In such an atmosphere of enthusiasm for folk poetry the discovery of a primitive Homer was more than welcome. And scholars, convinced that the Iliad and Odyssey consisted of ancient shorter poems which had been sewn together by later compilers and editors, now addressed with enthusiasm the task of deconstruction, of picking out the stitches and isolating the original "lays" or "ballads" in their primitive, pure beauty. The exercise continued throughout the whole of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
It continued because of course no two scholars could agree about how to take the poems apart. This was understandable, since the criteria they were using--inconsistency of character, imbalance of structure, irrelevance of theme or incident, clumsiness of transition--are notoriously subjective. At first the affair was a free-for-all; it seemed almost as if there were a competition to see who could find the greatest number of separate ballads. Karl Lachmann, in the mid-nineteenth century, after claiming that the newly discovered Nibelungenlied was a mosaic of short ballads (a theory now believed by no one), went on to divide the Iliad into eighteen original heroic songs. A similar theory of the origin of the Chanson de Roland was popular at about the same time. The idea was not as impossible as it now sounds; in fact, a contemporary of Lachmann, the Finnish scholar and poet Lonnrot, collected Finnish ballads on his travels as a country doctor in the most backward parts of the country and put them together to form the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala, a poem that has ever since been the foundation of the Finnish national consciousness. But Lachmann's analytical methods produced no agreement, only scholarly squabbles, conducted with the customary venom, about how long the pieces should be and exactly where to use the knife.
A different approach to the problem was to claim that there was one original, fairly long poem, The Wrath of Achilles, not too long to have been composed orally and transmitted by memory, and that over the centuries additions were made--a theory of accretion. The most convincing champion of this theory was the English Liberal banker and historian George Grote, whose great History of Greece is still a classic in the field. He announced firmly that no history in the modern sense of the word could be written for Greece before the middle of the eighth century--there was no evidence. But since what the Greeks believed about those dark ages was all-important for their later ideas and actions, he devoted the first twenty-one chapters of his ten-volume work (published in 1846) to what he calls "Legendary Greece." And he there proposed that the original core of the Iliad was a short "Wrath of Achilles" containing what we now know as Books 1, 8 and 11 to 22 of the poem. In this short Iliad, he claimed, "the series of events is more rapid, more unbroken and more intimately knit together in the way of cause and effect than in the other books." Grote's original Iliad--Ur-Ilias as the Germans soon began to call it--is very different from ours. It contains the quarrel between the chieftains (Book 1), the rout of the Greeks and Zeus's warning to the gods not to interfere (Book 8), the Trojan attack on the ships, the death of Patroclus, the reentry of Achilles into the fighting, the death of Hector. And there it stops. No meeting of Hector and Andromache at the Scaean Gates (Book 6), no embassy to Achilles (Book 9), no journey of Priam to ransom Hector's body (Book 24). A harsher, more savage poem; the humane touches, said Grote, belong to a later, more civilized age. This theory too could not be summarily dismissed; it seems likely that this is precisely how the great French medieval epic, the Chanson de Roland, had grown to its present size--from an original song commemorating the death of impetuous Roland and wise Oliver in a rearguard engagement at Roncevalles, fighting the Mohammedan infidels, to a vast epic which, reaching its final form at the end of the twelfth century, reflected the spirit of the Crusades.
The nineteenth century was the age that saw the birth of the scientific historical spirit. And also of the history of language--the discipline of linguistics. All this had a bearing on the problem. If in fact some sections of the Iliad were older than others, they should contain linguistic features characteristic of an earlier stage of the language than that to be found in the more recent additions. Similarly, the later parts of the poem should contain allusions to customs, laws, objects and ideas belonging to the later historical period and vice-versa. Toward the end of the century a fresh criterion emerged for gauging the antiquity of different sections of the poem--the archaeological criterion. For with Heinrich Schliemann's excavations at Troy and Mycenae, and those of Sir Arthur Evans at Cnossos, a previously unknown civilization was revealed. If there was any historicity to Homer's account of the Achaean world which organized the attack on Troy, it must be a reference to this world--a world of gold masks, bronze weapons, palaces and fortifications--not to the archaeologically poverty-stricken Greece of the Dark Age. Now, by finding in Homer descriptions of objects that corresponded to something excavated from a Bronze Age site, the scholar could date a passage, because it was clear that with the destruction of the Mycenaean and Minoan palaces, all memory of that age had disappeared in Greece. Schliemann and Evans had discovered things Herodotus and Thucydides had no idea of.
