Homer in a Changing Tradition
An Ancient Text Entering its Fourth Millennium
This paper explores the varying changes of taste and judgment which have affected the understanding of the Homeric Epics over the years. In a sense we might consider the Homer Text as a constant with a remarkably long life in fixed form and constant use, now in its fourth millennium (anno MM). Beside this, changes in approach can be taken as Variables, some interesting and engaging, others distracting from the intelligent interpretation of these ancient texts.
This essay should be read as a concatenated whole, but I want to point special attention to the Parts VII and subsequent, which describe an imminent danger to a long and valuable tradition. We are in the process of consigning the "real" Homer to the scrap-pile of unread documents, while we exploit the Epic Tradition in translation for those who sit in our classes, who can hear only the faint echo of a proud and mighty voice.
I: Homer in Hellenic Antiquity
I: Homer in Hellenic Antiquity
The Homeric Epic texts are remarkable in several ways, but none is more striking than the fact that they have survived in constant use far longer than any other known document. Some Hellenistic Greeks (Eratosthenes) thought that Homer was composing in the 12th c. B.C., Herodotus places him in the 9th c. and several epigraphic "family trees" of poets push names back as far as the 9th century, which is a possible rough date for Homer as part of an oral tradition.
But it was in the age of Peisistratos in the 6th century that we first hear of the Homeric poems being written down, and by the time of Plato we have an almost identical Homer to what we read in the Oxford text series today. Already in Alexandrian times there were text critics such as Aristarchos and Zenodotos who questioned certain words in their already ancient text, and there are manuscript variants which crept in during the following millennium and can be seen in the tradition in the Venice MSS of the 10 and 11th centuries. But there is little reason to think that the Homer which Plato read and quoted is far different from "our" Homer. But it is not the sheer age of these poems which is so remarkable, as much as the fact that they were in continual readers' use throughout this long time span, which now enters Homer's fourth millennium. Note especially that this is without the reinforcement of a religious tradition.
Speaking of Homer. the academic fraternity thinks immediately of the "tradition", the 'nachleben' in the quasi-evolutionary history of the Literature of the West. Courses in literature progress smoothly from Homer to Vergil and on to Dante and Milton, as if each were a building block on which to found a new story in the construction of the literary skyscraper. But there are problems with this approach, which stresses similarities but tends to omit mention of obvious differences, and it is often the differences which make the later works special and interesting in their own right.
II: Homer in the Roman Tradition
Clearly Vergil had read his Homer well, and there are allusions, borrowed words and phrase and a light mist of Homericism spread over the Aeneid. But as Poeschl noted conclusively years ago, there is a radical difference between Homer and Vergil. Homer is clear, exact and most important, he is explicit. There is no hesitation, stuffing or bullshit, over half the line are in direct speech and his speed is a model of directness. But with Vergil, all is implicit, there are hidden meanings among the words and between the lines, and this reflects not only the curiously in-turning personality of Vergil, but the nature of the age in which he lived. To a careless reader, the Aeneid may look like a Latin Iliad, but if you know your Latin well and spend time with the magic wording of Vergil's art, you find bit by bit inner hints of hidden meanings, mysterious imagery which often runs counter to the meaning of the lines.
Vergil was accused in his time of plagiarizing many lines from Homer, to which he responded that it was easier to steal his club from Heracles than steal a line from Homer. He knew the difference, what he took was just the outline, the essence is un-steal-able. General Agrippa criticized Vergil for "tastelessness" in combining common words with poetic diction, something we cannot trace accurately since we know so little of common Latin parlance. But again, this is a far cry from Homer, whose language is all ancient, statuesque and lofty. One does not have to be an established critic to see that between Homer and Vergil there are vast differences, and it is the differences which Vergil was quietly exploring.
Dante is another matter. Vergil's Fourth Eclogue speaks of a child being born who will restore the world to peace and a golden age, and a tradition arose among early Christians that Vergil, under divine inspiration, was announcing the coming of Christ. The words are indeed very curious and no historical connection with any political child of Rome has been made; perhaps there was a Messianic spirit in the air stemming from Rome's established Jewish community which caught Vergil's ear. But through the ages, Vergil was associated with Christianity and it was this which connected him to Dante. Sortes Vergilianae were a Western type of I Ching, the book was opened and a line appeared which told the future. And then there was late tradition of Vergil the Magician, a medieval sorcerer of great power.
