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 detail and ethical scope. Yet while they were writing, the questions that occupied both specialist and more popular work, in English at least, were directed elsewhere. “Did the Trojan War really happen?” “Does the bard preserve Indo-European folk memories?” “How did the poems get written down?”

Something was driving scholars, and the public they influenced, away from Homer’s actual works to the periphery. Scholars produced books about Schliemann, about gift-exchange in primitive societies, the development of South Slavic oral poetry, the shape of Mycenaean shields, virtually anything except the Iliad and Odyssey themselves as unique reflections or distillations of our sublunary life—as great poetry. When I started teaching Homer in 1973, the scholarly books in English all circled around Homer, but were not on him. Pope’s complaint (in his “Observations” on his translation of the Iliad) seemed then just as applicable as it was in 1715:

It is something strange that of all the Commentators upon Homer, there is hardly one whose principle Design is to illustrate the Poetical Beauties of the Author. They are voluminous in explaining those sciences which he made but subservient to his Poetry, and sparing only upon that Art which constitutes his Character…their Remarks are rather Philosophical, Historical, Geographical, Allegorical, or in short rather anything than Critical and Poetical.

In 1973 one voice stood out: that of Adam Parry, in a long introduction to his father’s collected papers, The Making of Homeric Verse.2 Milman Parry (1902-1935) changed the understanding of Homer irrevocably by his almost scientific proof that Homer was the heir of a long and highly developed tradition of oral poetry, with a huge system of metrical “formulae.” This “Tradition,” he proposed, built up its diction and its content by a process of constant accumulation and refinement over many generations of bards. Adam Parry saw that the scholarship that followed in his father’s footsteps was proving sterile and over-technical, and that it was discouraging poetic criticism. He marked, in words that almost echoed Pope’s, what we can now see as an important crisis in Homeric studies:


It is because we now, as others have done for so many centuries in the past, respond with such directness, such instinctive immediacy of understanding, to the greatness of the Homeric epics, that all this work of archaeology and scholarship continues to take place. It would be perverse if the effect of our scholarship were to deny the validity of the spontaneous judgment which provided the impetus for that scholarship in the first place.

The last twelve years have been a period of stirring activity in studies of the poems themselves. There are commentaries in progress on both the Iliad and the Odyssey, almost the first during this century. In English alone, there have been several important scholarly studies and no fewer than five books for the “general reader.” Seth L. Schein’s The Mortal Hero and Paolo Vivante’s Homer are among them.3 They are very different, particularly perhaps in their views of what has become a key notion since Milman Parry—the notion of the “Tradition.”

Schein’s book lives up to his claims:

This book is addressed mainly to non-specialist readers who do not know Greek and who read, study, or teach the Iliad in translation…. I have tried to present clearly what seem to me the most valuable results of modern research and criticism of the Iliad while setting forth my own views.

He concentrates on the poem and on “what is thematically, ethically, and artistically distinctive” in it: Serbo-Croat singers, Dark-Age burial customs, and the like are banished to the periphery. His book reflects the recent renaissance of Homeric criticism, and it should prove helpful to students.

Schein writes with good sense on, for example, the contrast between mortals and immortals, on the paradox of heroic death, on Hector’s place in Troy. His book is well argued, well expressed, and, above all, attentive to the poem. This attention, however obvious it might seem, can produce fresh perspectives. Schein sees Achilles as a man of love as well as strife, of consideration no less than violence. He finds evidence of this civilized trait in recurrent hints, in Achilles’ respect, for example, for the corpse of Andromache’s father recalled in Book 6; and these hints fall into place in the final scene with Priam, where Achilles allows Hector’s father to ransom his son’s unburied corpse.

Schein’s main thesis is that Homer is reacting against his tradition instead of being its conservative product, that he derived his distinctive quality from having inherited and challenged the accumulated wealth of his bardic predecessors. This thesis, I will suggest, owes much to the relationship of Adam Parry to Milman Parry. But it is also indebted to the work of Johannes Th. Kakridis, perhaps the finest modern Greek scholar of ancient Greek, who boldly demonstrated that Homer does not take the position of a chauvinistic Greek; that, going against what seems to have been a nationalistic poetic tradition, he tells of Greek defeats and lavishes attention and compassion on the Trojans. This brave and perceptive essay4 may help to explain why Kakridis was ill-treated during the seven years of the colonels in Greece.

