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The Odyssey
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Scepticism is as much the result of knowledge, as knowledge is of
scepticism. To be content with what we at present know, is, for the
most part, to shut our ears against conviction; since, from the very
gradual character of our education, we must continually forget, and
emancipate ourselves from, knowledge previously acquired; we must set
aside old notions and embrace fresh ones; and, as we learn, we must
be daily unlearning something which it has cost us no small labour
and anxiety to acquire.
And this difficulty attaches itself more closely to an age in which
progress has gained a strong ascendency over prejudice, and in which
persons and things are, day by day, finding their real level, in lieu
of their conventional value. The same principles which have swept
away traditional abuses, and which are making rapid havoc among the
revenues of sinecurists, and stripping the thin, tawdry veil from
attractive superstitions, are working as actively in literature as in
society. The credulity of one writer, or the partiality of another,
finds as powerful a touchstone and as wholesome a chastisement in the
healthy scepticism of a temperate class of antagonists, as the dreams
of conservatism, or the impostures of pluralist sinecures in the
Church. History and tradition, whether of ancient or comparatively
recent times, are subjected to very different handling from that
which the indulgence or credulity of former ages could allow. Mere
statements are jealously watched, and the motives of the writer form
as important an ingredient in the analysis or his history, as the
facts he records. Probability is a powerful and troublesome test; and
it is by this troublesome standard that a large portion of historical
evidence is sifted. Consistency is no less pertinacious and exacting
in its demands. In brief, to write a history, we must know more than
mere facts. Human nature, viewed under an introduction of extended
experience, is the best help to the criticism of human history.
Historical characters can only be estimated by the standard which
human experience, whether actual or traditionary, has furnished. To
form correct views of individuals we must regard them as forming
parts of a great whole—we must measure them by their relation to the
mass of beings by whom they are surrounded; and, in contemplating the
incidents in their lives or condition which tradition has handed down
to us, we must rather consider the general bearing of the whole
narrative, than the respective probability of its details.
It is unfortunate for us, that, of some of the greatest men, we know
least, and talk most. Homer, Socrates, and Shakespere have, perhaps,
contributed more to the intellectual enlightenment of mankind than
any other three writers who could be named, and yet the history of
all three has given rise to a boundless ocean of discussion, which
has left us little save the option of choosing which theory or
theories we will follow. The personality of Shakespere is, perhaps,
the only thing in which critics will allow us to believe without
controversy; but upon everything else, even down to the authorship of
plays, there is more or less of doubt and uncertainty. Of Socrates we
know as little as the contradictions of Plato and Xenophon will allow
us to know. He was one of the dramatis personae in two dramas as
unlike in principles as in style. He appears as the enunciator of
opinions as different in their tone as those of the writers who have
handed them down. When we have read Plato or Xenophon, we think we
know something of Socrates; when we have fairly read and examined
both, we feel convinced that we are something worse than ignorant.
It has been an easy, and a popular expedient of late years, to deny
the personal or real existence of men and things whose life and
condition were too much for our belief. This system—which has often
comforted the religious sceptic, and substituted the consolations of
Strauss for those of the New Testament—has been of incalculable
value to the historical theorists of the last and present centuries.
To question the existence of Alexander the Great, would be a more
excusable act, than to believe in that of Romulus. To deny a fact
related in Herodotus, because it is inconsistent with a theory
developed from an Assyrian inscription which no two scholars read in
the same way, is more pardonable, than to believe in the good-natured
old king whom the elegant pen of Florian has idealized—Numa
Scepticism has attained its culminating point with respect to Homer,
and the state of our Homeric knowledge may be described as a free
permission to believe any theory, provided we throw overboard all
written tradition, concerning the author or authors of the Iliad and
Odyssey. What few authorities exist on the subject, are summarily
dismissed, although the arguments appear to run in a circle. "This
cannot be true, because it is not true; and that is not true, because
it cannot be true." Such seems to be the style, in which testimony
upon testimony, statement upon statement, is consigned to denial and
It is, however, unfortunate that the professed biographies of Homer
are partly forgeries, partly freaks of ingenuity and imagination, in
which truth is the requisite most wanting. Before taking a brief
review of the Homeric theory in its present conditions, some notice
must be taken of the treatise on the Life of Homer which has been
attributed to Herodotus.
According to this document, the city of Cumae in AEolia was, at an
early period, the seat of frequent immigrations from various parts of
Greece. Among the immigrants was Menapolus, the son of Ithagenes.
Although poor, he married, and the result of the union was a girl
named Critheis. The girl was left an orphan at an early age, under
the guardianship of Cleanax, of Argos. It is to the indiscretion of
this maiden that we "are indebted for so much happiness." Homer was
the first fruit of her juvenile frailty, and received the name of
Melesigenes from having been born near the river Meles in Boeotia,
whither Critheis had been transported in order to save her
"At this time," continues our narrative, "there lived at Smyrna a man
named Phemius, a teacher of literature and music, who, not being
married, engaged Critheis to manage his household, and spin the flax
he received as the price of his scholastic labours. So satisfactory
was her performance of this task, and so modest her conduct, that he
made proposals of marriage, declaring himself, as a further
inducement, willing to adopt her son, who, he asserted, would become
a clever man, if he were carefully brought up."
They were married; careful cultivation ripened the talents which
nature had bestowed, and Melesigenes soon surpassed his schoolfellows
in every attainment, and, when older, rivalled his preceptor in
wisdom. Phemius died, leaving him sole heir to his property, and his
mother soon followed. Melesigenes carried on his adopted father's
school with great success, exciting the admiration not only of the
inhabitants of Smyrna, but also of the strangers whom the trade
carried on there, especially in the exportation of corn, attracted to
that city. Among these visitors, one Mentes, from Leucadia, the
modern Santa Maura, who evinced a knowledge and intelligence rarely
found in those times, persuaded Melesigenes to close his school, and
accompany him on his travels. He promised not only to pay his
expenses, but to furnish him with a further stipend, urging, that,
"While he was yet young, it was fitting that he should see with his
own eyes the countries and cities which might hereafter be the
subjects of his discourses." Melesigenes consented, and set out with
his patron, "examining all the curiosities of the countries they
visited, and informing himself of everything by interrogating those
whom he met." We may also suppose, that he wrote memoirs of all that
he deemed worthy of preservation. Having set sail from Tyrrhenia and
Iberia, they reached Ithaca. Here Melesigenes, who had already
suffered in his eyes, became much worse; and Mentes, who was about to
leave for Leucadia, left him to the medical superintendence of a
friend of his, named Mentor, the son of Alcinor. Under his hospitable
and intelligent host, Melesigenes rapidly became acquainted with the
legends respecting Ulysses, which afterwards formed the subject of
the Odyssey. The inhabitants of Ithaca assert, that it was here that
Melesigenes became blind, but the Colophonians make their city the
seat of that misfortune. He then returned to Smyrna, where he
applied himself to the study of poetry.
