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Dr. David M. Whalen: Homer, Poetry, and the Founding of the West

Dr. David M. Whalen: Homer, Poetry, and the Founding of the West

Posted: September 24, 2019


“Sing in Me, Muse”:
Homer, Poetry, and the Founding of the West


By Dr. David M. Whalen
Provost and Professor of English, Hillsdale College
St. Vincent de Paul Lecture and Concert Series
Thomas Aquinas College, New England
September 20, 2019


“Sing in me, Muse”; with these winged words, the civilization of the west is launched.[1] It is no small thing to launch a civilization, especially when so ambitious or audacious a project was not likely Homer’s—or anyone’s—object. But we cannot think of ourselves as being part of a thing, as citizens of a recognizable, coherent, if trans-historical community, without coming to something like a full stop at Homer. True: older, indispensible components of the west are known; Hesiod, Homer’s contemporary is duly honored; and the place of certain Holy Scriptures—even more venerable and ancient—is not to be ignored. To complicate matters further, the whole subject of civilization seems so shaggy and accidental to modern ears that to speak of foundings or beginnings or launchings may seem just fanciful. But for the most part, the very civilization of which we speak has pronounced its own consensus. We begin with Homer.

And beginnings are frightfully important. They tend to color and shape what follows. Beginnings supply not only impetus and energy, but direction and principles of growth. The very word “begin” is related to old Germanic terms meaning “to open” or “open up,” which itself suggests things beyond what is opened, things entailed, released, or found within. These qualities of beginnings signal no chronological determinism, however. Beginnings can be betrayed, lost or forgotten, rendered impotent through rejection or incomprehension. But to begin a thing of significance, whether purposefully, or accidentally and by the way, is to act as a founder. While the consequences of our beginning a thing may exceed our ability to foresee, it is a cause for wonder to consider the way our most casual thoughts or attitudes, our chance asides, our manner of doing a thing in addition to what it is we mean to do or what we hope to perpetuate—all take on a life of their own in the future life of the thing begun. This is true of families, nations, and civilizations. It is true of battles, business ventures, and even founding new campuses. And if Homer has taught us anything, he has taught us that everything is at least potentially consequential in what we start, but not everything—perhaps even not very much—can be entirely controlled. There is a leap of faith, a stepping out into the deep, in every significant beginning. Which is why beginnings require courage, and draw our admiration.

But to return to Homer (in truth, we never left), it may seem too much to credit him with launching a civilization, or at least being one of a handful of accidental “founders” of the west. As hinted above, we are dogged by contemporary skepticism: do civilizations have any reality, or are they just intellectual constructs of convenience? We witness, too, now, a widespread repugnance for anything western; western civilization does exist, it is often thought, but it has ever been an ill-disguised conspiracy of oppression, rabid greed, exploitation, willful ignorance, superstitious privilege, genocidal murder, and every other imaginable evil. In this case, we may blame Homer, but not credit him. My purpose here is not to take up such arguments, at least not directly, nor even to argue much in general. What follows is more a reflection upon Homer than a set of arguments about him or his epics. But the question is a fair one: in what way can he be said to be a founder? Our founder?

We can answer the question in two ways, ways admittedly broad and in part metaphorical. In a famous—and controversial—remark, Alfred North Whitehead describes all philosophy as a “footnote to Plato.” This is a high complement to Plato, but you can well imagine why it excites controversy and not a little criticism. To be fair, Whitehead’s remark was in fact a bit more nuanced and qualified than it at first may appear. “The safest general characterization,” he says, “of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” He goes on explain that he alludes to “the wealth of general ideas scattered through” his works, and that “His personal endowments, his wide opportunities for experience at a great period of civilization, his inheritance of an intellectual tradition not yet stiffened by excessive systematization, have made his writings an inexhaustible mine of suggestion.”[2] Homer’s founding of the west is analogous. There is in Homer an inexhaustible mine of suggestion, a wealth of general ideas, circumstances, persons, relationships, and likenings that finds us millennia later still wondering at his work, arrested, ruminating upon it. John Dryden famously says of Geoffrey Chaucer, “here is God’s plenty,” and the praise may be even better applied to Homer.

