A Celebration of Women Writers

"Homer And His Poems." by Mrs. Nina Morais Cohen.
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893.. Chicago, ILL: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 113-122.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 113] 

HOMER AND HIS POEMS.

By MRS. NINA MORAIS COHEN.

MRS. NINA MORAIS COHEN.
From the storm and stress of political strife, the grand old man of England turns to Homer for rest. In an age so supremely subjective as our own, the objective outlook of the antique life, its heroic action as opposed to the introspection of our time, carries the sharp salt breath of the boundless sea to the dweller in crowded cities. Let us also turn to Homer seeking that fair-flowing fountain of the young world for a draught which shall help to banish the "obstinate questionings" of the world grown old. Our talk today shall be of the poet and of his winged words–what is known of his personality and of his works. We shall review briefly his stories, linger a moment upon some of his beauties, and give our attention especially to the Homeric criticism which aims to decide whether Homer is, or is not, the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey.

For over two thousand five hundred years tradition told its tale of a blind minstrel of Asia Minor, who begged his way from door to door singing his immortal verses. These verses, committed to memory by professional singers or reciters, became the supreme treasure of intellectual Greece, and their text was as familiar to the ordinary Greek as that of the Bible to the English peasant. The poems entered into the curriculum of common-school education; they were the authority upon the genealogies of families; to them vexed questions in theology and custom were referred, the current stock of quotation was mainly drawn from them. Learned men discussed in hair-splitting debate such questions as these: "Why did Nausicaä use clear water instead of sea water to wash her clothes?" "In which hand was Aphrodite wounded?" Alcibiades did not scruple to strike a schoolmaster who did not possess a "Homer"; and Alexander, it is well known, slept with a gold-encased copy under his pillow. The poems were inextricably interwoven with the life of the most cultivated nation that ever existed. What did this people know of Homer?

Of his actual life nothing was known in historic Greek times, nor is known today. The word "Homerus" means fitted together, and is used generally to denote a hostage in war, and not a fitter of verses. Gladstone thinks Homer an appellation and not a genuine name; but upon this, as upon almost all other points of criticism, the doctors disagree.

The date of Homer's existence was greatly debated among the ancients. Aristarchus, a very distinguished critic of the Alexandrian school, places him as early as 1044 B. C., while Herodotus, the historian, thinks 850 the proper date. Could the question of time be settled it would be of vital import as bearing upon the historic [Page 114]  authority of Homer; for, were he but a generation or two later than the events described in the poems, his exposition of the social life, religion, morals, learning and general character of the Greeks would be possessed of a supreme historic value. In regard to this value of Homer, modern critics form a sliding-scale of disagreement. Gladstone believes Homer to have lived at a very ancient date, and accepts his dictum, in general, as a final test of the Greek status. Prof. Evelyn Abbott, at the other pole regards the Homeric life as almost entirely imaginative. If it be true that the author of the Iliad composed his verses several centuries after the Fall of Troy, that tale would, for obvious reasons, be much less authoritative as a standard of Greek life than George Eliot's "Romola" is of life in Florence during the Revival of Learning.

Eight biographies of Homer were known in historic Greece, but by general verdict they are all spurious. We know that "Seven cities now contend for Homer dead through which the living Homer begged his bread," and so vigorous did this contention grow that the people of Smyrna displayed Homer's monument, and the people of Ios his grave. The general belief is that the poems were brought in historic times from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor into Greece proper; some cities, however, claim that the poems, being very ancient and originally composed in Greece, were carried into Asia by the Achæans fleeing from the Doric invasion, and were afterward reimported by them. Gladstone brings many arguments to bear in support of this view, the most important being Homer's thorough acquaintance with Greece proper, both on the coast and in the interior, and his slight descriptions of the Asiatic country.

