HISTORY | LITERATURE

We're All Homer's Children

"Ulysses and the Sirens"
"Ulysses and the Sirens" (Herbert James Draper/Getty Images/The Bridgeman Art Library)
Reviewed by Tracy Lee Simmons
Sunday, March 9, 2008

HOMER'S THE ILIAD AND THE ODYSSEY

A Biography

By Alberto Manguel

Atlantic Monthly. 285 pp. $19.95

The English novelist and essayist Maurice Baring is often credited with the quip that it wasn't Homer who composed the Iliad and the Odyssey, but another man of the same name. Regardless of who said it, we get the joke. Homer, the Ur-poet of Western civilization -- and usually the first author listed on any Western Civ syllabus -- has over two and a half millennia become a legend, not a personage whose life we can chart more or less accurately. Even in Aristotle's day, as imagined by Rembrandt, Homer was already an icon, a bust, an object of distant veneration. Over the centuries many sleuthing scholars have surmised that the blind bard never existed, that he was an artful composite of multiple poets: a grand idea, not a grand man.

That we shall never know the truth makes this mystery all the more enticing. So instead of penning a biography of Homer, a fairly impossible task likely to produce thin work anyway, the Argentinean critic and translator Alberto Manguel offers a so-called biography of the epic poems themselves, and it turns out that we find in their lives reaching back over 2,000 years all the complexity and contradictions of any eminent life, and then some.

But of course Manguel begins with the man belonging to history, the poet himself -- or herself, or themselves. Theories regarding the identity of Homer vary widely, we might even say extravagantly. We have the now traditional story that he was a blind rhapsodist who lived centuries after the events surrounding the Trojan War he recounts in the Iliad-- though Eratosthenes, otherwise known as the man who first measured the circumference of the earth, believed Homer to have lived contemporaneously with Achilles and Hector. We have the provocative notion propounded by Samuel Butler in the 19th century that the author of the Odyssey, in particular, was an authoress. And the idea -- widely accepted today -- that Homer was, in effect, a committee of poets, a chorus of generations. He is the first and perhaps most conspicuous asterisk attached to literature. Seven places vie for the honor of his birthplace -- Smyrna, Chios, Colophon, Salamis, Rhodes, Argos and Athens -- and the unlikelihood of pinning it down lends support, if not proof, to the position that Homer the person is utterly unknowable.

Such cannot be said of the poems, peopled with that "spectacle of human shadows," which have been woven deeply into the fabric of the Western mind, a legacy that began with the ancients. The 5th-century B.C. poet Aeschylus claimed that all his plays were merely "slices from the great banquets of Homer." Homer provided object lessons for philosophers: Plato mentioned him no fewer than 331 times in his dialogues. To Greeks of the generation that fought the Persian Wars, memorizing vast swaths of the Homeric poems and being able to comment on them with facility constituted a liberal education in itself. When the Romans gained both political power and cultural hegemony, they too considered Homer's works the basis of all schooling -- though they emphasized the moral lessons to be derived more avidly than the Greeks had done -- and their own masterwork, Virgil's Aeneid, is unthinkable without the literary patterns set by the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Manguel spends the balance of his book throwing pleasing light on the many ways these poems have come down to us through the years. Christians spun them out for their own purposes, Muslims for theirs. As with all literature of cultural consequence and high imaginative wattage, Homer has had to be rediscovered in every generation, each taking him to be speaking to itself uniquely. In the Middle Ages, Dante kept him elevated in the pantheon of luminous spirits of the past, and the unearthing of Greek texts (they had been known mostly through Latin translations until the 15th century) served as a spur to the Renaissance. Milton wrote with epic Homeric aspirations. English literature is barely imaginable without Alexander Pope's translation of the Iliad and its influence on Keats, among others, and certainly the history of the 20th century would have been singularly different had we been deprived of that benchmark of modernism, James Joyce's Ulysses. This isn't just a matter of toting up allusions; every writer since the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed belongs to the fraternity of the Homeridae, the descendants of Homer.

Yet it's the residue these poems have left on our imagination, the echoes they have sent vibrating through our minds, that most recommends them to us now and always. They have provided two of our guiding metaphors -- life as a battle ( Iliad) and life as a journey ( Odyssey); Troy has come to stand for every city and Odysseus for Everyman. They gave us a vocabulary of human struggle and hope. As Manguel says, long ago, with these poems, "we already had words to name our most bewildering experiences and our deepest and most obscure emotions." More than one perspicacious reader through the ages has noted that these two majestic stories carry an eerie, discomfiting open-endedness. With all their warring and wandering, with all their tears and triumphs, the poems of Homer end, but they don't quite resolve. In that way, they're like much of life itself. *

Tracy Lee Simmons is the author of "Climbing Parnassus" and director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College.


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