But Homer does much more than simply drop before us a nearly endless supply of people, events, and human situations to contemplate. We wonder at him still for reasons beyond the reach of quantity. After all, we have no reason to think bards and rhapsodes were a rarity in the 8th century B.C., and spinning rich tales of (to us) oddly combined tradition and improvisation could not have been unique. The fact that, out of what must have been a sea of similar efforts, these two epics not only survive but appear almost alone to be well known in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., tells us that these epics transcended their peers the way Ajax or Hector transcend their infantries. Their persistence could not have been historical accident. By the time of the 5th century, there were copies, Bernard Knox tells us, “to be found all over the Greek world.”[3] Why? Something is underway in these poems that captures—not just interests or titillates or amuses or distracts, but captures—the minds, hearts, and imaginations of their hearers and readers. It is not simply a matter of affective response—these poems please us. Nor is it a matter of problem-solving: these poems present things that need figuring out. A captured imagination means a mind that sees and recognizes compelling and compulsory realities (things that simply have to be seen or recognized, but often are not) with or through what has captured it. It means not entrapment so much as the enlightened possession of a necessary and even liberating lens. As we know, one of the great paradoxes of human experience is that we do not often see or know the most important things directly. We have to see them through something else, have them pointed out to us, have to be taught to see and recognize them like learning to see clouds from N.C. Wyeth, or learning to see the ocean through Winslow (no pun intended) Homer. Our Homer captures the imagination, it can be said, because of the degree and depth to which he teaches us to see the human condition, to intuit (can one be taught to intuit?) unities, tensions, profound if obscure realities behind the surfaces and phenomena of the world. Homer can be said to found the west because in part he taught what became the west how to see, how to know, how to discern the meanings of things and not just react to them. More about this later, when we speak of Homer as a poet. But for now, Homer is a founder because he is a universal teacher—and the ambiguity of that phrase—universal teacher—is intentional. He instructed the Greeks—and through them the Romans, and through the Romans the world, or at least the western world.

There is a venerable school of thought—so widespread and ubiquitous that the term “school” seems misleadingly circumscribed—that recognizes Homer’s place as “first pedagogue,” but considers that fact largely the product of accident. Homer does indeed teach the west, so the thinking goes, but his doing so was a chance event. It could easily have been another poem or set of texts. The remarks above touching the breadth and intensity of Homer’s appeal suggest, I hope, the improbability of that “chance.” But that school’s companion idea is that the substance of Homer’s pedagogy, what he “teaches,” has no more purchase on reality, no more claim to either wisdom or our serious attention, than any other set of opinions, prejudices, presumptions, preferences, tastes, interests, or perhaps even neurotic obsessions. (Apparently, Sigmund Freud never mentions The Iliad, but one can only imagine what a psychoanalyst might make of its relentless descriptions of battle gore.) The epics in that case are of interest as objects of a kind of cultural archeology—this is the culture that Jack built, so to speak, but both Jack and his resulting culture are trapped in provincial and arbitrary perspectives. This thoroughgoing relativism would be shocking if it were not so commonplace. And, despite the kind of smug skepticism behind this school of thought, it is itself remarkably naïve and implausible. Even a pragmatic analysis would suggest that texts that capture so many people for so long a time probably appeal to something continuous and extensive in human nature and experience. They probably do not derive their momentum by simply rolling downhill.

But what about this pedagogue? What is taught or presented that has so captured the imagination that it launched a civilization, a civilization in turn that, however it expanded and grew, seemed always to carry this first endowment with it?  Well of course, we can pay tribute to the great stock of characters that crowd these poems, the magnificent twists and turns of action, the nimble artistry (and it is nimble) that miraculously combines the metrical formulae so essential to poetry in the oral tradition with the invention and subtle variation that signal a poet’s controlling, shaping vision. These are excellent, superabundant things before which we should stand with admiring gratitude. In fact, the poems themselves seem to intuit the excellence of these things. The “God’s plenty” of character reaches a kind of feverish intensity in those long catalogs (sore trial though they often are for new readers) of names, places, and ancestry. Of course the catalogs have a variety of functions or purposes. Yet a poet’s recognition of and relish for the excellence in a thronging pantheon of human greatness, variety, and communion seems to ring out of these catalogs like bells.

