The Magazine

Greek Bearing Gifts

Homer, whoever he was, still speaks to us.

Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By DAVID WHARTON
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Homer's the Iliad and the Odyssey

A Biography

by Alberto Manguel

Atlantic Monthly, 288 pp., $19.95

How to take account of Homer's influence in the world? To count them all, demands a thousand tongues / A throat of brass, and adamantine lungs, wrote the poet himself about naming all the troops who fought at Troy. The sentiment applies equally to Alberto Manguel's task here.

A full account would produce a small library, since Homer was the Primum Mobile of Greco-Roman culture. The Greeks' desire to preserve Homeric poetry might have been what drove them to adopt their alphabet; once preserved, he turns up everywhere. Tragedians plundered him for plots, historians mined him for data, and artists put Homeric images on all kinds of public and domestic art. Even the philosophers quote him constantly, especially Plato, whose famously conflicted relationship with Homer made him propose that poets be lavishly honored, then kicked out of his Republic.

Plato was afraid that Homer's "bewitching" power would corrupt the citizens, and he was probably arguing from personal experience. Rhapsodes, the professional singers of Homer's poems, got rich and famous performing them, some achieving near-rock-star status. Imagine a world in which people believed you could heal the sick or curse your enemies by chanting Homeric verses and you get some sense of his cultural preeminence.

Later, when the conquering Romans were conquered by Greek culture, Homer led the charge. The first work of Roman poetry was Livius Andronicus's Latin translation of the Odyssey, and Latin epics in the Homeric mode remained a dominating force in Roman culture throughout its history.

Even though the rise of Christian Latin culture attenuated Homer's influence in the West, literate Christians had a hard time letting go, and Homer continued to have at least iconic force for writers and artists in the European Middle Ages, even though knowledge of Greek had all but disappeared. Thus, Dante places Homer among the blessed pagan poets in the Inferno (though he had not read him) and Homeric tales made their way circuitously into medieval romances, Chaucer, and Shakespeare. Post-Renaissance, Homer's fortunes waxed again and have never completely waned.

From this mass of material Alberto Manguel has made almost always interesting selections, giving us a brief and densely allusive character sketch rather than a full "biography" of the poems. The breadth of his readings in English, German, French, and Italian is immense, and as a famous reader--he is the author of A History of Reading and A Reading Diary--Manguel is suited to his task. He traces Homeric influence into unexpected places, such as in English folktales, or Racine's Jansenism, or garbled Arabic retellings of the Trojan War. He sketches a quick outline of the birth of Homeric scholarship as an academic discipline, touches on the archaeology of Troy, and even dips lightly into recent technical work on methods of oral composition that built up the Homeric poetic tradition.

Manguel's most abiding interest is Homer's reception and influence among other poets and writers, from Tyrtaeus of Sparta to Derek Walcott. And it is in recording the reactions to Homer in writers as diverse as Horace, Augustine, Vico, Goethe, Freud, and scores of others that Manguel does his greatest service, because he allows us to listen in as some of our acutest minds converse about our greatest poet.

But if Manguel's brief survey is broad, it should come as no surprise that it is not deep. We get only a taste of most reactions to Homer, and Manguel's own assessments are only glancing. Chapters often slide in puzzling directions: Why, for example, discuss Homeric epithets and similes in the chapter devoted to Homer's reception among the English Romantics? Manguel is also occasionally wrong or misleading, for example quoting A.E. Houseman as saying that a literary critic should have "a head, and not a pumpkin" on his shoulders. Good advice. But Houseman actually wrote that about textual criticism, the arcane art of sifting a reliable classical text out of medieval manuscripts.

Sometimes Manguel misreads Homer himself, as when he asserts that the seer Tiresias predicts that Odysseus will die on one last journey. But Tiresias actually predicts that Odysseus will die "far from the sea, in a sleek old age, with his people dwelling about him."

These, however, are minor matters: On the whole, Manguel's volume is a delicious smorgasbord of Homerica that only occasionally needs a grain of salt.