The Dial/Volume 15/Number 169/The Homeric Question Once More

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

The Homeric Question Once More.[1]

Did Homer write the "Iliad," or was it another man of the same name? This question,—as Matthew Arnold tells us, with his characteristic impatience of laborious futility,—has been discussed with learning, with ingenuity, with genius even; but it has the inconvenience that there really exist no data for determining it. And yet. unmindful of Seneca's warning that life is too short to debate the authorship of the "Iliad" and "Odyssey," Mr. Andrew Lang, master in the art of evading vain logomachy with an epigram, now inflicts upon a book-ridden world four hundred pages of supererogatory demonstration that the German higher criticism of Homer is naught. Is he preparing a volume to disprove the Baconian authorship of the plays of Shakespeare?

As a student, I perused two or three thousand pages of erudite German and Latin treatises in order to earn the right to enjoy my Homer in peace. But I date from two memorable conversations the final illuminating and restful conviction that the Homeric question should be relegated to the large leisure of Milton's fallen angels, along with the free-will controversy, the problem of the nature and origin of the Roman gens, and the determination of the dates of the Platonic dialogues. I was once talking with a well-known German Homerid about certain favorite passages in the closing books of the "Iliad,"—the lament of Briseis over the body of Patroclus, and the threnodies of Andromache and Helen for Hector. These passages my interlocutor had pronounced late interpolations; and, half in jest, I expressed my regret at the sacrifice of this exquisite poetry on the altar of science. " Yes," he gravely replied, "they are not by Homer, but were all composed by one interpolator who had a special talent for dirges." The other conversation was an argument with an American colleague, a distinguished professor of comparative philology. Our debate terminated in the "mere oppugnancy" of assertion and counter-assertion. It was to him axiomatic that no early Greek poet could have employed for variety or metri causa any dialectic form not familiar to his infancy in his native isle or canton. And he also stoutly maintained that there was an irreconcilable contradiction between the last line of the first Iliad, in which Zeus and all the Gods go to bed (or to sleep), and the first lines of the second book, in which "the other gods slumbered all night, but sweet sleep did not hold Zeus." Neither of these affirmations would "shine in on me," as the Germans say, and the debate ceased from want of common standing-ground of principles.

