Criticism vs. Poetry

Eustathius, Commentaries on the Odyssey – Preface:

“Many bitter critics have taken up the Odyssey as well as the Iliad, and they tend to disparage the former more than the latter. They cite as a criticism of both poems the preponderance of fabulous material. And while they make this charge, they add to it a complaint about the status truth in the poems, suspiciously considering it a mere interpolation in the general texture of lies, and something additional to the story itself. Yet, we need not act like them – rather, we must look at the work of poetry itself, knowing that it is the custom of poets not to lay out a naked and unadorned historical account, but to adorn it with a variety of mythic stories.”

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Πικροὶ τὴν ᾿Οδύσσειαν καθὰ καὶ τὴν ᾿Ιλιάδα εἰλήχασι λογισταὶ, καὶ μᾶλλον ταύτην ἤ περ ἐκείνην διασπαράττουσι. δίδωσι δὲ λαβὰς ἐκείνοις τὸ καὶ ἐνταῦθα πολὺ τοῦ μυθώδους. καὶ τοῦτο διαβάλλοντες ἐκεῖνοι, συνεκβάλλουσι τῷ μύθῳ καὶ τὴν ἀλήθειαν, διὰ τὸ τοῦ ψεύδους παρένθετον ὑπόπτως ἔχοντες καὶ πρὸς τὴν ἱστορίαν αὐτήν. χρὴ δὲ οὐχ’ οὕτω ποιεῖν, ἀλλὰ τὸ ἔργον σκοπεῖν τῆς ποιήσεως, ἐκεῖνο εἰδότας, ὡς ἄρα νόμος τοῖς ποιηταῖς μὴ γυμνὴν τὴν ἱστορίαν ἐκτίθεσθαι, ἀλλὰ μύθοις καταπυκάζειν.

The Range of Epic Poetry

Matthew Arnold, On the Modern Element in Literature:

“From the very form itself of his great poem, the Aeneid, one would be led to augur that this was impossible. The epic form, as a form for representing contemporary or lo nearly contemporary events, has attained, in the poems of Homer, an unmatched, an immortal success; the epic form as employed by learned poets for the reproduction of the events of a past age has attained a very considerable success. But for this purpose, for the poetic treatment of the events of a past age, the epic form is a less vital form than the dramatic form. The great poets of the modern period of Greece are accordingly, as we have seen, the dramatic poets. The chief of these — Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes — have survived: the distinguished epic poets of the same period — Panyasis, Choerilus, Antimachus — though praised by the Alexandrian critics, have Perished in a common destruction with the undistinguished. ‘And what is the reason of this ? It is, that the dramatic form exhibits, above all, the actions of man as strictly determined by his thoughts and feelings; it exhibits, therefore, what may be always accessible, always intelligible, always interesting.

But the epic form takes a wider range; It represents not only the thought and passion of man, that which is universal and eternal, but also the forms of outward life, the fashion of manners, the aspects of nature, that which is local or transient. To exhibit adequately what is local and transient, only a witness, a contemporary, can suffice. In the reconstruction, by learning and antiquarian ingenuity, of the local and transient features of a past age, in their representation by one who is not a witness or contemporary, it is impossible to feel the liveliest kind of interest. What, for instance, is the most interesting portion of the Aeneid, — the portion where Virgil seems to be moving most freely, and therefore to be most animated, most forcible ? Precisely that portion which has most a dramatic character; the episode of Dido; that portion where locality and manners are nothing — where persons and characters are everything. We might presume beforehand, therefore, that if Virgil, at a time when contemporary epic poetry was no longer possible, had been inspired to represent human life in its fullest significance, he would not have selected the epic form.”