The tradition of Homer's blindness seems to have arisen from a mention thereof in a so-called Homeric hymn to Apollo, which is considered spurious. In support of this popular notion it may be observed that the minstrel of Scheria in the Odyssey, praised most tenderly by Homer, is blind; that color is rarely mentioned in the poems, and when mentioned not very appropriately. But the descriptions of sea and shore, of movement and action, render it almost impossible that Homer should have been blind, at least until of a very mature age. That he honored the office of bard is likewise shown in his characterization of the same blind minstrel. Minstrelship in his day was one of the very few learned professions, and it was held in great honor. The bard was usually retained by some noble house; but this does not seem to have been Homer's position, as he left no traces of any patron's influence upon his work–such traces as may be seen in the writings of Horace or Tasso, or even of later recipients of noble patronage. Thus Homer speaks of Demodocus, the Divine minstrel of Scheria:

"Then the henchman drew near, leading with him the beloved minstrel, whom the Muse loved dearly, and she gave him both good and evil; of his sight she reft him, but granted him sweet song. Then Pontonus, the henchman, set for him a high chair, inlaid with silver, in the midst of the guests, leaning it against the tall pillar, and he hung the loud lyre on a pin, close above his head, and showed him how to lay his hands on it. And close by him he placed a basket, and a fair table, and a goblet of wine by his side, to drink when his spirit bade him. So they stretched forth their hands upon the good cheer spread before them. But after they had put from them the desire of meat and drink, the Muse stirred the minstrel to sing the songs of famous men."

On another occasion Odysseus, the hero, thus honors the minstrel:

"Lo, henchman, take this mess, and hand it to Demodocus, that he may eat, and I will bid him hail, despite my sorrow. For minstrels from all men on earth get their meed of honor and worship; inasmuch as the Muse teaches them the paths of song and loveth the tribe of minstrels."

Homer's works are traditionally believed to be the Iliad (the story of Ilium or Troy) and the Odyssey (the adventures of Odysseus on his return home). Several hymns, smaller epics and other works formerly attributed to him, are now generally considered spurious. "Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles" are the opening words in the poem miscalled the Iliad. It is essentially the tale of the Wrath. At the open- [Page 115]  ing of the poem the Greeks (then called Achæans) are sitting before Troy in the ninth year of the siege. The story of the seduction of Helen is not set forth by Homer, nor any of the now famous events preceding the ninth year; neither is the conclusion of the struggle pictured, nor the oft-foreboded death of its chief hero, Achilles. The action is confined to a few days, covered by the Wrath and its sad termination.

The story of the Iliad is as follows: In the distribution of spoil after the plundering of the town of Chryse, Chryseis, the daughter of Chryses, the priest of Apollo, had fallen to the lot of Agamemnon, chief of the Achæans. The father of the maiden came to her captor with a ransom, which, being refused, the old man prayed to Apollo to revenge his wrong.

"So spake he in prayer, and Phoebus Apollo heard him, and came down from the peaks of Olympus wroth at heart, bearing on his shoulders his bow and covered quiver. And the arrows clanged upon his shoulders in his wrath as the god moved; and he descended like to night. Then he sate him aloof from the ships, and let an arrow fly; and there was heard a dread clanging of the silver bow. First did he assail the mules and fleet dogs, but afterward, aiming at the men his piercing dart, he smote; and the pyres of the dead burnt continually in multitude."

After nine days of the plague, a council of the nobles is summoned, and Agamemnon is by them advised to return the maiden. Now the chief of these advisers is Achilles, fleet-footed, golden-haired Achilles, like unto the gods. Agamemnon enraged at this advice threatens to take from Achilles his captive maiden Briseis, whom Achilles loves. Words wax hot between them and Achilles is about to draw his sword when the gray-eyed Athene catches him by his golden hair, being visible to him alone. Terribly shines her eyes as she forbids him to take any action. So Achilles must needs submit to the loss of his maiden, but he nurses his resentment in his breast, and weeps anon, and sits upon the shore of the gray sea, gazing moodily across the boundless main. His mother, the sea-nymph Thetis, arises like a mist from the depths at the prayer of her son, agrees to petition Zeus that the battle may go against the Achæans, so that they may bitterly rue the injustice done to Achilles. This petition Thetis makes, and here we are introduced to the Olympic Court, which is divided in interest between the Achæans and Trojans, and which aids and frustrates the various heroes, and even participates in the combats. Interesting indeed is the theurgy of Homer; distinct, picturesque and full of subtle individuality are his characterizations of gods and goddesses. But we must perforce confine our attention to the main action.

