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verses, not of one, but of many bards; and that theirs, consequently, was the glory, not of one, but of many Homers. We deem it, however, worthy of more special notice, that the leading argument by which the theory in question has been supported, is an assumption of what we can not but regard as in the highest degree improbable—viz. that alphabetic writing was unknown in the Homeric age. That works so perfect as the Iliad and Odyssey, should have been produced by one person without the aid of writing, is justly deemed improbable, and in order to obviate this difficulty, resort has been had to another, which must be regarded as much the greater of the two—the supposition that independent and unconnected minds should have produced, on the same general subjects, fragmentary verses capable of being so united, as to form the two poems in question. But why the assumption that in the Homeric age, alphabetic writing was unknown in Greece 2 Five hundred years or more previous to this age, letters are supposed to have been introduced by Cadmus. It was singular indeed, if during this long period they continued in use, without any such advancement in the progress of written language, and in the invention of writing materials, as to afford adequate facilities for the composition of extended works. That compared with the times of Pindar and AEschylus, or even of Herodotus, the father of Grecian history, the age of Homer was early and one of great simplicity, can not be doubted. But that it preceded those improvements, which usually accompany alphabetic writing, is not only in itself improbable, but contrary to evidence furnished in the works of which we are speaking. What supposition indeed can appear more improbable, than the one, that works which the most cultivated times have regarded as models of excellence—
works characterized by such beauty and smoothness of versification, such variety of mythological and historical detail, and such exhaustless stores of poetic imagery, should have originated in times of ignorance and barbarism, and without those aids to composition which the art of writing only can afford. A supposition like this is contradicted by all analogy. It represents the Grecian poetic mind in its first movements, as bursting forth, with the strength, and beauty, and completeness of mature existence. It makes the infancy of Greece, what experience and history have shown to be the manhood of every other people. But it should also be observed, that the German theory is based upon an inadequate estimate of internal evidence. We here refer to the similarity of style and language, which the Iliad every where displays—its prevailing modes of expression—its perpetually recurring epithets, descriptive of character, office and appearance; as well as its general unity of design. These all mark it as the production of one mind—fixing upon it an impress of uniformity, utterly at variance with the theory in question. For illustration, we may refer to a well known case, in another department of Grecian literature. The three great tragic poets of Greece, while nearly cotemporary, also at times selected the same subjects for their dramas—as for example the story of Electra. And yet, how persectly at all times does each poet preserve his own individuality of thought and style ! No one surely, who had so much as crossed the threshold of Grecian literature, could ever mistake the characteristics of one for those of the others. We may hence form some idea of the visionary character of the theory in question. It supposes not three bards merely, but many, to have composed songs upon a common subject, so exactly similar in all that pertains to their style, that when united they seem like the production of one person. While it represents them as having introduced the same personages, it supposes them further, to have formed the same conception of their characters, and to have preserved it, not only in the parts which they are made to act, but in the descriptive epithets which are employed. All conceived of Jupiter as “the cloudgatherer,” of Juno as “the whitearmed,” of Aurora as “the rosy-fingered,” and of Hellen as “the divinest of women,” etc. Did our limits permit, we should be glad to exhibit the evidence derived from this source, by a reference to particular passages. To those who are inclined to pursue it, we recommend the study of Homer's epithets, and also, a comparison of such passages as the following. 1 Book 465 with 24 B. 623; 2 B. 110 with 9 B. 17 ; 2 B. 26 with 24 B. 132; 2 B. 20 with 23 B. 68 ; 3 B. 39 with 13 B. 769; 1 B. 362 with 18 B. 73; 1 B. 84 with 18 B. 187; 9 B. 122 with 9 B. 264; 4 B. 20 with 8 B. 457; 1 B. 590, with 15 B. 22 ; 1 B. 468 with 23 B. 56; etc. But the considerations now presented, will gain additional force, if we contemplate also the unity of design manifest in the Iliad. The conclusiveness of this ground of argument has been questioned by some modern scholars, and altogether denied by the advocates of the theory in question. It is however worthy of notice, that Aristotle, after defining with logical precision what is to be understood by unity of design, has referred to the Iliad and Odyssey, as illustrations of his doctrine. Whose authority is most entitled to respect in this matter, we may see from a brief examlination. In the opening of the Iliad, the wrath of Achilles and the consequent evils to the Grecian host, is given as the poet's theme—and this, if the work be attentively examined,
will be found to be the center, toward which every thing tends, and around which both its incidents of battles, truces, and embassies; and its machinery of gods, heroes, and warriors, are made to revolve. The cause of this anger is also given, viz. the wrong done to Achilles, by Agamemnon, the commander of the host, in violently taking from him the female captive Briseis. In consequence of this wrong, he withdraws with his friend Patroclus to his tent, determined to absent himself from the war, until satisfaction had been made for the injury. By the intervention of Thetis, a promise is obtained from Jupiter, that he will aid the Trojans in the conflict, and send disaster upon the Greeks. These incidents are detailed in the opening of the poem. In the second book Jupiter is represented, in accordance with his promise to Thetis, as deceiving Agamemnon with a dream—beguiling him with the expectation of at once terminating the war. A council is hence called, the plans of the Grecian leaders are formed, and the book terminates with an enumeration of the forces on both sides. The