Monday, March 14, 2005

Dennis the Apostate

I suppose it's time I come clean: I no longer have faith in the oral composition theory of the homeric poems.

I highly recommend Douglas Young's epic-length essay 'Never Blotted a Line? Formula and Premeditation in Homer and Hesiod' from Arion 6 (1966) (also reprinted in Niall Rudd's Essays in Classical Literature, 1972).

It just may change your life.

Also a good (and more current) read for those teetering on the fence is M.L. West's reply to reviews of his Homer Teubner by Nagy and Nardelli in the BMCR:

My critics are both (though it takes them in different ways) devotees of the Oralist faith, and they reproach me for not paying sufficient regard to the Good News. Thus Nagy remarks disapprovingly that in my Praefatio I "ignore altogether the work of Parry and Lord", and that throughout my edition "there is a noticeable lack of engagement with oral poetics". Nardelli finds that I "refuse the critical consequences of the Parry-Lord theory"; I show this by marking as spurious a number of verses "which, in their great majority, are easily accounted for in the oralist framework". I have "a keen feeling for Homeric Greek but no sound command in oral linguistics." "He cannot be well acquainted with Parry's principle that rhapsodes would modernize their diction wherever meter does not prevent it since it is his contention that 'Homer' wrote."

Let me take up the last point first. I do not actually commit myself as to whether the poet wrote with his own hand or used an amanuensis, but I do make him responsible for the writing down. Both reviewers imply that there is something controversial, even extreme, in this view. But it is an inescapable fact that we are dealing with a written poem, a text fixed in the course of the writing process (in Parryist theory it could not be otherwise). It cannot be treated as the transcript of a series of oral performances, for even if the poet was capable of creating our Iliad in performance, the means to capture it were not available in antiquity.


Working on the late hexameters of Nicander and Aratus I find myself becoming more and more aware of the individual poets compositional technique and consciousness of a predetermined scheme seems undeniable. Further, the so-called pseudo-hexameters that we find occasionally in Homer abound in Stesichorus who was writing complex strophic compositions often built upon the hexameter's recognized cola, the hemiepes and the paroemiac.

Oralists use these 'pseudo-hexameters' as evidence for the kinds of mistakes that might be made and forgiven in oral composition but the fact that they were viable hexameter lines in an accomplished, literate, and complex poet like Steishorus argues the opposite. In fact, these 'pseudo-hexameters' are exactly the result of joining acceptable first and second cola of different type e.g. D|uD—, which shows a 1st colon with masculine caesura and 2nd resulting from feminine, and Du|D— which shows a 1st colon with feminie caesura and second resulting from masculine (D=hemiepes and u=breve, see West Greek Metre 35).

(If anyone cares to learn more about the hexameter beyond feet I can prepare an annotated bibliography, which might actually be helpful for me.)

2 comments:

caelestis said...

Question: how would non-oralists explain the linguistics? I.e., dialect and chronological layers, metrical anomalies and licenses, etc.?

JL said...

Welcome to the real world! The oral-tradition nonsense was started by one man who had no idea what he was talking about. (Um, sorry - strong opinions are herein expressed.)

All those things you mentioned can be used deliberately by a skilled author. The poem was meant to be taken as a relic of the glorious past, and archaisms (real and imagined) were used deliberately.