Vivante’s book, on the other hand, is unrelated to the work of other scholars, or is connected to it only negatively. It is not just that there are no footnotes and virtually no bibliography, or that only four modern scholars are named, each only once in passing. Citing scholarship is not of course in itself virtuous, but a question arises about how Vivante’s book connects with the policy of Hermes Books, the new Yale University series which Homer inaugurates. The editor, Professor John Herington, writes in his foreword:

What is lacking, it seems, in our society as well as in our scholarship, is the kind of book that was supplied for earlier generations by such men as Richard Jebb and Gilbert Murray in the intervals of their more technical researches—the kind of book that directed the general reader not to the pyramid of secondary literature piled over the burial places of the classical writers but to the living faces of the writers themselves, as perceived by a scholar-humanist with a deep knowledge of, and love for, his subject….

The first, middle, and last goal of the Hermes series is to guide the general reader to a dialogue with the classical masters rather than to acquaint him or her with the present state of scholarly research.

Dividing the professional scholar from the popularizer is damaging to both; and the carping of the schoolmen, often prompted by envy as well as self-righteous exclusivity, is short-sighted. The Hermes project appears to have an admirable aim. But can Vivante’s rhapsodic, rapturous effusions have been the kind of thing the editor had in mind? We are offered more than two hundred pages of monologue, rather than dialogue, which, while protesting devotion to the point of bardolatry, is enraptured more by its own words than by Homer’s. Vivante makes one substantial point, as far as I can see: that Homer wonderfully combines the permanent and the fleeting, the universal and the particular. The elaboration of this important and elusive truth might provide a good essay, but it cannot sustain a whole book. In any case, the point was more interestingly made by Powys, Weil, and Auerbach.


Vivante advocates a direct, uncluttered response to Homer. But no one who has read the first book of the Iliad with care could maintain, as he does, that when Agamemnon takes the woman Briseis, he is offending Achilles’ “possessive instinct, stolid self-assertiveness, and sexual lust,” and that Achilles emerges at the beginning “out of the very slime of existence.” This is not the Achilles of the poem, who is, from the first, articulate and strongly aware of the fine balance of social and political obligations—it is these that Agamemnon flouts: this is someone superimposing a “philosophy” derived from elsewhere.

It would require an expert on sub-existentialist aesthetics to place Vivante’s intellectual position and his key terms, all undefined, but tinged with a mystic aura: “image,” “form,” “nature,” “beauty,” “existence.” From the welter of “the sheer resourcefulness of existence” and “pure relevance of form and movement,” I pick out a typical Vivantean flight:

First and foremost, we find the living image, rooted in nature, placed beyond the pale of good and evil, showing through its very existence the inherent innocence and worth of form. Then, growing articulate, the image becomes characterized more and more by the action; yet it retains its primal aesthetic appeal.

Hermes, that lively, mobile, humorous, unpretentious god, would be dismayed.

Vivante not only does not document modern research, he rejects it impatiently. But his allusions suggest that he equates contemporary scholarship with the elevation of Tradition into a concept that determines and explains everything in Homer. While this complaint might have been justified before 1971, it is not generally true of the years since then, when Homer has in various ways been set against the tradition. Vivante shows virtually no awareness of the renewed excitement and interest that is conveyed by Schein’s book, which, though more learned and filled with footnotes, meets Herington’s terms better nonetheless. It may be no coincidence that Vivante’s first book on Homer, The Homeric Imagination, was published in 1970, when his attitude to the Tradition, as it was revered by Milman Parry and his followers, was much more to the point than it is now.

Vivante is, then, reacting with the same impatience as was expressed by Adam Parry with the dry Homeric scholarship of the 1950s and 1960s. But while Adam Parry, like the Prophet, summoned the spark that ignited a new blaze of interest, Vivante is still bowed down before his own existential-aesthetic altar. His naive claim to an intuitive hotline to Homer is as much a delusion as is his apparent belief that his concepts come straight from the soul (or, perhaps, from the very slime of existence). Even if he were to make no direct allusion to “the pyramid of secondary literature,” it is his responsibility—and that of every popularizer—to try to be aware of his own position within that pyramid.