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Puppets vs. Poets

Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist:

“When man acts he is a puppet. When he describes he is a poet. The whole secret lies in that. It was easy enough on the sandy plains by windy Ilion to send the notched arrow from the painted bow, or to hurl against the shield of hide and flame-like brass the long ash-handled spear. It was easy for the adulterous queen to spread the Tyrian carpets for her lord, and then, as he lay couched in the marble bath, to throw over his head the purple net, and call to her smooth-faced lover to stab through the meshes at the heart that should have broken at Aulis. For Antigone even, with Death waiting for her as her bridegroom, it was easy to pass through the tainted air at noon, and climb the hill, and strew with kindly earth the wretched naked corse that had no tomb. But what of those who wrote about these things ? What of those who gave them reality, and made them live for ever? Are they not greater than the men and women they sing of? ‘Hector that sweet knight is dead,’ and Lucian tells us how in the dim underworld Menippus saw the bleaching skull of Helen, and marvelled that it was for so grim a favour that all those horned ships were launched, those beautiful mailed men laid low, those towered cities brought to dust. Yet, every day the swan-like daughter of Leda comes out on the battlements, and looks down at the tide of war. The greybeards wonder at her loveliness, and she stands by the side of the king. In his chamber of stained ivory lies her leman. He is polishing his dainty armour, and combing the scarlet plume. With squire and page, her husband passes from tent to tent. She can see his bright hair, and hears, or fancies that she hears, that clear cold voice. In the courtyard below, the son of Priam is buckling on his brazen cuirass. The white arms of Andromache are around his neck. He sets his helmet on the ground, lest their babe should be frightened. Behind the embroidered curtains of his pavilion sits Achilles, in perfumed raiment, while in harness of gilt and silver the friend of his soul arrays himself to go forth to the fight. From a curiously carven chest that his mother Thetis had brought to his ship-side, the Lord of the Myrmidons takes out that mystic chalice that the lip of man had never touched, and cleanses it with brimstone, and with fresh water cools it, and, having washed his hands, fills with black wine its burnished hollow, and spills the thick grape-blood upon the ground in honour of Him whom at Dodona barefooted prophets worshipped, and prays to Him, and knows not that he prays in vain, and that by the hands of two knights from Troy, Panthous’ son, Euphorbus, whose love-locks were looped with gold, and the Priamid, the lion-hearted, Patroklus, the comrade of comrades, must meet his doom. Phantoms, are they? Heroes of mist and mountain? Shadows in a song? No: they are real. Action!”

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The Mediatorial Function of the Poet

Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean:

“Homer was always telling things after this manner. And one might think there had been no effort in it: that here was but the almost mechanical transcript of a time, naturally, intrinsically, poetic, a time in which one could hardly have spoken at all without idealeffect, or, the sailors pulled down their boat without making a picture in ‘the great style,’ against a sky charged with marvels. Must not the mere prose of an age, itself thus ideal, have counted for more than half of Homer’s poetry? Or might the closer student discover even here, even in Homer, the really mediatorial function of the poet, as between the reader and the actual matter of his experience; the poet waiting, so to speak, in an age which had felt itself trite and commonplace enough, on his opportunity for the touch of ‘golden alchemy,’ or at least for the pleasantly lighted side of things themselves? Might not another, in one’s own prosaic and used-up time, so uneventful as it had been through the long reign of these quiet Antonines, in like manner, discover his ideal, by a due waiting upon it? Would not a future generation, looking back upon this, under the power of the enchanted-distance fallacy, find it ideal to view, in contrast with its own languor–the languor that for some reason (concerning which Augustine will one day have his view) seemed to haunt men always? Had Homer, even, appeared unreal and affected in his poetic flight, to some of the people of his own age, as seemed to happen with every new literature in turn? In any case, the intellectual conditions of early Greece had been–how different from these! And a true literary tact would accept that difference in forming the primary conception of the literary function at a later time. Perhaps the utmost one could get by conscious effort, in the way of a reaction or return to the conditions of an earlier and fresher age, would be but novitas, artificial artlessness, naïveté; and this quality too might have its measure of euphuistic charm, direct and sensible enough, though it must count, in comparison with that genuine early Greek newness at the beginning, not as the freshness of the open fields, but only of a bunch of field-flowers in a heated room.”

