BMCR 2000.04.07

Homer’s Traditional Art

, Homer's Traditional Art. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999. xviii, 363. $48.50.

1 Responses

Foley asks the only really important question concerning Homeric orality (xi): “What difference does oral tradition make to our understanding of the Iliad and Odyssey ?” Or (5): “What difference do their roots in oral tradition make to our understanding of the Homeric poems as verbal art?” He defines Homer as (xi): “the poetic tradition as a long-term, ongoing phenomenon that comprises many individuals.” “Traditional” replaces “oral,” and (xii): “the poetic tradition under examination … is first and foremost a language. As such, a tradition is always evolving within certain rules or boundaries.” “Art” we can understand, but (xiii): “Do we need a special poetics, an approach uniquely tailored to works that emerge from oral tradition?” Foley responds to this last with “a carefully measured yes.” There are idiomatic features (Foley calls them “signs”) of Homer’s poetry; “we must learn to read behind them” (xiv). We must, e.g., recognize that Andromache addresses Hector in Iliad 6 as if she were singing his death dirge. Foley hopes (278 n. 9) that he can enable us “to speak Homer’s traditional language.”

“Homeric Signs and Traditional Referentiality” (chapter 1) has as its central (and annoyingly repeated) theme (32): “oral traditions work like languages, only more so.” By this F. means that “Homer’s ‘words’ — the formulas, narrative patterns, and other units of utterance … signals potentially rife with implication, as keys to an emergent reality.” Bard and audience share the knowledge of these implications and by their means can construct meaning in a poem whose surface appearance may be more flat, less rich, perhaps more mannered. This is correct and helpful, though clearly not unique to epic: much of modern television is opaque or silly to me because I am not fully aware of the conventions of the genre that the merest child internalizes very early on. It is not traditional poetry that is odd, it is our own craving for the original, the new, the striking, the contextless utterance and our fondness for literature (in English) written by peoples of other cultures. If I interpret F. aright, the phrase χειρὶ παχείῃ used of Penelope does not require linguistic exegesis (such as I provided in CP 1968) but rather denotes that Penelope is now taking charge of things and has moved into heroic mode (cf. F 220-221). The words are a sign, not a literal description.

Part II deals with Homer and Yugoslav epic and is requisite only if one wishes to draw conclusions about Homer from Slavic epic (or vice-versa). I found chapter 2 interesting, particularly the argument that the name Homer is a σῆμα that represents the tradition of epic poetry, not a person. Chapter 3 is less satisfactory. Here F. compares Yugoslav and Homeric diction, finding both similarities and differences. Such is to be expected, and one wonders to what end the comparison is made in the first place: neither Homer nor Yugoslavs are particularly elucidated. Chapter 4 continues 3, and reveals a number of Slavic type scenes or expressions that key the reader/listener to the future course of the tale.

Part III: “Reading Homer’s Signs” contains three chapters. “Story-Pattern as sema: the Odyssey as a return song”; “Typical Scenes of Feast and Lament”; “Word, Idiom, Speech-Act: Traditional Phrase as Sema.” These represent the three units or “words” with which F deals. He holds that the Odyssey is a “return song” of a very traditional type, extended — also traditionally — beyond its telos to its conclusion. Comparanda here are Yugoslavian songs, and do not help this reader at least. “The Homeric Feast sign” is “a ritualistic event leading from an obvious and preexisting problem to an effort at mediation of that problem.” 198 is good on the distance (in Andromache’s lament in book 6) between Andromache’s oikos -based plea and Hector’s kleos- based response. His maintaining (203) that Andromache’s lament conveys the message “that Hector is as good as dead” is to my mind a misreading of her desperate attempt to prevent his death.

In the chapter on words F. — perhaps unnecessarily — stresses that for Homer “word” does not always correspond to our “word,” but can refer to phrases and even entire lines, just as is the case with the Slavic guslar. In fact this is generally agreed. He adduces a number of examples, of which I choose χλωρὸν δέος often translated as “green” + “fear.” F. holds that it is but one word (I would write it “greenfear”) that “is more than simply a powerful, disabling emotion; it is by traditional definition a superhuman, unconquerable force.” Phrases like “and answering [he / it] spoke to him/her” are a kind of traditional punctuation and are not to be taken literally. Other phrases/formulae denote “emotional speaker” (lines with ὀνομάζειν); “you should know better!” ( ποῖόν σε ἔπος…). “Sweet sleep,” a phrase that is common to us, (= sweetsleep) denotes “the double reality of sleep as both welcome release and problematic vulnerability” (221).

“Rereading Odyssey 23″ endeavors to provide an instance of “oral tradition work[ing] like language, only more so.” In it F. demonstrates his contention that we must read behind and between the signs (246): “the dual expressive mode of traditional signs and what lies between them makes possible a kind of verbal art that neither medium alone could foster.” A “unique reality … within a recurring, idiomatic frame” (249). With this formulation we can indeed concur, though we may object to some of his semantic identifications.

An “Afterword” treats of “Deor” and Anglo-Saxon Semata.

F. knows whereof he speaks, and is informative. I find several points of contention, however. “Tradition” sometimes has a capital T, and refers to something elemental, archetypal, of which separate traditions are instantiations. Thus the Odyssey is a “return song” comparable to Yugoslav songs of similar content. To me the poem is more than that, and has no (necessary) connection with Yugoslav epics. If it does, then the Yugoslav poems are either derivative of it and hence not to be used to elucidate it or there must be some ur-return song from which both traditions stem. Tradition with a lower case ‘t’ I can understand: that body of cultural artefacts real and linguistic that lies behind the Homeric poems as we have them; or more narrowly, Homer’s antecedents in epic. F. correctly holds that this tradition is shared by bard and audience, though the bard is free to alter or reshape tradition — within certain limits — as he sees fit (cf. 33-34).

And the phrase “like language, only more so” is both helpful and inexplicit. “Greenfear” denotes (a) some sort of physical manifestation which would have been understood by all, and the adjective has its lexical meaning of “green” or “pale.” It also has connotative meanings (b) which may or may not be shared by all and may or may not be those F. isolates; and it will certainly have meanings or implications (c) peculiar to a given poet. We are thus faced not with traditional poetics necessarily but rather with the dilemma of definition: how much of the context is to be included in a definition? And how much of peculiar idiom is to go into a lexical entry? Can lexical meaning in fact be overridden by traditional phraseology? I suspect it can, but that at any moment a listener can foreground the lexical meaning. I taught in the state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. We all know — pretty much — what a plantation is (a). Nowadays people object to the term because to them it summons up the image (b) of slavery. The term then should be defined for these people: “large agricultural estate worked by slave labor.” Or not. And yet the term will have had a pleasant connotation for Stephen Foster (c). Is all this to be included in the sign? I feel that F. has overdetermined some of the “words” with which he deals. His work is also overdetermined in that is too long and too Latinate, too little oral and epic; it applies very heavy machinery to evanescent, coruscating phenomena: his spirit discusses, it does not soar. Nonetheless he asks the important question and has gone some way to answering it.