Sunday, March 13, 2005


Homeric Unity

In the octave of his sonnet on Homeric Unity, Andrew Lang (1844-1912) describes the archaeological excavations of Heinrich Schliemann (1822-1890) at Troy (also known as Ilion) and Mycenae. In the sestet of the sonnet, those who strive to rend Homer's songs are the scholars of the analyst school.

The analysts regarded the poems attributed to Homer, the Iliad and Odyssey, as a patchwork of traditional lays stitched together probably in the sixth century B.C., during the reign of the Athenian tyrant Pisistratus (the so-called Pisistratean recension). Opposed to the analysts were the unitarians, who thought that the poems were the product of a single poetic genius. E.R. Dodds neatly summarized the analyst and unitarian positions when he said, "It is now more than thirty years since the old logical game of discovering inconsistencies in Homer was replaced by the new and equally enjoyable aesthetic game of explaining them away." For a history of the scholarly controversy, see the introduction (by Adam Perry) to The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. x-xix.

In his sonnet, Lang says that, although the archaeologists may have disturbed the bones of the Homeric heroes, the magnificent unity of the Homeric poems stands firm despite the theories of the analysts.

Here is the sonnet:
The sacred keep of Ilion is rent
By shaft and pit; foiled waters wander slow
Through plains where Simois and Scamander went
To war with Gods and heroes long ago.
Not yet to tired Cassandra, lying low
In rich Mycenae, do the Fates relent:
The bones of Agamemnon are a show,
And ruined is his royal monument.

The dust and awful treasures of the Dead,
Hath Learning scattered wide, but vainly thee,
Homer, she meteth with her tool of lead,
And strives to rend thy songs; too blind to see
The crown that burns on thine immortal head
Of indivisible supremacy!

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