details of the war which ensued, are extended through the 8th book. In accordance with the promise of Jupiter to Thetis, the war is represented as, on the whole, tending to the discomfiture of the Greeks, and the triumph of the Trojans. Agamemnon is thus at length convinced of his folly in having wronged Achilles, and by the advice of Nestor is represented in the 9th book as sending an embassy of chiefs to the hero—offering, on condition of his return to the army, the most ample compensation, besides a restoration of his favorite captive. His offers are rejected, and the war is renewed. As before, the Trojans are victorious, until at length, as represented in the 12th book, the ramparts of the Grecian camp are assailed, and the gates forced by Hector. From this point the plot is made to thicken and steadily to increase in interest, by the part which the gods are made to take in the conflict. In the 13th and 14th books, the Greeks are made successful by the aid of Neptune. In the 15th, the scale is again turned in favor of the Trojans, by the help of Apollo. The Greeks are driven to their camp, and their ships are on the point of being consumed. In this extremity Patroclus, the friend of Achilles, is induced to mingle in the battle, but falls by the hand of Hector. Achilles is thus brought, by the death of his friend, to the point toward which the whole action of the poem has been tending. He lays aside his wrath, and again shows himself in the Grecian ranks. The relation of these incidents, bring the action of the Iliad through the 18th book. In the 19th, he becomes in a formal and public manner reconciled to Agamemnon, and with other gifts receives back the maid Briseis—the original cause of their strife. Achilles having thus again joined the host, and Jupiter having fulfilled his promise to Thetis, the celestial gods and goddesses array themselves according to their partialities on different sides. The conflict is renewed. Achilles is made triumphant. Hector is slain, and with his funeral rites the poem is concluded in the 24th book.
Such are the plan and leading incidents of the Iliad. If they do not exhibit unity of design, we know of no poem in which this quality can be found. Is it then conceivable, that a work thus one in its subject as well as in its language and style, should have been the production of several different and unconnected bards 2 Is it to be supposed that fragmentary poems, by different authors, upon the same general subject, could be so modified and shaped as when united to present a model of unity in design and action like that here presented P And even if this be deemed not incredible,
what is to be thought of a phenomenon so remarkable, as that which it implies With all the advantages which Grecian culture and Grecian arts could lend, Rome, during the entire period of her existence, produced but one poet, who holds among Roman bards, the place which the suffrages of all ages and all nations have assigned to Homer among the Greeks. The Italians, besides their Dante, have their Tasso. The English can boast of but one Milton. The Portuguese of but one Camoens. But it was the singular felicity of the early Greeks— if we are to believe the advocates of this theory—to possess a constellation of poets of the Homeric grade. At a period when she possessed no written literature, and when she was without the means of even recording the events of her national history, and still less of preserving and rendering permanent her own improvements in letters, she is represented as having produced a race of poets, whom all subsequent bards in the same department have been content to follow, but have never aspired to equal. In attempting to enumerate some of the leading characteristics of the Homeric poems, we notice as first deserving attention, poetic beauty in sentiment, style, and imagery. It is the possession of this beauty, pertaining to the various elements of the poetic art, which in no small degree has united the suffrages of mankind, in assigning to the Meonian bard that position which he holds among the poets of all times and places. He is admitted to stand pre-eminent among those whose names grace the records of poetic fame, not because his works exhibit a mind exhaustless in its stores of poetic sentiment—nor because his is a command of imagery, rich and various as nature with her countless forms of existence could make it—nor yet because his language flows in numbers the most sweet and harmonious, and yet the most lively and vigorous—but it is because in the rare combination of all these, he is seen beyond any other author to come near that ideal standard of beauty which existed in the minds of the Greeks, and which, with every cultivated people, constitutes the true criterion of poetic merit. The works of Homer are one continued illustration of what we have now said. Every where, in his own expressive description of the aged Nestor—the sweet speaking orator of the Pyleans. “From his tongue, sweeter than honey, the language flows.” But with the characteristics here noticed, there is also united a freshness and originality of conception, no where surpassed but in the poetry of the Hebrew scriptures. These qualities are doubtless in no small degree to be attributed to the early period in which the works of Homer were composed. They are the peculiarities of one whose mind was thrown upon its own resources, and made to follow its own direction. For as yet, Grecian literature had not so far advanced, as to possess any thing like a fixed character. Public sentiment had not even begun to verge toward the establishment of a standard of taste, or the adoption of universally received canons of criticism. Society had not reached that stage, in which individuality of character begins to be broken down ; and where its distinctive features are lost, by being merged in the general mass. It is consequently with the author of the Homeric poems, as with the chief. tains whose exploits he describes— individuality of character is every where conspicuous. Every line bespeaks a strongly marked and original genius. In drawing the characters of gods and heroes, and in detailing their exploits, he advances not only as if he had entered an unoccupied field of poetic thought and imagery, but as if conscious in his
own strength, of ability to explore its utmost limits. It is hence, that when we have gone back to the works of the Homeric age, we seem to have ascended to the original heights of poetry. There is a freshness in their language, and conceptions and imagery, strongly savoring of the pure air and the sweet waters of Helicon itself.