But poverty soon drove him to Cumae. Having passed over the Hermaean
plain, he arrived at Neon Teichos, the New Wall, a colony of Cumae.
Here his misfortunes and poetical talent gained him the friendship of
one Tychias, an armourer. "And up to my time," continues the author,
"the inhabitants showed the place where he used to sit when giving a
recitation of his verses; and they greatly honoured the spot. Here
also a poplar grew, which they said had sprung up ever since
Melesigenes arrived."
But poverty still drove him on, and he went by way of Larissa, as
being the most convenient road. Here, the Cumans say, he composed an
epitaph on Gordius, king of Phrygia, which has however, and with
greater probability, been attributed to Cleobulus of Lindus.
Arrived at Cumae, he frequented the conversaziones of the old men,
and delighted all by the charms of his poetry. Encouraged by this
favourable reception, he declared that, if they would allow him a
public maintenance, he would render their city most gloriouslv
renowned. They avowed their willingness to support him in the measure
he proposed, and procured him an audience in the council. Having made
the speech, with the purport of which our author has forgotten to
acquaint us, he retired, and left them to debate respecting the
answer to be given to his proposal.
The greater part of the assembly seemed favourable to the poet's
demand, but one man "observed that if they were to feed Homers, they
would be encumbered with a multitude of useless people." "From this
circumstance," says the writer, "Melesigenes acquired the name of
Homer, for the Cumans call blind men Homers." With a love of economy,
which shows how similar the world has always been in its treatment of
literary men, the pension was denied, and the poet vented his
disappointment in a wish that Cumae might never produce a poet
capable of giving it renown and glory.
At Phocaea Homer was destined to experience another literary
distress. One Thestorides, who aimed at the reputation of poetical
genius, kept Homer in his own house, and allowed him a pittance, on
condition of the verses of the poet passing in his name. Having
collected sufficient poetry to be profitable, Thestorides, like some
would-be literary publishers, neglected the man whose brains he had
sucked, and left him. At his departure, Homer is said to have
observed: "O Thestorides, of the many things hidden from the
knowledge of man, nothing is more unintelligible than the human
Homer continued his career of difficulty and distress, until some
Chian merchants, struck by the similarity of the verses they heard
him recite, acquainted him with the fact that Thestorides was
pursuing a profitable livelihood by the recital of the very same
poems. This at once determined him to set out for Chios. No vessel
happened then to be setting sail thither, but he found one ready to
start for Erythrae, a town of Ionia, which faces that island, and he
prevailed upon the seamen to allow him to accompany them. Having
embarked, he invoked a favourable wind, and prayed that he might be
able to expose the imposture of Thestorides, who, by his breach of
hospitality, had drawn down the wrath of Jove the Hospitable.
At Erythrae, Homer fortunately met with a person who had known him in
Phocaea, by whose assistance he at length, after some difficulty,
reached the little hamlet of Pithys. Here he met with an adventure,
which we will continue in the words of our author. "Having set out
from Pithys, Homer went on, attracted by the cries of some goats that
were pasturing. The dogs barked on his approach, and he cried out.
Glaucus (for that was the name of the goat-herd) heard his voice, ran
up quickly, called off his dogs, and drove them away from Homer. For
some time he stood wondering how a blind man should have reached such
a place alone, and what could be his design in coming. He then went
up to him and inquired who he was, and how he had come to desolate
places and untrodden spots, and of what he stood in need. Homer, by
recounting to him the whole history of his misfortunes, moved him
with compassion; and he took him and led him to his cot, and, having
lit a fire, bade him sup.
"The dogs, instead of eating, kept barking at the stranger, according
to their usual habit. Whereupon Homer addressed Glaucus thus: O
Glaucus, my friend, prythee attend to my behest. First give the dogs
their supper at the doors of the hut: for so it is better, since,
whilst they watch, nor thief nor wild beast will approach the fold.
"Glaucus was pleased with the advice and marvelled at its author.
Having finished supper, they banqueted afresh on conversation, Homer
narrating his wanderings, and telling of the cities he had visited.
"At length they retired to rest; but on the following morning,
Glaucus resolved to go to his master, and acquaint him with his
meeting with Homer. Having left the goats in charge of a
fellow-servant, he left Homer at home, promising to return quickly.
Having arrived at Bolissus, a place near the farm, and finding his
mate, he told him the whole story respecting Homer and his journey.
He paid little attention to what he said, and blamed Glaucus for his
stupidity in taking in and feeding maimed and enfeebled persons.
However, he bade him bring the stranger to him.
"Glaucus told Homer what had taken place, and bade him follow him,
assuring him that good fortune would be the result. Conversation soon
showed that the stranger was a man of much cleverness and general
knowledge, and the Chian persuaded him to remain, and to undertake
the charge of his children."
Besides the satisfaction of driving the impostor Thestorides from the
island, Homer enjoyed considerable success as a teacher. In the town
of Chios he established a school, where he taught the precepts of
poetry. "To this day," says Chandler, "the most curious remain is
that which has been named, without reason, the School of Homer. It is
on the coast, at some distance from the city, northward, and appears
to have been an open temple of Cybele, formed on the top of a rock.
The shape is oval, and in the centre is the image of the goddess, the
head and an arm wanting. She is represented, as usual, sitting. The
chair has a lion carved on each side, and on the back. The area is
bounded by a low rim, or seat, and about five yards over. The whole
is hewn out of the mountain, is rude, indistinct, and probably of the
most remote antiquity."