Of these three approaches, the linguistic seemed the most promising, the most likely to yield objective criteria. Studies of the origins of Greek in the Indo-European family of languages had progressed along generally agreed and scientific lines: the history of the Greek language and the Greek dialects had become an exact discipline. Surely the linguistic analysis of the text would confirm or refute theories of earlier and later strata in the poems.
This does not mean that Homer was a poet known only to scholars and schoolboys; on the contrary the Homeric epics were familiar as household words in the mouths of ordinary Greeks. They maintained their hold on the tongues and imaginations of the Greeks by their superb literary quatity--the simplicity, speed and directness of the narrative technique, the brilliance and excitement of the action, the greatness and imposing humanity of the characters--and by the fact that they presented the Greek people, in memorable form, with the images of their gods and the ethical, political and practical wisdom of their cultural tradition. Homer was thus at once contemporary in content and antique in form. The texture of Homeric epic was for the classic age of Greece like that of the Elgin Marbles for us--weathered by time but speaking to us directly: august, authoritative, inimitable, a vision of life fixed forever in forms that seem to have been molded by gods rather than men.
The language of Homer is the "creation of epic verse" in a strict sense too: it is created, adapted and shaped to fit the epic meter, the hexameter. This is a line, as its name indicates, of six metrical units, which may, to put it crudely, be either dactyls (a long plus two shorts) or spondees (two longs) in the first four places but must be dactyl and spondee in that order in the last two (rarely spondee and spondee, never spondee followed by dactyl). The syllables are literally long and short; the meter is based on pronunciation time, not, as in our language, on stress. But unlike most English verse, the meter does not allow departures from the basic norms--such phenomena as the Shakespearean variations on the basic blank verse line, still less the subtleties of Eliot's prosody in The Waste Land.
Yet though it is always metrically regular, it never becomes monotonous; its internal variety guarantees that. This regularity imposed on variety is Homer'
s great metrical secret, the strongest weapon in his poetic arsenal. The long line, which no matter how it varies in the opening and middle always ends in the same way, builds up its hypnotic effect in book after book, imposing on things and men and gods the same pattern, presenting in a rhythmic microcosm the wandering course to a fixed end which is the pattern of the rage of Achilles and the travels of Odysseus, of all natural phenomena and all human destinies.
The meter itself demands a special vocabulary, for many combinations of long and short syllables that are common in the spoken language cannot be admitted to the line--any word with three consecutive short syllables, for example, any word with one short syllable between two longs. This difficulty was met by choosing freely among the many variations of pronunciation and prosody afforded by Greek dialectal differences; the epic language is a mixture of dialects. Under a light patina of Attic forms (easily removable and clearly due to the preeminence of Athens as a literary center and then of the book trade) there is an indissoluble mixture of two different dialects, Aeolic and Ionic. But the attempts of the linguists to use this criterion for early (Aeolic) and late (Ionic) ran into the dilemma that Aeolic and Ionic forms sometimes appear inextricably tangled in the same line or half-line. Much was hoped from the use of the digamma as a criterion. This was a letter, representing the sound we represent by w, that disappeared from the Greek alphabet early on, as the consonant ceased to be sounded in the spoken language. Unfortunately, in many cases the relative dates assigned to passages on this basis conflicted with the data suggested by other criteria. In a passage in Book 23, for example, the meter shows that the word ergon was pronounced in its older form, (w)ergon (it means "work" and in fact is from the same Indo-European root as our word). This would indicate that the account of the funeral games of Patroclus in Book 23 is one of the oldest parts of the poem. In Book 14 there is a passage that contains the same word, but this time the presence of the digamma would disrupt the meter: Book 14 then must be late. But this runs counter to Grote's theory; for him, Book 23 is part of the late addition and Book 14 is very old, part of the "original" Iliad. This example is one among many; Homer uses or discards the digamma at will. There is no way of isolating different strata on this basis.
