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Becoming Homer

Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

by Albert Bates Lord
Cornell University Press, 262 pp., $36.50; $12.95 (paper)

Homer and the Origin of the Greek Alphabet

by Barry B. Powell
Cambridge University Press, 280 pp., $80.00

The visitor to the library of the classical faculty at Harvard sees many photographs of past professors, almost all imposing, bearded figures; so imposing are they that it comes as a rude shock when one remarks that many of them have no very notable achievements to their credit. But among them one finds one youthful, strikingly handsome face, and it is the face of the most celebrated of all. No American classical scholar of the twentieth century has won higher praise than Milman Parry, who was born at Oakland, California, in 1902 and died in 1935.

By the common consent of readers over nearly three millennia, the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer contain poetry of the highest order. But they have certain features which the taste of many later ages finds perplexing, if, not repugnant. They contain numerous repetitions, including the regular use of certain standard epithets to describe particular persons; readers of Proust will recall the embarrassment and annoyance caused by Bloch’s tiresome habit of imitating this kind of thing in conversation. They also contain a number of real or apparent inconsistencies, so that it is not surprising that the eminently rational eighteenth century asked some awkward questions about them. The French, in particular, asked awkward questions, and the most notable attempt to answer them came from a German. In 1795 the great scholar Friedrich August Wolf1 argued that Homer was an oral poet, ignorant of writing. He lived, Wolf thought, about the middle of the tenth century BCE, and his poems suffered many alterations and expansions before being written down as late as the sixth century. From then on many scholars analyzed the epics into the parts written by Homer and the parts supplied by others. Most, like Wolf, placed Homer at the beginning of the process, but some placed him in the middle. Others defended the essential unity of the two epics against the analysts, and this state of affairs continued until well inside the present century.

Milman Parry put forward a theory which placed the old battle between analysts and unitarians in a new perspective. Educated at the University of California at Berkeley, he obtained an MA there with a thesis containing the gem of a theory which he later worked out in detail at the Sorbonne, where he gained the degree of Docteur des Lettres with two treatises published in 1928 in French, and later elaborated in a series of articles published in America in English.2

The names accompanied by their regular epithets—Achilles swift of foot, Hector of the flashing helmet, Agamemnon king of men—are not the only repetitions that occur in Homer; many phrases, and sometimes whole sequences of lines, are repeated in the poems, sometimes in identical form and sometimes with minor variations. Various elements of his theory had been anticipated by other scholars, but Parry was the first to argue convincingly that these and other features of the style, meter, and dialect of the poems indicated that they belonged to a tradition that must, at least in its beginnings, have been one of oral poetry. The oral poet drew on many formulas and on many themes; every performance of a poem was an act of creation, and no two performances of the poem quite the same.

After his return from France Parry taught for a year at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, before being appointed to a position at Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his brief career. In 1933 and again in 1934 and 1935 he made long stays in Yugoslavia in order to study the only oral tradition surviving in Europe to which he could have access, and managed to record many specimens of its performances. In this work he was assisted by Albert Bates Lord, who later became Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard and went on to publish much of the material which he and Parry had recorded. Disastrously, Parry died young; in December of 1935, arriving at a hotel in Los Angeles, he deposited on the floor a suitcase that contained a loaded pistol, which went off, killing him instantly. But Lord lived until the 29th of July last year.

Parry originally defined a formula as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea.” The system of formulas, he went on to argue, was applied with such “extension” and with such “economy”—these are important technical terms in Parry’s theory—that although “traces of originality remain, perhaps,” these are “traces of an originality that does no more than rearrange the words and expressions of the tradition without important modifications.” But from the time of an article published in 1930,3 Parry attached much weight to the concept of analogy, by which he meant the formulation of new expressions on the model of particular words and of the metrical patterns of old formulaic expressions. This modification allows the oral poet much greater freedom; it extends the concept of the formula not inconsiderably, and as we shall see presently other modifications have extended it still further since.

At the very end of his career, Parry began to reduce the importance he assigned to the formula and to increase that which he assigned to the theme. The theme has been defined as “a sort of basic unit of narration in an oral poem,” which may be a unit of action, such as a single combat, the calling of an assembly, or an arrival, or it may be an account of an arming, or a chariot, or a feast. Not that Parry ever offered an explicit definition; but the oral poet’s composition could be more convincingly explained if he was imagined as not simply drawing on a particular stock of formulas but as producing new versions of particular established themes.

Even before Parry’s early death his work had begun to be given recognition, notably by the eminent Swedish historian of Greek religion, Martin Nilsson.4 But in 1938 a dissenting voice was raised; Samuel Eliot Bassett5 in his posthumously published book The Poetry of Homer, while accepting Parry’s contention that the tradition to which Homer’s poetry belonged had for a long period been oral, argued that Parry’s principles seemed to deny to Homer the least spark of originality, and could not explain how such great poetry as his could have come into being.