Achilles sulks in his tent, and his wish is fulfilled. The Achæans meet fearful reverses. During the retirement of Achilles the several books are filled with accounts of the doings of the various chiefs, with descriptions of wounds in all conceivable forms, with pictures of Troy and Trojan life; yet so rapid is the movement of the poems, so vivid the individuality of each chieftain, that these details rarely drag. Even the famous catalogue of the ships is enlivened by bits of gracious description and fitting epithet.

After serious losses Agamemnon sends ambassadors to the tent of Achilles with ample apologies, full of restitution and promises of large gifts. Achilles, with marvelous eloquence, refuses all. The Trojans continue to gain upon the Achæans, driving them behind their ramparts, and setting fire to their ships. All the noted chieftains are wounded and disabled. At this juncture Achilles' dear friend, the companion of his boyhood, whom he loves with a love passing that of woman, Patroclus, begs Achilles to join the combat. Achilles refuses, but he allows Patroclus to don the famous armor of Achilles and to lead the Myrmidons into the battle. The Trojans, thinking that Patroclus is Achilles, are driven back in flight; but the valiant Hector, leader of the Trojans, fights with Patroclus and slays him. When the news is brought to Achilles he tears his hair, lies in the dust moaning terribly, and swears never to taste food until he has revenged his friend. His mother and her sea-maidens rise from the deep to comfort Achilles. Again Thetis proceeds to Olympus with a petition to obtain from [Page 116]  Hephæstos (the smith-god) a most wondrous suit of armor. Clad in this glittering mail, the light of his shield shining afar off, as shines the light of the moon, the infuriated Achilles shouting his terrible war-cry, his teeth gnashing, his eyes blazing, dashes his steeds into the fight.

Everything yields to him; the Trojans flee within their gates; the River Scamandros rears his furious wave against him. But the gods fight for Achilles, and Hector, in the sight of his aged parents, is slain, mutilated, bound to the swift chariot of Achilles, and his fair head trailed in the dust. Now Achilles had sworn to give the corpse of Hector to the dogs; but the gods put into the heart of old Priam the thought of going in person to Achilles to beg the body of his son. He proceeds to the. tent. What happens Homer shall tell: "But they were unaware of great Priam as he came in, and so stood he a-nigh and clasped in his hands the knees of Achilles, and kissed his hands, terrible, man-slaying, that slew many of Priam's sons * * * * So Achilles wondered when he saw god-like Priam, and the rest wondered likewise, and looked upon one another. Then Priam spake and entreated him, saying: 'Bethink thee, O Achilles, like to the gods, of thy father that is of years with me, on the grievous pathway of old age. Him haply are the dwellers round about entreating evilly, nor is there any to ward from him ruin and bane. Nevertheless, when he heareth of thee as yet alive, he rejoiceth in his heart and hopeth withal day after day that he shall see his dear son returning from Troy land. But I, I am utterly unblessed since I begat sons, the best men in wide Troy land, but declare unto thee that none of them is left * * * * Yea, fear thou the gods, Achilles, and have compassion on me, even me, bethinking thee of thy father. Lo, I am more piteous than he, and have braved what none other man on earth hath braved before, to stretch forth my hand toward the face of the slayer of my sons.

"Thus spake he, and stirred within Achilles desire to make lament for his father. And he touched the old man's hand and gently moved him back. And as they both bethought them of their dead, so Priam for man-slaying Hector wept sore as he was fallen before Achilles' feet, and Achilles wept for his own father and now again for Patroclus, and their moan went up throughout the house."

So Priam takes home the dear son's body; and Hector's aged mother, Hekuba, and his sweet young wife, Andromache, make lament; and Argive Helen wails for him who was ever gentle to her and reproached her not–her at whom all men shudder. And the Trojans make a lofty pyre, and mourn nine days, and on the tenth they hold the funeral for Hector, tamer of horses. So closes the Iliad.

