The Iliad of Homer
Page: 25This consideration may further serve to answer for the constant use of the same epithets to his gods and heroes; such as the "far-darting Phoebus," the "blue-eyed Pallas," the "swift-footed Achilles," &c., which some have censured as impertinent, and tediously repeated. Those of the gods depended upon the powers and offices then believed to belong to them; and had contracted a weight and veneration from the rites and solemn devotions in which they were used: they were a sort of attributes with which it was a matter of religion to salute them on all occasions, and which it was an irreverence to omit. As for the epithets of great men, Mons. Boileau is of opinion, that they were in the nature of surnames, and repeated as such; for the Greeks having no names derived from their fathers, were obliged to add some other distinction of each person; either naming his parents expressly, or his place of birth, profession, or the like: as Alexander the son of Philip, Herodotus of Halicarnassus, Diogenes the Cynic, &c. Homer, therefore, complying with the custom of his country, used such distinctive additions as better agreed with poetry. And, indeed, we have something parallel to these in modern times, such as the names of Harold Harefoot, Edmund Ironside, Edward Longshanks, Edward the Black Prince, &c. If yet this be thought to account better for the propriety than for the repetition, I shall add a further conjecture. Hesiod, dividing the world into its different ages, has placed a fourth age, between the brazen and the iron one, of "heroes distinct from other[pg xl] men; a divine race who fought at Thebes and Troy, are called demi-gods, and live by the care of Jupiter in the islands of the blessed." Now among the divine honours which were paid them, they might have this also in common with the gods, not to be mentioned without the solemnity of an epithet, and such as might be acceptable to them by celebrating their families, actions or qualities.
What other cavils have been raised against Homer, are such as hardly deserve a reply, but will yet be taken notice of as they occur in the course of the work. Many have been occasioned by an injudicious endeavour to exalt Virgil; which is much the same, as if one should think to raise the superstructure by undermining the foundation: one would imagine, by the whole course of their parallels, that these critics never so much as heard of Homer's having written first; a consideration which whoever compares these two poets ought to have always in his eye. Some accuse him for the same things which they overlook or praise in the other; as when they prefer the fable and moral of the Æneis to those of the Iliad, for the same reasons which might set the Odyssey above the Æneis; as that the hero is a wiser man, and the action of the one more beneficial to his country than that of the other; or else they blame him for not doing what he never designed; as because Achilles is not as good and perfect a prince as Æneas, when the very moral of his poem required a contrary character: it is thus that Rapin judges in his comparison of Homer and Virgil. Others select those particular passages of Homer which are not so laboured as some that Virgil drew out of them: this is the whole management of Scaliger in his Poetics. Others quarrel with what they take for low and mean expressions, sometimes through a false delicacy and refinement, oftener from an ignorance of the graces of the original, and then triumph in the awkwardness of their own translations: this is the conduct of Perrault in his Parallels. Lastly, there are others, who, pretending to a fairer proceeding, distinguish between the personal merit of Homer, and that of his work; but when they come to assign the causes of the great reputation of the Iliad, they found it upon the ignorance of his times, and the prejudice of those that followed: and in pursuance of this principle, they make those accidents (such as the contention of the cities, &c.) to be the causes of his fame, which were in reality the consequences of his merit. The same might as well be said of Virgil, or any great author whose general character will infallibly raise many casual additions to their reputation. This is the method of Mons. de la Mott; who yet confesses upon the whole that in whatever age Homer had lived, he must have been the greatest poet of his nation, and that he may be said in his sense to be the master even of those who surpassed him.39