Going back to Homer, how strange and irrelevant all this seems. Dante's Commedia stands on its own three legs, it does not need a heritage, nor does Milton's Paradise Lost. The world of literature is not developed through seeds or spores, there are influences and effects, but each written document is the work of a writer who has assembled words and thoughts from his total experience, and what was stored in his complex brain now by the alchemy of Art becomes a new thing, a new history or poem or epic. It is the relationship of the work to the person which is of primary importance, while the web of interlocking influences should be left in the background as a secondary level into which we can dip from time to time.
III: Homeric "status" after 1700
From the early Renaissance, which had started as a Latin based revival and only become fully Greek-conscious by the time of Erasmus, and on well into the 17th century, Vergil was considered the master poet of the classical world. Homer seemed rough, his language strange and obscure beside the lucidity of a Plato or a Demosthenes, and his episodes tainted by blood and savagery of a sort not suitable to the polite and cultured post-Renaissance world. War was still a major social function everywhere but it was politically based and executed by armies of nameless conscripts or mercenaries, with none of the intensity of Homer's fighting heroes. As Vergil was smooth and polished, Homer was seen to be rough and barbaric, perhaps comparable to the world of Beowulf and the sagas of the Vikings, which were not a part of real literature.
But some important changes of taste and opinion, which were to have a great influence on the way people approached Literature, were brewing in England at the start of the l8th century. This was a broad wave of change, but I want to follow it as it affected the Homeric poems. Since Homer had survived virtually intact as a book from Archaic Greece through Restoration England, we might consider his texts as a kind of Literary Constant, and look at the way they were read and interpreted as an example of a Social Variable. This gives us a fixed point from which to measure the depth and width of new approaches, a method which can equally well be applied to the corpus of the New Testament writings.
The first translation of Homer into English was that of George Chapman, whose Iliad appeared in 1611 in rhymed fourteen-syllable lines, followed by an Odyssey in rhymed ten-syllables lines in 1614. There is no question but that Chapman's Homer had fire and drive, and it can stand on its own as a fine specimen on post-Elizabethan language. But Homer of the Greek world, master of the inexorable drive of pages of dactylic hexameters, does not go willingly into the Procrustean bed of iambic rhymed couplets. When you lose the form, you lose a great part of what the work means, and we have come far closer with unrhymed, accentual poetry of the last hundred years, than might have been expected.
A century later Alexander Pope, who was then occupied with his own translation of Homer, noted of Chapman :".......a daring, fiery spirit that animates his translation, which is something like one might imagine Homer himself to have written before he arrived at the age of discretion". We might now not be so aware of Chapman in the list of Homeric translators were it not for the famous words of Keats, who knowing no Greek called up an ancient world of truth and beauty from sheer talented imagination, aided by rumblings already pointing toward the Greek Revival.
But this was clearly the temper of the times. It is now hardly thinkable to imagine the plays of Shakespeare being modernized to l8th century tastes, words and phrases which are harsh or hard, being excised, while the plays were cut down to the half size which a "modern" audience would accept. But this was the case, clearly documented in Theodore Spencer's remarkable book: Shakespeare Improved, HUP, l934. One thinks in our own time of the modernization of the art of the Victorian world with the advent of Art Deco, which in turn became an art historian's chapter under the title "Modernesque". This is normal and inevitable, but only becomes a problem when it interferes with the interpretation of an original work, when it tries to translate and "replace" something for an audience which does not have access to the original.
By Pope's time the world had arrived at the age of discretion, and his translation into rhymed couplets, while exact and cunning it its neat articulation, has very little to do with the Homer of the Greek text which came down through the ages. It may well have been Blackwell's experience "on reading Chapman's Homer" which called forth his remarkable book on Homer which appeared in l735. All in all, Pope cleaned most of the fire out of Homer's words, making Homer a placid and flaccid 18th century poem for those arrived at their timid discretionary age.
In l735 Thomas Blackwell (l701 - 1757), an obscure Scottish Classical scholar, published a remarkable book "An Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer". It was followed in the next year by "Proofs of the Enquiry into Homer's Life and Writings" which contained translations of everything Blackwell could find in the writings of various European scholars up to that date.
