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.

Many of the commentaries meant for the use of schoolchildren and undergraduates fall a good way short of this ideal. In the uncomfortable consciousness of this, the Cambridge University Press began some fifteen years ago a series designed to meet ‘an increasing demand for Classical texts with commentaries that say more about the work as literature and concentrate less exclusively on textual and syntactical matters’. The series made an unfortunate beginning, and so far has proved disappointing. But now it has given us a book which triumphantly meets its requirements.

Colin Macleod, Student and Tutor of Christ Church, Oxford, whose death last December at the age of 39 was a grievous blow to Greek and Latin studies, was a scholar of the highest technical proficiency. But he did not believe that the scholar’s duty to explain a work of literature stopped at the establishment of the text, the elucidation of its literal sense and the provision of illustrative matter; and he was gifted with a most unusual sensitivity to literature. His commentary on the last book of the Iliad is closely linked to an introduction designed to explain the relation of the book to the poem as a whole, and makes a distinguished contribution to the understanding of the entire work. The learned, elegant and concise notes are well calculated to supply the needs of the elementary student. But even experts will find them most rewarding; and the emotional effects at which the poet aims are brought out with enlightened judgment.

This is an interesting time in the history of Homeric studies, for we are witnessing the death-throes of a period in which several factors have combined to prevent the artistic qualities of the epics from receiving the attention they deserve. First, the tradition of explaining real or fancied inconsistencies in the poems by the hypothesis of multiple authorship, often without pausing to reflect that the technique of early epic differs from, say, that of Greek tragedy, caused the underlying unity which was already clear to Aristotle and has been clear to the vast majority of unbiased readers to receive less attention than the real or fancied inconsistencies. Secondly, the discovery of Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation by the archaeologists induced an excessive preoccupation with material objects, and encouraged attempts, many of them unduly speculative, to relate the poems to history. Thirdly, Milman Parry’s proof that the poems belonged to a tradition which over a long period continued to be oral provoked a concern with formulas, a word used by different people in very different senses, that led many to deny the poet anything but a very limited control over his medium.

In the matter of unity a reaction started in 1938, when Wolfgang Schadewaldt in his Iliasstudien drew attention to the presence of many links, some of them highly subtle, between the different sections of the Iliad. Macleod acknowledges a debt to this work, and also to Karl Reinhardt’s book Die Ilias und ihr Dichter, published posthumously in 1961.

Scholars have now become more cautious in relating the data of archaeology and history to the poems; and wider investigation of oral poetry in many literatures, as against the excessive concentration on the Serbo-Croatian variety promoted by A.B. Lord, who played Wagner to Milman Parry’s Faust, has revealed that many poetical traditions have adopted writing while conserving most characteristics of oral poetry, and that poets writing in an oral tradition need not be limited in the way Lord and others had assumed. Here Adam Parry’s introduction to The Making of Homeric Verse, the collection of his father’s writings published in 1971, had great importance; Ruth Finnegan, in her Oral Poetry (1977) and her Penguin anthology of oral verse, supplies a useful conspectus of the comparative material. Like Jasper Griffin in his brilliant book Homer on Life and Death (1980), Macleod has made use of all this work. He does not believe, as I do, that Homer used writing: but he tells us that he has learned something both from analytic and from formulaic criticism, without sharing their assumption that the Iliad is not a designed and significant whole, nor the work of a poet who repays as much close study as Sophocles, Dante or Shakespeare.

Book XXIV starts after Achilles has avenged his beloved friend Patroclus by killing Hector, and has dragged Hector’s body round the tomb of his friend, having threatened earlier to throw it to the dogs. The gods decide that Hector’s piety must be rewarded by the return of his corpse for proper burial, and arrange that his aged father Priam shall make his way through the Greek lines to the tent of Achilles and make supplication to that formidable enemy. When Priam and Achilles meet, Achilles is touched by the reminder of his own aged father Peleus, and feels a pity based on his awareness of the sorrows common to all human beings. The description of their interview, which has no trace of sentimentality or false comfort, is one of the greatest achievements of poetic art.

Analytic critics have often tried to separate this last book from the poem as a whole, speaking of its ‘Odyssean’ character and complaining that it makes the gods show a concern for justice and morality among men that is absent from the remainder of the work. According to Arthur W.H. Adkins, in his doctoral thesis Merit and Responsibility, to which many scholars continue to make ritual obeisance, and in many later repetitions of the same gospel, Homer has a wholly inadequate conception of justice and morality.

First of all, studying the poem in terms not of any preconceived notion of oral or heroic poetry, but of the poetics implicit in Homer himself, notably in the episode of the Odyssey featuring the bard Demodocus, Macleod argues that the Iliad is a tragic poem, showing humanity under duress and in the face of death: here he acknowledges a debt not only to Griffin but to Simone Weil’s memorable essay ‘L’Iliade, ou le Poème de la Force’. Next, he considers it in relation to two episodes in Book VI, Hector’s conversation with his wife, in which he speaks, hoping against hope, of the inevitable fall of Troy, and the scene in which Glaucus speaks to Diomedes of the sadness and insecurity of human life. Then he shows how in Book XXIV the human condition is viewed in the same way. ‘It finally emerges,’ he writes, that ‘there is ... some measure of justice or kindness in Zeus and the gods; but it remains true that they are also the heedless dispensers of misfortunes to men.’ I would query one word, ‘heedless’. In a general way, Zeus does justice among men, which is why the crime of the Trojans in abetting the wickedness of Paris must finally be punished – but the chains of crimes and punishments, sometimes widely separated in time, are too complicated for mortals to perceive, so that, as Heraclitus was later to put it, ‘for men some things seem unjust and some just, but to the gods everything is fair and just.’ Macleod goes on to show how when Achilles accepts Priam’s supplication, his act is more than the fulfilment of a conventional duty, for the values of humanity and fellow-feeling are implicit in the convention, and these are profoundly represented in the scene between Achilles and Priam. The story does not end happily: Hector cannot be brought back, Achilles too will perish, Troy will fall. But the Iliad is great not least because it can speak authentically for pity or kindness or civilisation without showing them victorious in life, and ‘its humanity is firmly and deeply rooted in an awareness of human reality and suffering.’

Macleod next shows the place of Book XXIV in the structure of the Iliad: it is the necessary completion of the story, complementing Book XXIII, in which Achilles appears as a courteous and dispassionate host and arbiter, and containing subtle echoes of Books I, II and IX, so as to work out the completion of the poem’s grand design. The sections on ‘Language and Style’ and on ‘Metre and Prosody’ are brief but masterly: Macleod knows what to leave out, and imparts what is essential concisely and attractively. I cannot claim to be impartial in respect to this book, whose author was not only a brilliant scholar but a teacher, friend and colleague in ten thousand. Yet I can honestly say that it seems to me wholly successful in its two declared purposes of helping unpractised readers to tackle Book XXIV and of showing ‘in detail, over a continuous stretch of his poem, something of Homer’s skill and greatness’.