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Hesiod, The Homeric Hymns, and Homerica

Page: 9





Date of the Hesiodic Poems

There is no doubt that the "Works and Days" is the oldest, as it is the most original, of the Hesiodic poems. It seems to be distinctly earlier than the "Theogony", which refers to it, apparently, as a poem already renowned. Two considerations help us to fix a relative date for the "Works". 1) In diction, dialect and style it is obviously dependent upon Homer, and is therefore considerably later than the "Iliad" and "Odyssey": moreover, as we have seen, it is in revolt against the romantic school, already grown decadent, and while the digamma is still living, it is obviously growing weak, and is by no means uniformly effective.

2) On the other hand while tradition steadily puts the Cyclic poets at various dates from 776 B.C. downwards, it is equally consistent in regarding Homer and Hesiod as 'prehistoric'. Herodotus indeed puts both poets 400 years before his own time; that is, at about 830-820 B.C., and the evidence stated above points to the middle of the ninth century as the probable date for the "Works and Days". The "Theogony" might be tentatively placed a century later; and the "Catalogues" and "Eoiae" are again later, but not greatly later, than the "Theogony": the "Shield of Heracles" may be ascribed to the later half of the seventh century, but there is not evidence enough to show whether the other 'developed' poems are to be regarded as of a date so low as this.





Literary Value of Homer

Quintillian's 1111 judgment on Hesiod that 'he rarely rises to great heights... and to him is given the palm in the middle-class of speech' is just, but is liable to give a wrong impression. Hesiod has nothing that remotely approaches such scenes as that between Priam and Achilles, or the pathos of Andromache's preparations for Hector's return, even as he was falling before the walls of Troy; but in matters that come within the range of ordinary experience, he rarely fails to rise to the appropriate level. Take, for instance, the description of the Iron Age ("Works and Days", 182 ff.) with its catalogue of wrongdoings and violence ever increasing until Aidos and Nemesis are forced to leave mankind who thenceforward shall have 'no remedy against evil'. Such occasions, however, rarely occur and are perhaps not characteristic of Hesiod's genius: if we would see Hesiod at his best, in his most natural vein, we must turn to such a passage as that which he himself—according to the compiler of the "Contest of Hesiod and Homer"—selected as best in all his work, 'When the Pleiades, Atlas' daughters, begin to rise...' ("Works and Days," 383 ff.). The value of such a passage cannot be analysed: it can only be said that given such a subject, this alone is the right method of treatment.

Hesiod's diction is in the main Homeric, but one of his charms is the use of quaint allusive phrases derived, perhaps, from a pre-Hesiodic peasant poetry: thus the season when Boreas blows is the time when 'the Boneless One gnaws his foot by his fireless hearth in his cheerless house'; to cut one's nails is 'to sever the withered from the quick upon that which has five branches'; similarly the burglar is the 'day-sleeper', and the serpent is the 'hairless one'. Very similar is his reference to seasons through what happens or is done in that season: 'when the House-carrier, fleeing the Pleiades, climbs up the plants from the earth', is the season for harvesting; or 'when the artichoke flowers and the clicking grass-hopper, seated in a tree, pours down his shrill song', is the time for rest.


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