Blackwell intended to show the superiority of Homer to all writers who had preceded or followed him, a startling notion in a world which had strong Vergilian tastes, and he amassed considerable materials to prove his point. But his book was ill organized, a virtual hodge podge of argumentation, to the extent that Bentley remarked that when he had gone through half of it, he had forgotten what was at the beginning, and when he finished the reading of it, he had forgotten the whole. His disorganized arguments coupled with some pomposity of style seemed ridiculous to many people, but his basic argument, that Homer was a superior poet of the greatest value, was a seed well planted in the hard soil of English l8th century taste, and may be considered the start of an entirely new appreciation of values in Classical criticism. The winds were shifting and the times were getting ready for some substantial changes.
A much more influential force was gathered together by the work of Thomas Percy, who called attention to ancient 15th century poetry as part of the body of English Literature. What was unusual is that his materials came from unknown or little known persons, as part of a folk-tradition. England was ready to search in its roots, and this combined with an antiquarian interest in origins which has been fired up in the previous century. The old was becoming the new fashion.
Thomas Percy (l729 - 1811) graduated Christ Church, Oxford in l747, M.A. l753, He held various church benefices which allowed him time to pursue his interests in discovering and publishing ancient documents, such as the translation from the Portuguese of a Chinese story in l761, and two years later Runic Poetry translated from the Icelandic, followed by a reprint of the "Household book of the Earl of Northumberland in l512", an important piece of early social history. But it was his "Reliques of Ancient Poetry" published in l765 which grasped the attention of the reading public and incidentally made him famous for life. This was a collection of early English ballads, based on an old manuscript collection which was rescued by Percy in Humphrey Pitt's house from the hands of a housemaid who was about to light a fire with it.
The poems were from the 15th century, many based on earlier versions since they occurred in varied forms. But it was established clearly that there was an ancient tradition of folk balladry in England and Scotland, which was authentic, ancient and of immediate antiquarian interest. Percy was soon famous for this book, became domestic chaplain to the current Duke and Duchess of Northumberland, and lived on to be known as the rescuer of the famous English Percy Ballad Collection. Balladry now became a legitimate part of the English literary tradition, soon to be followed by Scott's "Border Minstrelsy" and other somewhat touched-up collections. The seed planted by Blackwell had begun to germinate, but in an unexpected season.
Consider the parallel case of Geoffrey Chaucer (-1400), who like Homer was previously felt to be rough and a crude writer, yet clearly a magnificent and stable block in the building of the body of English literature. This was not only by the choice of a dialect which was destined to survive, but by Chaucer's sheer literary and artistic value. As soon as printing was firmly established in England, various parts of Chaucer's work began to appear. The printer Caxton published pieces after l475, more editions followed in the years that followed, and Pynson's three editions of 1526 were virtually a Chaucer Collection. These early editions derived from some 60 manuscripts of varying value, many of which have survived, and editions appeared sporadically throughout the Elizabethan period.
But in the following century there was just one anonymous reprint in 1687 and then a lacuna until the poor edition of Urry in l721, the original flanked by two paraphrases into readable English. Nobody understood then that Chaucer scanned perfectly, the mistaken notion that many of his vowels were silent led to a general opinion that he wrote "doggerel verse", and it was Thomas Morrell, who anonymously printed the Prologue and The Knight's Tale in l737, who first showed that with pronunciation of the silent -e-'s, Chaucer's scansion was immaculate. Suddenly Chaucer was seen not as an antique and curious relic from the past, but a major writer in the English tradition. The roughness of Chaucer was rubbed away for readers, but the patination of the centuries became an additional attraction.
Note this date of Morrell's reprinting of Chaucer, 1737, which follows so close on Blackwell's "Homer....." of l735, and Thomas Percy's degree from Oxford some ten years later. Meanwhile the Classical scholar Thomas Tyrwhitt (1730 - 1786) who had published some ten editions of Greek authors, turned his attention and skills in reading ancient MSS to Chaucer and published in l775 the first "modern" edition of The Canterbury Tales, based on careful reading of the better manuscripts with his trained Classical eye. Now it was soon established that Chaucer was a major figure in the literature of the country, and in the next century Chaucer was given scholarly care in editions, while his literary position as a complex and sophisticated poet overtook the former notion of an early writer of curiously rough, doggerel verse.
In England's eagerness to uncover ancient writing, it eagerly accepted the writing of Thomas Chatterton as interesting and genuine. Tyrwhitt carefully examined in l777 Chatterton's "Poems supposed to Have been written by Thomas Rowley and other in the 15th century", correctly arguing that these were a fabrication. Thomas Chatterton, a talented young poet who died at age of seventeen in poverty from a dose of arsenic, was a sad figure indeed and captured the public imagination. He and his poetry as well as his death were a matter of discussion throughout that decade, but his interests, whether imaginative or fabricating, were in complete accord with the antiquarian tendencies of that period.
