The Rhetoric of Homer: Finding the Bard in the Poetry

We moderns seem to question the identity of all the bards. Shakespeare. The scop of Beowulf. Or the skáld of the Eddic sagas. But the question of Homer’s identity seems to be a field of study all to itself. We shouldn’t be surprised to find academic journals entirely devoted to positing new theories of who Homer really was. It goes beyond mere psychological obsession or even historicism. The question of Homer has almost risen to the height of rhetorical exercise, a disputatio of sorts. But in the end, the main reason we question Homer’s identity seems to have everything do with the vast differences between his poems the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Samuel Butler was the first critic to suggest that the Odyssey was composed by a woman. In spite of the apparent silliness of the notion, it is not a terribly surprising idea, what with the twists and turns in narrative, the vast changes of setting and scene, the emphasis on oikos, and not the least of which is the attention given to women. Though not as daring a thesis, there were others who suggested that Homer composed the Iliad in the height of his powers but that the Odyssey was in the waning strength of his genius. And on and on run the theories to explain the disparity between the poems.

Our purpose here, however, is not to survey the strange landscape of theoria on this matter but rather to look into the poems themselves for answers. Perhaps this question of the poet’s identity can be solved by simply considering the relation of form and content, or the rhetorical skill and “argument” of the poet in each epic. Perhaps there is a good and simple reason for tradition to maintain that Homer was Homer, the same man, a possibly blind poet from Iona in the 8th century. (Aside from the good and simple reason of credulitas, which obliges us to trust our ancient historians.)

In Heroes in the City of Man, Peter Leithart notes that the language and structure of the Iliad seems as if it could almost have been written by Achilles himself. In the Iliad, war and peace are simultaneous, one image of peace is juxtaposed against another image of war, and thus the weight of despair and the beauty of resignation emerge. Fate vexes the gods, but it flattens men. All themes of the antique world are frozen in urns, and all of ancient paganism is found hammered into the Shield of Achilles. The very language of the Iliad is not so much oblique as it is a military march forward. It is forceful, simple, deliberate. In contrast to this, the Odyssey is a highly complex narrative structure, full of braided subplots and convoluted digressions in discription and language. Where the Iliad continually sustains a “moral ambiguity,” says Leithart, the Odyssey offers moral clarity with respect to the virtue of the epic’s hero. (And Wes Calihan notes that almost all the epithets describing Odysseus emphasize his strength of mind and thoughfulness, a virtue Homer obviously draws attention in contrast to Achilles.) The moral themes in the Odyssey draw attention the nous of the hero. The structure of the nostos (the return journey) illustrates the civic love of oikos and the respect of xenia. Thus, it seems that the Odyssey could have easily been written by Odysseus himself. Characters are disguised and identities concealed. And the heroic ethic is changed: kleos is not achieved in death but rather through suffering and then vindication. In both cases, therefore, the poetical virtues of the poem reflect the heroic virtues of its main character.

Leithart helps us glimpse the stunning harmony of form and content throughout the epics, and his insights are enlightening on their own merit. But let us apply his commentary to the question of the poet’s identity. When one considers how the form of poem conveys its content, one finds two very different rhetorical purposes. The narrative structure of the Iliad is a perfected tragedy, a frozen urn of ancient metaphysics with nothing more to do than to accept whichever fate is most glorious. What else was there but the superlative kleos of one’s name? Homer offers us no final hope, no carnis resurrectionem. In the Iliad, you are very literally damned if you do and damned if you don’t, as we find out later when Odysseus speaks with those in the underworld. The Iliad offers the will to act and be resigned to its consequences. The greatest and most beautiful symbol of this resignation comes in the scene of Priam and Achilles. The father finds a son in the man who murdered his son; the murderer marvels at his own father in the father of the man he murdered. Masterful. But the weight of resignation can only bring an ephemeral moment of what looks like peace. Cessation of war is not peace. And the resignation of Achilles and Priam is no more a reconciliation than the hecatombs of Zeus bring atonement.

Homer is clearly communicating something very new in the Odyssey, however. And when one examines its narrative structure one finds not tragedy but comedy. Again, there is obvious moral clarity in the Odyssey. The sins against hospitality link both Polyphemus and Antinous, and the physical characteristics of the monsters throughout this epic symbolize the moral characteristics of the suitors in general. While the Iliad shows the slow disintegration of the family on both sides, Achaean and Trojan alike, the Odyssey has at its climax the reintegration of the family, imaged in the reunion of father, mother, and son, which reinforces Homer’s greater argument regarding civic virtue: that the harmony of the city rests principally on the harmony of the family. Homer’s Odyssey inverts our modern dependence upon the state, suggesting that it does not “take a village to raise a family” but a family to raise a village. The safety and social order of the oikos is prologue to the safety and social order of the polis. We need only look to the house of Atreus for proof of this. Early on in the epic, Homer shows us how the state suffers when the family suffers. Just as Hamlet who must avenge his father’s murderer envies the action of Fortinbras, so Telemachus envies the action of Orestes who possesses the ability to right the wrongs in his family. The House of Atreus longs for “Peace, peace, Orestes’ like,” as Longfellow puts it, even as the ending of the day comes. The wife’s adultery and husband’s murder must be dealt with first; only then can the rest of the city find some further psychological and social consolation. Perhaps this is also why Menelaus is one of the few who enjoys relative peace after his return from Ilium, for he went through the trouble to bring back his wife from ruin and thus reintegrate his family. Similarly, Penelope equals her husband in mental and moral virtue. It has been noted that Penelope anagogically signifies the Church who waits for the return of her Husband. But Penelope’s imitation of her husband’s virtue also signifies the Church’s imitation of Christ’s; and just as Penelope’s infidelity would have brought political calamity long ago, so the family’s collapse and Church’s infidelity brings political ruin now. We can of course see this fulfilled in our own time.

In light of such things, the problem of authorship seems to diminish. Homer is Homer. And his rhetorical powers seem to have only grown stronger with time, green in his old age.

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