In any case, it is tendentious to dismiss Milman Parry with the label of “secondary literature.” To see his importance it may be worth setting him against an even longer history of scholarship.5 First, and most persistently diverting attention from the actual poems, has been the issue of Homer’s historicity. This has been associated, though not often consciously, with the “truth” of the Old Testament. Just as many people are eager to believe that the wood of Noah’s Ark has been found on Ararat, so they find it important that a real Helen walked three times around a real wooden horse. Robert Wood claimed that his journeys in Turkey in the 1750s provided confirmation of Homer’s truth on the ground; Heinrich Schliemann in his atrociously destructive excavations between 1870 and 1890 claimed to have found the treasure of Priam and the face of Agamemnon. The fascination persists. The attractive and industrious BBC journalist Michael Wood has just put on six hour-long programs called “In Search of the Trojan War” on BBC television. They entranced a huge audience, and his accompanying book has been a best seller.6 He used computers to sort out the stratigraphic levels of Hisarlik, he delved in the diplomatic correspondence of the Hittite king Hattusilis III; but he had next to nothing to say about Homer’s poems apart from repeatedly describing the Iliad wrongly as “the Greek national epic.” Yet for us the question is which “comes first,” so to speak, Homer or the Trojan War?

Even more closely bound to biblical studies in the nineteenth century was analysis of the sort initiated by the German scholar F.A. Wolf (1759–1824). Anyone who believed that he could analyze “Homer” into the work of different poets, and could sort out the true Homer, was known by the adjective “Wolfian,” whether or not there was any agreement with the seminal analysis put forward by Wolf in his Prolegomena ad Homerum of 1795.7 A character in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh explicitly connects analytic assaults on the integrity of Homer with attacks on God’s creation:

Wolf’s an atheist
And if the Iliad fell out, as he says,
By mere fortuitous concourse of the old songs,
We’d guess as much, too, for the universe.

An index of the way that the “Homeric Question” dominated the scene emerges when we follow a hint in Herington’s foreword alluding to R.C. Jebb’s Introduction to Homer (1887), a short, popular book which was frequently reprinted. It is much more like Schein’s book than Vivante’s (and so, by the way, are Gilbert Murray’s popularizing works). In his preface Jebb describes it as “a general introduction to the study of Homer…which collects the principal results of modern study.” It is packed with facts, theories, and arguments, with footnotes and learned names; but it is at the same time clearly written without being patronizing, and it is well aware of its own setting in 1887. Jebb does not have much to say about historicity, partly perhaps because he had himself visited the Troad in 1882 and been unimpressed by Hisarlik and Schliemann. But he spends nearly half the book on the Homeric Question. He goes over the many various proposals of Wolf and others, and puts forward his own theory of a primary Iliad, composed in mainland Greece, and of its various extensions in Ionia. Like most “primary Iliads,” it did not include what many would now regard as the two finest parts of the poem, Books 9 and 24.

This kind of work, half drowned in a wash of theory and countertheory, was still dominating Homeric studies when Milman Parry published his doctoral dissertation (in French) in 1928. Yet there had been a persistent groundswell of discontent. Those who read and responded to the poems felt that, despite all the clever scholarship, they had encountered coherent artistic wholes. Wolf himself admitted as much. Poets, above all, choked on Wolfian analysis. One of Robert Browning’s last poems, “Development” (published in 1889), captures the contradiction well:

So, I bent brow o’er Prolegomena.

And, after Wolf, a dozen of his like
Proved there was never any Troy at all,
Neither Besiegers nor Besieged,—nay, worse,
No actual Homer, no authentic text,
No warrant for the fiction I, as fact,
Had treasured in my heart and soul so long—
Ay, mark you! and as fact held still, still hold,
Spite of new knowledge, in my heart of hearts
And soul of souls….