So successful was this school, that Homer realised a considerable
fortune. He married, and had two daughters, one of whom died single,
the other married a Chian.
The following passage betrays the same tendency to connect the
personages of the poems with the history of the poet, which has
already been mentioned:—
"In his poetical compositions Homer displays great gratitude towards
Mentor of Ithaca, in the Odyssey, whose name he has inserted in his
poem as the companion of Ulysses, in return for the care taken of him
when afflicted with blindness. He also testifies his gratitude to
Phemius, who had given him both sustenance and instruction."
His celebrity continued to increase, and many persons advised him to
visit Greece whither his reputation had now extended. Having, it is
said, made some additions to his poems calculated to please the
vanity of the Athenians, of whose city he had hitherto made no
mention, he set out for Samos. Here, being recognized by a Samian,
who had met with him in Chios, he was handsomely received, and
invited to join in celebrating the Apaturian festival. He recited
some verses, which gave great satisfaction, and by singing the
Eiresione at the New Moon festivals, he earned a subsistence,
visiting the houses of the rich, with whose children he was very
In the spring he sailed for Athens, and arrived at the island of Ios,
now Ino, where he fell extremely ill, and died. It is said that his
death arose from vexation, at not having been able to unravel an
enigma proposed by some fishermen's children.
Such is, in brief, the substance of the earliest life of Homer we
possess, and so broad are the evidences of its historical
worthlessness, that it is scarcely necessary to point them out in
detail. Let us now consider some of the opinions to which a
persevering, patient, and learned—but by no means consistent—series
of investigations has led. In doing so, I profess to bring forward
statements, not to vouch for their reasonableness or probability.
"Homer appeared. The history of this poet and his works is lost in
doubtful obscurity, as is the history of many of the first minds who
have done honour to humanity, because they rose amidst darkness. The
majestic stream of his song, blessing and fertilizing, flows like the
Nile, through many lands and nations; and, like the sources of the
Nile, its fountains will ever remain concealed."
Such are the words in which one of the most judicious German critics
has eloquently described the uncertainty in which the whole of the
Homeric question is involved. With no less truth and feeling he
"It seems here of chief importance to expect no more than the nature
of things makes possible. If the period of tradition in history is
the region of twilight, we should not expect in it perfect light. The
creations of genius always seem like miracles, because they are, for
the most part, created far out of the reach of observation. If we
were in possession of all the historical testimonies, we never could
wholly explain the origin of the Iliad and the Odyssey; for their
origin, in all essential points, must have remained the secret of the
From this criticism, which shows as much insight into the depths of
human nature as into the minute wire-drawings of scholastic
investigation, let us pass on to the main question at issue. Was
Homer an individual? or were the Iliad and Odyssey the result of an
ingenious arrangement of fragments by earlier poets?
Well has Landor remarked: "Some tell us there were twenty Homers;
some deny that there was ever one. It were idle and foolish to shake
the contents of a vase, in order to let them settle at last. We are
perpetually labouring to destroy our delights, our composure, our
devotion to superior power. Of all the animals on earth we least know
what is good for us. My opinion is, that what is best for us is our
admiration of good. No man living venerates Homer more than I do."
But, greatly as we admire the generous enthusiasm which rests
contented with the poetry on which its best impulses had been
nurtured and fostered, without seeking to destroy the vividness of
first impressions by minute analysis, our editorial office compels us
to give some attention to the doubts and difficulties with which the
Homeric question is beset, and to entreat our reader, for a brief
period, to prefer his judgment to his imagination, and to condescend
to dry details. Before, however, entering into particulars respecting
the question of this unity of the Homeric poems, (at least of the
Iliad,) I must express my sympathy with the sentiments expressed in
the following remarks:—
"We cannot but think the universal admiration of its unity by the
better, the poetic age of Greece, almost conclusive testimony to its
original composition. It was not till the age of the grammarians that
its primitive integrity was called in question; nor is it injustice
to assert, that the minute and analytical spirit of a grammarian is
not the best qualification for the profound feeling, the
comprehensive conception of an harmonious whole. The most exquisite
anatomist may be no judge of the symmetry of the human frame; and we
would take the opinion of Chantrey or Westmacott on the proportions
and general beauty of a form, rather than that of Mr. Brodie or Sir
Astley Cooper.
There is some truth, though some malicious exaggeration, in the lines
of Pope:—
"'The critic eye—that microscope of wit—
Sees hairs and pores, examines bit by bit;
How parts relate to parts, or they to whole.
The body's harmony, the beaming soul,
Are things which Kuster, Burmann, Wasse, shall see,
When man's whole frame is obvious to a flea.'"
Long was the time which elapsed before any one dreamt of questioning
the unity of the authorship of the Homeric poems. The grave and
cautious Thucydides quoted without hesitation the Hymn to Apollo, the
authenticity of which has been already disclaimed by modern critics.
Longinus, in an oft-quoted passage, merely expressed an opinion
touching the comparative inferiority of the Odyssey to the Iliad;
and, among a mass of ancient authors, whose very names it would be
tedious to detail, no suspicion of the personal non-existence of
Homer ever arose. So far, the voice of antiquity seems to be in
favour of our early ideas on the subject: let us now see what are the
discoveries to which more modern investigations lay claim.
At the end of the seventeenth century, doubts had begun to awaken on
the subject, and we find Bentley remarking that "Homer wrote a sequel
of songs and rhapsodies, to be sung by himself, for small comings and
good cheer, at festivals and other days of merriment. These loose
songs were not collected together, in the form of an epic poem, till
about Peisistratus' time, about five hundred years after."
Two French writers—Hedelin and Perrault—avowed a similar scepticism
on the subject; but it is in the "Scienza Nuova" of Battista Vico,
that we first meet with the germ of the theory, subsequently defended
by Wolf with so much learning and acuteness. Indeed, it is with the
Wolfian theory that we have chiefly to deal, and with the following
bold hypothesis, which we will detail in the words of Grote:—
"Half a century ago, the acute and valuable Prolegomena of F. A.