The attempts to dissect the Iliad along historical lines were no more satisfactory (except of course to their authors). There are indeed passages which seem to imply different historical backgrounds, but they are not passages that are identifiable as early or late by the criteria of linguistic difference or structural analysis. All through the poems, for example, the weapons and arms of the heroes are bronze; this was the Bronze Age. Iron is mentioned but as a precious metal (as one would expect during the early years of its appearance on the scene); in Book 23 a piece of iron is offered by Achilles as a prize for the weight-throwing contest. Yet in the fourth book the Trojan archer Pandarus has an iron arrowhead, mentioned quite casually as if that were normal. Arrowheads are not things you expect to get back once you have shot them--they are, to use a military cliche, expendable. In this passage iron is obviously cheap. Book 4 also presents us with a simile in which a man fells a poplar tree with an iron ax; elsewhere we meet proverbial phrases like "heart hard as iron," which indicate complete familiarity with the metal. It certainly looks as if these are different historical layers, but once again, there is no way to extract them. Book 23 for example, which contains the reference to iron as a valuable rarity, is considered a late addition by the believers in an Ur-Ilias. And so with many other historical discrepancies--horseback riding only in Book 10 and in similes; twin-horse chariots in every battle except those of Books 8 and 11, where we find four-horse chariots; trumpets mentioned in similes but never employed in the action; fishing mentioned in similes, but none of the heroes ever eats fish (though they are encamped on the shore). Most of the shields are round but Ajax has a huge one like a tower. This sounds like the strange body-shield seen on some of the Mycenaean frescoes. Can Ajax be an older, Mycenaean component of the epic? Hardly, for Hector is described as having the same shield.
Historical analysis, then, fails to account for the amalgam, and the high hopes aroused by archaeology soon faded too. There are not many objects in Homer that resemble anything discovered by the spade of the excavator. Two stand out. One is the cup of Nestor described in Book 11 (745-53), which has some resemblance to (and some differences from) a cup found at Mycenae by Schliemann. The other is a remarkable helmet: "a helmet made of leather / ... outside the gleaming teeth of a white-tusked boar / ran round and round in rows stitched neat and tight" (10.305-8). Such helmets, and artistic representations of them, have been found at Mycenaean sites, on Crete, at Mycenae, on Delos, but never in late archaeological contexts. Here there seems to be a genuine memory of the Bronze Age. But it is found in Book 10, the one book every so-called Analyst agrees must be a late addition to the original poem.
It is not surprising, in view of such frustrating results, that by the beginning of the twentieth century, opinion had begun to swing away from analysis and to concentrate on the qualities of the poem itself, to stress the unity of the main action rather than the digressions and inconsistencies, above all to explore the elaborate correspondences of structure that often link scene to scene. The architecture of the poem is magnificent, and it strongly suggests the hand of one composer, but it is true that there is a certain roughness in the details of the execution. The poem does contain, in an indissoluble amalgam, material that seems linguistically and historically to span many centuries. And it does contain long digressions, and some disconcerting inconsistencies, some weaknesses of construction. What sort of poet composed it, and how did he work?
The answer was supplied by an American scholar, whose name was Milman Parry. Parry, who came from California and was an assistant professor at Harvard when he was killed in a gun accident at an early age, did his most significant work in Paris; in fact, he wrote it in French. It has only recently been translated, by his son, Adam, who met an equally tragic end, also at an early age. Milman Parry's work was not appreciated or even fully understood until after his death; but once understood, it radically altered the terms of the problem.
