BMCR 2003.12.18

The Poetry of Homer. Introduction by Bruce Heiden

, , The poetry of Homer. Greek studies. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, [2003], 1966. xxxi, 271 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 0739106953 $27.95.

Samuel Bassett was to give the Sather Lectures in 1937, but died before they could be delivered. He had, however, essentially written the lectures, which constitute The Poetry of Homer. Summarizing and extending Bassett’s lifelong work on Homer, the lectures address the continuing value of the Homeric poems with an apologetic passion: because Analytic critics had so often disparaged the epics as they stand, the committed Unitarian tried to demonstrate that they are, on the contrary, excellent in all respects. This task required that the critic try to understand the rules of Homeric composition on their own terms, in order to show that modern criteria were inappropriate.

In Chapter One, Bassett presents his basic understanding of the epics’ original function. He argues intensely for a single author of both epics, seeing arguments for different authorship as fundamentally those of the Analysts. Homeric poetry, in his view, seeks a reality effect above all; he shows “Life Writ Large” (one suspects the influence of Matthew Arnold). Homer is not trying to provide moral instruction or a national past, and Bassett limits as much as possible external motives or sources for narrative material (the Hieros Gamos is not the background for Zeus and Hera, the Aeneas-episode does not meet the needs of a patron). The second chapter, Epic Illusion, deals with time and space. Bassett points out the narrative value of “Zielinski’s Rule” (the constant forward flow of Homeric time), and makes some very good observations about how the poems handle changes of scene. In the third, he examines dialogue and its importance in presenting individuality; the fourth concerns passages where the poet speaks in his own voice, such as descriptive passages and narratorial comments. Here Bassett especially stresses Homer’s focus on people rather than things, so that objects tend to receive histories rather than descriptions, and passages like the Pursuit of Hector do not seek to provide objective information but to engage the audience in the characters’ emotions. Chapter five treats narrative techniques that demonstrate how the poems work for a listening rather than a reading audience: allowing characters to have unrealistic knowledge of facts familiar to the audience; hysteron proteron, and epic irony, where the listener can evaluate what characters say through knowledge the characters lack. Bassett does not refer to “Jörgenson’s rule” that poet and audience have more precise knowledge of divine action than the characters. This is the most common source of epic irony, but it may actually be useful that he does not treat it as a special category. Chapter six discusses rhythm, with a polemic against looking for caesura and a discussion of the lyric qualities of simile. Seven defends the epics’ unity of plot. Bassett argues fiercely against criticism of Achilles (he insists that the sacrifice of the Trojans on Patroclus’ pyre and the abuse of Hector’s corpse are acceptable in the Homeric world) and compares him to Hector. The chapter also treats the function of episodes. The final chapter looks at the ways in which Homer is realistic and those in which he is not, and compares Homer to tragedy.

This summary should make it clear both where Bassett points towards themes that recent scholarship has pursued and where he seems no longer relevant. His vehement attack on the search for a third-foot caesura in every line is justified, but here his rejection of Parry limits his insight into the hexameter, since word-end and formula-boundary are closely related. The passion with which Bassett defends a single author for both epics seems almost quaint. Bassett’s attempt to make Homer as original as possible seems perverse. A summary, though, does not convey what in the book is especially valuable that more recent scholarship has not developed, and this is not such an easy matter. When an older book is reprinted, the reviewer ‘s first question must be what the book offers readers now. Sometimes a reprint justifies itself because a book is difficult to find. I do not think that this is the case here. To be sure, I did not own it until I received the review copy. Since I have most of Cedric Whitman’s Homer books, he probably did not own it either. It has been readily available in libraries, however. So the reprint requires a higher standard of justification.