After the war, when classical studies once more got into their stride, English-speaking scholars for the most part acknowledged the importance of Parry’s work while the Germans and other European scholars ignored it. Not that all English-speaking scholars went as far as to agree that the Homeric poems were composed without the aid of writing. Two important books published in 1952 agreed that Homer wrote in the wake of an oral tradition, but denied that his poems were oral poems; these books were Sir Maurice Bowra’s Heroic Poetry6 and H. T. Wade-Gery’s The Poet of the Iliad.7 Bowra’s book is a learned survey of the heroic poetry of many peoples and of many times; Wade-Gery’s contains an ingenious suggestion about the origin of the Greek alphabet. This is generally agreed to have been modeled on the tables of the written signs for syllables used for writing by the Phoenicians, that Semitic people of whom the Canaanites formed part and with whom the Greeks traded extensively not only during the Bronze Age but also later, from the tenth century. Wade-Gery suggested that the alphabet had actually been invented in order that the poet might use it to compose poems longer and more complex than any that had been known before.

Albert Bates Lord replied to Wade-Gery and Bowra in an article8 which is reprinted, with minimal changes, as the second chapter in the collection of his essays which has just been published, Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. He seems to take it for granted that all oral poetry conforms to the rules obeyed by the Serbian guslars, or bards, whom he had studied in company with Parry; “these statements,” he assures us, “have been checked by field experiments.” In replying to the charge that Parry’s principles deprive the oral poet of almost any possibility of invention, he invokes the concept of analogy, and he lays special emphasis on the concept of the theme, defined now as “the reported narrative descriptive elements,” so that he can end by claiming that “a singer can show originality both in new phrases and in new combinations of themes.” Answering Wade-Gery, Lord argues that Homer must have dictated his oral poem, as some guslars had done, to someone who could write; since Lord held that literacy brought immediate death to any oral tradition, he could not allow that Homer himself might have learned the art of writing.

A year after the original publication of Lord’s article a leading German-speaking scholar took account of Parry’s work for the first time. This was the celebrated Viennese professor Albin Lesky,9 who, like Bowra and Wade-Gery, accepted Parry’s claim that the Greek epic tradition must originally have been oral, but could not believe that Homer himself did not use writing. But in the English-speaking world Parry’s theory in its most rigorous form found powerful support. Sir Denys Page, who from 1950 to 1973 was Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, was its most enthusiastic advocate. “Subtlety of soul, complexity of character, true portrayal of personality,” wrote Page in 1955,10 “for these we must wait until the practice of the art of writing affords the poet the necessary leisure and the 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 pronouncements run directly counter to the collective judgment of readers over nearly three thousand years.

In 1960 Lord brought out his book The Singer of Tales,11 which bears the title of the book Parry had been planning to write at the time of his death. Part I of this work explains the theory of oral poetry, and Part II, with one chapter on the formula and another on the theme, explains its application. The formulas, Lord writes, “are not limited to the familiar epithets and oft-repeated lines, but are all-pervasive”; “the formula technique in the Homeric poems is indeed so perfect, the system of formulas is, as Parry showed, so thrifty, so lacking in alternative identical expressions, that one marvels that this perfection could be reached without the aid of writing.” In this book the theory that Homer must have dictated his poems to someone who could write is worked out in greater detail. Two years later G. S. Kirk in a solid and comprehensive study of the epics 12 contended that the poems were preserved orally more or less unchanged before being written down in the sixth century; but Lord was able to reply with much cogency that they were hardly likely to have been preserved orally for so long without considerable alteration.

  1. 1

    Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum of 1795 have been translated from the Latin and edited with notes by A. Grafton, G. W. Most, and J. E. G. Zetzel, Prolegomena to Homer, 1795 (Princeton University Press, 1985).

  2. 2

    Milman Parry’s works are available in The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, edited by Adam Parry (Oxford University Press, 1971; 1988), henceforward MHV.

  3. 3

    Homeric Style,” in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 41 (1930), p. 73; MHV, p. 266.

  4. 4

    Homer and Mycenae (London: Methuen, 1933; University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972.)

  5. 5

    The Poetry of Homer (University of California Press, 1938).

  6. 6

    Heroic Poetry (London: Macmillan, 1952).

  7. 7

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

  8. 8

    Homer’s Originality: Oral Dictated Texts,” Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 84 (1953), pp. 124–134.

  9. 9

    Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit im Homerischen Epos,” in Festschrift fur Dietrich Kralik (1954), p. 1, and in Gesammelte Schriften (Berne and Munich: Francke, 1966), p. 63.

  10. 10

    The Homeric Odyssey (Oxford University Press, 1955), p. 14.

  11. 11

    The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960; Atheneum, 1965).

  12. 12

    The Songs of Homer (Cambridge University Press, 1962).

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