BMCR 1991.02.06

Homer: Poet of the Iliad; Poetry and its Public in Ancient Greece

, Homer: Poet of the Iliad. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. x, 341 pages. ISBN 9780801833298
, Poetry and its Public in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the Fifth Century. Baltimore; London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988. xx, 384 pages. ISBN 9780801832901

Both of these books appeared in hard-cover a few years ago, and are now being reissued in paperback. One is bad and one is good, but neither is quite what it appears to be, or what earlier reviewers have made of it.

A blurb on the back of Mark W. Edwards’ Homer: Poet of the Iliad (drawn from a review by Rexine in CW 82 [1988] 56f), declares it valuable “even for those who have ‘done’ Homer in both Greek and English many times.” This is a very good book, but it is not intended for someone who knows the Iliad and works with it in Greek. Instead, the implied reader of the text is an intelligent and well-educated individual, with a traditional training in English or Comparative Literature but no knowledge of classical languages or culture, who must now teach Homer’s story of the war at Troy as one of the “Great Books” of Western Civilization. An audience of this sort will find Homer: Poet of the Iliad an interesting and useful volume. Professional Homerists, on the other hand, will find a number of minor interpretative gems and a great deal else that is well said here, but no great surprises or major new insights.

The first half of Edwards’ book is devoted to an analysis of Homer’s poetic style, with regular reference to the Odyssey as well as to the Iliad. Overall, the discussion is balanced, intelligent, clear, and readable. Edwards organizes his argument around traditional New Critical topics such as “Word Order and Emphasis,” “Symbolism,” “Similes,” and “Sounds.” This is a bit old-fashioned, but the positive result is that the book is largely free of trendy literary jargon, double-talk and obfuscation. Edwards’ basic technique is to describe a poetic device and then discuss examples of it in a page or two, and these case-studies are consistently well-chosen and interesting. There is a nice analysis of the way the poet manipulates arming scenes (pp. 72-74), for example, and a good study of the theme of guard-dogs (pp. 76f.). Lapses are few and not terribly significant. Thus the interrelated problems of pre-Homeric poetry and the Cycle are not discussed very clearly, but the point is a minor one and touched on only in passing.

The second half of Edwards’ Homer is a brief commentary on selected books of the Iliad (1, 3, 6, 9, 13, 14, 16, 18, 22, 24). Once again, professional Homerists will not find a great deal here to quarrel with, but also little that is earthshakingly new. Edwards’ tacit acceptance of a literary “canon within the canon” of the Iliad, however, is a bit disturbing. Should students (and their professors) really be taught that certain books of the epic are more important (or at least more deserving of notice) than others? And how does this make sense, in light of Edwards’ regular insistence on Homer’s constant purposefulness? It is important to stress once again, however, that these are not the sorts of issues that Homer is intended to address. At the least, the discussion in this section will be helpful for anyone faced with the very real practical task of teaching the Iliad in English to undergraduates for the first time. Basic, largely Anglophone bibliographic suggestions are given at the end of every chapter.

There is a responsible and balanced review of Edward’s book by Willcock in CR 38 (1988) 201f. The heavily politicized remarks of Joyal in EMC 32 (1988) 438-42, on the other hand, largely miss the point.

The first thing that must be said about Bruno Gentili’s Poetry and Its Public in Ancient Greece: From Homer to the Fifth Century is that it is misleadingly titled. Gentili has very little to say about Homer, and almost nothing to say about fifth-century Athenian drama. Instead, this is an attempt to discuss the significance of orality for understanding lyric poetry, and to examine the lives and poetic programs of the lyric poets in this light. The project as a whole must be judged a monumental failure, even if there are occasional exciting moments along the way. What is odd is that no reviewer has yet admitted this in print.

Gentili says at one point that in lyric poetry as he conceives of it, “the only unity was a thematic one, given the poet’s freedom to juxtapose groups of verses relating loosely to a single theme even if there was no real logical interconnection. The technique was an associative, anthologizing one, which permitted the reutilization of texts already available, whether as part of the traditional repertory or among the works composed by the poet himself for other occasions of an analogous character” (49). That may or may not be true of lyric poetry, and Gentili’s argument is so lacking in clarity that one really cannot decide if it is. What is all too obvious, however, is that (in an unfortunate example of life imitating art) the description fits Gentili’s own book perfectly. If there is a coherent general plan or argument here, it is impossible to identify. The three larger parts and twelve chapters do not fit together in any apparent way, except that they all have to do with Greek lyric poetry and poets. Within the individual chapters, moreover, the discussion is unfocussed and disorganized, and lurches abruptly and arbitrarily from one topic to another. One sometimes has the sinking feeling that one is reading loosely organized lecture notes or transcriptions of dictaphone recordings, two other essentially oral forms which do not translate well onto the written page. The problems with the argument itself are equally profound. Gentili routinely accepts any ancient source or story of any age or origin as serious, reliable evidence about archaic poetry and archaic Greece. Even more disturbing, he regularly builds his analyses of specific poems on the sort of biographical criticism one would otherwise have thought discredited and discarded long ago. At the same time, Gentili talks at length about the impact of literacy on poetry and its public, but without ever considering the fundamental question of how widespread or important the ability to read actually was in Greece. In particular, he never confronts (or even acknowledges) the fact that the ancients routinely read aloud. Orality and literacy, that is to say, could not have been such mutually exclusive categories as Gentili routinely assumes.

In short, this is a very bad book, poorly organized, naively argued, and virtually unreadable. The ten black-and-white plates, incidentally, serve a vague cosmetic purpose, but add nothing to the argument; the copious notes are hidden in the back, where they can do no one any good. For reasons that escape me, Poetry and Its Public has received almost universally positive reviews from classicists (e.g., Hooker in CR 36 [1986] 61-3; Harriott in JHS 106 [1986] 223; Kirkwood in Gnomon 57 [1985] 677-81). Perhaps this is a result of some tacit understanding in our field that senior professors (and particularly senior European professors) will not have their work subjected to serious criticism by their junior (particularly English-speaking) colleagues. This is nonsense. The emperor has no clothes, and no one should have to buy this book to find that out.