And action. If Odysseus carries the epithet “Polytropos”—many turnings—so too could both these epic poems. We will have more to say later about plot and Homer’s understanding of meaning in human affairs, but his elevation of action or plot rivals his elevation of deathless characters. The “what” of these epics seems to encompass all the world. The Iliad is often regarded as the superior poem for the unity of its action (alongside its seemingly more sober, tragic weight), while The Odyssey is seen as a comparatively shaggy, episodic, lighter work. This, I think, is a mistake. One work may be superior—that is an argument for another day—but comparative unity and variety are the poles Homer provides us between which is mapped out the range of human experience. One way to discern this is to imagine having one poem without the other. Imagine not just what would be lost—raging Achilles, or wise Penelope—but how unmoored or even haphazard the remaining epic’s action would seem. It would be great, notable, memorable, of course. But whichever one remained would lose a dimension, like the loss of depth one would suffer in moving from binocular to monocular vision. So excellent is the action of these epics, perfectly distinct as they are, that together it seems action rises to a comprehension, an all-encompassing whole as regards human experience.

This same excellence characterizes the artistry, or what sometimes is called the “aesthetics,” of these poems. Character and action are matters of artistry, of course, so my division may be somewhat arbitrary. Nevertheless, the artistic properties of the poems show us a genuine master. The musicality of the Greek makes itself felt even by those unfamiliar with the language. The management of variation in pacing and tension is careful and effortless at once. Artistry includes what is done, not just how something is done, and all the west, all our imaginations sit in tutelage at the feet of this master even as he closes in on the spectacular and dazzling glory of . . . a detail. The leathern strap used to close a chamber door; the shriek of wounded Ares; the way Athena’s wheels are strapped to her chariot; the smooth, planed cypress post Odysseus leans against in his hall, a post hung by a master joiner using a plumb line, we are told. The poems are crowded with details like these—Homer seems to have a special fondness for details of craftsmanship and artistry—and in our cynical day it may tempting to think them quaint, or merely metrically useful. But these details, the sudden sharp focus on a very particular particular, are the poet’s celebration of the often-ignored splendor of existing things. The “thisness” of the things, Gerard Manley Hopkins might say, is caught by the eye of the poet and brought to our attention.

Homer’s attention to detail rises to a kind of crescendo in the justly famous description of Achilles’ new shield, fashioned by the smithy-god, Hephaestus. And by “attention to detail” I do not mean simply fastidiousness or scrupulous care for minutiae. I mean the loving appreciation and celebration of concrete things. Here again, we note that the shield is an artifact—it is something made by art, and Homer loses himself, or loses us, in the exquisite details of the shield’s pictorial arts. Much has been said of the shield. It is all of Homer in miniature. The whole world is there—war, law, festivity, love, labor, agriculture, air, earth, fire, and water. Toward the end of the description, we are told Hephaestus brings all his art to bear on a dancing circle of youths:

Here young boys and girls, beauties courted
with costly gifts of oxen, danced and danced,
linking their arms, gripping each other’s wrists.
And the girls wore robes of linens light and flowing,
the boys wore finespun tunics rubbed with a gloss of oil,
the girls were crowned with a bloom of fresh garlands,
the boys swung golden daggers hung on silver belts.
And now they would run in rings on their skilled feet,
nimbly, quick as a crouching potter spins his wheel,
palming it smoothly, giving it practice twirls
to see it run, and now they would run in rows,
in rows crisscrossing rows—rapturous dancing.
A breathless crowd stood round them struck with joy
and through them a pair of tumblers dashed and sprang,
whirling in leaping handsprings, leading on the dance.[4]

So deeply are we drawn into the scene depicted that we forget the entire dance is itself just a detail, a small scene depicted on a large shield filled with similarly rich vignettes. Light linens flow, finespun tunics shimmer, and dancers run in crisscrossed rows while tumblers whirl and leap. Note, by the way, that Homer quite clearly emphasizes movement—sweeping, liquid movement presented in all its breathlessness on a shield’s still surface. In its art, the unmoving image conveys the irresistible impression of motion. Moreover, note that we have Homer imitating Hephaestus imitating life. We may not have noticed, but the poet is schooling us about art in his art—concerning art. The layers of art on art on life are Homer’s way of insisting that we pay heed, that we recognize the gift of the artist to the world—or perhaps I should say the artist’s gift of the world, to us. And if all this insistence is not enough, if we still remain blind to the meaning of these layers, Homer gives us—another, positively vertiginous layer. He introduces one of his famous Homeric similes, that of a potter, spinning and palming his wheel. This is a craft—an art—yet again, and here it is given to us not as an image of imitation, but as a kind of metaphor for the speed, exactitude, and care exerted on behalf of our best, most festive, most rapturous moments. Put another way—the avenue by which Homer, the celebratory artist, can give sufficient credit to Hephaestus, the practical craftsman, is to liken his depiction of a celebratory art—dance—to the practical artistry of the potter. He pulls all the arts together in an act of praise and celebration, as indeed, did Hephaestus. Vertiginous, indeed. We, ourselves, are spinning now in a dizzy “whirlpool” of layered links, references, and arts.