In Germany between the wars some pupils of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, the mighty Hellenist and Wolfian analyst who died in 1931, began to discover a coherence in Homer far more impressive than the incoherence which had so preoccupied their predecessors. The most important works (neither ever translated into English) were both published in 1938: Wolfgang Schadewaldt’s Iliasstudien and Karl Reinhardt’s long essay on the judgement of Paris, or rather on the way that the past career of Paris is persistently lurking behind the Iliad, even though his fatal judgment is directly referred to only once near the end. (Auerbach might not have written Chapter 1 of Mimesis had he known Reinhardt’s work.) Yet it took more than thirty years before these important studies—both pervasive influences on Griffin, Schein, and others—made any impact in the English-speaking world. This was only partly because of the war (and Schadewaldt’s Nazi sympathies); it was more because of another development in Homeric scholarship, one that, in its turn, took a long time to make any impression in Germany.

Milman Parry’s revolutionary work threw new light both on historicity and on the Homeric Question. He explained how Homer might preserve, even in perfect condition, material from the Mycenaean age four hundred years and more before his time. More importantly, he cut the knot of Wolfian analysis. The repeated phrases and cultural and material features that scholars had attributed to different periods or layers turned out to be not obtrusive additions to Homer, but incorporations into the long oral tradition Homer had inherited. He was thus much more directly the product of his predecessors, and less distinguishable from them, than any “individual talent” (in Eliot’s sense) is distinguishable from his tradition.

Parry was responding to his own times, even in his most technical work. With its tables and statistics it was quasi-scientific. It was “functionalist” in regarding the formulaic diction of oral poetry as a practical device, and “primitivist” in embracing rather than deprecating the notion that Homer’s poetry was traditional and preclassical. It was “collectivist” in diminishing the importance of individual creativity in favor of the communal achievement of a multitude of indistinguishable anonymous bards. Parry’s work seemed in his time a revelation.

But after his death, his concerns became dully rigidified by his successors for the next thirty-five years. They lost sight of Homer’s poetry, stressing the limitations of oral composition and the impossibility of invention within the Tradition, which they saw as monolithic. They concentrated on fixed elements and inflexibilities, on whatever oral poetry allegedly cannot do. The Tradition became a kind of data bank, and the bard or singer of tales, now anonymous, became a word-processing outlet. So, once again, “rather anything than Critical and Poetical.”8 The sterility of this kind of study drove the more lively scholars away from the poems into the rapidly developing subject of Homer’s archaeological and historical background, greatly stimulated by the decipherment of the Mycenaean Linear B script in 1952.

There was, however, one sphere of substantial achievement: verse translation. Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald (who both died recently) produced fine though very different versions, Lattimore in long sinuous lines, Fitzgerald more tough and vigorous.9 It would be a serious mistake to underestimate the impact of translation: even those who read in the original language were nearly all first attracted to particular works in translation. The existence of these two splendid versions, which both treat Homer as something far greater than a mere storyteller or a simple bard, may well have been incalculably important for the modern poetic revaluation.

The work of Adam Parry, who died in 1971 at the age of forty-three, was not as substantial as his father’s, and its impact was not as great. Nonetheless I suspect that it contains the key to the renewed interest in the poetry of Homer. As early as 1956 he published a seven-page article on “The Language of Achilles,” arguing that in his rejection of the embassy from Agamemnon in Book 9 of the Iliad Achilles is using the language of the oral tradition while rejecting the cultural and ethical assumptions built into that language. Parry’s specific analysis is vulnerable, but his basic insight was acute and it has been more and more influential. Homer was not a teleprinter; he was both within his tradition and against it. He was, that is, the beneficiary of its store of diction, scenes, and concepts, and at the same time he questioned them and went beyond them. As Schein puts it, the Iliad’s “style, mythological content, and heroic themes and values are traditional; but it generates its distinctive meanings as an ironic meditation on those traditional themes and values.”

Adam Parry’s next essay, “Have we Homer’s Iliad?” (1966)10 questioned whether oral poetry and written poetry were incompatible, a position that had been taken as axiomatic by his father’s successors. His general argument has been largely confirmed by Ruth Finnegan’s studies of oral poetry throughout the world.11 The strength of Adam Parry’s method was to analyze passages in detail, showing the skill of their composition, however formulaic their constituent parts. He found they are put together in a uniquely effective way: “Change one note and there is diminishment,” as Schaffer’s Salieri says of Mozart. This close interpretation, while retaining an awareness of formulaic raw materials, is another way that Adam Parry prepared the ground for the current Homeric revival.