We turn now to a focal point in the trend, one which will lead with a considerable jump on to the yet unborn "Homeric Question". Robert Wood, who died in l771, had traveled across Europe and on into Asia Minor with John Bouverie and James Dawkins, and published accounts of Palmyra in 1753 and Balbec in 1757. He was under- secretary of state for a decade after 1756, involved in various political actions and left his final book "Essay on the Original Genius of Homer" to be published posthumously in l775, in a sumptuous and elegantly printed large quarto format. In this book, which includes material from his earlier travels in the Near East, Wood continues with the thread which had started to unravel half a century earlier in the writings of Blackwell. But by this time there was ample backup for a reassessment of Homeric poetry, which could now be re- evaluated as ancient, strong and vital in the traditions of Beowulf and the Icelandic sagas, but written in the earlier form of what was to become the grand literary language of the ancient world ---- Classical Greek. Now many threads could be woven together into a new literary fabric in which polish was to be considered inferior to originality and authenticity. The stage had been set in England.
From this time on, there would be no question but that ancient poetry and ancient documents had a serious grip on the minds of literary people, and that part of the charm of ancient writings lay in the very fact of their "roughness" as sign of their absolute antiquity and authenticity. In this ambiance, the ancient epic of Homer fitted perfectly, and would be the stepping stone for further attention of an entirely different nature.
IV: Germany and the "Homeric Problem"
When we speak of the now famous "Homeric Problem" we think automatically of the essay of F.A. Wolf which so startled the literary world at the end of the l8th century. This short essay published in l791 spawned hundreds of books and thousands of articles which explored the hypothesis of Homer being only the last of the "Homers", and the Homeric poems having been assembled out of a lost world of bardic or ballad poetry. For more than a hundred years The Homeric Problem was considered a part of the Homeric tradition which no scholar or student could afford to ignore. In the 20th century enthusiasm for this kind of "literary analysis" diminished, probably more from weariness with an overdeveloped bibliography than from any real proof of it being wrong.
But the "Homeric Problem" is not a neatly encapsulatable notion, its roots go back into earlier concepts and misconceptions, and on the other end of our time-frame the "problem" melds into another tradition, that of the universal world of bardic poetry, which we will discuss later.
Let us now turn with a quantum leap of the mind, to Germany where Friedrich August Wolf (1759 - 1824) was a young, classically trained schoolmaster at Ifeld and then at Osterrode from 1779 to 1783. During this time in his early twenties, he learned enough English to translate a play of Shakespeare into German. (This is noted by W. Poekel: Philologische Schiftsteller-Lexikon, l878, in Wolf's list of publications.) There is no evidence that Wolf ever visited England, but it would take no stretch of the imagination to assume that a young schoolmaster with philological Trauemerei on his mind, would hear of a new book with novel views on Homer published in England and get himself a copy. The fact that he read English makes this an interesting possibility. However Blackwell's book on Homer had been translated into German by Voss in l776, and surprisingly Wood's book had been favorably noted by Heyne and in l773 appeared in German as "Ueber Homer als Originalgenie" (W. Kroll: Geschichte der klassichen Philologie, Goeschen l908.) I believe Wolf was strongly influenced both by the English antiquarian researches of Thomas Percy which had captured the public imagination, and also by Wood's book: "On the Original Genius of Homer....l767, which had just been published when Wolf was still a young schoolmaster in Germany, and soon translated into German.
It was in l795 that F.A. Wolf's "Prolegomena.." to Homer appeared, a slim volume of a little more than a hundred pages, which touched off one of the most far-reaching and explosive literary controversies of modern times. Briefly, Wolf saw "Homer" as the result of a compilation from various levels of earlier poems, which could be understood as ballads containing poetical embroidery based on a fabric of long-past historical events. In the years that followed, major scholars sought to discern the suturing by which the pieces had been joined, even recalling the meaning of the Greek term "rhapsode" as literally "song-stitcher". Serious scholarship vied with informed imagination and "Homer" was reduced by some to just a few books, the rest interpolated; even the lost letter digamma was discovered and printed into some purist editions. But of course there were others who felt this Divisionist Theory was wrongheaded, and held to the traditional printed text as a shipwrecked sailor holds onto a floating spar. By l886 the English Classical scholar Sir William Geddes could write a full volume on The Homeric Question detailing editors, schools and variants to this famous or infamous hypothesis.