And did we forget, in the meanwhile, that all this joy, celebration, and depth of wisdom is on a shield? An implement of war? Its bearer, we know, in his vengeful wrath is soon to kill the greatest and most admirable of Trojans, whose spear will have glanced off this shield. That killing, in turn, seals the bearer’s doom, for his own death is fated to follow soon thereafter. Light and dark. Chiaroscuro. Not a bad day’s work for a mere detail.

Characters, action, artistry—we can see why succeeding ages of artists have been pleased to learn from such a poet. Yet these things do not constitute the principle achievements or effects of Homer as pedagogue. At least not primarily, although we edge closer to the heart of the matter when we talk about Homer’s teaching us of the necessity and purpose of art. So again, what about these poems left a civilization in their wake? Another way of putting the matter might be, what kinds of things is western civilization quick to notice or recognize that are insistently exemplified in these epics? The answers are likely to resemble the epics themselves—ranging, varied or assorted (assorted not as in “random,” but as in “cornucopia”), vast in scope and then narrow in focus, filled with paradox and irony, almost endlessly suggestive of links between this world and the next, hinting at mystery or the sublime in human experience more than rendering them propositionally. Most certainly the “teaching” of the poems is not reducible to a short set of principles or doctrines that constitute a “how-to” manual for a civilization. But in its development and career, the west has carried these poems along and brought rich veins of their meaning into a kind of embodiment. In the spirit of Homer’s catalogs or lists, permit me to mention and comment upon several of these enduring recognitions. Though in many instances they may not be exclusive to the west, and in no case do I claim originality in observing them, these are things about us and the world, which, it seems, Homer pulls into a comprehensive unity despite their shaggy variety. And, it almost goes without saying that this catalog is simply a representative handful. The veins run too deep and in too many directions to be fully mined here.

1. A readiness to admire an enemy. It is often remarked that this Greek poet, writing about a Greek military triumph, beloved of Greeks almost to the point of idolatry, regards the Trojans as admirable in ways often beyond the reach of the Greeks. For all his world-traversing imagination, Homer is a domestic poet, and while Ithaca is “home” in The Odyssey, Troy is the home in The Iliad. And the Greeks are there to destroy it. Troy is not perfect, but it is home, and the seat of many virtues.

2. A readiness to be self-critical without being self-abasing. How admirable is Odysseus! The combined charm, ingenuity, and martial ferocity compel our admiration, or should do. But we miss the point if we do not see, at the same time as well, not just his miscalculations, but those profound ills of soul that bring swirling death to so many and grief to himself.

3. A readiness to assimilate, adopt, absorb things that are, while alien or external, admirable and good. The welcome stranger is emblematic of this, as is the intensity of interest in people’s customs, experiences, and travels.

4. The sacred character of hospitality itself. The rights of guests are protected by none other than Zeus. When Telemachus feels deep shame for the unnoticed, unwelcomed Mentes at the door, we are being told something of his piety, his noble nature, and his reverence for traditions grossly flouted by the barbarous suitors.

5. A reverence for law, the assembly or council, and the dutiful minding of reciprocal obligations. The Cyclops is almost the archetype of barbarism. Of course he fails his duty of hospitality (the first rule of hospitality: it is rude to eat your guests), but through the mouth of Odysseus Homer repeats that the Cyclops is lawless, a law unto himself, blind to law, and has “no meeting place for council, no laws, either.”[5] Key scenes of The Iliad occur in council, including scenes that set up the rest of the poem’s action, such as Agamemnon’s refusal to abide by a consensus and return the priest Chryses’ daughter. Similarly, Achilles is enraged in part because Agamemnon fails to respect the honor duly given to Achilles—honor reciprocal to the obedience that Achilles owes Agamemnon. “But now,” Achilles fumes to Odysseus, Agamemnon has “torn my honor from my hands,/ robbed me, lied to me. . . “ (9.418). Hierarchically defined duties of fidelity and obedience are balanced by duties of protection and the conferral of honors.