Wolf, turning to account the Venetian Scholia, which had then been
recently published, first opened philosophical discussion as to the
history of the Homeric text. A considerable part of that dissertation
(though by no means the whole) is employed in vindicating the
position, previously announced by Bentley, amongst others, that the
separate constituent portions of the Iliad and Odyssey had not been
cemented together into any compact body and unchangeable order, until
the days of Peisistratus, in the sixth century before Christ. As a
step towards that conclusion, Wolf maintained that no written copies
of either poem could be shown to have existed during the earlier
times, to which their composition is referred; and that without
writing, neither the perfect symmetry of so complicated a work could
have been originally conceived by any poet, nor, if realized by him,
transmitted with assurance to posterity. The absence of easy and
convenient writing, such as must be indispensably supposed for long
manuscripts, among the early Greeks, was thus one of the points in
Wolf's case against the primitive integrity of the Iliad and Odyssey.
By Nitzsch, and other leading opponents of Wolf, the connection of
the one with the other seems to have been accepted as he originally
put it; and it has been considered incumbent on those who defended
the ancient aggregate character of the Iliad and Odyssey, to maintain
that they were written poems from the beginning.
"To me it appears, that the architectonic functions ascribed by Wolf
to Peisistratus and his associates, in reference to the Homeric
poems, are nowise admissible. But much would undoubtedly be gained
towards that view of the question, if it could be shown, that, in
order to controvert it, we were driven to the necessity of admitting
long written poems, in the ninth century before the Christian aera.
Few things, in my opinion, can be more improbable; and Mr. Payne
Knight, opposed as he is to the Wolfian hypothesis, admits this no
less than Wolf himself. The traces of writing in Greece, even in the
seventh century before the Christian aera, are exceedingly trifling.
We have no remaining inscription earlier than the fortieth Olympiad,
and the early inscriptions are rude and unskilfully executed; nor can
we even assure ourselves whether Archilochus, Simonides of Amorgus,
Kallinus Tyrtaeus, Xanthus, and the other early elegiac and lyric
poets, committed their compositions to writing, or at what time the
practice of doing so became familiar. The first positive ground which
authorizes us to presume the existence of a manuscript of Homer, is
in the famous ordinance of Solon, with regard to the rhapsodies at
the Panathenaea: but for what length of time previously manuscripts
had existed, we are unable to say. "Those who maintain the Homeric
poems to have been written from the beginning, rest their case, not
upon positive proofs, nor yet upon the existing habits of society
with regard to poetry—for they admit generally that the Iliad and
Odyssey were not read, but recited and heard,—but upon the supposed
necessity that there must have been manuscripts to ensure the
preservation of the poems—the unassisted memory of reciters being
neither sufficient nor trustworthy. But here we only escape a smaller
difficulty by running into a greater; for the existence of trained
bards, gifted with extraordinary memory, is far less astonishing than
that of long manuscripts, in an age essentially non-reading and
non-writing, and when even suitable instruments and materials for the
process are not obvious. Moreover, there is a strong positive reason
for believing that the bard was under no necessity of refreshing his
memory by consulting a manuscript; for if such had been the fact,
blindness would have been a disqualification for the profession,
which we know that it was not, as well from the example of Demodokus,
in the Odyssey, as from that of the blind bard of Chios, in the Hymn
to the Delian Apollo, whom Thucydides, as well as the general tenor
of Grecian legend, identifies with Homer himself. The author of that
hymn, be he who he may, could never have described a blind man as
attaining the utmost perfection in his art, if he had been conscious
that the memory of the bard was onlv maintained by constant reference
to the manuscript in his chest."
The loss of the digamma, that crux of critics, that quicksand upon
which even the acumen of Bentley was shipwrecked, seems to prove
beyond a doubt, that the pronunciation of the Greek language had
undergone a considerable change. Now it is certainly difficult to
suppose that the Homeric poems could have suffered by this change,
had written copies been preserved. If Chaucer's poetry, for instance,
had not been written, it could only have come down to us in a
softened form, more like the effeminate version of Dryden, than the
rough, quaint, noble original. "At what period," continues Grote,
"these poems, or indeed any other Greek poems, first began to be
written, must be matter of conjecture, though there is ground for
assurance that it was before the time of Solon. If, in the absence of
evidence, we may venture upon naming any more determinate period, the
question at once suggests itself, What were the purposes which, in
that state of society, a manuscript at its first commencement must
have been intended to answer? For whom was a written Iliad necessary?
Not for the rhapsodes; for with them it was not only planted in the
memory, but also interwoven with the feelings, and conceived in
conjunction with all those flexions and intonations of voice, pauses,
and other oral artifices which were required for emphatic delivery,
and which the naked manuscript could never reproduce. Not for the
general public—they were accustomed to receive it with its rhapsodic
delivery, and with its accompaniments of a solemn and crowded
festival. The only persons for whom the written Iliad would be
suitable would be a select few; studious and curious men; a class of
readers capable of analyzing the complicated emotions which they had
experienced as hearers in the crowd, and who would, on perusing the
written words, realize in their imaginations a sensible portion of
the impression communicated by the reciter. Incredible as the
statement may seem in an age like the present, there is in all early
societies, and there was in early Greece, a time when no such reading
class existed. If we could discover at what time such a class first
began to be formed, we should be able to make a guess at the time
when the old epic poems were first committed to writing. Now the
period which may with the greatest probability be fixed upon as
having first witnessed the formation even of the narrowest reading
class in Greece, is the middle of the seventh century before the
Christian aera (B.C. 660 to B.C. 630), the age of Terpander,
Kallinus, Archilochus, Simenides of AmorgUs, &c. I ground this
supposition on the change then operated in the character and
tendencies of Grecian poetry and music—the elegiac and the iambic
measures having been introduced as rivals to the primitive hexameter,
and poetical compositions having been transferred from the epical
past to the affairs of present and real life. Such a change was
important at a time when poetry was the only known mode of
publication (to use a modern phrase not altogether suitable, yet the
nearest approaching to the sense). It argued a new way of looking at
the old epical treasures of the people, as well as a thirst for new
poetical effect; and the men who stood forward in it may well be
considered as desirous to study, and competent to criticize, from
their own individual point of view, the written words of the Homeric
rhapsodies, just as we are told that Kallinus both noticed and
eulogized the Thebais as the production of Homer. There seems,
therefore, ground for conjecturing that (for the use of this
newly-formed and important, but very narrow class), manuscripis of
the Homeric poems and other old epics,—the Thebaïs and the Cypria,
as well as the Iliad and the Odyssey,—began to be compiled towards
the middle of the seventh century B.C. I; and the opening of Egypt to
Grecian commerce, which took place about the same period, would
furnish increased facilities for obtaining the requisite papyrus to
write upon. A reading class, when once formed, would doubtless slowly
increase, and the number of manuscripts along with it: so that before
the time of Solôn, fifty years afterwards, both readers and
manuscripts, though still comparatively few, might have attained a
certain recognized authority, and formed a tribunal of reference
against the carelessness of individual rhapsodies."
