Daily RC Article 78

Scholarship on Homer

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While a new surge of critical interest in the ancient Greek poems conventionally ascribed to Homer has taken place in the last twenty years or so, it was nonspecialists rather than professional scholars who studied the poetic aspects of the Iliad and the Odyssey between, roughly, 1935 and 1970. During these years, while such nonacademic intellectuals as Simone Weil and Erich Auerbach were trying to define the qualities that made these epic accounts of the Trojan War and its aftermath great poetry, the questions that occupied the specialists were directed elsewhere: “Did the Trojan War really happen?” “Does the bard preserve Indo-European folk memories?” “How did the poems get written down?” Something was driving scholars away from the actual works to peripheral issues. Scholars produced books about archaeology, about gift-exchange in ancient societies, about the development of oral poetry, about virtually anything except the Iliad and the Odyssey themselves as unique reflections or distillations of life itself—as, in short, great poetry. The observations of the English poet Alexander Pope seemed as applicable in 1970 as they had been when he wrote them in 1715: according to Pope, the remarks of critics “are rather Philosophical, Historical, Geographic…or rather anything than Critical and Poetical.”

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Ironically, the modern manifestation of this “nonpoetical” emphasis can be traced to the profoundly influential work of Milman Parry, who attempted to demonstrate in detail how the Homeric poems, believed to have been recorded nearly three thousand years ago, were the products of a long and highly developed tradition of oral poetry about the Trojan War. Parry proposed that this tradition built up its diction and its content by a process of constant accumulation and refinement over many generations of storytellers. But after Parry’s death in 1935, his legacy was taken up by scholars who, unlike Parry, forsook intensive analysis of the poetry itself and focused instead on only one element of Parry’s work: the creative limitations and possibilities of oral composition, concerning on fixed elements and inflexibilities, focusing on the things that oral poetry allegedly can and cannot do. The dryness if this kind of study drove many of the more inventive scholars away from the poems into the rapidly developing field of Homer’s archaeological and historical background.

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Appropriately, Milman Parry’s son Adam was among those scholars responsible for a renewed interest in Homer’s poetry as literary art. Building on his father’s work, the younger Parry argued that the Homeric poems exist both within and against a tradition. The Iliad and the Odyssey were, Adam Parry thought, the beneficiaries of an inherited store of diction, scenes, and at the same time highly individual works that surpasses these conventions. Adam Parry helped prepare the ground for the recent Homeric revival by affirming his father’s belief in a strong inherited tradition, but also by emphasizing Homer’s unique contributions within that tradition.

Topic and Scope:

Critical interest in Homer’s poetry; specifically, whether, at different periods of time, critical attention to Homer focused on the poetry itself or on “peripheral” issues like the relationship between Homer’s poetry and history.

Purpose and Main Idea:

The author writes to explain how treatment of Homer’s poetry has changed over time: After a long period in which the focus was on side issues, the emphasis now is on Homer’s poetry as poetry. The passage is basically descriptive, but the author provides hints that she regards the recent refocus on the poetry itself as a favourable development.

Paragraph Structure:

Paragraph 1 begins with a contrast: There’s a new surge of interest in Homer, but from 1935 to 1970, professional critics turned away from the poetry itself and focused instead on less-important side issues. Alexander Pope is then cited, emphasizing the author’s amazement that critics of poetry don’t spend more time analysing poetry.

Paragraph 2 gives us the origin of this “non-poetic” focus. It all started with Milman Parry, who devoted some attention to side issues while nonetheless appreciating the poetical value of Homer’s poetry. But the 1935-1970 scholars focused only on one part of Parry’s work: the limits of oral poetry. This aspect is so boring, our author concludes, that focus on it during 1935-1970 drove people away from the field and into studying side issues like the historical/archaeological issues surrounding Homer.

Paragraph 3 then elaborates on the “new surge” referenced in the first sentence of Paragraph 1. Parry’s son has led a revival of interest in Homer’s poetry as art. Adam Parry’s approach acknowledges Homer’s place within a historical tradition, echoing his father’s views, but Adam also stresses the importance of the poetry as poetry.

By the end, we should have a sense of the timeline, and who held which views. In 1935, the elder Parry came along and showed the connection between Homer’s poems and a tradition of oral poetry. Between 1935 and 1970, critics focused narrowly on the limits of oral poetry, driving the more “inventive” scholars to focus on the side issues of archaeology and history. After 1970, Adam Parry’s influence was first felt, stressing as he did both the importance of the tradition and Homer’s unique contributions—which brings us back to the claim in the first sentence that the last 20 years has seen an upsurge in critical interest in the poetry of Homer.

The Big Picture:

  • Whenever the passage presents a sequence of events, jot down the timeline as you map the passage. Having an overview of the progression will help you answer Global questions quickly and tell you where the answers to detail questions can be found.
  • Similarly, whenever the passage presents multiple views on a topic, use your map of the passage to help you keep them straight. Many wrong choices mention something from the passage, but misrepresent the context in which it appeared.
  • Skim past illustrations, lists, and examples.
  • Skim past repetition, too! Lines 40-44 essentially provide three versions of the same statement.

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