The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Poetry II.


By Professor Charles Burton Gulick

EPIC poetry might be described as that in which fewest poets have achieved distinction. Homer, Virgil, Milton are the names which occur to the mind when we try to define the type, but beyond these three it is hard to find any who have successfully treated a large theme with the dignity, grandeur, and beauty which the heroic poem demands.

This is because the standard was set at the beginning; and when we analyze the method and the purpose of these great poets, Homer emerges as the one supreme and incomparable master of them all. For, in "Paradise Lost,"[1]Milton was too often diverted from the true office of the poet by theological controversy; Virgil's "Æneid"[2] is the highly studied product of a self-conscious age, and was deliberately written to exalt the greatness of imperial Rome.


And yet, although the art of Homer is more naïve and unconscious than Virgil's, it is a mistake to think, as the eighteenth century thought, that Homer represents the childhood of the race. Fresh, vigorous, spontaneous, swift, he none the less stands at the end of many generations of singers. From them he inherited traditions of versification, diction, and phrase that reach back to the very earliest emergence of the Greeks from barbarism.

The material of the first epic songs was quite simple. In the beginning the tribal gods would be the theme of a hymn of praise or thanksgiving; and since the heroic ancestors of the chieftains were thought to be the sons of gods, it was easy to pass from god to man and contemporary exploits in some famous raid were not forgotten. Sacred hymn became heroic lay. Popular poetry it was, in the sense that it appealed strongly to popular interest and local pride. But it remained the possession of heaven-gifted singers whose profession was hereditary.


During the twelfth century before Christ there came a mighty upheaval, involving the fall of Mycenæ and the final ruin of her splendid civilization. New adjustments of territory took place, and wholesale migrations of Greek-speaking peoples, calling themselves Achæans, Æolians, lonians, or Bœotians, to the littoral of Asia Minor. The stir and adventure of moving tribes, the prowess of their champions, the mingling of men of the same race, though of different clans, on the edge of a country where barbarians filled the hinterland, developed a new pride in national achievement and furnished, in fact, just the conditions most favorable for the development of the epic. Legends brought from home, where the fathers had lived a simpler life, began to expand to larger proportions. Achilles and Hector, who had possibly been rival chiefs on the border between southern Thessaly and Bœotia, now became, in the conception of the bards, magnificent princes, fighting, not for cattle, but for national existence. The scene of their exploits is shifted from the old homeland to the new, and as the imagination of the emigrants grew with their larger life in the new country, so their legends came to embody more incident, to take on more brilliant coloring, and to voice higher national pretensions.

Thus Agamemnon, whose power on the Greek mainland had by no means been limited to the one small citadel of Mycenæ, snugly built among the hills of Argos, had room to expand to something like imperial dimensions through the patriotic impulse of these later epic singers. Growing more skillful in characterization, they helped to rear the great antithesis between Achæan and Trojan, between Greek and barbarian, the West and the East; they founded Hellenism.


That the story of the Trojan War, embellished as it is with mythical details, reflects historical facts—actual conflicts between the Achæan and Æolian immigrants on the one hand, and the Dardanian inhabitants of the Troad, on the other, is now no longer doubted. The "Iliad," which in its present form is the work of a single genius, is the result of complicated processes which include the borrowing, adaptation, and enlargement of old material and the invention of new.

It is not free from inconsistencies in detail and occasional lapses in interest. "Even the good Homer nods," says Horace. But though he nods now and then, he never goes to sleep.

The "Odyssey"[3] probably belongs to a somewhat later era than that in which the "Iliad" took final shape. The wanderings of Odysseus reflect newer experiences of the same Achæan stock which had won success in stirring conflicts in Asia, and was now pushing out in ships over the Mediterranean to compete with the Phœnician trader. The "Odyssey" presupposes the events described in the "Iliad"; unlike the "Iliad," it is not a story of battles and sieges, but of adventure and intrigue which center about a bold sailor.