Let us turn now to the fascinating adventures of the steadfast, goodly Odysseus, that crafty man of many devices. The plot has been admirably told in a simple manner by Charles Lamb, in his "Voyage of Ulysses." But in simplicity of narration, and in absorbing interest, the text itself is supreme; and apart from any poetical value, the story is a never-failing delight to the imagination of old and young. As the Iliad treats of war, the Odyssey deals mainly with domestic life; "the one," says Bentley, "is for men, the other for women."

In the opening chapter Odysseus, after a wandering of ten years, is held an unwilling guest by the loving nymph, Calypso, on her Island Ogygia; but the gray-eyed Athene, his protectress, prays Zeus to restore him to his home. Calypso, commanded by the deathless gods, allows Odysseus to build a raft which she stores with provisions, and then reluctantly she sends him on his way. During the time of Odysseus' long absence from Ithaca, his son Telemachus has grown to manhood, and his wife, the wise and gracious Penelope, is besieged by suitors in marriage. Now Penelope still longing and hoping against hope for the return of Odysseus, tells her suitors that she will choose among them after she has woven a web that shall be the shroud of her father-in-law the aged Laertes. This she weaves in the day and ravels by night until the trick is discovered. The suitors then wax clamorous; they remain about the house of Odysseus and devour his goods. When the story opens Telemachus resolves to submit to the waste of his substance no longer, and impelled by Athene he fits out [Page 117]  a vessel and goes in search of his father. He visits the courts of Nestor and Menelaus; sees the beautiful Helen restored and repentant, and hears many stories of the war. After vain seeking he returns to Ithaca. Meanwhile Odysseus on the raft of Calypso is wrecked by the sea god Poseidon, whose anger he had incurred when he had put out the one eye of Poseidon's son–the Cyclops, Polyphemus. Saved by the aid of his patron Athene, Odysseus is tossed upon the rocky shore of the Island of Scheria, bleeding and exhausted. Upon this island dwell a colony of cultivated Phoenicians. The daughter of the King Alcinous is the lovely Princess Nausicaä. She is in the dawn of womanhood, and into her gentle heart comes the dream of married love; so she wishes to wash her linen for her bridal day. But she does not acknowledge her thought even to herself, and under the plea of washing the linen of the king she drives with her maidens to the shore where sea and river meet. After trampling the clothes in the clear wave, the maidens play at games and so disturb Odysseus asleep among the leaves. Naked and bloody, soiled by the wave and the earth, he appears like a wild beast before the maidens, driving them back in a fright. But his ever ready tongue wins the heart of the princess, and giving him clothing she tells him to follow her to the city behind the wain, yet not to keep close to her after they reach town, lest the gossips should talk. So Odysseus throws himself upon the hospitality of King Alcinous and Queen Arete, and having rested and bathed his glorious limbs, he tells to his wondering listeners his adventures from the time of the Fall of Troy. He speaks of his hair-breadth escape from the one-eyed giant Polyphemus whom he had blinded, an escape made by suspending himself to the wool on the belly of a ram; of the gift of the bag of the winds by King Æolus, pierced by his curious followers, and of how the freed winds then blew them to and fro upon the wide sea; of his life on the Island of Circe, on which his men were turned into swine; of his adventures in dread Hades, where he converses with the ghosts of the dead heroes; of his sail through the Sirens' Pass, when he is bound to the mast lest he should be beguiled to destruction by the entrancing song; of his passage through the fearful Straits of Scylla and Charybdis; and of other enthralling adventures ended by total loss of men and ships and his imprisonment on Calypso's Island.

Then he begs of his host to give him safe convoy to his home in Ithaca. This request is granted, and many guests-gifts are bestowed upon the man whose speech wins all hearts, and the princess, his savior, may cherish only his words, but worthy words they are: "May the gods grant thee all thy heart's desire; a husband and a home, and a mind at one with his may they give–a good gift, for there is nothing mightier and nobler than when man and wife are of one heart and mind in a house, a grief to their foes, and to their friends great joy, but their own hearts know it best."