The introduction argues that Poetry of Homer, though it has received greater attention in the last twenty years, is neglected, and refers to its absence from Brill’s recent Companion to Homer. It indeed deserves more attention — I myself have failed to consult it when I should have — but it is not forgotten. Besides the works mentioned in footnote 2 (p. xxix) of Heiden’s introduction, a very quick sampling along my shelves shows that it appears in the bibliographies of Martin, Edwards, Griffin, de Jong, Morrison, Nagy, and my own Listening to Homer, though not in Zanker or Taplin, or Fenik (though on 56 n. 77 he disagrees with an article of Bassett whose point is summarized in Poetry of Homer on 121-122).1 It is surely not much noticed outside Anglophone scholarship.

The issue is whether this neglect is a problem simply as a matter of fairness and sentiment — that is, that Bassett made arguments that have been absorbed into the mainstream, but for which he does not receive the credit he deserves — or whether there are important ideas in Poetry of Homer that we neglect. Certainly the Homerist profits from reading Bassett, because the book is full of interesting observations and readings with which even disagreement is profitable. Yet without denigrating Bassett in any way — indeed, it is a form of praise to say that he has been so assimilated as to be invisible — I am not certain that there is a great deal to be found here that is both important and that more recent work has not developed. Bassett’s best work is on narrative/rhetorical technique, and most often it seems to me that his discussion is a basis that later work, especially de Jong’s, has refined and improved. Bassett himself is an easy read, enthusiastic and not technical in a way that may have its advantages. For example, on 151-54 Bassett points out with great clarity how often Homeric lines offer essential information in the first half, expansive detail in the second (easier than Bakker’s nucleus/periphery analysis, but impressionistic).2

His treatment of “epic irony” is still valuable (135-37), because it contextualizes Achilles’ famous suggestion at Iliad 9.392 that Agamemnon find a son-in-law who is “more kingly,” and many treatments of this passage seem to assume that it proves that Achilles has guessed what Agamemnon said earlier. Bassett’s discussion of Homer’s effort to engage the audience emotionally, to make a past world real through significant detail and the immediacy of the speeches is still very valuable (as Heiden’s introduction points out, xx-xxi). Although recent studies have stressed, maybe to excess, the importance of vividness and the sense of presence (Ford and Bakker), too often the basic tendency of Homeric style to seek affective engagement above all slips into the taken-for-granted.3

Ideally, a reprint includes an introduction by a contemporary scholar that explains its achievement and helps the reader appreciate both its place in the history of scholarship and its usefulness now. This book has a very brief preface by Gregory Nagy, as series editor, and an introduction by Bruce Heiden. Nagy claims that the Homeric Question continues to overshadow appreciation of the Homeric poems as literature, which seems to me untrue, and that Bassett did not appreciate Parry, whose work actually supports Bassett’s. The claim deserves some attention. One of Bassett ‘s arguments against Parry is also a criticism of one aspect of Nagy’s work. In removing creativity from individuals to the “tradition,” but never allowing it a particular moment, such a view puts it in an infinite regress (p.18). J. Niles’ discussion ( Homo Narrans: the poetics and anthropology of oral literature) of “strong tradition-bearers” shows that exceptional, creative performers are vital to sustaining oral traditions.4 In other respects, Bassett’s rejection of Parry shows the value of the debate between “hard” and “soft” Parryites, of all the work that scholars have done on the flexibility and complexity of the formula, and of both the natural and poetic characteristics of Homer language. It is no longer difficult to unite the humanistic/unitarian and the Parry-Lord traditions in Homeric studies, but Parry’s rhetoric was sometimes extreme and misleading. Bassett, fortunately, concentrated not on the process of composition, but on the poems’ effect on a listening audience: he is the precursor of our contemporary interest in performance. Heiden mostly deals with the general intellectual background of Bassett: his connections with ancient criticism (Aristotle, Aristarchus, Longinus), and with twentieth-century thought: science, William James, Bergson. It is interesting but idiosyncratic. I would have appreciated a discussion of Bassett’s place in the Unitarian tradition and his originality, without which it is hard to judge just how unfairly neglected he has been, since I suspect he was especially indebted to C. Rothe, and I am far too busy (or lazy) to do the work of carefully re-reading hundreds of pages of Fraktur (and the library here does not own Die Odyssee als Dichtung).5 An introduction that really placed Bassett in relation to contemporary scholarship, and pointed to what we could learn from him, would have been of more practical help. Finally, it would have been very useful if Heiden had identified places where Bassett might be developed further. The end of the introduction criticizes Bassett for believing that the Homeric poems glorify the past, since Heiden thinks Homer’s praise of the heroes is thoroughly ironic. This seems to me as reductive as the opposite view. On the other hand, Heiden rightly points out that there is some confusion in Bassett’s insistence that the poems seek to cast a “spell” and his awareness that at least some elements in them are poetically self-conscious.