It is full of the wonder of a new world; of strange escapes; of shipwreck and the terrifying power of winds and waves; of monsters and witches and giants; of encounters with pirates, and exploration into wild countries, even to the borders of the earth and to the underworld. It has furnished the model of some of Sindbad's[4] adventurers, and is the precursor of Gulliver and Munchausen. It has given to later poetry the lotus-eaters[5] and the Sirens, and to the language of proverb Scylla and Charybdis, and has enriched our nursery books with some of their most entrancing characters. As a relief to the stir and trial of the hero, it pictures the happiness and beauty of rural life, and presents the noblest portrait of a faithful wife in all literature.


The dramatic structure of the "Odyssey" has always been admired. The entrance of the hero is postponed in order to develop the situation and introduce his lovable, if somewhat futile, son Telemachus, together with some characters made familiar by the "Iliad": Nestor, Helen, and Menelaus. We are then transported to Calypso's Isle, there to find Odysseus chafing under restraint. There ensue the departure, the anger of Poseidon, the wreck, and the rescue in the land of the Phæacians. The scene shifts to the brilliant court of their king, Alcinous, before whom Odysseus recounts the wonderful adventures which preceded his arrival at Calypso's island. In Phæacia Odysseus meets Nausicaa, the fairest and most radiant girlish figure in Greek literature. Nothing will better illustrate the difference between Homer and Virgil than a comparison of Nausicaa's words of parting with the violent outpourings of Dido's spirit when Æneas leaves her.[6] This part of the "Odyssey" is also highly interesting and important for the way in which the bard Demodocus represents the traditions and methods of the heroic lay.

The second half of the story begins when the Phæacians carry Odysseus home. Disguised as a beggar, he meets with a series of encounters which give full play to the dramatic devices of recognition and irony, so skillfully practiced later on the Greek stage. He discloses himself to Telemachus. Then his old dog Argos recognizes him, in a scene full of pathos. Finally, after a supreme trial of strength and skill, and the slaughter of the suitors, the husband makes himself known to his wife, and then to his aged father. Faults of repetition there are in plenty; but they only show with what fondness the epic poets loved to linger on the story, and how eager their audiences were to have the tale prolonged.


The Greeks were fond of recounting personal details about their great men, but they were unable to tell about a real Homer. The later legends concerning his life are meager, and almost wholly disregarded by the scholars of Alexandria. His blindness is a trait often remarked to-day among the popular singers in the villages of Greece and Macedonia. It is beautifully portrayed in the well-known bust in the Naples Museum. Seven cities claimed the honor of being his birthplace. They were mostly on the shores of Asia Minor or the adjacent islands—a fact which attests what we knew before from the language of the poems, that their latest composers were Ionian Greeks, and that the poems had a vogue on that coast a long time before wandering rhapsodists carried them to the mainland. It is not known when they were first committed to writing. Although the Greeks knew how to write as early as the ninth century before Christ, and possibly long before that time—indeed, writing is mentioned once by Homer—it played no important part in the earlier transmission of the poems, and it was not until the reign of the tyrant Pisistratus in Athens, in the sixth century, that they were gathered together and set down definitely in the form in which we have them. Thus virtually committed to the guardianship of the Athenians, who were the leaders of culture from the sixth to the third centuries, the poems passed to the custody of the Alexandrines, who prepared elaborate editions with notes, and divided them into the "books"—twenty-four each—in which they appear to-day.

The Romans studied them sedulously, and to Quintilian, as to Plato, Homer was the fountain of eloquence. The western world during the Middle Ages had more frequent recourse to Roman versions of the tale of Troy, but with the revival of learning Homer sprang almost immediately into his rightful position at the head of the ancients, and has ever since held firm hold of the affections of all cultivated men and women.

  1. Harvard Classics, iv, 87-358.
  2. H. C., xiii.
  3. H. C., xxii, 9.
  4. H. C., xvi, 231-295.
  5. Cf. Tennyson's poem in H. C., xlii, 993.
  6. See "Æneid," in H. C., xiii, 163ff.