So Odysseus is taken by his friends to Ithaca, and there, disguised as a beggar, he goes to the hut of the faithful swineherd Eumæus and learns all that has occurred during his absence. At this point Telemachus returns, and the father revealing himself to the son, they lovingly embrace, while pitifully falls the tears beneath their brows. Then the two, with the aid of Athene, devise a plan for killing all the suitors. Odysseus goes to his home still in the guise of a beggar, receives the insults of the suitors, talks with Penelope, and is nearly betrayed by his old nurse who discovers a familiar scar while washing his feet. The suitors make trial of their strength by attempting to draw the bow of Odysseus, but no one can draw it until Odysseus takes it in his hand and easily sends the arrow through the twelve axe-rings. Then he turns upon the suitors, and by the aid of the gods all are slaughtered, and Odysseus is revenged. The wise Penelope, however, refuses to believe that the stranger is her husband, and tries to prove him by ordering the nurse to bring out the goodly bed of Odysseus, which he made for himself. But says Odysseus: "Verily, a bitter word is this, lady, that thou hast spoken. Who has set my bed otherwhere? Hard would it be for one, how skilled soever, unless a god were to come, that might easily set it in another place, if so he would. But of men there is none living, howsoever strong in his youth, that could lightly upheave it, for a great marvel is wrought in the fashion of the bed, [Page 118]  and it was I that made it and none other. There was growing a bush of olive, long of leaf, and most goodly of growth, within the inner court, and the stem as large as a pillar. Round about this I built the chamber, till I had finished it, with stones close set, and I roofed it over well and added thereto compacted doors fitting well. Next I sheared off all the light wood of the long leaved olive, and rough-hewed the trunk upwards from the root, and smoothed it round with the adze, well and skillfully, and made straight the line thereto, and so fashioned it into the bed-post, and I bored it all with the auger. Beginning from this head-post, I wrought at the bedstead till I had finished it, and made it fair with inlaid work of gold and of silver and of ivory. Then I made fast therein a bright purple band of ox-hide. Even so I declare to thee this token, and I know not, lady, if the bedstead be yet fast in his place, or if some man has cut away the stem of the olive tree and set the bedstead otherwhere. So he spake and at once her knees were loosened, and her heart melted within her, as she knew the sure tokens that Odysseus showed her. Then she fell a-weeping, and ran straight toward him and cast her hands about his neck, and kissed his head."

Absorbing are the plots of these poems, and wondrous the literary dexterity with which they are handled; yet these features are the least of those which make them a joy forever. In the drawing of individual character, Homer has never been excelled; and while in range he is at least equaled by our Shakespeare, it seems to me that the English poet never breathed the breath of life into so god-like yet human a creation as Odysseus, skilled in devices. Both poets are eminently objective; each is at home equally in the hut and the palace, but Shakespeare, living in a more enlightened age, has given us no sweeter specimen of girlhood than the Princess Nausicaä of the Odyssey, nor of wifely dignity and grace than the wise Penelope, nor of gentle loveliness than poor Andromache. Achilles, noble but resentful, may be compared in these qualities with Coriolanus, but the beauteous golden-haired Achæan is infinitely more lovable than the stern Roman. Old Adam in "As You Like It" is but a silhouette of the well-rounded picture of Eumæus, the swineherd of Ithaca. Even the gods and goddesses of Homer are endowed with pulsating life, and forever remain with us the gray-eyed Athene, the ox-eyed, white-armed Hera.

