Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil (Cornell University Press, Ithaca NY; 1993) 280pp.
twenty five years had passed since Doubleday published The Iliad, the
Odyssey, and the Epic Tradition now long since out of print in that edition
and ciculating in reprints from smaller houses. I had so much more to say on
the subject of epic poetry and very different ideas. Cornell contracted with me
to make an extensive revision; the result was an entirely new book. The title
is misleading, however, although, let us say, in an innocent way. The book
deals with the Iliad, Odyssey, Argonautica and Aeneid. There are
far many more surviving texts of ancient epic poetry than these four, and in
addition large enough fragments of others supplemented by ancient testimony to
demand a book of considerably greater scope if the title “Ancient Epic Poetry”
is to convey the contents. But there is also the canon from which teachers of
classical literature have made their lectures and which they assign as reading
for their students, namely, the texts I write about in the book.
the major changes is a much more subtle idea about the effect of orality on
style in the Homeric epics, the natural result of reading and thinking about
these two poems for so many years, especially when comparing them to the
Argonautica and Aeneid which are texts written to be read. The
emphasis upon orality in this book, which has been criticized in reviews as
excessive considering that the latter two texts are written and read is, I
maintain, essential to do justice to the hold which the mechanics of early epic
storytelling impose on it epigones. To the extent that this very traditional
genre reinvents itself by incorporating its past then the oral nature of the two
founding texts is an essential element, a defining element, of the narratives
that come later.
written a book on the Argonautica in the interval, I was ready to write
an entire chapter on this poem, locating it as well into the tenuous chain of
creation I was establishing from the Iliad through to the Aeneid.
Likewise I had been giving lots of attention to the Aeneid, having come a
long way from those days when I sat in the parking lot of the Iowa City Public
High School with my trot in my lap furiously memorizing the transation of the
lines of the Aeneid assigned for the day’s class, and stomaching my
revulsion with what I considered to be the old school clubman’s stuffiness of
the title character. Now I was absolutely fascinated with the way I saw the
poet playing a literary game with his narrative and hero that would not only be
in dialogue with the epic poems that preceded him but also be a statement about
the world in which he found himself. Aeneas as the wimp character I had so
maligned had disappeared into the interesting symbol or subtext or concept I had
made of him.
What the book truly lacked, however, is a chapter on Ovid’s Metamorphoses since it is abundantly clear that Ovid is probably self-consciously playing Apollonius to Virgil’s Homer. It would have been a great chapter but, since I am a Hellenist, and even working up the Aeneid taxed my faculties for appreciating Latin poetry, I had to let well enough alone.