But these works are also peculiarly marked by another quality, which, like those just named, is strongly characteristic of the times in which they were composed, viz. great simplicity of thought and erpression. The manners of men, as well as their habits of thought and modes of speaking, were then plain and unsophisticated. The arts of navigation and war had made comparatively but little progress. Contending parties, like those within and around the walls of Troy, depended more for success upon physical strength and individual prowess, than upon those principles of military tactics which modern experience and science have served to develop. In point of mental cultivation and advancement, society had not reached that point at which it is accustomed to lose its relish for the marvelous, and when the public mind is prepared to correct the pictures of a luxuriant and glowing fancy, by the dictates of sober judgment and experience. It is hence that we find the Homeric poems so strongly characterized by simplicity of thought and style. Nothing surely can be conceived of more simple, or more expressive of the natural workings of the human heart, than are the language and the illustration of character and of manners, which are presented in their almost endless and varied details. In order rightly to appreciate such works, it is plainly necessary that one should divest himself of whatever conventional associations and feelings are the mere product of modern habits and tastes.
But the variety of character and of incident by which these works are marked, is also worthy of notice. It must have been not only a mind almost exhaustless in its stores of poetic thought and imagery, but of pre-eminent versatility, in its powers of arrangement and description, which produced the ever-varying scenes of these poems. For while they present that uniformity which is demanded by correct principles of unity in style and action, they are yet characterized by all the diversity which the most correct taste could require, in the nice accommodation of language and imagery to the numerous characters delineated and the various scenes described. In regard to the Iliad, this feature appears the more remarkable, because its subject, and the time embraced in its action, and the place to which its leading actors were confined, are such, it would seem, as to render great variety a quality difficult of attainment. A less skillful hand would have shown this difficulty, by the vagueness of general and unmeaning epithets, by the blending and confounding of characters, and perhaps too by confusion and needless repetition of scenes. It may well exalt our admiration of the genius of Homer, that in his great epic he rarely betrays faults of this character. Notwithstanding the embarrassments which must have arisen from his subject and plan, every thing is made to stand out clear, distinct and prominent, like pictures upon the painter's canvas, or images beneath the chisel of the sculptor. But the Homeric poems are also characterized by singular truth and fidelity in the delineation of human passions and feelings. To this feature Horace alludes, and intimates that Homer surpasses the philosophers themselves in that which properly belongs to their own department. No poet certainly has shown greater power in exemplifying the various feelings of the human heart.
We know of none who abounds more in scenes of deep pathos, scenes presenting not indeed strained and labored appeals to human sympathy; but scenes full of those incidental and apparently undesigned strokes of deep feeling and tenderness, which at once find their way to the heart, and reach the place of uncontrolled emotion. Of this character is the often quoted passage, descriptive of the meeting of Hector and Andromache, a passage in relation to which we hardly know which to admire most, the conception by which such a scene of domestic love is contrasted with the strife and the carnage of the battlefield, or the masterly skill by which it is wrought up into a picture of such surpassing beauty and tenderness. We envy not the man his heart, who can read this description without feeling the deep fountains of emotion flow within him. The Iliad and Odyssey abound in passages exhibiting the same power over the human heart, and the same skill in unfolding its most secret workings. But these poems do not more abound in deep pathos than in high-wrought sublimity. In relation to this characteristic, it is interesting to know the opinion of so acute and refined a critic as Longinus. “The distance from earth to heaven,” says he, “bounds the sublimity of Homer, in his description of Discord.”