6. The importance—sometimes regrettable, sometimes even fruitless—of courage, cunning, and martial excellence. It is interesting that Athena herself approximates so much of this, right alongside her association with crafts and wider acuity of mind.

7. Mortality, mortality, mortality. Sometimes death and strife and war blend into each other and become difficult to distinguish, so complete is their confluence in these poems. War is the default condition for man, and death omnipresent:

Now Strife hurled down the leveler Hate amidst both sides,
wading into the onslaught, flooding men with pain. . . .
At last the armies clashed at one strategic point,
They slammed their shields together, pike scraped pike
With the grappling strength of fighters armed in bronze
And their round shields pounded, boss on welded boss,
And the sound of struggle roared and rocked the earth.
Screams of men and cries of triumph breaking in one breath,
Fighters killing, fighters killed, and the ground streamed blood. (Iliad 4.515-523)


So under [Agamemnon’s] onslaught Trojans dropped in flight,
stampedes of massive stallions dragged their empty chariots
clattering down the passageways of battle, stallions
yearning to feel their masters’ hands at the reins
but there they lay, sprawled across the field,
craved far more by vultures than by wives. (11.183-188)

8. In accord with mortality is recognition of the tragic character of human experience. Whether this character defines the human condition is still hotly debated, but the western imagination is alive to the chaotic and brutal quality of so much of human life. What poet Thomas Hardy calls “crass casualty,” and perfidy, and treachery abound, and nature itself often behaves like a long, slow, fatal trap. People are a notorious mess, and our feeble efforts to steer toward some good often entail consequences of the worst sort. This ancient, tragic sense is almost fatalistically unrelieved, but even in Homer we see a paradoxical qualification. A tiny window of something like transcendence appears. We are shown to have the capacity to rise through understanding, benevolence, self-knowledge, self-command, or sympathy, some state of being, in which the good of something other than ourselves, is uppermost.

9. While strife and inevitable death may threaten to drown out everything else, they highlight, in their own way, the importance again of home, repose, peace, and of course, family. Restlessness and curiosity are no strangers to Homer, and, as Athena knows, Telemachus himself must leave home if he is to grow from a bullied boy to a young man, the son of Odysseus. But in the end, in the end, home remains the object. When we first see Odysseus, he weeps for home (having, of course spent years gadding about). The domestic scene between Hector, Andromache, and Astyanax is justly famous, and not just for its sentiment or its tragic overtones. The family archetype is there before us in its structure, mutual reliance, and even humor. So, too, we see the weighty symbolism of the olive tree literally rooting Odysseus’ marriage bed to a place and a person. How perfectly conceived is that test, the moment of recognition when Odysseus becomes known because of his outrage at the idea that this bed could be moved. As we know, one of the best metaphors for human life is that of a journey or a pilgrimage, but the picture of home and every good thing that this means stands majestic and beckoning in Homer.

10. Admiration for communion and abiding delight between man and wife. The white-armed princess Nausicaa thinks often of marriage, and no doubt insightful Odysseus could intuit as much. So, it may be thought that his appeal for her help concludes with pure sophistry as he paints a picture of marital communion:

And may the gods give you all your heart desires:
husband, and house, and lasting harmony, too.
No finer, greater gift in the world than that. . .
when man and woman possess their home, two minds,
two hearts that work as one. (Odyssey 6.198-201)

However, alongside Hector and Andromache, faithful Penelope and the marriage bed, Agamemnon’s praise for her and Odysseus’ celebrated return to her, the passage resonates beyond accusations of immediate opportunism. The possibility of something like genuine communion and lasting delight between husband and wife haunts the vexed, complicated, confused, tumultuous and failed relations between the sexes in these works. Even the failures amplify the possibility of harmony. Homer’s austere psychology means that he proposes no self-help road map to marital bliss—indeed, “bliss” is not even the point. But the harmonious union of man and wife as the root of family, home, community, a people, and even harmony between peoples—all remains luminous, though, admittedly, rare.