Bassett himself is the most complete apologist for Achilles I have ever encountered. While many interpreters think that Achilles is completely in the right in rejecting the Embassy, and many recent readers agree with Bassett that Homer does not blame Achilles for the sacrifice of the Trojans at Patroclus’ pyre, very few will see him as completely blameless throughout. Indeed, now that I have really considered Bassett’s treatment of Achilles, I am morally uncomfortable with the intensity of his admiration for Homer. If the ideal audience of the epic feels no moral distance from Achilles, ever, and indeed views him as the perfect hero, the implied author, despite his pity for Hector (Bassett is good on that) is not someone to whose authority I want to lend myself. Bassett plays down the violence of Homer (229-30). He stresses that there is no prolonged physical torture in the epics (Melanthius does not count, because he suffers “the due punishment of a false slave in an age that knew no humanitarianism”). He points out that Hecuba and Andromache do not actually witness the death of Hector (is it gentler that Andromache sees his corpse as Achilles drags it away?), and that Penelope does not enter the hall after the slaughter until it has been cleaned up (but he does not mention that Odysseus is still covered in gore). Bassett’s argument here is interesting precisely in its inadequacies: Homer’s rules of decorum are not always transparent.

Bassett’s frequent references to the “primitive” and to “nature” would make me wary of recommending it to the unsophisticated reader, and his assumption that his reader is closely familiar with Milton and Wordsworth would surely be off-putting to most of our students. He also has a habit of praising Homer by unnecessarily disparaging other authors. Recognizing the excellence of Homer certainly demands that we see how Homer is unlike Apollonius, Virgil, or Milton, but at our present distance from Analytic attacks on Homer, this kind of apology is no longer necessary. Nobody who loves these authors will learn to appreciate Homer by being told that his way is always the best way, and for those who don’t know them, the criticism is simply a disincentive to read them. His treatment of Hera has a condescending whiff of patriarchy. For students, the book is a proverbial curate’s egg (some parts are excellent).

In the end, then, I tend to think that both the scholarly world and Bassett might have been better served by a substantial essay about his work than by a reprinting of it; but I am happy to have had the occasion to read it straight through, and some others will be, too.

The last two pages of the original index are missing (since the publisher lists 302 pp, I am assuming this is not a defect peculiar to my copy). An index locorum would have been a good addition.


1. R. Martin, The Language of Heroes (Ithaca 1989), M. Edwards, Homer: Poet of the Iliad (Baltimore 1987); J. Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford 1980), I. F. de Jong, A Narratological Commentary on the Odyssey (Cambridge 2001), J. Morrison, Homeric Misdirection (Ann Arbor 1992); G. Nagy, Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore 1979); R. Scodel, Listening to Homer (Ann Arbor 2002),; G. Zanker, Heart of Achilles (Ann Arbor 1994); O. Taplin, Homeric Soundings (Oxford 1992) , B. Fenik, Studies in the Odyssey (Hermes Einzelschriften 30, Wiesbaden 1974).

2. E. Bakker, Poetry in Speech: Orality and Homeric Discourse (Ithaca 1997).

3. A. Ford, Homer: the Poetry of the Past (Ithaca 1992).

4. J. Niles, Homo Narrans: the poetics and anthropology of oral literature (Philadelphia 1999).

5. C. Rothe, Die Ilias als Dichtung (Paderborn 1910); Die Odyssee als Dichtung und ihr Verhältnis zur Ilias (Paderborn 1914).