The Iliad of Homer

Page: 13

31 would lead him to preserve an ancient and traditional order of the poems, rather than to patch and re-construct 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.

[pg xxiv]

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 so.'

"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 Achilleis32 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[pg xxv] Peisistratus, and afterwards Aristoteles and others, revised the poems, and restored the works of Melesigenes Homeros to their original integrity in a great measure."33

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 jejune.

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[pg xxvi] theory. One cuts a supposed knot by expunging what another would explain by omitting something else.