This analytical treatment of the Homeric materials was a specifically German phenomenon, and occupied the attention of every major German philologist, pro or con, throughout the century. Certainly this activity was in part inspired by the new studies in science, which were analytical in method and exactly documentative in spirit, at the beginning of the l9th century Scientific Revolution. By use of electric currents, materials could be analyzed down to their basic elements, and the Elements seen in the new Periodic Tables could again reconstitute the existing world. At the same time notions of biological Evolution were growing, long before Darwin's publication at mid- century. I believe that the new handling of the Homeric texts may have been indirectly influenced by these two strong forces which were reshaping the world of the early l9th century: The analysis into elements, and the biological process of reproduction with evolution.
Lest this seem sheer imagination on my part, let me point to Science Fiction in the l930's as reflecting with much accuracy the work being independently done in the laboratories, and the l936 appearance of the word "Robot" in a Czech novel simul-casting the future preoccupations of half a century later. It should be no surprise to find literary scholars "X-raying" documents and tracing Evolution in the world of poetry.
V: Homer in Colleges in the 20th century
By the beginning of the 20th century is was clear that if you wanted to read Homer in Greek, you had to read the Teubner or Oxford edition of Homer just as it was printed. The Divisionist Theory (which had been suggested by the "chorizontes" in Alexandrian times) could be used in a lecture or in a scholarly article, but it wasn't going to make much change in the way we read our Homeric poems. Perhaps the people who did the actual teaching of Greek texts in the colleges were tired of talking about an Ur-text, weary of perusing the vast bibliography of German Divisionist imagination and drudgery, and felt it would be better to simplify the stage by admitting that although Homer may have been several people as a writer, and that the writings may have been culled from various stages of Greek history --- yet "HOMER" as such is a book we have in Greek with a fairly stable text, and this is finally what we are to deal with "on looking into Homer's Homer". The Gordian knot would thus seem to have been cut with one stroke of the academic scalpel.
But once we began to consider that the Homeric poems could be more or less than a received ancient text as literature, the way was open for other connections and new lateral interpretations. The most impressive of these was the hypothesis that Homer's writing was in some indirect but interesting way connected with the writings which goes under the name of The Epic of Gilgamesh. This material comes from fragments of twelve tablets from the cuneiform library of Assurbanipal (668 - 626 B.C.) although a fragment in an ancient form of the Babylonian script which can be dated around 2000 B.C. implies that the material in the royal library is a very late copy of a popular, ancient text.
The descent of Odysseus into the Underworld has been compared to a similar passage in the tablets, where some 1500 lines overall have been preserved in readable form. (This collection was first published by Paul Haupt : Das Babylonische Nimrodepos, Leipzig, l884-91). As the years passed, this Babylonian epic material passed from the research phase into general literary consciousness, and soon became part of what students are expected to read in a college course on the Homeric Epic Tradition.
If one reads the entire Gilgamesh story through, in Jastrow's old translation or any of the new ones, one sees that this is a different world from the Hellenic world as we know it. I believe using Gilgamesh without detailed historical background and a great deal of caution, is dragging a red herring across the Classical landscape. There is a great deal we do not know about the connections between early Greece and the Near East, even about the relationship between Hellenic and Mycenean-Minoan civilization. Linear A and B do not seem to connect directly to the Babylonian world, although there are traits of contact here and there. Gilgamesh has a flood, so does the Old Testament, but there were multitudinous floods in the Tigris valley. I am sure that there are real connections between Greece and the Near East, I have examined the Greek myths as evidence for many historical threads of contact in a long work on this website, to which I refer you here
Another area for exploration beside the Homeric materials, is the Minoan-Mycenean world, first uncovered with eclat and public bewonderment by Schliemann who unearthed Troy from l870 to l881 and later Mycenae in l876 and Tiryns l884. It was immediately assumed that this was Homer's actual world, but as archeology developed with new tools, the Palace of Hector vanished back into the layers of earlier levels, while the Cretan court at Cnossos excavated a few years later kept moving further from the world which Homer was describing. After WW II clay tablets discovered at various sites in an unknown script were partly deciphered, Linear B turning out to be list of commercial items largely, but in an early form of Greek, while Linear A has never been connected with any known language.