Parry's achievement was to prove that Homer was a master of and heir to a tradition of oral epic poetry that reached back over many generations, perhaps even centuries. He drew attention to the so-called ornamental epithets, those long high-sounding labels that accompany every appearance of a hero, a god, or even a familiar object. Agamemnon, for example, is "lord of men" or "wide-ruling," Achilles is "brilliant," "godlike" or "swift-footed," Apollo is "one who shoots from afar," the Achaeans are "strong-greaved" or "bronze-cloaked," Hera is "white-armed" and ships are "black," "round," "hollow" or "swift." These recurring epithets had of course been noticed before Parry, and their usefulness understood. They offer, for each god, hero or object, a choice of epithets, each one with a different metrical shape. In other words, the particular epithet chosen by the poet may have nothing to do with, for example, whether Achilles is "brilliant" or "swift-footed" at this particular point in the poem--the choice depends on which epithet fits the meter.
Parry pursued this insight of the German analytical scholars to its logical end and demonstrated that in fact there was an intricate system of metrical alternatives for the recurring names of heroes, gods and objects. It was a system that was economical--hardly any unnecessary alternatives--but had great scope--there was a way to fit the names into the line in any of the usual grammatical forms they would assume. Parry demonstrated that the system was more extensive and highly organized than anyone had dreamed, and he also realized what it meant. It meant that this system had been developed by and for the use of oral poets who improvised. In Paris he met scholars who had studied such improvising illiterate bards still performing in Yugoslavia. He went there to study their operations himself.
The Homeric epithets were created to meet the demands of the meter of Greek heroic poetry, the dactylic hexameter. They offer the improvising bard d
ifferent ways of fitting the name of his god, hero or object into whatever section of the line is left after he has, so to speak, filled up the first half (that too, quite possibly, with another formulaic phrase). The Achaeans, for exampte--one of the names used for the Greeks, Achaioi--are often "strong-greaved": euknemides Achaidi a line ending. "Stay your ground, all of you strong-greaved Achaeans," says the prophet Calchas, encouraging the troops: all' age, mimnet pantes, euknemides Achaidi. A few lines earlier, however, he has asked them, "Why have you fallen silent?": tipt' aneo egenesthe ... How will the bard finish this line? Euknemides Achaidi will fit the meter, for the two opening phrases are of the same metrical length. But it will produce a junction of two short open vowels: egenesthe euknemides Achaidi, and this usually results in elision, the suppression of one of the two short vowels--egenesth' euknemides--an unacceptable metrical combination. The solution is simple. The Achaeans cease to be "strong-greaved" and become "long-haired"--a formula starting with a consonant, which avoids the hiatus: tipt' aneo egenesthe, kare komoontes Achaidi. The bard may also need to fit the Achaeans into a different part of the line and in a different grammatical case. In Book 7, for example, the gods watch the Greeks toil and suffer in the battle. "So they toiled . . ."--hos hoi men poneonto--"the long-haired Achaeans"--kare komoontes Achaidi (not "strong-greaved" --that would have produced elision: poneont' euknemides). Two lines later, however, "the gods, seated by Zeus of the lightning bolt, watched the great labor"--mega ergon--"of the Achaeans": Achaion--genitive case. To fill the rest of this line the bard needs an epithet of the form - - - - -. The Achaeans can't be "strong-greaved" or "long-haired," then; they have to be "bronze-cloaked": chalkochitonon. The choice of the epithet is dictated by the meter. Agamemnon is "shepherd of the people," "lord of men," "son of Atreus," "wide-ruling" or "brilliant" according to his grammatical case and his position in the line. So for Achilles and Zeus, Hera and Hector. As for ships, their position in the line and case determines whether they are "black," "round," "seagoing" or "well-benched."