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Helen Was Immortal

Servius, Commentary on Aeneid 1.601:

“TYNDARIDIS: [Helen is so called] although she is the daughter of Jupiter and not of Tyndareus; but we say ‘Tyndaridis’ of Helen just as we call Hercules ‘Amphitryoniades.’ For Pollux and Helen were born of Jupiter and Leda, while Castor was born of Tyndareus, who alone was mortal. For this reason, Vergil says (6.121) ‘if Pollux redeems his brother with alternate death,’ since he shared his own immortality with his brother.

A reckoning of time, however, suggests that Helen was immortal. It is agreed that Helen’s brothers were with the Argonauts: the sons of the Argonauts then fought against Thebes, and the sons of the warriors at Thebes waged the wars against Troy. Therefore, had Helen not been immortal, she would undoubtedly not have been able to last for so many generations. We read, however, that she was earlier taken by Theseus and entrusted to Proteus in Egypt.”



Murderous Odysseus and His Murderous Sons

Joannes Malalas, Chronographia, 5.21 6-7 (=Diktys BNJ 49 F 10)

“Some time passed and Odysseus began to see dreams which told of his death. After he woke, he summoned everyone who had experience in interpreting dreams—among whom was Kleitophon of Ithaka and Polyphemos of Argos. He told the dream to them and said what he thought:

“I was not lying on my own bed but instead there was a beautiful and frightening divine creature which could not keep the shape of a grown man. I saw it happily. But I was also disoriented by it. That bed from which it took life was no longer obvious to me from my familiarity with it or by knowledge. Therefore, once I recognized this, I wanted to throw my arms around it eagerly. But it spoke using a human voice and said there was a connection and binding of relationship between us and that it was my fate to be destroyed by him. As I was thinking about this a sudden stab came at me from the sea, targeted at me by his order. I became paralyzed by my great panic and I died shortly. These are the things I saw and you need to fear nothing when you offer me an interpretation. I know well that the vision is not a good one.

Then those who were there were examining the interpretation and they said that Telemachus should not be there. When he left, they said that Odysseus would be struck by his own child and die. He immediately rushed toward Telemachus because he wanted to kill him. But when he saw his son crying and begging him and he returned to a paternal mindset, he decided to have his son sent away and he ordered him to guard himself. Then he himself returned to the farthest part of Kephalenia, believing he would protect himself from fear of death.”

6 χρόνου δὲ διεληλυθότος ὁρᾶι ᾽Οδυσσεὺς ἐνύπνια τὴν αὐτοῦ τελευτὴν σημαίνοντα· καὶ διυπνισθεὶς συγκαλεῖ πάντας τοὺς πεῖραν ἔχοντας, ὅπως διακρίνωσι τὰ ὀνείρατα, ὧν ἦν καὶ Κλειτοφῶν ὁ ᾽Ιθακήσιος καὶ ὁ Ἀργεῖος Πολύφημος. τούτοις ἀπαγγέλλει τὸ ὄναρ καί φησι νομίζειν ῾μὴ ἐπὶ τῆς ἰδίας εὐνῆς με κατακεῖσθαι, <ἦν δὲ> εὐμορφόν τι καὶ φοβερὸν ζῶον θεοειδές, οὐκ ἀνθρώπου τελείου σχῆμα σώζειν δυνάμενον, ὅπερ ἑώρων ἡδέως· καὶ εἶχον αὐτοῦ δυσνοήτως. τὸ δὲ λέχος ἐκεῖνο ὅθεν ἐζωογονήθη οὐκ ἦν μοι φανερὸν οὐτε τῆι συνηθείαι τῆι ἐμῆι οὐτε τῆι γνώσει. γνοὺς οὖν ἠβουλήθη<ν> τὰς χεῖρας αὐτῶι περιπλέξαι σπουδαίως· τὸ δὲ ἀνθρωπίνηι φωνῆι χρηματισάμενον ἔφη θεσμὸν εἶναι καὶ σύνδεσμον οἰκειότητος ἀμφοτέρων ἡμῶν, καὶ εἱμαρμένον εἶναι ὑπ᾽ ἐκείνου με ἀφανισθῆναι. ἐμφροντίστως δέ μου ἔχοντος περὶ αὐτοῦ αἰφνίδιόν τι κέντρον ἐκ τῆς θαλάσσης ὑπὸ τῆς ἐκείνου ἐπιταγῆς ἀοράτως ἀναδειχθὲν ἐπ᾽ ἐμὲ ἦλθεν· ἐγὼ δὲ ὑπὸ πολλῆς ἐκπλήξεως ἐγενόμην ἀδρανής, καὶ μετ᾽ ὀλίγον ἔθανον. ταῦτά ἐστιν ἅπερ ἐθεασάμην· ὑμεῖς δὲ διακρίνατε μηδὲν δεδιότες· ἐπίσταμαι γὰρ ὡς οὐκ αἴσιον τὸ ὅραμα.