But even Peisistratus has not been suffered to remain in possession
of the credit, and we cannot help feeling the force of the following
"There are several incidental circumstances which, in our opinion,
throw some suspicion over the whole history of the Peisistratid
compilation, at least over the theory that the Iliad was cast into
its present stately and harmonious form by the directions of the
Athenian ruler. If the great poets, who flourished at the bright
period of Grecian song, of which, alas! we have inherited little more
than the fame, and the faint echo; if Stesichorus, Anacreon, and
Simonides were employed in the noble task of compiling the Iliad and
Odyssey, so much must have been done to arrange, to connect, to
harmonize, that it is almost incredible that stronger marks of
Athenian manufacture should not remain. Whatever occasional anomalies
may be detected, anomalies which no doubt arise out of our own
ignorance of the language of the Homeric age; however the irregular
use of the digamma may have perplexed our Bentleys, to whom the name
of Helen is said to have caused as much disquiet and distress as the
fair one herself among the heroes of her age; however Mr. Knight may
have failed in reducing the Homeric language to its primitive form;
however, finally, the Attic dialect may not have assumed all its more
marked and distinguishing characteristics:—still it is difficult to
suppose that the language, particularly in the joinings and
transitions, and connecting parts, should not more clearly betray the
incongruity between the more ancient and modern forms of expression.
It is not quite in character with such a period to imitate an antique
style, in order to piece out an imperfect poem in the character of
the original, as Sir Walter Scott has done in his continuation of Sir
"If, however, not even such faint and indistinct traces of Athenian
compilation are discoverable in the language of the poems, the total
absence of Athenian national feeling is perhaps no less worthy of
observation. In later, and it may fairly be suspected in earlier
times, the Athenians were more than ordinarily jealous of the fame of
their ancestors. But, amid all the traditions of the glories of early
Greece embodied in the Iliad, the Athenians play a most subordinate
and insignificant part. Even the few passages which relate to their
ancestors, Mr. Knight suspects to be interpolations. It is possible,
indeed, that in its leading outline, the Iliad may be true to
historic fact; that in the great maritime expedition of western
Greece against the rival and half-kindred empire of the
Laomedontiadae, the chieftain of Thessaly, from his valour and the
number of his forces, may have been the most important ally of the
Peloponnesian sovereign: the pre-eminent value of the ancient poetry
on the Trojan war may thus have forced the national feeling of the
Athenians to yield to their taste. The songs which spoke of their own
great ancestor were, no doubt, of far inferior sublimity and
popularity, or, at first sight, a Theseid would have been much more
likely to have emanated from an Athenian synod of compilers of
ancient song, than an Achilleid or an Odysseid. Could France have
given birth to a Tasso, Tancred would have been the hero of the
Jerusalem. If, however, the Homeric ballads, as they are sometimes
called, which related the wrath of Achilles, with all its direful
consequences, were so far superior to the rest of the poetic cycle,
as to admit no rivalry,—it is still surprising, that throughout the
whole poem the callida junctura should never betray the workmanship
of an Athenian hand; and that the national spirit of a race, who have
at a later period not inaptly been compared to our self-admiring
neighbours, the French, should submit with lofty self-denial to the
almost total exclusion of their own ancestors—or, at least, to the
questionable dignity of only having produced a leader tolerably
skilled in the military tactics of his age."
To return to the Wolfian theory. While it is to be confessed, that
Wolf's objections to the primitive integrity of the Iliad and Odyssey
have never been wholly got over, we cannot help discovering that they
have failed to enlighten us as to any substantial point, and that the
difficulties with which the whole subject is beset, are rather
augmented than otherwise, if we admit his hypothesis. Nor is
Lachmann's modification of his theory any better. He divides the
first twenty-two books of the Iliad into sixteen different songs, and
treats as ridiculous the belief that their amalgamation into one
regular poem belongs to a period earlier than the age of
Peisistratus. This as Grote observes, "ex-plains the gaps and
contradictions in the narrative, but it explains nothing else."
Moreover, we find no contradictions warranting this belief, and the
so-called sixteen poets concur in getting rid of the following
leading men in the first battle after the secession of Achilles:
Elphenor, chief of the Euboeans; Tlepolemus, of the Rhodians;
Pandarus, of the Lycians; Odins, of the Halizonians: Pirous and
Acamas, of the Thracians. None of these heroes again make their
appearance, and we can but agree with Colonel Mure, that "it seems
strange that any number of independent poets should have so
harmoniously dispensed with the services of all six in the sequel."
The discrepancy, by which Pylaemenes, who is represented as dead in
the fifth book, weeps at his son's funeral in the thirteenth, can
only be regarded as the result of an interpolation.
Grote, although not very distinct in stating his own opinions on the
subject, has done much to clearly show the incongruity of the Wolfian
theory, and of Lachmann's modifications, with the character of
Peisistratus. But he has also shown, and we think with equal success,
that the two questions relative to the primitive unity of these
poems, or, supposing that impossible, the unison of these parts by
Peisistratus, and not before his time, are essentially distinct. In
short, "a man may believe the Iliad to have been put together out of
pre-existing songs, without recognising the age of Peisistratus as
the period of its first compilation." The friends or literary
/employes/ of Peisistratus must have found an Iliad that was already
ancient, and the silence of the Alexandrine critics respecting the
Peisistratic "recension," goes far to prove, that, among the numerous
manuscripts they examined, this was either wanting, or thought
unworthy of attention.
