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The Poetry of Homer

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The poems of Homer differ from all other known poetry in this, that they constitute in themselves an encyclopædia of life and knowledge at a time when knowledge, indeed, such as lies beyond the bounds of actual experience, was extremely limited, but when life was singularly fresh, vivid, and expansive. The only poems of Homer we possess are the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," for the Homeric hymns and other productions lose all title to stand in line with these wonderful works, by reason of conflict in a multitude of particulars with the witness of the text, as well as of their poetical inferiority. They evidently belong to the period that follows the great migration into Asia Minor, brought about by the Dorian conquest.

The dictum of Herodotus, which places the date of Homer four hundred years before his own, therefore in the ninth century B.C., was little better than mere conjecture. Common opinion has certainly presumed him to be posterior to the Dorian conquest. The "Hymn to Apollo," however, which was the main prop of this opinion, is assuredly not his. In a work which attempts to turn recent discovery to account, I have contended that the fall of Troy cannot properly be brought lower than about 1250 B.C., and that Homer may probably have lived within fifty years of it.

The entire presentation of life and character in the two poems is distinct from, and manifestly anterior to, anything made known to us in Greece under and after that conquest. The study of Homer has been darkened and enfeebled by thrusting backward into it a vast mass of matter belonging to these later periods, and even to the Roman civilization, which was different in spirit and which entirely lost sight of the true position of Greeks and Trojans and inverted their moral as well as their martial relations. The name of Greeks is a Roman name; the people to whom Homer has given immortal fame are Achaians, both in designation and in manners. The poet paints them at a time when the spirit of national life was rising within their borders. Its first efforts had been seen in the expeditions of Achaian natives to conquer the Asiatic or Egyptian immigrants who had, under the name of Cadmeians (etymologically, "foreigners"), founded Thebes in Bœotia, and in the voyage of the ship Argo to Colchis, which was probably the seat of a colony sprung from the Egyptian empire, and was therefore regarded as hostile in memory of the antecedent aggressions of that empire. The expedition against Troy was the beginning of the long chain of conflicts between Europe and Asia, which end with the Turkish conquests and with the reaction of the last three hundred years, and especially of the nineteenth century, against them. It represents an effort truly enormous toward attaining nationality in idea and in practice. Clearing away obstructions, of which the cause has been partially indicated, we must next observe that the text of Homer was never studied by the moderns as a whole in a searching manner until within the last two generations. From the time of Wolf there was infinite controversy about the works and the authorship, with little positive result, except the establishment of the fact that they were not written but handed down by memory, an operation aided and methodized by the high position of bards as such in Greece (more properly Achaia, and afterward Hellas), by the formation of a separate school to hand down these particular songs, and by the great institution of the Games at a variety of points in the country. At these centres there were public recitations even before the poems were composed, and the uncertainties of individual memory were limited and corrected by competition carried on in a presence of a people eminently endowed with the literary faculty, and by the vast national importance of handing down faithfully a record which was the chief authority touching the religion, history, political divisions, and manners of the country. Many diversities of text arose, but there was thus a continual operation, a corrective as well as a disintegrating process.

The Germans, who had long been occupied in framing careful monographs which contracted the contents of the Homeric text on many particulars, such as the Ship, the House, and so forth, have at length supplied, in the work of Dr. E. Buchholz, a full and methodical account of the contents of the text. This work would fill in English not less than six octavo volumes.

The Greeks called the poet poietes, the "maker," and never was there such a maker as Homer. The work, not exclusively, but yet pre-eminently his, was the making of a language, a religion, and a nation. The last named of these was his dominant idea, and to it all his methods may be referred. Of the first he may have been little conscious while he wrought in his office as a bard, which was to give delight.

Careful observation of the text exhibits three powerful factors which contribute to the composition of the nation. First, the Pelasgic name is associated with the mass of the people, cultivators of the soil in the Greek peninsula and elsewhere, though not as their uniform designation, for in Crete (for example) they appear in conjunction with Achaians and Dorians, representatives of a higher stock, and with Eteocretans, who were probably anterior occupants. This Pelasgian name commands the sympathy of the poet and his laudatory epithets; but is nowhere used for the higher class or for the entire nation. The other factors take the command. The Achaians are properly the ruling class, and justify their station by their capacity. But there is a third factor also of great power. We know from the Egyptian monuments that Greece had been within the sway of that primitive empire, and that the Phœnicians were its maritime arm, as they were also the universal and apparently exclusive navigators of the Mediterranean. Whatever came over sea to the Achaian land came in connection with the Phœnician name, which was used by Homer in a manner analogous to the use of the word Frank in the Levant during modern times. But as Egyptian and Assyrian knowledge is gradually opened up to us we learn by degrees that Phœnicia conveyed to Greece Egyptian and Assyrian elements together with her own.