7 οἱ δὲ καθ᾽ ἑαυτοὺς γενόμενοι ἐσκόπουν τὴν διήγησιν καὶ ἔφασαν ἵνα ἐκ ποδῶν γένηται ὁ Τηλέμαχος· τοῦ δὲ ὑποχωρήσαντος ἔφησαν ὑπὸ ἰδίου παιδὸς πληγέντα τελευτήσειν. ὁ δὲ εὐθὺς ὥρμησεν ἐπὶ τὸν Τηλέμαχον ἀνελεῖν αὐτὸν βουλόμενος. θεασάμενος δὲ τὸν υἱὸν δακρύοντα καὶ δεόμενον, εἰς ἔννοιαν πατρικὴν ἐλθών, προέκρινεν ἀφεῖναι τὸν παῖδα, ἐκέλευσε δὲ αὐτὸν φυλάττεσθαι· εἶτα μετώικισεν αὑτὸν εἰς τὰ ἔσχατα τῆς Κεφαληνίας χωρία, ῥυσάμενος αὑτὸν τῆς ὑπονοίας τοῦ θανάτου.

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“A Safe Harbor for the Soul”: On Poetry and Reason

Philo, On Dreams 1.233

“Perhaps this is not sung truly, but it is wholly profitable and advantageous”

καὶ τάχα μὲν οὺκ ἀληθῶς, πάντως δὲ λυσιτελῶς καὶ συμφερόντως ᾄδεται


Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Parmenides 1025.29-37

“Our soul experiences many wanderings and turns—one comes from the imagination, another emerges in the beliefs before these, and other occurs in understanding. But the life governed by the mind is free from vagrancy and this is the mystical harbor of the soul into which the poem leads Odysseus after the great wandering of his life and where we too, if we want to be saved, may find our mooring.”

Πολλαὶ οὖν αἱ πλάναι καὶ αἱ δινεύσεις τῆς ψυχῆς· ἄλλη γὰρ ἡ ἐν ταῖς φαντασίαις, ἄλλη πρὸ τούτων ἡ ἐν δόξαις, ἄλλη ἡ ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ διανοίᾳ· μόνη δὲ ἡ κατὰ νοῦν ζωὴ τὸ ἀπλανὲς ἔχει, καὶ οὗτος ὁ μυστικὸς ὅρμος τῆς ψυχῆς, εἰς ὃν καὶ ἡ ποίησις ἄγει τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα μετὰ τὴν πολλὴν πλάνην τῆς ζωῆς, καὶ ἡμεῖς, ἐὰν ἄρα σώζεσθαι θέλωμεν, μᾶλλον ἑαυτοὺς ἀνάξομεν.


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National Archaeological Museum, Athens 1130

Homer’s Sententious Stuffing

Macrobius, Saturnalia 5.16:

“In every work of Vergil Homeric imitation shines forth. Indeed, Homer stuffed every bit of his poetry so full with sententiae that his individual apophthegms could be employed on everyone’s tongue in the manner of proverbs, as

‘But the gods have not given everything to mortals at once.’