"Moreover," he continues, "the whole tenor of the poems themselves
confirms what is here remarked. There is nothing, either in the Iliad
or Odyssey, which savours of modernism, applying that term to the age
of Peisistratus—nothing which brings to our view the alterations
brought about by two centuries, in the Greek language, the coined
money, the habits of writing and reading, the despotisms and
republican governments, the close military array, the improved
construction of ships, the Amphiktyonic convocations, the mutual
frequentation of religious festivals, the Oriental and Egyptian veins
of religion, &c., familiar to the latter epoch. These alterations
Onomakritus, and the other literary friends of Peisistratus, could
hardly have failed to notice, even without design, had they then, for
the first time, undertaken the task of piecing together many
self-existent epics into one large aggregate. Everything in the two
great Homeric poems, both in substance and in language, belongs to an
age two or three centuries earlier than Peisistratus. Indeed, even
the interpolations (or those passages which, on the best grounds, are
pronounced to be such) betray no trace of the sixth century before
Christ, and may well have been heard by Archilochus and Kallinus—in
some cases even by Arktinus and Hesiod—as genuine Homeric matter. As
far as the evidences on the case, as well internal as external,
enable us to judge, we seem warranted in believing that the Iliad and
Odyssey were recited substantially as they now stand (always allowing
for partial divergences of text and interpolations) in 776 B.C., our
first trustworthy mark of Grecian time; and this ancient date, let it
be added, as it is the best-authenticated fact, so it is also the
most important attribute of the Homeric poems, considered in
reference to Grecian history; for they thus afford us an insight into
the anti-historical character of the Greeks, enabling us to trace the
subsequent forward march of the nation, and to seize instructive
contrasts between their former and their later condition."
On the whole, I am inclined to believe, that the labours of
Peisistratus were wholly of an editorial character, although I must
confess that I can lay down nothing respecting the extent of his
labours. At the same time, so far from believing that the composition
or primary arrangement of these poems, in their present form, was the
work of Peisistratus, I am rather persuaded that the fine taste and
elegant, mind of that Athenian would lead him to preserve an ancient
and traditional order of the poems, rather than to patch and
reconstruct them according to a fanciful hypothesis. I will not
repeat the many discussions respecting whether the poems were written
or not, or whether the art of writing was known in the time of their
reputed author. Suffice it to say, that the more we read, the less
satisfied we are upon either subject.
I cannot, however, help thinking, that the story which attributes the
preservation of these poems to Lycurgus, is little else than a
version of the same story as that of Peisistratus, while its
historical probability must be measured by that of many others
relating to the Spartan Confucius.
I will conclude this sketch of the Homeric theories with an attempt,
made by an ingenious friend, to unite them into something like
consistency. It is as follows:—
"No doubt the common soldiers of that age had, like the common
sailors of some fifty years ago, some one qualified to 'discourse in
excellent music' among them. Many of these, like those of the negroes
in the United States, were extemporaneous, and allusive to events
passing around them. But what was passing around them? The grand
events of a spirit-stirring war; occurrences likely to impress
themselves, as the mystical legends of former times had done, upon
their memory; besides which, a retentive memory was deemed a virtue
of the first water, and was cultivated accordingly in those ancient
times. Ballads at first, and down to the beginning of the war with
Troy, were merely recitations, with an intonation. Then followed a
species of recitative, probably with an intoned burden. Tune next
followed, as it aided the memory considerably.
"It was at this period, about four hundred years after the war, that
a poet flourished of the name of Melesigenes, or Moeonides, but most
probably the former. He saw that these ballads might be made of great
utility to his purpose of writing a poem on the social position of
Hellas, and, as a collection, he published these lays connecting them
by a tale of his own. This poem now exists, under the title of the
'Odyssea.' The author, however, did not affix his own name to the
poem, which, in fact, was, great part of it, remodelled from the
archaic dialect of Crete, in which tongue the ballads were found by
him. He therefore called it the poem of Homeros, or the Collector;
but this is rather a proof of his modesty and talent, than of his
mere drudging arrangement of other people's ideas; for, as Grote has
finely observed, arguing for the unity of authorship, 'a great poet
might have re-cast pre-existing separate songs into one comprehensive
whole; but no mere arrangers or compilers would be competent to do
"While employed on the wild legend of Odysseus, he met with a ballad,
recording the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon. His noble mind
seized the hint that there presented itself, and the Achilleis grew
under his hand. Unity of design, however, caused him to publish the
poem under the same pseudonyme as his former work; and the disjointed
lays of the ancient bards were joined together, like those relating
to the Cid, into a chronicle history, named the Iliad. Melesigenes
knew that the poem was destined to be a lasting one, and so it has
proved; but, first, the poems were destined to undergo many
vicissitudes and corruptions, by the people who took to singing them
in the streets, assemblies, and agoras. However, Solon first, and
then Peisistratus, and afterwards Aristoteles and others, revised the
poems, and restored the works of Melesigenes Homeros to their
original integrity in a great measure."
Having thus given some general notion of the strange theories which
have developed themselves respecting this most interesting subject, I
must still express my conviction as to the unity of the authorship of
the Homeric poems. To deny that many corruptions and interpolations
disfigure them, and that the intrusive hand of the poetasters may
here and there have inflicted a wound more serious than the
negligence of the copyist, would be an absurd and captious
assumption; but it is to a higher criticism that we must appeal, if
we would either understand or enjoy these poems. In maintaining the
authenticity and personality of their one author, be he Homer or
Melesigenes, /quocunque nomine vocari eum jus fasque sit/, I feel
conscious that, while the whole weight of historical evidence is
against the hypothesis which would assign these great works to a
plurality of authors, the most powerful internal evidence, and that
which springs from the deepest and most immediate impulse of the
soul, also speaks eloquently to the contrary.
The minutiae of verbal criticism I am far from seeking to despise.