Archeology has had its problems here, Schliemann unknowingly destroyed much ancient materials in eagerness to find "treasure". When the wall paintings at Cnossos were revealed, they were immediately painted over by European artists who filled out details which were simply not there, and this accounts for many of the beautifully "Impressionist" panels which are so interesting to show to classes in Greek Civilization courses.
It seems to me irresponsible or at best classroom "window-dressing", to deck out the Homeric writings with cross-cultural connections which have not been historically evaluated. When we know more, in fact a great deal more, we will be able to make parallels and draw conclusions, but for the moment I think much of this earlier material should be left aside, waiting in abeyance for further study. The Minoan-Mycenean world, from what we can tell of it now, has little connection with the Hellenic world rising after the historical lacuna which ended in the 9th century B.C. Gilgamesh is of a different historical time-frame from Greece, with the threads of its connections frayed or non-existent, and it might best rest with its fragmented clay tablets in the museums for Assyriologically trained scholars to ponder. The Minoan-Mycenean materials from Cnossos and Mycenae are interesting in themselves, in that they can provide a fine introduction into the developed world of Classical Archeology, but there is no point connecting them with Homer and his world, other than padding out a college lecture hour.
If this sounds hard and terribly ultra-conservative, note that it stands in a specific context which I will develop in part VII of this paper: We are decking out the fringes of our reading of Homer with quantities of new information, while relegating the perfectly clear and readable Greek-language text of Homer to the scrap-pile.
VI: Homer and the Bardic Tradition
There is yet another area bearing strongly on the way we approach the Homeric epics, which starts curiously enough from the work of a young man from Harvard, Milman Parry, who went to the then Yugoslavia in the early l930's armed with an early model of a field disc recorder and information that Serbian folk-bards called guslars were still reciting ancient epics dating from the time of the Turkish invasion of the 15th century. This sounded like a later incarnation of the Homeric bards to him. He went wherever he could rouse up a singer who would let his voice be recorded, and amassed a wonderful library of field recordings on hundreds of aluminum discs. Parry's hope to put together a comprehensive archive ended with his death a few years later, and the discs were stored permanently in Harvard's Widener Library.
After WW II, Professor Albert Bates Lord who directed the South Slavic Studies at Harvard, worked with the recordings from the Parry Collection, and published a book "The Singer of Tales, HUP l960), which made a firm impression on all teachers of the Homeric poems. Lord continued to work with South Slavic literature and the bardic tradition, which became well known to all literature students from his work, but the Archive at Harvard has remained largely untouched by researchers and media-transfer experts, as the century ends. I had been able to hear a few of the aluminum field recordings when a student at Harvard years ago, and asked Prof. Lord if he could arrange a release of a selections of the songs on vinyl disc or tape, but he was engaged with other projects up to the time of his death. I recall the singers as vital bard-poets in their words and singing style, and can see many possible parallels between their story-telling and the Homeric epics.
All college students doing a course in Homer should read Lord's fascinating book, but after that good experience, there is little to follow through with. No audio recordings of the guslars who so fascinated Parry are available for our students to hear. Homer can be made more vital by "imagining" him as a Serbian guslar, I have even chanted sections of the Greek to a class accompanying myself with a mis-tuned guitar as a Lyre, and this is indeed a great way of eliciting student interest. On the other hand, Bardic Poetry as a universal human product is a vast area ranging over the entire planet, it is largely uncharted territory and mainly suitable for serious work by a team of experts. The Bardic Tradition could be a course in itself, but as a single lecture in a semester devoted to The Epic, the bardic connection is a passing matter, although worth mentioning.
On the other hand, there are folklorists for whom Bardic Poetry is a serious study, but these experts have to deal with their material in the original languages, which makes their numbers small and few. Many things in the world of both literature and also science are of supreme importance and have the highest levels of interest. But they cannot be studied in a translated form, without the original wording or the original mathematical notation. That is where the Liberal Arts commit their greatest sin, by assuming that everything can be approached and understood in terms of your current linguistic and intellectual vocabulary.
VII: Homer in the world of "Western Civilization"
This brings me back to the myriad students in Western Civilization Courses who are reading their "Homer" in English translation. There are certainly far more students now reading Homer in English than there were in Greek throughout the l9th century, when Greek was mandatory for a college education. But what are they reading? Is it "Homer", the authentic and genuine article, or something else?
No, they are reading something else, a book with the same basic storyline, but where all the words and sounds and intonations and gestures have been transposed into a different medium. Could I seriously say that a piano version of a Beethoven Symphony was a realistic representation of a concert with a symphony orchestra in a great hall? Could I maintain that a 3 x 8 inch representation of Monet's Water Lilies in black and white in a textbook had any reasonable connection with the great original painting filling a museum wall?
