Homer’s Skill

Hugh Lloyd-Jones

  • Homer, Iliad XXIV by Colin Macleod
    Cambridge, 161 pp, £15.00, March 1982, ISBN 0 521 24353 X

The thorough understanding of a difficult text, even of one written in one’s own language, may be made far easier by a good commentary. Eliot himself provided, if not a commentary, useful notes upon The Waste Land, and an Oxford don, John Fuller, has written an excellent commentary on Auden’s poems. In the case of a text written in an ancient language, a commentary is particularly useful. The Greeks themselves had started to write commentaries on Greek poems as early as the fourth century BC. In the first place, a commentary on an ancient text must explain the meaning of the words. But a commentary need not be narrowly linguistic, like that expounded by the Victorian schoolmaster who began the term by saying to his sixth form, ‘Boys, you are about to enjoy the privilege of studying the Oedipus Coloneus of Sophocles, a veritable treasure-house of grammatical particularities’; neither need it concentrate narrowly on the establishment of the author’s correct text, like Housman’s famous commentary on the astrological poem of Manilius. Wilamowitz and other German scholars of the 19th century held that a good commentary should explain the subject-matter of the text it illustrates; its author will need to know history, archaeology and linguistics, as well as literature and language. A commentary should also pay attention to the author’s style, and here not all learned persons have been equally successful; it helps if the writer of the commentary has a style himself. The most learned commentary written in the English language on a Greek or Latin text, the commentary on Aeschylus’s Agamemnon written by the late Eduard Fraenkel, tries to fulfil all these requirements: but readers who are not professional scholars may well find it too exhaustive. The commentaries on the seven plays of Sophocles published during the last quarter of the 19th century by the Cambridge scholar, Sir Richard Jebb, had certain technical deficiencies, even when they were new, and the writer’s taste was naturally that of a man of his own time. But they are a singular, if not a unique, example of a commentary which is not only a work of learning but a literary study, and is itself a work of literary art.

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