‘One should love a guest when present, and send them off when they’re willing.’

‘Moderation is best in all things.’

‘The mob is bad.’ [lit = the more are worse]

‘The promises of vile men are themselves worthless.’

‘He is mindless who wishes to contend against his superiors.’

and many others. You would not search for these things in vain in Vergil:

‘We cannot all do all things.’

‘Love conquers all.’

‘Wicked work overcomes everything.’

‘Is it that awful to die?’

‘Everyone has their day.’

‘Fraud or virtue – who asks in the case of an enemy?’

‘And what each region will bear, and what each region will refuse.’

‘The hallowed hunger for gold.’

And, not to dull your senses by repeating what everyone knows, a thousand of such quotations are to be found on the tongues of individuals, or will at any rate occur to the notice of a reader. In some cases, I hardly know whether Vergil strayed from the Homeric path by chance or by choice. Homer chose to ignore Fortune, and he committed everything to be managed by that one decree, which he calls moira, so that this word Fortune [tuche] is named in no part of the Homeric corpus. On the other hand, Vergil not only knows and notices Fortune, but attributes omnipotence to her, though the philosophers who name her held that she was able to do nothing of her own power, but rather, wished her to be the minister of providence.”

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In omnibus vero Georgicorum libris hoc idem summa cum elegantia fecit. Nam post praecepta, quae natura res dura est, ut legentis animum vel auditum novaret, singulos libros acciti extrinsecus argumenti interpositione conclusit, primum de signis tempestatum, de laudatione rusticae vitae secundum, et tertius desinit in pestilentiam pecorum, quarti finis est de Orpheo et Aristaeo non otiosa narratio. Ita in omni opere Maronis Homerica lucet imitatio. Homerus omnem poesim suam ita sententiis farsit ut singula eius ἀποφθέγματα vice proverbiorum in omnium ore fungantur, ut:


ἀλλ’ οὔπως ἅμα πάντα θεοὶ δόσαν ἀνθρώποισι, —

Χρὴ ξεῖνον παρέοντα φιλεῖν, ἐθέλοντα δὲ πέμπειν, —

Μέτρον δ’ ἐπὶ πᾶσιν ἄριστον, —

Οἱ πλέονες κακίους, —

Δειλαί τοι δειλῶν γε καὶ ἐγγύαι ἐγγυάασθαι, —

ἀφρὼν δ’ ὅς κ’ ἐθέλοι πρὸς κρείσσονας ἀντιφερίζειν,

et alia plurima. Nec haec apud Virgilium frustra desideraveris:


— Non omnia possumus omnes, —

Omnia vincit Amor, —

— Labor omnia vincit

Inprobus, —

Usque adeone mori miserum est? —

Stat sua cuique dies, —

— Dolus an virtus, quis in hoste requirit? —

Et quid quaeque ferat regio et quid quaeque recuset, —

Auri sacra fames,

et, ne obtundam nota referendo, mille sententiarum talium aut in ore sunt singulorum aut obviae intentioni legentis occurrunt. In nonnullis ab Homerica secta haud scio casune an sponte desciscit. Fortunam Homerus nescire maluit, et soli decreto, quam μοῖραν vocat, omnia regenda committit, adeo ut hoc vocabulum τύχη in nulla parte Homerici voluminis nominetur. Contra Virgilius non solum novit et meminit, sed omnipotentiam quoque eidem tribuit, quam et philosophi qui eam nominant nihil sua vi posse sed decreti sive providentiae ministram esse voluerunt.

Outidanoi: Not Even People (Unless you Vote!)

“I’ve never seen hatred like this,” he said. “To me, they’re not even people. It’s so, so sad. Morality’s just gone, morals have flown out the window and we deserve so much better than this as a country.” — Eric Trump

1.231 (Achilles to Agamemnon)

“You are a people eating king who rules over nobodies”

δημοβόρος βασιλεὺς ἐπεὶ οὐτιδανοῖσιν ἀνάσσεις·

Suda, s.v. outidanos

Outidanos: worth nothing”

Οὐτιδανός: οὐδενὸς ἄξιος.