Or to put it more firmly: No way.!
What then is the way into the Homeric Poems? Perhaps I can give an example from my own experience. When I was a student in school I read through the Iliad not as an assignment but out of my own curiosity. I read slowly and carefully, understood it very well, and ended up remarking to myself that it wasn't very good, decent enough as a story from long ago, but nothing really absorbing or remarkable.
Three years later I was reading it (slowly and with difficulty of course) in the original Greek, and noted to myself: "What a difference......". Everything was alive, the words were resonant, even when I wasn't sure of the exact meanings, the dactylic line sang out like spear-thrusts, one after the other, while the speakers had penetrating eyes like the men on black-figured Greek vases. I knew I was not imagining all this, I saw right away that this was the difference between reading in translation and reading a master- work in the original.
I do enjoy teaching ancient literature in translation, first because it has been a way for us Classicists to retain our professorships in a period of academic downsizing, secondly it is fun to lecture to a large class with some histrionic dramatics, before an audience which blinks with surprise....... or goes to sleep in the back row. This can be personally invigorating and it is clearly worth doing!
But it is not a replacement for reading Greek. Then I get worried and begin to feel that perhaps it is not really worth doing, because this is a replacement phenomenon, an Ersatz product, which will finally take over the thing it replaces, as the original disappears from the academic market. We have saved the Field of Classics in the second half of the 20th century by devising Classics in English, but in the process we are in immediate danger of evaporating the very Classical Authors on whom our Neo-Classics Discipline is founded. Some plant and animal species will disappear when the population goes below a certain threshold, and I suggest that this may be true equally with things of the mind.
VIII: WARNING: The End of a long Road
If you ask me whether I throw up my hands in despair since the fight is already well lost, I have a suggestion which like many a pill that cures an ill, may have a bad taste in the mouth of academic lecturers: We should never offer a degree in "Classics" or "Classical Area Studies" to a student who works largely in English, even with two years of Latin or Greek. This is a fake degree so titled, although it is perfectly worthwhile in a Liberal Arts setting. But it should be listed as :
B.A. in Comparative Literature
Or it could be a major in English Literature, with interest in the Classics showing on the transcript. But it is not within the range of the academic term Classics.
Now let us go back to the "real" Classics program, which like the "traditional" program of half a century ago, was based on four years of HS Latin before entering college, if possible a year of Greek where offered (as it is in some schools), and building on this a solid curriculum of intermediate to advanced reading of original documents.
This is a diet of hard work for serious students, and one might well ask: Where will this lead? What jobs in a job-oriented and competitive society will this secure?
My answer is clear: If a student does such work well, he or she will succeed in any further study, having mastered the art of complete attention, developed memory, language skills, and doing work for its own sake just because it is interesting. This is the best preparation for Law School, as many of my former students have discovered, or for business where the sharp focus of attention is the most basic requirement. Learning to read hard words in a language text and piece out thoughts which are not immediately comprehensible is something our friendly Liberal Arts Programs have in large part forgotten.
But there is no inclination to go back to the old Greek and Latin ways of the thoughtless schoolmasters who parsed the words and skipped the meanings. We have so many new avenues of approach, from psychology and sociology to economics and social history to infuse into our ancient texts as we unfurl them, that we are in a sense the first generation to be able to really read the Classics properly. But beneath the widening spread of human knowledge, and the computer literacy which enables me to write this here, to you out there ---- there must be a base of authenticity.
IX: Reading Greek and Teaching Methods
Reading a page of Greek or Hebrew or Euclid or a calculus proof, you must have your attention and sense of authenticity intact. Without this base, as was said long ago in a different but parallel setting, "you are as a sounding brass and a clanging cymbal".
But the Classics as a field has never developed Language Teaching Methods which are consonant with the work which has been done throughout the 20th century in the languages we teach as standard curriculum in our college. Classics students approach Latin or Greek via textbooks which are virtual replicas of the stone-age Chardenal French manuals of l925. Linguistics has been established as a discipline in its own right, and in developing itself it has fallen into the typical pit of the Social Sciences, which is over-inventing new terminology for new ideas, ultimately rendering the new work unreadable to anyone outside the core-field. But Linguistics has gone through important changes as the 20th century ends. CALICO as the center of Computer Aided Instruction has moved ahead fast with the ubiquitization of computers in the schools, and the modern languages are producing expert students in reasonable time of study, in ways which we would never have anticipated forty years ago.
