Gery suggested in 195213 that they were recited at the festival of the Panionion, held at Mycale, on the coast of Asia Minor opposite the island of Samos. Thus the great poet, or poets—for there is much to be said for the view, held by some people even in antiquity, that the poets of the Iliad and the Odyssey were different—may well have come not at the beginning or in the middle but at the end of the tradition.

Matthew Arnold delivered his famous lectures, On Translating Homer,14 in 1860–1861, when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The recommendations he made to translators writing in his own time can be of little value to translators of today, since they were given in very different conditions; but his judgment of earlier translations and his analysis of the problems a translator has to face can still be studied with great profit.

  1. 1

    The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1951); The Odyssey of Homer, translated and with an introduction by Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1965).

  2. 2

    Robert Fitzgerald, Homer: the ‘Iliad’ (1979) and Homer: the ‘Odyssey’ (1961), both Anchor Press/Doubleday.

  3. 3

    Prolegomena ad Homerum (in Latin); an English translation by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and James E.G. Zetzel under the title F.A. Wolf, Prolegomena to Homer, 1795 (Princeton University Press, 1985).

  4. 4

    Harvard University Press, 1960.

  5. 5

    G.S. Kirk, Homer and the Oral Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 115–116.

  6. 6

    C.M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1952).

  7. 7

    Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

  8. 8

    Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse, edited by Adam Parry (Oxford University Press, 1971). Adam Parry’s introduction is reprinted in his The Language of Achilles and Other Papers (Oxford University Press, 1989).

  9. 9

    David M. Shive, Naming Achilles (Oxford University Press, 1987).

  10. 10

    Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford University Press, 1980); Colin Macleod, Iliad: Book XXIV (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Uvo Hölscher, Die Odyssee: Epos zwischen Märchen und Roman (Munich: C.D. Beck, 1988).

  11. 11

    A. Heubeck, S. West, J.B. Hainsworth, A. Hoekstra, J. Russo, M.F. Galiano, A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, 3 volumes (Oxford University Press, 1988–1990).

  12. 12

    P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Script (Harvard Semitic Monographs/Scholars Press, No. 9, 1975).

  13. 13

    The Poet of the Iliad (Cambridge University Press, 1952).

  14. 14

    They are reprinted in the first volume of R.H. Super’s fine edition of Arnold’s prose works, Matthew Arnold: On the Classical Tradition (University of Michigan Press, 1960), pp. 97–258.

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