Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.01.21


Oliver Taplin, Homeric Soundings: The Shaping of the Iliad. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992. Pp. ix + 314. ISBN 0-19-814027-4.


Reviewed by S. Douglas Olson, The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The title of this book is, in the first instance, an allusion to the way in which nautical maps are constructed: at measured intervals, the explorer stops to "sound" the depths, and from those isolated but precise measurements discovers the overall shape of the sea-floor. So too Taplin's purpose is to examine a limited number of passages from the Iliad and on that basis develop a sort of intellectual chart of the poem. At the same time, "soundings" is a reference to the essentially oral character of the story, and thus to its roots in live performance. Taplin's guiding thesis is that Homer is a powerful and engaging poet, and that his Iliad is a brilliantly integrated whole, which was sung repeatedly more or less exactly as we have it. At its best, Homeric Soundings is rich, rewarding and provocative. It is also somewhat sprawling and loosely constructed, and this detracts from its overall force.

In his first chapter ("Exploratory Charts," 1-45), Taplin discusses his own critical principles, which are oralist and unitarian, and his theory of how the Iliad was composed, performed and preserved. His basic thesis, argued for in more detail in the rest of the book, is that the poem is best understood as consisting of three long sections of narrative (1.1-9.13; 11.1-18.353; 18.354-24.804), each of which would have taken a full day (or night) to perform. (Book 10 is treated as a later intrusion into the text). Indeed, Taplin suggests that the repeated references to significant "tomorrows" within narrative-time (e.g., 8.470-2; 9.356-61; 18.134-7) may relate to performance-time as well; not only the characters within the story, that is to say, but also Homer's audience are being encouraged to look forward to the "next day" when the tale of Achilles' wrath will continue to unfold. The Iliad as we have it is thus not the unique product of an extraordinary recording session, as is often argued, but a faithful copy of a very long song performed on numerous occasions before a live audience. Taplin suggests the poem may have grown to its current size and then been gradually refined at festivals like the one described at h.Ap. 146-50, although he notes that these would have to have been "non-competitive or precompetitive" (40), at least in regards to poetry and music, since multiple performances on the scale of the Iliad can scarcely be imagined. At some point, "a 'tape-recorder' type of follower or followers" (43) memorized the story and passed it on from one generation to the next, until the need for a written version was felt, perhaps as a control on the accuracy of rhapsodes.

Taplin himself argues that these theses are not crucial to his larger project (44), and it is true that what we take to be the poetic richness of the Iliad does not depend on how it was composed. All the same, it matters a great deal whether we have a word-for-word copy of a story told routinely in almost precisely this form, or a transcription of some kind of super-performance, during which Homer would have been able to think about what he would say next as he sat waiting for his last line to be recorded. In that case, his style and instincts may have remained essentially oral, but the song he produced could have been quite different from (and perhaps considerably longer than) his usual production, and some of the features which normally accompanied his live performances might have been suppressed. Taplin is arguing for the first scenario and thus for the uncomplicatedly oral nature of the Iliad, but the arguments he offers in support of this vision are problematic at best. In the first place, when the Ionians met on Delos it was specifically to compete in "boxing and dancing and song" (h.Ap. 149-50), and an agonistic tendency seems to be typical of early Greek society. Although it is certainly possible that when Homer appeared at various local festivals for the first time they had no contests in his speciality, therefore, it is hard to imagine that they allowed him to sing at ever greater length year after year, rather than instituting a new form of competition like the one referred to in the Hymn to Apollo. As a result, an explanation of the apparently extraordinary size of the Iliad should probably be sought elsewhere than in the occasions furnished by popular festivals. Second, the idea that a song like this could have been memorized word-for-word and then passed on from one generation to another is very much open to doubt. If (as Taplin argues) Homer constantly reworked his story, which of these ever-new performance-versions was the one his follower(s) chose to preserve, and why? Even more to the point, it is not at all obvious that one can "memorize" something which has no fixed form to which appeal can be made when dispute arises (as it inevitably will) about the "real text." Even Homer would not have been able to say with absolute authority which of two metrically equivalent lines or phrases he had used on a previous occasion, after all, and sooner or later he would have been dead. If the Iliad is a single unified poem composed by an individual Dark Age poet (as Taplin is at pains to argue throughout this book), some other explanation of how it was passed down to us needs to be put forward. One obvious (and widely recognized) possibility is that, on some obscure occasion and for some obscure reason, Homer dictated a song to a man skilled at writing. If that is so, however, he would have been free to compose in a slightly novel manner, and the Iliad which resulted would have been something both more and less than a straightforward performance-piece. Third and finally, if the Iliad is a precisely transmitted version of an oral performance which stretched over three days, one would expect to see certain explicit signs of that in the text. In particular, there ought to be some initial summary of the previous action around 11.1 and 18.354, where new performance-days allegedly begin, for the benefit of auditors who were absent earlier. This is the sort of concession a real storyteller makes to his (decidedly non-ideal) audience, but which our Iliad lacks. Nor is there any reinvocation of the Muse, which is at least a bit surprising if Taplin's theses are correct. Taplin may still be right to suggest the Iliad falls naturally into three parts, and it may even be the case that this reflects the fact that Homer occasionally performed it in that way. All the same, the structural features he has isolated are at best part of the poem's history and archaeology, and cannot be read as clear, uncomplicated evidence that the text we have is a performance-piece. At most, this is a somewhat edited or adapted version of a song Homer performed in a variety of ways on a variety of occasions, but that is something rather different from (and much more complicated than) what Taplin is arguing.

I have dwelt at length on Taplin's first chapter in part because it sets the intellectual framework for everything which follows, and because the problems it poses are important. I have also done so, however, because the rest of this book is extremely difficult to summarize and evaluate. In general, Taplin seems concerned to build a cumulative case for the extraordinary subtlety with which Homer tells his story, and to illustrate the deliberately problematic situations he has his characters confront. Much of this is related to but not necessarily dependent on his three-day hypothesis. There are particularly fine discussions of Helen (ch. 3) and Hector and Andromache (ch. 4), and a wealth of useful comment on Patroklos' role and behavior and the roots and progress of the quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles. Virtually everything Taplin has to say is interesting and acute in its own way, and penetrating observations are scattered everywhere throughout the text. Unfortunately, there is also very little larger focus to the discussion, and one is routinely left unsure of why a particular point is being made, or of where the argument as a whole is going. In addition, rather than the series of precise "soundings" which the title and opening pages of the book seem to promise, the final chapters in particular consist in large part of running commentary on vast sections of text, often accompanied by a considerable amount of plot summary. It is the nature and privilege of books of literary criticism to digress a bit when it seems interesting or important to do so, and Taplin's observations are often insightful in one way or another. All the same, his individual arguments and insights do not obviously add up to any thesis larger than that Homer was a brilliant and sensitive poet. That is a point well worth making, and Taplin has a great deal to say in support of it. The overall lack of structure in the book is nonetheless unsettling, and Homeric Soundings as a whole has an oddly inchoate feel. Taplin closes with an intriguing and important Appendix (285-93), in which he argues that the traditional Book-divisions within the Iliad are not only late but all too often arbitrary and destructive of meaning.

In sum, Homeric Soundings is an interesting and intelligent book, although somewhat lacking in focus. Taplin writes clearly and carefully, and repeatedly opens his readers' eyes to the extraordinary skill with which Homer told his story of the Trojan War. All Greek is translated; there are a number of minor misprints in the excerpts from the Iliad, noteworthy only because Oxford's proofreaders are normally extremely careful about this sort of thing.