Il. 1.294-5 (Achilles to Agamemnon)

“Really, may I be called both a coward and a nobody
If I yield every fact to you, whatever thing you ask”

ἦ γάρ κεν δειλός τε καὶ οὐτιδανὸς καλεοίμην
εἰ δὴ σοὶ πᾶν ἔργον ὑπείξομαι ὅττί κεν εἴπῃς·

Etymologicum Magnum

Outidanos: Worthy of no account, the least.”
Οὐτιδανός: Οὐδενὸς λόγου ἄξιος, ἐλάχιστος.

Od. 9.458-460 (Polyphemos, the Cyclops, to his favorite sheep)

“Then once he was murdered his brains would be spattered
All over the cave to the ground and my heart would be lightened
Of the evils which this worthless nobody brought me.”

τῶ κέ οἱ ἐγκέφαλός γε διὰ σπέος ἄλλυδις ἄλλῃ
θεινομένου ῥαίοιτο πρὸς οὔδεϊ, κὰδ δέ τ’ ἐμὸν κῆρ
λωφήσειε κακῶν, τά μοι οὐτιδανὸς πόρεν Οὖτις.’


Outidanos: nobody. A weakling, a coward. Worthy of nothing, not even of speech.”

οὐτιδανός· οὐδαμινός v. ἀσθενής p. ἄψυχος. οὐδενὸς ἄξιος οὐδὲ λόγου

Od. 9.516-517 (Polyphemos, again)

“But now, even though he is small, and a worthless puny man,
He blinded my eye once he subdued me with wine!”

νῦν δέ μ’ ἐὼν ὀλίγος τε καὶ οὐτιδανὸς καὶ ἄκικυς
ὀφθαλμοῦ ἀλάωσεν, ἐπεί μ’ ἐδαμάσσατο οἴνῳ.


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Time to Start Planning Holiday Meals: Grill Some Meat With Achilles

Homer, Il. 9.206–217

“He put a large meat block on a burning fire
And placed on top of it the back of a sheep and a fat goat
And a slab of succulent hog, rich with fat.
As Automedon held them, Achilles cut.
Then he sliced them well into pieces and put them on spits
While the son of Menoitios, a godlike man, built up the fire.
But when the fire had burned up and the flame was receding,
He spread out the coal and stretched the spits over it.
Once he put the meat on the fire he seasoned it with holy salt.
When he cooked the meat and distributed it on platters,
Patroclus retrieved bread and placed it on a table
In beautiful baskets. Then Achilles gave out the meat.”

αὐτὰρ ὅ γε κρεῖον μέγα κάββαλεν ἐν πυρὸς αὐγῇ,
ἐν δ’ ἄρα νῶτον ἔθηκ’ ὄϊος καὶ πίονος αἰγός,
ἐν δὲ συὸς σιάλοιο ῥάχιν τεθαλυῖαν ἀλοιφῇ.
τῷ δ’ ἔχεν Αὐτομέδων, τάμνεν δ’ ἄρα δῖος ᾿Αχιλλεύς.
καὶ τὰ μὲν εὖ μίστυλλε καὶ ἀμφ’ ὀβελοῖσιν ἔπειρε,
πῦρ δὲ Μενοιτιάδης δαῖεν μέγα ἰσόθεος φώς.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεὶ κατὰ πῦρ ἐκάη καὶ φλὸξ ἐμαράνθη,
ἀνθρακιὴν στορέσας ὀβελοὺς ἐφύπερθε τάνυσσε,
πάσσε δ’ ἁλὸς θείοιο κρατευτάων ἐπαείρας.
αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ’ ὤπτησε καὶ εἰν ἐλεοῖσιν ἔχευε,
Πάτροκλος μὲν σῖτον ἑλὼν ἐπένειμε τραπέζῃ
καλοῖς ἐν κανέοισιν, ἀτὰρ κρέα νεῖμεν ᾿Αχιλλεύς.

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