So I return to Adam Parry’s introduction to his edition of Milman Parry’s collected papers. As well as providing a masterly survey of his father’s work and achievements, he also set himself in a dialogue with him. He expressed the gathering impatience with thirty-five years of scholarship in which the promised “oral poetics” had failed to say anything revealing about the greatness of Homer’s poetry.

The historical weight of his [Milman’s] Homeric studies, their emphasis on differences between the poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey and poetry deriving from later and literate traditions has changed our picture of Homer and increased our understanding of his verse: we shall never read it in quite the same way. But the historical argument can only illuminate our understanding if it derives from, and eventually adds to, a conception of Homer itself not based on a purely historical perspective, but on a recognition, in the Iliad and the Odyssey, of an artistic order and a human significance not limited to any time or any place.

It is this recognition that Jasper Griffin and others, including Schein, have begun to build upon, helped by the appreciation in England and America of the work of Schadewaldt, Reinhardt, and others in the German tradition.

One of the best of these was Colin Macleod (1943–1981). I am too close to his commentary on the last book of the Iliad12 to assess it objectively; but already in his review of The Making of Homeric Verse in Notes and Queries in 1974, Macleod was already writing in unfamiliar, challenging terms of the absurdity that results from

the study of Homer the oral poet divorced from the study of Homer the poet. And it is a sad irony that [Milman] Parry’s work has in fact encouraged such a division. So too students of oral poetry, even when they undertake the literary criticism of Homer, leave it to others to deal with “Homeric values”; and students of those values seem to care little that it is an artistic imagination which gives them life. Yet both the language and values of Homer are no more and no less than the framework in which a great poet comprehends and recreates human beliefs, emotions and destinies. It is not enough to say of his values that they are complex, when they are manifested through dramatic conflicts between or within his characters; nor to say of his language that it is more or less traditional or flexible, without asking how it is used to make great poetry…. In short, it is time that scholarly precision was turned onto the oral poet as a “shaping spirit.”

Though it is unlikely that Schein has read this review, his book is written in the same spirit. It will be good if this renaissance now reaches a wider public, and if it conveys with it a sense of “scholarly precision,” for scholarship is not in itself a hindrance to popularization. The way to the “living face of the author” is not simply by demolishing the pyramid, but by presenting the scholarship within a larger cultural frame.

Milman Parry, Adam Parry, and Colin Macleod all died young. Perhaps they shared an almost overintense awareness of human oppression and suffering; and perhaps this led them to Homer. Certainly all three were morally sensitive beings and regarded their classical scholarship as a participation in contemporary life, not as an escape. In his address as an assistant professor at Harvard to the university’s Board of Overseers in 1934,13 Milman Parry showed himself well aware of the use made of literature by the regimes of his time. He concluded with a manifesto that holds true today:

In the field with which I have been particularly concerned here, that of the literatures of the past, unless we can show not only a few students, but all those people whose action will determine the course of a whole nation, that, by identifying one’s self with the past … one gains an understanding of men and of life and a power for effective and noble action for human welfare, we must see literary study and its method destroy itself.

Milman Parry, faced with the rise of Hitler, or Adam Parry, thinking of the Vietnam War, could find a redeeming affirmation amid all the death and destruction in Homer. The Iliad presents mighty deeds, aggression, and revenge in a setting of defeat as well as victory, women as well as men, dilemma as well as confidence, feeling as well as action. George Steiner puts it well in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky:

War and mortality cry havoc in the Homeric and Tolstoyan worlds, but the centre holds: it is the affirmation that life is, of itself, a thing of beauty, that the works and days of men are worth recording, and that no catastrophe—not even the burning of Troy or of Moscow—is ultimate.

It was clear from his own poetry that Colin Macleod, on the other hand, wondered whether life would survive our maltreatment of our planet, the depredations of “wealth creation,” the fireballs of nuclear revenge. La force is now capable of incinerating not only Troy and Moscow, but Homer and Tolstoy. Its antidote is needed more than ever.

This Issue

March 13, 1986