The rich materials of the Greek civilization can almost all be traced to this medium of conveyance from the East and South. Great families which stand in this association were founded in Greece and left their mark upon the country. It is probable that they may have exercised in the first instance a power delegated from Egypt, which they retained after her influence had passed away. Building, metal-working, navigation, ornamental arts, natural knowledge, all carry the Phœnician impress. This is the third of the great factors which were combined and evolved in the wonderful nationality of Greece, a power as vividly felt at this hour as it was three thousand years ago. But if Phœnicia conveyed the seed, the soil was Achaian, and on account of its richness that peninsula surpassed, in its developments of human nature and action, the southern and eastern growths. An Achaian civilization was the result, full of freshness and power, in which usage had a great sacredness, religion was a moral spring of no mean force, slavery though it existed was not associated with cruelty, the worst extremes of sin had no place in the life of the people, liberty had an informal but very real place in public institutions, and manners reached to much refinement; while on the other hand, fierce passion was not abated by conventional restraints, slaughter and bondage were the usual results of war, the idea of property was but very partially defined, and though there were strong indeterminate sentiments of right there is no word in Homer signifying law. Upon the whole, though a very imperfect, it was a wonderful and noble nursery of manhood.

It seems clear that this first civilization of the peninsula was sadly devastated by the rude hands of the Dorian conquest. Institutions like those of Lycurgus could not have been grafted upon the Homeric manners; and centuries elapsed before there emerged from the political ruin a state of things favorable to refinement and to progress in the Greece of history; which though in so many respects of an unequalled splendor, yet had a less firm hold than the Achaian time upon some of the highest social and moral ideas. For example, the position of women had greatly declined, liberty was perhaps less largely conceived, and the tie between religion and morality was more evidently sundered.

After this sketch of the national existence which Homer described, and to the consolidation of which he powerfully ministered, let us revert to the state in which he found and left the elements of a national religion. A close observation of the poems pretty clearly shows us that the three races which combined to form the nation had each of them their distinct religious traditions. It is also plain enough that with this diversity there had been antagonism. As sources illustrative of these propositions which lie at the base of all true comprehension of the religion—which may be called Olympian from its central seat—I will point to the numerous signs of a system of nature-worship as prevailing among the Pelasgian masses; to the alliance in the war between the nature-powers and the Trojans as against the loftier Hellenic mythology; to the legend in Iliad, i., 396-412, of the great war in heaven, which symbolically describes the collision on earth between the ideas which were locally older and those beginning to surmount them; and, finally, to the traditions extraneous to the poems of competitions between different deities for the local allegiance of the people at different spots, such as Corinth, to which Phoenician influence had brought the Poseidon-worship before Homer's time, and Athens, which somewhat later became peculiarly the seat of mixed races. I have spoken of nature-worship as the Pelasgian contribution to the composite Olympian religion. In the Phœnician share we find, as might be expected, both Assyrian and Egyptian elements. The best indication we possess of the Hellenic function is that given by the remarkable prayer of Achilles to Zeus in Iliad, xvi., 233-248. This prayer on the sending forth of Patroclus is the hinge of the whole action of the poem, and is preceded by a long introduction (220-232) such as we nowhere else find. The tone is monotheistic; no partnership of gods appears in it; and the immediate servants of Zeus are described as interpreters, not as priests. From several indications it may be gathered that the Hellenic system was less priestly than the Troic. It seems to have been an especial office of Homer to harmonize and combine these diverse elements, and his Thearchy is as remarkable a work of art as the terrestrial machinery of the poem. He has profoundly impressed upon it the human likeness often called anthropomorphic, and which supplied the basis of Greek art. He has repelled on all sides from his classical and central system the cult of nature and of animals, but it is probable that they kept their place in the local worships of the country. His Zeus is to a considerable extent a monarch, while Poseidon and several other deities bear evident marks of having had no superior at earlier epochs or in the countries of their origin. He arranges them partly as a family, partly as a commonwealth. The gods properly Olympian correspond with the Boulê or council upon earth, while the orders of less exalted spirits are only summoned on great occasions. He indicates twenty as the number of Olympian gods proper, following in this the Assyrian idea. But they were far from holding an equal place in his estimation. For a deity such as Aphrodite brought from the East, and intensely tainted with sensual passions, he indicates aversion and contempt. But for Apollo, whose cardinal idea is that of obedience to Zeus, and for Athene, who represents a profound working wisdom that never fails of its end, he has a deep reverence. He assorts and distributes religious traditions with reference to the great ends he had to pursue; carefully, for example, separating Apollo from the sun, with which he bears marks of having been in other systems identified. Of his other greater gods it may be said that the dominant idea is in Zeus policy, in Here nationality, and in Poseidon physical force. His Trinity, which is conventional, and his Under-world appear to be borrowed from Assyria, and in some degree from Egypt. One licentious legend appears in Olympus, but this belongs to the Odyssey, and to a Phœnician, not a Hellenic, circle of ideas. His Olympian assembly is, indeed, largely representative of human appetites, tastes, and passions; but in the government of the world it works as a body on behalf of justice, and the suppliant and the stranger are peculiarly objects of the care of Zeus. Accordingly, we find that the cause which is to triumph in the Trojan war is the just cause; that in the Odyssey the hero is led through suffering to peace and prosperity, and that the terrible retribution he inflicts has been merited by crime. At various points of the system we trace the higher traditions of religion, and on passing down to the classical period we find that the course of the mythology has been a downward course.