Of the form in which these images of genius present themselves, it may be said that Homer wrote in the most beautiful language that was ever spoken by human tongue; of it he had supreme command. He fitted sound to sense as no other poet has done. "No one who is a stranger to Greek literature," says Professor Jebb, "has seen how perfect an instrument it is possible for human speech to be." In clearness, in flexibility, the Greek is unrivaled, having by force of its particles the power of expressing delicate shades of thought, untranslatable except by tedious circumlocution. The measure of the poems is correspondent to our iambic hexameter, of which the most notable example in English is Longfellow's "Evangeline"–

"Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of Heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels."
This is a classic measure, foreign to the genius of our English tongue, and no satisfactory translation of Homer in the native meter has ever been made. In fact, while translations are legion, no adequate rendition as a whole, in any form, has been produced. The necessities of English versification so pervert the simple directness of Homer's style, so retard his swift-winged flight, that a sympathetic presentation in prose best conveys to mind of the English readers the characteristic traits of Homer's style. Such a version is Leaf, Myers & Lang's of the Iliad, and Butcher & Lang's of the Odyssey–the translations used in this paper. Yet it will readily be seen that to those who read Homer in translation, the charm of his literary style must, in a large measure, be missing. Matthew Arnold, in his delightful essays on translating Homer, expresses the hope and the belief that an English poet, capable of handling Homer in his native meter, will yet be born. "The perfect translator," says Arnold, "must be rapid in movement, simple in style, plain in language, natural in thought, eminently noble–in grand manner." [Page 119] 

But while the full enjoyment of the flavor of his style is reserved for the scholar in keenness of wit, in tenderness of pathos, in fitness of epithet, in loveliness of sentiment, in grandeur of simile, Homer appeals to the unlearned as well as to the scholar. I wish that I had the time to read to you such passages as the parting of Hector and Andromache; the meeting of Odysseus with his old father, or with his neglected dog, who moans and dies upon once more beholding his beloved master; or that I might show you the glorious Hector bursting through the Achæan gate, his face like the sudden night, shining in wondrous mail, with two spears in his hands.

Would that I might take you to the shore of the unharvested sea, where the dark wave singeth about the storm, and roareth on the long beach, while the main resoundeth. And again to this same echoing beach, where the sea-wave lifteth up itself in close array before the driving of the west wind; out on the deep doth it first raise its head, and then it breaketh upon the land, and belloweth aloud, and goeth with arching crest about the promontories, and speweth the foaming brine afar. I would show to you the assembling of the people like thronging bees from a hollow rock, ever in fresh procession, flying among the flowers of spring, some on this hand and some on that.

So much for Homer and the poems ascribed to him–so much for Homer, the poet, as he appeals to a lover of poetry. His value to the student of comparative religions and folk-lore, to the archæologist and ethnologist, to the historian and sociologist, we shall not even touch upon. For we have set our faces toward the long vista of Homeric criticism, and of this criticism Seneca said in his day, that life was too short to enable one to arrive at a just conclusion. But we will pause for a passing glance and be not tempted to consider too curiously.

The first authentic point in the literary history is the fact that the poems were publicly recited by the rhapsodists at the festivals of Athene in the sixth century, B. C. Of the manner of their perpetuation from the prehistoric days of Homer, nothing positive is known. A tradition tells that Homer left a school of disciples, and there seems to have existed a society or guild called the Homeridæ in Chios. But whether these were a literary society, or descendants of Homer by blood, or really custodians of his verse, does not appear. When the rhapsodists come upon the historic stage as the authorized reciters of Homer, Solon orders that they should "proceed with promptings," thus implying that the prompter held a recognized text

Pisistratus, the enlightened tyrant of Athens who followed Solon, is generally credited with having caused a commission of learned men to collect and put in proper order the songs of Homer. On the one hand, it is claimed that this commission merely gave forth what would be termed in our time a correct edition. On the other side, it is contended that the commission collected "stray songs," vaguely known as Homer's, making additions and subtractions which they deemed suitable to the construction of a harmonious work of art, in fact, that Pisistratus made our Homer. The latter view is weakened by the recorded custom of promptings in Solon's time before cited, and by the statement of Hipparchus, the son of Pisistratus, in a Platonic dialogue. Hipparchus there tells us that the rhapsodists took up each other in order "as they still do." This leaves no doubt as to Plato's opinion, and to the current opinion in Plato's day concerning the traditional character of the text.