Once one begins to think about these poems in light of the many things the west is often found to ponder deeply, value highly, or widely regard or hold in wonder, an avalanche ensues. Without much in the way of comment now, allow me to speed the catalog:

  • Piety or fear of the gods as a species of justice and not just as self-interest.
  • Honor—real, imagined, earned, lost, disputed, affirmed.
  • Wonder in or at the natural world.
  • Admiration for craft, skill, and the beauty it creates.
  • The terrible beauty of things like assembled armies even though they can only mean death:

As a heavy surf assaults some roaring coast,
piling breaker on breaker whipped by the West Wind,
and out on the open sea a crest first rears its head
then pounds down on the shore with hoarse, rumbling thunder
and in come more shouldering crests, arching up and breaking
against some rocky spit, exploding salt foam to the skies—
so wave on wave they came, Achaean battalions ceaseless,
surging on to war. (Iliad 4. 489-496)

  • In accord with mortality and tragedy, the inescapability of strife and conflict.
  • Inexplicable yet overpowering passions.
  • Inexplicable yet overpowering reversals and changes in fortune, such as in the sudden rallying of an army.
  • Curiosity and all the moral ambivalence that implies.
  • The necessity and significance of praise itself, and the act of giving praise.
  • Narrative or story-telling as a means of discerning meaning and understanding experience.
  • Friendship
  • Festivity, celebration, dining, sport, and song.
  • Custom and tradition in themselves and as expressions of a kind of prudence operating at a cultural level.
  • Our social nature and the divinity or monstrousness of radical independence or autonomy.
  • Transience or ephemerality in human experience, fortune, and happiness.
  • Maturity, and its dependence upon countering strife, overcoming difficulty, mastering changeable and uncooperative circumstance.
  • Compassion or sympathy not just as admirable but also as civilizing and humanizing.

Some of these things are themes, some are relationships, some observations, some practices. The categories are not exclusive; they bleed into each other. But they present some idea of the superabundance of compellingly significant human concerns in Homer. They find in him a mind equal to the task of comprehending them, and representing them to others, revealingly. If we must attempt to pull the lens back even further, and compress into a small set of propositions the Homeric “endowment” given the west, we might settle on these:

  1. Goodness can be found everywhere. Evil is everywhere without having to search for it, and it may even triumph, but goodness is strangely and compellingly recurring.
  2. Similarly, anything can matter, and be at least potentially consequential.
  3. Wonder—an admiring desire to enter into and behold a thing more fully—is the root passion of a humane life.
  4. Man is at war with himself, and with everything else.
  5. Evil, sorrow, tragedy are inescapable but—occasionally—promote wisdom.

Not surprisingly, Mark Van Doren includes Homer as the first in a short list of poets whom we must know if we are to know what poetry can be.[6] What he means by this appears to be two things—what poetry actually is, and what it is capable of doing. Without presuming to do any kind of justice to either of these topics, even as confined to Homer, a serious consideration of the poet cannot fail to take up the matter of poetry itself. Some of this should be apparent already in our earlier treatment of Achilles’ shield. Some if it should be apparent in the fact that Homer himself takes up the matter, such as when he launches his epics with “Sing,” or as when he assigns Demodocus the bard so important a place in one of his poems. In fact, readers tend to think Homer is describing himself when he presents us with Demodocus, and the bard’s blindness is likely the reason the entire ancient tradition held that Homer—about whom we know precisely nothing—was blind. Beyond a flattering portrait of Demodocus however, what can Homer’s depiction of the bard tell us of poetry?

In book eight of The Odyssey, Phaeacian King Alcinous calls forth the bard to celebrate with song and story the determination to return their guest—whose identity is yet unknown—to his home.