The Troic as compared with the Achaian manners are to a great extent what we should now call Asiatic as distinguished from European. Of the great chieftains, Achilles, Diomed, Ajax, Menelaos, and Patroclus appear chiefly to exhibit the Achaian ideal of humanity; Achilles, especially, and on a colossal scale. Odysseus, the many-sided man, has a strong Phœnician tinge, though the dominant color continues to be Greek. And in his house we find exhibited one of the noblest among the characteristics of the poems in the sanctity and perpetuity of marriage. Indeed, the purity and loyalty of Penelope are, like the humility approaching to penitence of Helen, quite unmatched in antiquity.

The plot of the Iliad has been the subject of much criticism, on account of the long absence of Achilles, the hero, from the action of the poem. But Homer had to bring out Achaian character in its various forms, and while the vastness of Achilles is on the stage, every other Achaian hero must be eclipsed. Further, Homer was an itinerant minstrel, who had to adapt himself to the sympathies and traditions of the different portions of the country. Peloponnesus was the seat of power, and its chiefs acquired a prominent position in the Iliad by what on the grounds we may deem a skilful arrangement. But most skilful of all is the fine adjustment of the balance as between Greek and Trojan warriors. It will be found on close inspection of details that the Achaian chieftains have in truth a vast military superiority; yet by the use of infinite art, Homer has contrived that the Trojans shall play the part of serious and considerable antagonists, so far that with divine aid and connivance they reduce the foe to the point at which the intervention of Achilles becomes necessary for their deliverance, and his supremacy as an exhibition of colossal manhood is thoroughly maintained.

The plot of the Odyssey is admitted to be consecutive and regular in structure. There are certain differences in the mythology which have been made a ground for supposing a separate authorship. But, in the first place, this would do nothing to explain them; in the second, they find their natural explanation in observing that the scene of the wanderings is laid in other lands, beyond the circle of Achaian knowledge and tradition, and that Homer modifies his scheme to meet the ethnical variations as he gathered them from the trading navigators of Phœnicia, who alone could have supplied him with the information required for his purpose.

That information was probably colored more or less by ignorance and by fraud. But we can trace in it the sketch of an imaginary voyage to the northern regions of Europe, and it has some remarkable features of internal evidence, supported by the facts, and thus pointing to its genuineness. In latitudes not described as separate we have reports of the solar day apparently contradictory. In one case there is hardly any night, so that the shepherd might earn double wages. In the other, cloud and darkness almost shut out the day. But we now know both of these statements to have a basis of solid truth on the Norwegian coast to the northward, at the different seasons of the midnight sun in summer, and of Christmas, when it is not easy to read at noon.

The value of Homer as a recorder of antiquity, as opening a large and distinct chapter of primitive knowledge, is only now coming by degrees into view, as the text is more carefully examined and its parts compared, and as other branches of ancient study are developed, especially as in Assyria and Egypt, and by the remarkable discoveries of Dr. Schliemann at Hissarlik and in Greece. But the appreciation of him as a poet has never failed, though it is disappointing to find that a man so great as Aristophanes should describe him simply as the bard of battles, and sad to think that in many of the Christian centuries his works should have slumbered without notice in hidden repositories. His place among the greatest poets of the world, whom no one supposes to be more than three or four in number, has never been questioned. Considering him as anterior to all literary aids and training, he is the most remarkable phenomenon among them all. It may be well to specify some of the points that are peculiarly his own. One of them is the great simplicity of the structure of his mind. With an incomparable eye for the world around him in all things, great and small, he is abhorrent of everything speculative and abstract, and what may be called philosophies have no place in his works, almost the solitary exception being that he employs thought as an illustration of the rapidity of the journey of a deity. He is, accordingly, of all poets the most simple and direct. He is also the most free and genial in the movement of his verse; grateful nature seems to give to him spontaneously the perfection to which great men like Virgil and Milton had to attain only by effort intense and sustained. In the high office of drawing human character in its multitude of forms and colors he seems to have no serious rival except Shakespeare. We call him an epic poet, but he is instinct from beginning to end with the spirit of the drama, while we find in him the seeds and rudiments even of its form. His function as a reciting minstrel greatly aided him herein. Again, he had in his language an instrument unrivalled for its facility, suppleness, and versatility, for the large range of what would in music be called its register, so that it embraced every form and degree of human thought, feeling, and emotion, and clothed them all, from the lowest to the loftiest, from the slightest to the most intense and concentrated, in the dress of exactly appropriate style and language. His metre also is a perfect vehicle of the language. If we think the range of his knowledge limited, yet it was all that his country and his age possessed, and it was very greatly more than has been supposed by readers that dwelt only on the surface. So long as the lamp of civilization shall not have ceased to burn, the Iliad and the Odyssey must hold their forward place among the brightest treasures of our race.


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