The first study of Homer that can really be called critical was made in the Alexandrian Age. Then arose a school of Separatists (about 170 B. C.) who believed that the Iliad and the Odyssey were by different authors. Zenodotus, the first chief of the great museum, was also the first critic of the Homeric text, and he was soon followed by Aristarchus, the greatest of ancient critics, to whom is ascribed the present division of Homer into books. Aristarchus discovered a number of spurious passages in the poems, but he had no doubt that Homer was virtually their author.

At the end of the eighteenth century there was found in Venice, in the library of St. Mark, a manuscript of the Iliad, dating from the tenth century. Around this transcription were marginal notes, called "scholia." These were textual criticisms by [Page 120]  Aristarchus and other learned grammarians The finding of the "scholia" gave a new impulse to Homeric criticism, and led to the famous Recension of the Iliad by the German scholar, Frederick Augustus Wolf, in 1795. Previous to Wolf, the idea that Homer was not the sole author of epics ascribed to him had been suggested by Bentley, Rousseau, and others in modern times, and, it is said, by Josephus, Cicero, and others in ancient times. But no serious attempt at proof had ever been made until Wolf, in his revolutionary Prolegomena (preface to his edition of the Iliad), shook the literary world to its foundations, and inaugurated a new era of literary criticism. The celebrated Wolfian theory, is in the main, as follows: Alphabetic writing, according to Wolf, was not known to the Greeks until about 600 B. C. There is no evidence that the laws were written until that time, and certainly a prose literature, which calls for writing, was not in existence previously. It is true that many verses were older, but verse was the original form of extemporaneous oratory or chanting, and the profession of rhapsodist was that of one who recites from memory. In Homer himself, there is but a single mention of a message by characters, and that is the case of Bellerophon, "who bore tokens of woe, graven on a folded tablet, many deadly things," to the King of Lydia. This was in some form a written message to the king, in which the writer requests him to slay Bellerophon, and it was not until the tenth day of Bellerophon's visit that the king asked to see "what token he bore." Now, this token on the folded tablet does not by any means imply alphabetic writing, and throughout the rest of the poems we hear of no communication as passing between any of the chiefs in Troy and their families at home. Even if letters were known, nobody read, and wooden or leaden tablets were unable to contain lengthy works. If the poems were not written, it is impossible that the text could have been preserved from corruption during several centuries. Besides, there are manifest discrepancies in the poems themselves. In one case a chief, who has been killed in an early book, is made to attend the funeral of his son in a later book, and there are other discrepancies of time, place and style. Then, too, the exploits of all the chiefs have nothing to do with the story of the Wrath of Achilles, and are manifestly inserted to glorify local heroes. These are the main grounds of the Wolfian theory. The conclusion is that the Iliad is a series of short songs put together in a later age. In regard to the Odyssey, the opinion of the Wolfian school is that it is of different authorship altogether from the Iliad.

Wolf's theory has been violently attacked, learnedly defended, and largely elaborated. Grote, the historian of Greece, makes two distinct works of the Iliad: One he calls the Wrath of Achilles, mainly by Homer; the other the Iliad composed of floating songs. Lachman, a celebrated German scholar, finds in the Iliad all the joints of sixteen small works. Mr. Walter Leaf has recently issued his edition of the Iliad, compiled by getting together twenty-six passages from different books of the poems. He, of course, has scholarly reasons for considering all the rest spurious. "The Nation," in reviewing this work, declares that "in a century after the promulgation of the Wolfian idea (that is, in 1895), the number who believe in the theory of genuineness of Homer's works as traditionally received, will be so small that first-class scholars will not consider it worth while to waste time in endeavoring to convince them of its untenableness."

A singular feature in all these later criticisms is the fact that the very noblest portions of the poem are considered not Homeric. The embassy to Achilles, containing the finest eloquence of the poem; the meeting of Achilles and Priam, containing the noblest pathos–these and other passages of like significance are relegated to floating songs of unknown poets, and the Iliad becomes to the layman a Hamlet without the Prince.

But the Wolfian theory and its progeny have not gone unchallenged by eminent scholars. The English critics are its choicest defenders. The answers to the theory are mainly these:

First. Writing may have existed at the time of Homer, for the Greeks were in [Page 121]  close communication with the Phoenicians as early as 1100 B. C. The Phoenicians were skilled in writing, and the quick-witted Greeks would not be slow to imitate so useful an art.