Indeed, considering the character of some of my own books, such an
attempt would be gross inconsistency. But, while I appreciate its
importance in a philological view, I am inclined to set little store
on its aesthetic value, especially in poetry. Three parts of the
emendations made upon poets are mere alterations, some of which, had
they been suggested to the author by his Maecenas or Africanus, he
would probably have adopted. Moreover, those who are most exact in
laying down rules of verbal criticism and interpretation, are often
least competent to carry out their own precepts. Grammarians are not
poets by profession, but may be so per accidens. I do not at this
moment remember two emendations on Homer, calculated to substantially
improve the poetry of a passage, although a mass of remarks, from
Herodotus down to Loewe, have given us the history of a thousand
minute points, without which our Greek knowledge would be gloomy and
But it is not on words only that grammarians, mere grammarians, will
exercise their elaborate and often tiresome ingenuity. Binding down
an heroic or dramatic poet to the block upon which they have
previously dissected his words and sentences, they proceed to use the
axe and the pruning knife by wholesale; and, inconsistent in
everything but their wish to make out a case of unlawful affiliation,
they cut out book after book, passage after passage, till the author
is reduced to a collection of fragments, or till those who fancied
they possessed the works of some great man, find that they have been
put off with a vile counterfeit got up at second hand. If we compare
the theories of Knight, Wolf, Lachmann; and others, we shall feel
better satisfied of the utter uncertainty of criticism than of the
apocryphal position of Homer. One rejects what another considers the
turning-point of his theory. One cuts a supposed knot by expunging
what another would explain by omitting something else.
Nor is this morbid species of sagacity by any means to be looked upon
as a literary novelty. Justus Lipsius, a scholar of no ordinary
skill, seems to revel in the imaginary discovery, that the tragedies
attributed to Seneca are by four different authors. Now, I will
venture to assert, that these tragedies are so uniform, not only in
their borrowed phraseology—a phraseology with which writers like
Boethius and Saxo Grammaticus were more charmed than ourselves—in
their freedom from real poetry, and last, but not least, in an
ultra-refined and consistent abandonment of good taste, that few
writers of the present day would question the capabilities of the
same gentleman, be he Seneca or not, to produce not only these, but a
great many more equally bad. With equal sagacity, Father Hardouin
astonished the world with the startling announcement that the AEneid
of Virgil, and the satires of Horace, were literary deceptions. Now,
without wishing to say one word of disrespect against the industry
and learning—nay, the refined acuteness—which scholars like Wolf
have bestowed upon this subject, I must express my fears, that many
of our modern Homeric theories will become matter for the surprise
and entertainment, rather than the instruction, of posterity. Nor can
I help thinking that the literary history of more recent times will
account for many points of difficulty in the transmission of the
Iliad and Odyssey to a period so remote from that of their first
I have already expressed my belief that the labours of Peisistratus
were of a purely editorial character; and there seems no more reason
why corrupt and imperfect editions of Homer may not have been abroad
in his day, than that the poems of Valerius Flaccus and Tibullus
should have given so much trouble to Poggio, Scaliger, and others.
But, after all, the main fault in all the Homeric theories is, that
they demand too great a sacrifice of those feelings to which poetry
most powerfully appeals, and which are its most fitting judges. The
ingenuity which has sought to rob us of the name and existence of
Homer, does too much violence to that inward emotion, which makes our
whole soul yearn with love and admiration for the blind bard of
Chios. To believe the author of the Iliad a mere compiler, is to
degrade the powers of human invention; to elevate analytical judgment
at the expense of the most ennobling impulses of the soul; and to
forget the ocean in the of a polypus. There is a
catholicity, so to speak, in the very name of Homer. Our faith in the
author of the Iliad may be a mistaken one, but as yet nobody has
taught us a better.
While, however, I look upon the belief in Homer as one that has
nature herself for its mainspring; while I can join with old Ennius
in believing in Homer as the ghost, who, like some patron saint,
hovers round the bed of the poet, and even bestows rare gifts from
that wealth of imagination which a host of imitators could not
exhaust,—still I am far from wishing to deny that the author of
these great poems found a rich fund of tradition, a well-stocked
mythical storehouse, from whence he might derive both subject and
embellishment. But it is one thing to use existing romances in the
embellishment of a poem, another to patch up the poem itself from
such materials. What consistency of style and execution can be hoped
for from such an attempt? or, rather, what bad taste and tedium will
not be the infallible result?
A blending of popular legends, and a free use of the songs of other
bards, are features perfectly consistent with poetical originality.
In fact, the most original writer is still drawing upon outward
impressions—nay, even his own thoughts are a kind of secondary
agents which support and feed the impulses of imagination. But unless
there be some grand pervading principle—some invisible, yet most
distinctly stamped archetypus of the great whole, a poem like the
Iliad can never come to the birth. Traditions the most picturesque,
episodes the most pathetic, local associations teeming with the
thoughts of gods and great men, may crowd in one mighty vision, or
reveal themselves in more substantial forms to the mind of the poet;
but, except the power to create a grand whole, to which these shall
be but as details and embellishments, be present, we shall have
nought but a scrap-book, a parterre filled with flowers and weeds
strangling each other in their wild redundancy; we shall have a cento
of rags and tatters, which will require little acuteness to detect.
Sensible as I am of the difficulty of disproving a negative, and
aware as I must be of the weighty grounds there are for opposing my
belief, it still seems to me that the Homeric question is one that is
reserved for a higher criticism than it has often obtained. We are
not by nature intended to know all things; still less, to compass the
powers by which the greatest blessings of life have been placed at
our disposal. Were faith no virtue, then we might indeed wonder why
God willed our ignorance on any matter. But we are too well taught
the contrary lesson; and it seems as though our faith should be
especially tried, touching the men and the events which have wrought
most influence upon the condition of humanity. And there is a kind of
sacredness attached to the memory of the great and the good, which
seems to bid us repulse the scepticism which would allegorize their
existence into a pleasing apologue, and measure the giants of
intellect by an homaeopathic dynameter.
Long and habitual reading of Homer appears to familiarize our
thoughts even to his incongruities; or rather, if we read in a right
spirit and with a heartfelt appreciation, we are too much dazzled,
too deeply wrapped in admiration of the whole, to dwell upon the
minute spots which mere analysis can discover. In reading an heroic
poem, we must transform ourselves into heroes of the time being, we
in imagination must fight over the same battles, woo the same loves,
burn with the same sense of injury, as an Achilles or a Hector. And
if we can but attain this degree of enthusiasm (and less enthusiasm
will scarcely suffice for the reading of Homer), we shall feel that
the poems of Homer are not only the work of one writer, but of the
greatest writer that ever touched the hearts of men by the power of
And it was this supposed unity of authorship which gave these poems
their powerful influence over the minds of the men of old. Heeren,
who is evidently little disposed in favour of modern theories, finely
"It was Homer who formed the character of the Greek nation. No poet
has ever, as a poet, exercised a similar influence over his
countrymen. Prophets, lawgivers, and sages have formed the character
of other nations; it was reserved to a poet to form that of the
Greeks. This is a feature in their character which was not wholly
erased even in the period of their degeneracy. When lawgivers and
sages appeared in Greece, the work of the poet had already been
accomplished; and they paid homage to his superior genius. He held up
before his nation the mirror in which they were to behold the world
of gods and heroes, no less than of feeble mortals, and to behold
them reflected with purity and truth. His poems are founded on the
first feeling of human nature; on the love of children, wife, and
country; on that passion which outweighs all others, the love of
glory. His songs were poured forth from a breast which sympathized
with all the feelings of man; and therefore they enter, and will
continue to enter, every breast which cherishes the same sympathies.
If it is granted to his immortal spirit, from another heaven than any
of which he dreamed on earth, to look down on his race, to see the
nations from the fields of Asia, to the forests of Hercynia,
performing pilgrimages to the fountain which his magic wand caused to
flow; if it is permitted to him to view the vast assemblage of grand,
of elevated, of glorious productions, which had been called into
being by means of his songs; wherever his immortal spirit may reside,
this alone would suffice to complete his happiness."
Can we contemplate that ancient monument, on which the "Apotheosis of
Homer" is depictured, and not feel how much of pleasing association,
how much that appeals most forcibly and most distinctly to our minds,
is lost by the admittance of any theory but our old tradition? The
more we read, and the more we think—think as becomes the readers of
Homer,—the more rooted becomes the conviction that the Father of
Poetry gave us this rich inheritance, whole and entire. Whatever were
the means of its preservation, let us rather be thankful for the
treasury of taste and eloquence thus laid open to our use, than seek
to make it a mere centre around which to drive a series of theories,
whose wildness is only equalled by their inconsistency with each
As the hymns, and some other poems usually ascribed to Homer, are not
included in Pope's translation, I will content myself with a brief
account of the Battle of the Frogs and Mice, from the pen of a writer
who has done it full justice:—
"This poem," says Coleridge, "is a short mock-heroic of ancient date.
The text varies in different editions, and is obviously disturbed and
corrupt to a great degree; it is commonly said to have been a
juvenile essay of Homer's genius; others have attributed it to the
same Pigrees mentioned above, and whose reputation for humour seems
to have invited the appropriation of any piece of ancient wit, the
author of which was uncertain; so little did the Greeks, before the
age of the Ptolemies, know or care about that department of criticism
employed in determining the genuineness of ancient writings. As to
this little poem being a youthful prolusion of Homer, it seems
sufficient to say that from the beginning to the end, it is a plain
and palpable parody, not only of the general spirit, but of numerous
passages of the Iliad itself; and, even if no such intention to
parody were discernible in it, the objection would still remain, that
to suppose a work of mere burlesque to be the primary effort of
poetry in a simple age, seems to reverse that order in the
development of national taste, which the history of every other
people in Europe, and of many in Asia, has almost ascertained to be a
law of the human mind; it is in a state of society much more refined
and permanent than that described in the Iliad, that any popularity
would attend such a ridicule of war and the gods as is contained in
this poem; and the fact of there having existed three other poems of
the same kind attributed, for aught we can see, with as much reason
to Homer, is a strong inducement to believe that none of them were of
the Homeric age. Knight infers from the usage of the word /deltoz/,
"writing tablet," instead of /diphthera/, "skin," which, according to
Herod 5, 58, was the material employed by the Asiatic Greeks for that
purpose, that this poem was another offspring of Attic ingenuity; and
generally that the familiar mention of the cock (v. 191) is a strong
argument against so ancient a date for its composition."
Having thus given a brief account of the poems comprised in Pope's
design, I will now proceed to make a few remarks on his translation,
and on my own purpose in the present edition.
Pope was not a Grecian. His whole education had been irregular, and
his earliest acquaintance with the poet was through the version of
Ogilby. It is not too much to say that his whole work bears the
impress of a disposition to be satisfied with the general sense,
rather than to dive deeply into the minute and delicate features of
language. Hence his whole work is to be looked upon rather as an
elegant paraphrase than a translation. There are, to be sure, certain
conventional anecdotes, which prove that Pope consulted various
friends, whose classical attainments were sounder than his own,
during the undertaking; but it is probable that these examinations
were the result rather of the contradictory versions already
existing, than of a desire to make a perfect transcript of the
original. And in those days, what is called literal translation was
less cultivated than at present. If something like the general sense
could be decorated with the easy gracefulness of a practised poet; if
the charms of metrical cadence and a pleasing fluency could be made
consistent with a fair interpretation of the poet's meaning, his
words were less jealously sought for, and those who could read so
good a poem as Pope's Iliad had fair reason to be satisfied.
It would be absurd, therefore, to test Pope's translation by our own
advancing knowledge of the original text. We must be content to look
at it as a most delightful work in itself,—a work which is as much a
part of English literature as Homer himself is of Greek. We must not
be torn from our kindly associations with the old Iliad, that once
was our most cherished companion, or our most looked-for prize,
merely because Buttmann, Loewe, and Liddell have made us so much more
accurate as to /amphikipellon/ being an adjective, and not a
substantive. Far be it from us to defend the faults of Pope,
especially when we think of Chapman's fine, bold, rough old
English;—far be it from us to hold up his translation as what a
translation of Homer might be. But we can still dismiss Pope's Iliad
to the hands of our readers, with the consciousness that they must
have read a very great number of books before they have read its
Christ Church.
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