Homer - Homeric Style

Homeric Style

Aristotle remarks in his Poetics that Homer was unique among the poets of his time, focusing on a single unified theme or action in the epic cycle.

The cardinal qualities of the style of Homer are well articulated by Matthew Arnold:

he translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author:—that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and finally, that he is eminently noble.

The peculiar rapidity of Homer is due in great measure to his use of hexameter verse. It is characteristic of early literature that the evolution of the thought, or the grammatical form of the sentence, is guided by the structure of the verse; and the correspondence which consequently obtains between the rhythm and the syntax—the thought being given out in lengths, as it were, and these again divided by tolerably uniform pauses—produces a swift flowing movement such as is rarely found when periods are constructed without direct reference to the metre. That Homer possesses this rapidity without falling into the corresponding faults, that is, without becoming either fluctuant or monotonous, is perhaps the best proof of his unequalled poetic skill. The plainness and directness of both thought and expression which characterise him were doubtless qualities of his age, but the author of the Iliad (similar to Voltaire, to whom Arnold happily compares him) must have possessed this gift in a surpassing degree. The Odyssey is in this respect perceptibly below the level of the Iliad.

Rapidity or ease of movement, plainness of expression, and plainness of thought are not distinguishing qualities of the great epic poets Virgil, Dante, and Milton. On the contrary, they belong rather to the humbler epico-lyrical school for which Homer has been so often claimed. The proof that Homer does not belong to that school—and that his poetry is not in any true sense ballad poetry—is furnished by the higher artistic structure of his poems and, as regards style, by the fourth of the qualities distinguished by Arnold: the quality of nobleness. It is his noble and powerful style, sustained through every change of idea and subject, that finally separates Homer from all forms of ballad poetry and popular epic.

Like the French epics, such as the Chanson de Roland, Homeric poetry is indigenous and, by the ease of movement and its resultant simplicity, distinguishable from the works of Dante, Milton and Virgil. It is also distinguished from the works of these artists by the comparative absence of underlying motives or sentiment. In Virgil's poetry, a sense of the greatness of Rome and Italy is the leading motive of a passionate rhetoric, partly veiled by the considered delicacy of his language. Dante and Milton are still more faithful exponents of the religion and politics of their time. Even the French epics display sentiments of fear and hatred of the Saracens; but, in Homer's works, the interest is purely dramatic. There is no strong antipathy of race or religion; the war turns on no political events; the capture of Troy lies outside the range of the Iliad; and even the protagonists are not comparable to the chief national heroes of Greece. So far as can be seen, the chief interest in Homer's works is that of human feeling and emotion, and of drama; indeed, his works are often referred to as "dramas".

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