Second. Even if writing were unknown, transmission by memory was not at all impossible. Rhapsodists were a professional class, trained purely for the purpose of memorizing, and the public recitations in which each might criticise the other, insured the integrity of the text. Extraordinary feats of memory are not unknown in our own times. Macaulay could, without effort, recite half of "Paradise Lost;" Dr. Bathurst is said to have known the whole Iliad in Greek when a boy. If such performances are possible by non-professional reciters in an era when writing has weakened the power of memory, they certainly were not impossible in a trained and picked class of memorizers who could not depend on writing.

Third. There are discrepancies, it is true; but they are only such as might occur in long poems by a single author, especially if not written; and while some interpolations may be granted, they are not sufficient to disturb the general integrity of the text.

Fourth. The plots are essentially bound together by an underlying unity; the style and turn of language and thought in both poems are those of the one master; and if the author of the Iliad and he of the Odyssey are not the same, then nature must have produced bountifully the supreme poetic inspiration when the world was young.

This is, in very small mold, the modern Homeric question; its bibliography is enormous, although the controversy is really in its incipiency. Its solution will be aided by archæological researches, by studies in comparative mythologies and folk-lore, by philological investigation. The work of Schliemann on the Hill of Hissarlik (his Troy), which promised so much in confirmation of the Iliad, is now being taken into question. His so-called tomb of Agamemnon is said to be that of a barbarian woman of a much later age. I shall conclude my paper with two charming fragments of translation. The first, by Dr. Hawtrey, gives to the English ear the swing and meter of the Greek hexameter. Helen has been called by Priam to the walls of Troy to tell him the names of the Greek chieftains. She says:

"Clearly the rest I behold of the dark-eyed sons of Achaia;
Known to me well are the faces of all; their names I remember;
Two–only two–remain whom I see not among the commanders;
Castor, fleet in the car, Polydeuces brave with the cestus–
Own dear brethren of mine–one parent loved us as infants.
Are they not here in the host, from the shores of loved Lacedæmon,
Or, though they came with the rest in ships that bound through the waters,
Dare they not enter the fight or stand in the council of Heroes,
All for fear of the shame and the taunts my crime has awakened?
So said she; they long since in earth's soft arms were reposing,
There, in their own dear land, their fatherland–Lacedæmon."

The other is a noble blank verse rendition by Tennyson of one of the loveliest passages in the Iliad:

"So Hector spake; the Trojans roared applause;
Then loosed their sweating horses from the yoke,
And each beside his chariot bound his own;
And oxen from the city, and goodly sheep
In haste they drove, and honey-hearted wine
And bread from out the houses brought, and heap'd
Their firewood, and the winds from off the plain
Roll'd the rich vapor far into the heaven.
And these all night upon the bridge of war
Sat glorying; many a fire before them blazed;

[Page 122] 

As when in heaven the stars about the moon
Look beautiful, when all the winds are laid,
And every height comes out, and jutting peak
And valley, and the immeasurable heavens
Break open to their highest, and all the stars
Shine, and the Shepherd gladdens in his heart;
So many a fire between the ships and stream
Of Xanthus blazed before the towers of Troy,
A thousand on the plain; and close by each
Sat fifty in the blaze of burning fire;
And eating hoary grain and pulse, the steeds
Fixt by their cars, waited the golden dawn."


[Page 113] 

Nina Morais Cohen is a native of Philadelphia, Pa. She was born December 6, 1855. Her parents were S. Morais, LL. D., minister of the Jewish Congregation Meckoé Israel, of Philadelphia, and Clara E. Weil Morais. Her father is an Italian from Leghorn, her mother an American. Mrs. Cohen was educated in Philadelphia. She married Emanuel Cohen of the law firm of Ketchel, Cohen & Shaw, Minneapolis, Minn. She is a contributor to various journals. In religious faith she is a Jewess. Her postoffice address is care of Mr. Emanuel Cohen, Minneapolis, Minn.

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Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom