Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.05

Mark W. Edwards, The Iliad: A Commentary, Volume V: books 17-20. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Pp. xvii + 356. $84.50 (hb). $27.95 (pb). ISBN 0-521-30959-X (hb). ISBN 0-521-31208-6 (pb).

Reviewed by Robert Schmiel, The University of Calgary.

Whether the approaching end of the millenium, or the desire to take account of a very productive century of Homeric scholarship has provided the incentive, both Homeric poems are receiving much-needed extensive commentaries which promise to remain the standards for a very long time. I shall first take a brief look at the first two volumes on the Iliad, especially the introduction, by the general editor of the Iliad commentary, G. S. Kirk.

The Iliad commentary aims to provide "most of what is needed by serious readers" of the Iliad (K. I xv.).1 It is no surprise that the first post-Parry and post-Fraenkel and Porter commentary deals with various technical matters, "but above all ... the language, metre and style of the poems" (K. I xvi), especially the working of the formulaic language and colometry, or better, rhythm (cf. xxii f.). It does not aim to give references to secondary literature beyond the modest bibliographies (I shall return to this), and it does not give "lists ... of parallel passages" (xvi). It deals with problems. Kirk expresses the need to work out "the complicated mode of creation of a passage ... [since it is both traditional and the poet's own creation] ... in order to assess the text, to 'read' it even ... [as one would read] a literate poem" (xvii). A daunting task. But difficulties attending "the interpretation both of character and of customs and practices" are to be handled "not so much through the re-creation of the author's intention (although that is not unimportant) as by the identification of possible accidents of transmission ..." (xviii). How one is supposed to repair accidents of transmission -- Kirk reckons, for instance, that Agamemnon's character is an amalgam -- let alone recreate the author's intention when one is evidently having trouble making adequate sense of the text as he finds it I cannot imagine. What is being described is not textual criticism as it is usually understood, but an idea which cries out to be "forgotten" like some of the historical phases of Homeric criticism to which Kirk alludes (xv). How much of the very worst of Homeric scholarship can be traced directly to proud scholars who knew better than the text what Homer meant to say? Or should have said? Kirk's reasons for not providing a text are nonetheless convincing -- the Odyssey commentary doesn't provide a text either.

Kirk describes the aims of the commentary itself as "helping serious readers ... by attempting to identify and deal with most of the difficulties ..." and helping "scholars toward a better understanding of epic style" (xx). It seems to be taken for granted that once the rank undergrowth of problems has been cleared out, the gorgeous flowers of understanding and appreciation will flourish. I am not so optimistic. There is, in any case, less direct literary interpretation, as opposed to indirect by means of discussions of formulaic language and rhythm, than I had hoped to find, and less than in the Odyssey commentaries.

Special attention to the scholia vetera is promised. Each volume is to contain "40-50 pages of introductory essays" (K. I xxi). Volumes I, II and V indicate that 50-60 pages will be the range.2 Edwards provides introductory essays on these topics: the narrator and the audience, composition by theme (which was also addressed in K. II), similes, and style. The several introductory essays in the six volumes of the commentary which will eventually make up an extensive if not complete introduction to Homer will interest readers variously. E. deals primarily with matters of poetic technique, that is, central concerns, not merely background information, however necessary that may be. His essays have been particularly well done. Despite the tight space restrictions E. has managed to provide significant detail and adequate example while giving a general account of the topics. Only rarely does the desire to provide enough examples in short space cause the narrative to degenerate into something like a list (e.g. E 22). The writing is clear and concise and blessedly free of jargon. E. is not afraid to hazard a reasonable opinion on controversial topics, but is careful not to present such opinions as fact. The only 'bias' I have noted is the conviction that Homer was a skillful poet fully in control of his medium (E 13). If one compares the sections on composition by theme and similes with the comparable sections on story patterns and type scenes or similes in Edwards' recent book, Homer, Poet of the Iliad (Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1987), one appreciates how carefully Edwards works and how nicely he has adjusted to the needs of his different audiences. The introductory essay on similes (E 24-41), the longest of the four, is especially successful. The short simile is discussed in terms of flexibility by analogy with formulae; integration into the narrative is a major concern with regard to the long simile. E. adopts Redfield's division of the similes by subject:

a) natural phenomena (nature is shown to be hostile),
b) hunting and herding, usually with aggression by wild animals against domestic (the natural world is dangerous),
c) human technology (mankind working productively with nature).
"Thus the majority of Il. similes contain recurrent subject-matter depicting mankind in a losing struggle with nature. Such subjects refute the old idea that similes are introduced to give the listener relief from the relentless violence of the battlefield ..." (p. 35). E.'s view on the function of the simile is that "a simile produces a pause in the action, prolongs the tension, and draws the audience's attention to an important point" (p. 39). The high proportion of hapax legomena in the similes is taken to indicate that the poet is combining the traditional with elements from everyday life in his similes (p. 38).

The essay on style is in five parts: (i) emphasis by word position, (ii) ring composition, (iii) metaphor, (iv) hapax legomena, and (v) rhetorical figures of speech. Since enjambement is frequently involved in the first topic, a brief discussion would have been appropriate. It is good to see careful attention paid to ring composition, not only here but also in the body of the commentary. E. builds on the excellent work of van Otterlo, Gaisser, Lohmann and Thalmann. It should be standard procedure for commentaries to take ring composition into account since it shows so clearly how the poet is organizing his material. It is, however, unfortunate that ring composition is presented here as a "small-scale structural device" (p. 44) only. Vol. VI. ch. 1 will consider large-scale ring composition (E 45, n. 58). It is also somewhat misleading to say that the importance of ring composition has only recently been fully realized, given the keen interest in various sorts of symmetrical structure (including ring composition in all but name) in the nineteenth century.

The sub-section on rhetorical figures of speech deals with those based on sound-effects, word-play and etymology, and repetition. It is an agreeable surprise to read in a scholarly commentary -- but it cannot be said too often -- that, while modern readers are more likely to notice features of structure and placement, for listeners [the only audience Homer will likely have been aware of] the sound-effects of his poetry are powerful (p. 60).

However unpleasant, comparison is inevitable and appropriate when a commentary on one piece of literature is being done in parts by separate hands. As the general editor, Kirk writes that the commentary, his own, "is not overloaded with references to modern secondary literature" (K I xvi). Indeed it is not, and the dismissal of "references to the remoter kinds of modern or not-so-modern speculation" is very dubious advice which seems to betray a certain uneasiness. Fortunately it has not been followed by E. whose control of Homeric scholarship is enviable. Even with the resources of Homeric bibliography one could not match the wealth of pertinent references, many of which would not appear in a Homeric bibliography. This is no display of Wissenschaft for its own sake.

Secondly, if one compares the indices to K I and E, one finds c. 50 references to "rising threefolders" (often multiple) in the former,3 none in the latter; seven references4 to "ring composition" in the former, 35 in the latter.5 Authors must be given some leeway to pursue their interests, I suppose, but an innocent reader might be tempted to consider the implications of three-folder distribution for Homeric authorship. Kirk's introduction of this neological entity was noticeably defensive (K I xxiii). Since attention to the aesthetics of Homeric poetry is to be applauded, it is with regret that I question whether a commentary is the place to introduce this somewhat questionable phenomenon, defined as a verse "composed of three progressively-lengthening cola, through absence or weakness of a third-foot caesura and the presence of a strong fourth-foot one" (K I xxiii). It seems inadvisable to me to give such prominence to a novel phenomenon, especially since Kirk can not allow himself enough space in the introduction ('Word-groups and rhythmical cola', K I 18-24) to present his views on rhythmical pattern adequately. (There would have been ample space in Kirk's long article in YCS 20 [1966] 73-152, but the three-folder had evidently not yet made its presence felt.) These are very tricky matters. I wonder about the "rising three-folders" identified at Il. 1.258, 307, and 578, for example. Rising three-folders are also said to have "a more urgent, progressive or flowing effect" than two- or four-colon lines (K I 21). "Urgent" and "flowing" cover a fairly wide range of effects.

Why should rising threefolders often be placed "at the end of a speech or a long passage of narrative" (K I 21)? Wouldn't one expect a sense of conclusion or closure rather than something urgent, progressive, or flowing? Why are Il. 1.486 U(YOU= E)PI\ YAMA/QOIS, U(PO\ D' E(/RMATA MAKRA\ TA/NUSSAN and 4.250 W(\S O(/ GE KOIRANE/WN E)PEPWLEI=TO STI/XAS A)NDRW=N "best treated as two-colon" rather than, say, bob-tailed and falling three-folder respectively (K I 21)? Presumably because that would entail breaks at unusual points, but Kirk does not restrict himself to the prevalent word-breaks (see Il. 7.142 and 236, K II 254 and 266). Is rhythm as Kirk understands it dependent on sense pause or simply on word end? And what role does expectation play? Kirk experiences Il. 1.29 TH\N D' E)GW\ OU) LU/SW PRI/N MIN KAI\ GH=RAS E)/PEISIN as four-colon, I experience it as two-colon (TH\N D' E)GW/ is not something to linger over and savor), but neither I nor, I think, Kirk would claim to know how Homer and his audience experienced the line since he rightly concedes that "the pronunciation and phrasing of Homeric verse cannot be accurately reconstructed" (K I 20), before going on to make confident claims about the "very different" rhythmical and musical effects of four- or two-colon verses from rising threefolders.

The rising threefolder is defined quite rigorously in the introduction (K I xxiii and 20), but one meets many shirttail relations in the commentary.6 Moreover the "more urgent, progressive or flowing effect" of the rising threefolder (K I 21) is not always evident in Kirk's own descriptions in the commentary. The rising threefolder at Il. 5.46 NU/C' I(/PPWN E)PIBHSO/MENON KATA\ DECIO\N W)=MON (K II 58) does have "an undeniably ponderous or majestic effect," not the effect it is supposed to have. The reason is not far to seek (-WN -OM- -ON -ON WMON), but Kirk has evidently not noticed. And if "Akhilleus' three-verse reply [Il. 1.216-18] maintains the small scale and low key" etc., I suppose one must conclude that the "rising, climactic threefolder" which is verse 218 is not, in this case, urgent (K I 75). The rather vaguely described but still not always realized effect, added to the uncertain status (or irregularity, a matter I haven't really addressed) of so many of the examples, destroys whatever confidence one might have had in the rising threefolder. And yet, Kirk makes many sensitive observations on rhythm; it is a shame that he had not developed his views fully before presenting them in the commentary.

In any case, once given so prominent a place in the first volume, the decline of the rising threefolder in vol. V is noticeable. I have observed twelve instances (some multiple) in E (pp. 72R, 75, 105, 111, 119R, 169, 182, 195, 196R, 237R, 305, 310) as well as a tricolon on p. 64, but they are not listed in the index. The threefolder also seems to have developed anemia; only four of the examples are rising (R in the list). Is that all there are -- I've probably missed some -- or is E. less excited/confident about (rising) threefolders than their discoverer? Some allowance must be made for individual interests, and one can anticipate more play with a feature of structure, rhetoric or rhythm in the volume which discusses it in its introduction, but there should still be some consistency in the treatment of such pervasive features of the poem, especially when they are highlighted (and novel), lest the unwary reader form a wrong impression. This defect could be largely repaired. An expanded English index (which has also missed some instances of ring composition, alliteration, and anaphora at least) could be added to the final volume along with the promised "fuller index of Greek words."

Of particular value in the commentary proper, as in the previous volumes, is the frequent comment on oral technique and rhythm (cola, wordbreak, enjambment, etc.), though there is less of the latter than in K I and II, rhetorical features (alliteration, anaphora, figura etymologica, etc.), and especially the use of the ring composition and similar matters of structure on the intermediate level. Much of the analysis of ring composition is available in D. Lohmann, Die Komposition der Reden in der Ilias (Berlin 1970), but the information is in some ways more accessible here, and E. often reduces or changes Lohmann's analyses as well as providing some instances of his own.

Book 18 with almost 100 pages of commentary is given understandably special attention. E. notes that 112-3 (A)LLA\ TA\ ME\N PROTETU/XQAI E)A/SOMEN A)XNU/MENOI/ PER / QUMO\N E)NI\ STH/QESSI FI/LON DAMA/SANTES A)NA/GKH|) had been partially anticipated in 16.60 and will be repeated in 19.65-6, but lets it go at that. Here was an opportunity for interpretive comment on a matter of central importance to the poem, something far more significant, in my view, than the hypothesis that this was the model for 16.60.

At 203-31 we learn that "[in] this splendid passage the arming of Akhilleus becomes a kind of epiphany ..." and at 205-6 we are told that Whitman's "exposition of the fire imagery is perceptive, though sometimes exaggerated." Little more than that. Apparently imagery, unlike variation of sense pauses, is too disreputable for this commentary. Yes, there are still some few from whose lips 'LitCrit' drops in a sneer, but most readers will not regard information on technical matters as a substitute for interpretive comment.

The references to the ancient scholia are valuable, as is the frequent but selective and up-to-date citation of the secondary literature. E. is also very good on those nasty little words -- not just particles -- which want to run together into one malodorous morass, (as if adverbs and conjunctions could be declined: AU)=, AU)=QIS, AU)=YI, AU)=TE). When the Greek index to the six volumes is composed, let the editor or his drudges make sure that they've got them on their list. (Once again, I have seen little attention paid to them in K I and II).

The shield of Achilles has a ten-page introduction (E 200-209). Do classicists still think that it is somehow embarrassing for grown men to be studying poetry? Or is it simply that real things are thought more important than mere poetry? (Is it the wretched walls of Troy that bring visitors after 3000 years, or is it Homer's poetry?) E. devotes half of the introduction to the "construction and technique" of a shield which exists only as the product of poetic imagination. "The poet clearly visualizes (emphases mine) a round shield ... There are indications that the layers of hide were laid in concentric circles ... [A gold layer sandwiched between two of bronze and two of tin] makes little practical sense ... The decorative technique must be that of in lay of different-coloured metals ..." (201-202). Is this idle speculation intended as a contribution to the history of armoury? It most certainly does not advance my understanding or appreciation of the poem one whit. And then, after correctly observing that "[t]here is no reason to suppose that Homer was describing an actual shield he had seen," E. hazards the opinion that the two armies (18.509) were probably one army -- the confusion resulting from "misinterpretation of a two-dimensional picture" (207). (Marg, whose essay E. rates as "the most perceptive and sensitive" of the "fundamental general studies" (of the shield), gives repeated warning against treating the shield as if it were real.) Poor Homer. Hasn't even the skill to visualize a scene of battle! Poor Homer. His poetry turned into a how-to handbook for armourers. (It is only fair to add that it is unlike E. to underestimate Homer's skill.)

I have noticed few printing errors, but something has gone wrong on pp. 227-233, mostly with initial 'i'. The transliteration of Greek names is not done consistently so it will presumably please no one. You will find "Olumpos" (E 32) -- sounds as if the gods have moved to the projects -- but "quasi-Olympian" (E 33). If you can swallow 'Olumpos', why shrink fastidiously from 'Helene' which is termed "rather affected" (K I X)?


  • [1] I shall refer to the first two volumes by Kirk as K I and K II, and Edwards' vol. V which is the subject of this review as E.
  • [2] K I has essays on the creation of the poem, elements of the Homeric verse (formulae and cola), the scholia, and Il. 1-4 in context; K II has essays on gods, typical themes, the speech-element, and history and fiction.
  • [3] Add to K I pp. 54, 209, 231 and 285 and delete 208; add to K II pp. 109 and 188 and delete 187.
  • [4] Add p. 392.
  • [5] There are, however, 19 in K II, to which add 114f. and 188. To E add pp. 97, 102, 124, 195, 313 and 321.
  • [6] They are introduced as "effect of" (K I 84), "possibly" (K I 149), "in effect" (K I 233, 285), "either ... or" (K I 346), "should be articulated as" (K I 270), "most likely ... sung as" (K I 392), even "hardly a" (K I 393), "best heard as" (K II 77), "probably" (K II 81, 104, 109, 111, 265), or "technically four-colon but" (K II 102), "possible" (K II 150, 336), "perhaps" (K II 177, which has become a definite example by p. 182), "(can be) phrased as" (K II 202, 254), "technically" (K II 246), or "or as a kind of" (K II 259), etc.