Now Mr. Lang's book is a prolonged printed conversation of this type with the German Homerids, and with his friend Mr. Walter Leaf, who has wasted much good paper on these themes in his otherwise excellent edition of the "Iliad," and in his recently-published "Companion to the Iliad," which would be much more companionable if it were not stuffed with this unsatisfying sawdust. In his introductory chapters, Mr. Lang retells the thrice-told tale of the Homeric controversy from the days of Wolf, summarizing and refuting point by point Wolf's famous but much overrated "Prolegomena." He then analyzes in detail the story of the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey," smoothing over the hitches in the plot detected by exigent German exegesis, and defending the more important of the passages that have been stigmatized as interpolations. It is a wearisome business, as Mr. Lang says, to undo the "knots in the bulrush" which this pettifogging criticism is perpetually discovering. A few specimens must suffice. Herr Fick, for example, rejects the fight over the body of Patroclus because the prologue explicitly declares that the wrath of Achilles gave the bodies of heroes to the dogs and the birds. As if there were nothing in "Paradise Lost" that the heavenly muse is not bidden to sing in the prologue! Diomede, when confronted with the unknown Glaucus in the sixth book of the "Iliad," declines the combat until he can be assured that his opponent is not a god in disguise. "Flat burglary as ever was committed," cry our learned Dogberrys. For has not Diomede just wounded Aphrodite and struck down Ares in the fifth book? But Diomede had been expressly warned by Athena to confine his attacks to Ares and Aphrodite, and the power of "discerning god from man" was of course not a permanent endowment, but was bestowed upon him for that occasion.
Again, the petitionary embassy of the Greeks to Achilles in the ninth book is thought to be irreconcilable with Achilles' scornful or doubtful references in later books to the possibility or probability of such an appeal to his pity. But in repeated readings of these books in the class-room, I have never known a student to stumble at this supposed stone of offense. And, indeed, it does not require much insight into the logic of passion to see that an angry man may well spurn profferred atonement to-day, and yet cry out exultingly when he sees his enemy reduced to still more grievous straits on the morrow. " Now methinks that the sons of the Achaeans will stand in prayer about my knees, for intolerable need is come upon them."
Mr. Lang makes much use of Matthew Arnold's argument of the improbability of the existence of four or five nearly contemporaneous great poets, all working in the " grand style." One is pleased to note that he repudiates Professor Jebb's suggestion that what the great critic took for the grand style was merely the traditional epic diction, an assumption sufficiently refuted by Arnold's discriminating remarks on Quintus of Smyrna. Mr. Lang also points out that Thackeray and Scott, in the days of proof-readers, could not attain to anything approaching the unfailing accuracy demanded by Homeric critics ; he affirms that the lapses and nods of Homer are not discernible to the unmicroscopic eye, and that they never disturb any readers except "spectacled young Germans on their promotion" ; he shows that philosophic consistency is not to be looked for in scenes where the gods play a part, "mythology being consistent only in inconsistency" ; and then, growing weary of the controversy, petulantly protests that it is idle to argue with men who, to prove that a certain idea is unhomeric, expunge all passages in which it occurs. And yet he still persists in arguing, and grows too angry to be always amusing : "A critic who can seriously advance such a theory simply proves that he is incapable of understanding what poetry is." "It is possible to give people poetry, but impossible to give them the brains to understand and the hearts to feel it." Is there not a slight failure here in the urbanity that we look for in the writer of " Letters to Dead Authors" ? We should bear in mind the provocation, however. For it appears from the chapters on the " Odyssey " that he has actually read Kirchhoff and Niese through, pen in hand. The nervous strain of such a task palliates, if it does not justify, the vivacity of Mr. Lang's irreverent treatment of an argument contributed to the discussion by an estimable scholar who is thought in Germany to combine literary grace with scientific thoroughness, Wilamowitz-Moellendorf : "Telemachus ( Ody. 1,471 ) sits down in his bed and takes off his chiton. But the chiton reached to his feet. How then could he take it off when sitting down ? The critic can try the experiment with his night-shirt : he will be far from ingenious if he does not solve the problem."
More attractive than these polemics are the archæological and literary chapters at the end of Mr. Lang's volume. What is the relation of the Mycenae finds to the art described in Homer? Closer study reveals that the two arts are not identical, as was incautiously assumed at first. How shall we date the art of Mycenae by Egyptian or by Assyrian analogies? Examples of Mycenaen art have been found in Egyptian tombs of the sixteenth century B. C., a date which startles the most resolute pre-Dorian. On the other hand, if we make the treasures of Mycenae rich in gold contemporaneous with the Assyrian art of the period from 800 to 600 B. C., we must assume that the later Greeks, while preserving the earlier Homeric tradition, had completely forgotten the mighty chiefs who so recently had reared the Lion's gate of Mycenae. Mr. Lang evidently doubts the possibility of attaining certainty with our present knowledge. Can we argue that Homer is later than carved gems because he never mentions them? We could in the same way infer that Shakespeare is later than tobacco. Can we date pottery by the tomb in which it is found? But ancient heirlooms may have been buried with the dead, or modern articles dropped or deposited by a desecrating or pious hand. Then, too, there is the malicious fact that "old Mexican pottery is often, in shape, color, and decoration, hardly to be distinguished from that of Mycenae or lalysus." It would be unbecoming for a layman to dispute the dicta of professional archaeologists, but when these doctors disagree he may divert himself with the "rival plausibilities of archaeological argument."

Finally, Mr. Lang's account of the "Nibelungen Lied," of the "Chanson de Roland," and of the "Kalevala," conveys much useful information in compact convenient form. He explodes the false analogies that have been alleged between the composition of these poems and the supposed redaction of the "Iliad" by the commission of Pisistratus. And while he does full justice to the grandeur and pathos of certain episodes of the story of Brunhild, he never allows the reader to forget that "'tis a pretty poem, but you must not call it Homer."

  1. Homer and the Epic. By Andrew Lang, M.A. New York: Longmans, Green, & Co.