But the Classics? First there is resistance to anything new, perhaps an unfortunate trait among those who deal exclusively with everything old. Or it could be called self-satisfaction, a variant form of pigheadedness. Second, the older generation of Classicists who steer the ship still, tends to be computer-illiterate or anti-computer in spirit. Since new methods of teaching language sooner or later face the computer as a thought processing machine rather than an electronic typewriter, this becomes a major block.
Some have maintained that the modern languages are easier to teach since they use live and spoken language, but this is a gross error. Any skilled modern language teacher will tell you that much of the time with students is spent in learning Pronunciation, and that teaching courses in Reading Knowledge of German or Russian, is far simpler. I think the "living language" argument is a red herring dragged by those who do no want to run with the hounds.
What is there to do? We need a new practical but Linguistics-based introductions which will bring students to a reading knowledge of the Greek language in three semesters' study. There is little need of the formal Linguistics terminology used in research papers in the Linguistics field, but the underlying concepts must be woven into a working language-learning structure. We can learn a great deal from the Modern Languages, but there are things in an ancient language which will demand special attention, of course. Still the aim must be to develop an ability to read quickly and adroitly, it must completely eschew translating while reading, one of the worst stumbling blocks on the Classicists' inventory. And reading must work at a reasonable pace, given the difficulty of the text, but probably not much slower for Plato, than half the speed of an intermediate student in Russian reading Tolstoy.
Of course this can be done, but it needs planning, consultation with language teachers in other areas, use of computer technology, much information about cognitive skills and memory coefficients. And it needs a new set of books/programs to be guided by a new roster of specialized language teachers who can operate the system.
We were talking about Homer, weren't we? Yes, Homer is the perfect starting text for learning Greek, for several reasons. First, the Homeric language uses un-contracted forms of many Greek words, which are easier to learn by far than the contracted forms of Attic Greek, which is the usual introduction to the language. The uncontracted forms are linguistically pellucid, they make sense and tend to be symmetrical. (As counter to this, one might say that the Homeric vocabulary is large, and has many single-occurrences of words. But vocabulary is much less of a problem now with computer technology and words can be defined with a computerized dictionary in two seconds on a computer screen.)
Second, Homer is worth reading. Even if a student stays with Greek only a year, that year can give a keyhole vision into Homer's wonderful world, and the driving and striking episodes which even Iliad Book I offers will be worth the price of admission. Compare this with reading selected sentences which illustrate grammatical terms, or far worse reading synthesized Greek lesson-sentences, which no Hellene could even understand.
Clyde Pharr was born in l883, his book: "Homeric Greek, a Book for Beginners", republished by the Univ. of Oklahoma Press, is a perfectly good starter for getting students into Greek quickly. The first lessons move right into the Iliad, original text with no editings, Book I, line 1 ff. Considering that this work was put together before WW II, it is surprisingly suitable for use even now, and anyone who wants to have students work directly with a text can have a try with Pharr. I think we are at a point now to generate something much better than what Pharr could do in l934.
The great teacher John Finley of Harvard once told me that he could read Greek as easily as he can read French. It may take a while to get far along that road, but it is clearly possible, given aim and time. But there must be an academic methodology which clears away the stones, rather than throwing them in the student's way.
And what about Homer? The Iliad is the touchstone for directness, for exactness of expression, for a perfect sense of hard reality. Ancient in date, ancient in language and decked out with its curious formalities, it is the oldest document in our Western world, but at the same time it is also the most modern, clear and photographically exact book we have. The later Greeks used Homer as an early reading text, not just because it was old and reverenced, but because it outlined with astonishing clarity a way of life, a way of thinking under stress. They knew that it would generate a sense of independence and character, but only if it were read carefully, over and over again. It has been remarked that the Greeks had no established theology, and that the myths were losing meaning as early as the period of the earliest Mysteries. There was for the people no Bible as such!
But there was Homer, and Homer was well understood to be the Bible of the Hellenic world, not for any doctrine or message that it carried, but for the kind of clarity and sureness of word and deed which it impressed on generation after generation, century after century. That access is still available, but only if approached authentically and through the process of very hard and often frustrating study of the original Greek words. For those who have to read Homer in English, let the translation serve as a signpost indicating where the treasure trove is still to be found.