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The Iliad of Homer

Page: 9

"Those who maintain the Homeric poems to have been written from the beginning, rest their case, not upon positive proofs, nor yet upon the existing habits of society with regard to poetry—for they admit generally that the Iliad and Odyssey were not read, but recited and heard,—but upon the supposed necessity that there must have been manuscripts to ensure the preservation of the poems—the unassisted memory of reciters being neither sufficient nor trustworthy. But here we only escape a smaller difficulty by running into a greater; for the existence of trained bards, gifted with extraordinary memory,[pg xix] 25 is far less astonishing than that of long manuscripts, in an age essentially non-reading and non-writing, and when even suitable instruments and materials for the process are not obvious. Moreover, there is a strong positive reason for believing that the bard was under no necessity of refreshing his memory by consulting a manuscript; for if such had been the fact, blindness would have been a disqualification for the profession, which we know that it was not, as well from the example of Demodokus, in the Odyssey, as from that of the blind bard of Chios, in the Hymn to the Delian Apollo, whom Thucydides, as well as the general tenor of Grecian legend, identifies with Homer himself. The author of that hymn, be he who he may, could never have described a blind man as attaining the utmost perfection in his art, if he had been conscious that the memory of the bard was only maintained by constant reference to the manuscript in his chest."

The loss of the digamma, that crux of critics, that quicksand upon which even the acumen of Bentley was shipwrecked, seems to prove beyond a doubt, that the pronunciation of the Greek language had undergone a considerable change. Now it is certainly difficult to suppose that the Homeric poems could have suffered by this change, had written copies been preserved. If Chaucer's poetry, for instance, had not been written, it could only have come down to us in a softened form, more like the effeminate version of Dryden, than the rough, quaint, noble original.

"At what period," continues Grote, "these poems, or indeed any other Greek poems, first began to be written, must be matter of conjecture, though there is ground for assurance that it was before the time of Solon. If, in the absence of evidence, we may venture upon[pg xx] naming any more determinate period, the question a once suggests itself, What were the purposes which, in that state of society, a manuscript at its first commencement must have been intended to answer? For whom was a written Iliad necessary? Not for the rhapsodes; for with them it was not only planted in the memory, but also interwoven with the feelings, and conceived in conjunction with all those flexions and intonations of voice, pauses, and other oral artifices which were required for emphatic delivery, and which the naked manuscript could never reproduce. Not for the general public—they were accustomed to receive it with its rhapsodic delivery, and with its accompaniments of a solemn and crowded festival. The only persons for whom the written Iliad would be suitable would be a select few; studious and curious men; a class of readers capable of analyzing the complicated emotions which they had experienced as hearers in the crowd, and who would, on perusing the written words, realize in their imaginations a sensible portion of the impression communicated by the reciter. Incredible as the statement may seem in an age like the present, there is in all early societies, and there was in early Greece, a time when no such reading class existed. If we could discover at what time such a class first began to be formed, we should be able to make a guess at the time when the old epic poems were first committed to writing. Now the period which may with the greatest probability be fixed upon as having first witnessed the formation even of the narrowest reading class in Greece, is the middle of the seventh century before the Christian aera (B.C. 660 to B.C. 630), the age of Terpander, Kallinus, Archilochus, Simonides of Amorgus, &c. I ground this supposition on the change then operated in the character and tendencies of Grecian poetry and music—the elegiac and the iambic measures having been introduced as rivals to the primitive hexameter, and poetical compositions having been transferred from the epical past to the affairs of present and real life. Such a change was important at a time when poetry was the only known mode of publication (to use a modern phrase not altogether suitable, yet the nearest approaching to the sense). It argued a new way of looking at the old epical treasures of the people as well as a thirst for new poetical effect; and the men who stood forward in it, may well be considered as desirous to study, and competent to criticize, from their own individual point of view, the written words of the Homeric rhapsodies, just as we are told that Kallinus both noticed and eulogized the Thebais as the production of Homer. There seems, therefore, ground for conjecturing that (for the use of this newly-formed and important, but very narrow class), manuscripts of the Homeric poems and other old epics,—the Thebais and the Cypria, as well as the Iliad and the Odyssey,—began to be compiled towards the middle of the seventh century (B.C. 1); and the opening of Egypt to Grecian commerce, which took place about the same period, would furnish increased facilities for obtaining the requisite papyrus to write upon. A reading class, when once formed, would doubtless slowly increase, and the number of manuscripts along with it; so that before the time of Solon, fifty years afterwards, both readers and manuscripts, though still comparatively few, might have attained a[pg xxi] certain recognized authority, and formed a tribunal of reference against the carelessness of individual rhapsodes."26


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