. . . . Call in the inspired bard
Demodocus. God has given the man the gift of song,
To him beyond all others, the power to please,
However the spirit stirs him to sing. (50-53)
. . .
In came the herald now,
Leading along the faithful bard the Muse adored
Above all others, true, but her gifts were mixed
With good and evil both: she stripped him of sight
But gave the man the power of stirring, rapturous song. (71-75)

Another translation renders the line  “by her gift he knew/ the good of life, and evil—“ a construal more indicative of my point.[7] But this translation is more than enough to expose the esteem had for the bard both by the king and by the poet—Homer—telling us this story. Obviously, the bard is loved by the gods and muses, too. A cynic might be tempted to regard this as a bit of self-promotion on Homer’s part, and doubtless the poet was pleased to treat his bard quite well. It is remarkable how often entertainers—jesters, fools, players—in Shakespeare provide the clarifying note of wisdom, whether on purpose or by accident. But this passage presents us not just with an esteemed entertainer, but one whose art is crowded with divinity. He is blessed, inspired above all others. There is something of the prophet or seer in this blind man, and the “stirring” power is not simply a matter of emotion, as we learn.

Odysseus’ identity is still secret, but by “happy” inspiration Demodocus chooses to sing the story of Odysseus arguing with Achilles during the Trojan War. Not surprisingly, Odysseus is moved, even to tears, as his own experience is presented to him in song. He tries to hide his tears behind his cloak, but every time there is a pause, he dries his tears and pours out a small oblation of wine to the gods. Interestingly, Alcinous alone secretly observes his guest’s weeping, and without hinting as to why, he calls for the start of games—a suitably distracting change. Readers usually—and justly—infer that something of his guest’s identity or history may be dawning on him. What should be noted here, however, is that Odysseus himself has had something of the same revelation. Not of course that his identity has dawned on him, or that he suddenly realizes that he misses the good old days. Rather, he has seen himself in a way that is new to him and stirring—both emotionally and conceptually. It is as if he had suddenly caught a glimpse of his own portrait; he has seen himself depicted in the mirror that art holds up to nature. Now that his experience has been distilled into a story, Odysseus can see in that episode all the unity, meaning, and import that a narrative holds so well aloft, makes so readily apparent.

As if to emphasize the point, after the games a similar scene ensues. This time, Odysseus makes a request and asks Demodocus to sing the story of the Trojan horse. The bard complies, and Odysseus again weeps, and again Alcinous alone notices. The second time seems to be the charm. Alcinous asks his name, and asks his story. It is here that the great digression begins wherein Odysseus reveals himself and tells the episodic tale of his last ten years’ adventures. Odysseus, in fact, becomes the bard. He does not chant, presumably, but Demodocus has shown him his experience in a narrative, and now Odysseus is prepared to do the same, but on a grand scale. Surely it is no coincidence that Odysseus sees himself—twice—in a mirror, so to speak, and having seen his life take on the order and meaning of a story is prepared to construe the rest of it in the same fashion. I cannot emphasize this enough. Seeing his experience through the lens of narrative unfolds to Odysseus the coherence or meaning of those experiences more broadly. He has been taught to see the clouds by N.C. Wyeth, or the sea by (another) Homer. Under the pressure of urgency and desire, his life has until now been largely a tactical one—figure out how to get what is necessary given the circumstances. Demodocus lifts the point of view to take in another angle, sees the life from above, so to speak, and alert Odysseus grasps the unifying point of view instantly. There is a trajectory in all this seeming randomness. Though only dimly seen at present, there is an order or coherence in it. My experience is a story, and I can tell it. This is what poetry, or the Muse, does. Until the Muses show us the world, we tend to be blind to it. The point in holding the mirror up to nature is not to exercise the biceps. It is to see, to understand, to know.

Homer’s epics famously begin “in medias res”—in the middle of things, and this manner of beginning becomes, in tribute to Homer, one of the famous “Epic Conventions” about which so much can be said but usually is not. This is unfortunate because in medias res underscores a similar point about human experience and its intelligibility. The Iliad takes place toward the end of the Trojan war, but it does not take us to that end, just as it does not present us its beginning. It starts as the war is far along in its sinewy course and extracts from that war the story of Achilles’ wrath, its cause and its terrible consequences. The beginning and end of the war haunt the poem and are alluded to in memory or prophecy often, however, so the epic never loses its sense of suspension between defining poles. It all happens “in the middle of things.”

The more pronounced and graphic demonstration of in medias res of course is found in The Odyssey. If this poem concerns the epic journey home for its hero, then both beginning and end are here. The poem starts as the journey is already underway, but we are taken back to the beginning and, eventually, proceed all the way to the end, or at least to that point at which Odysseus is home and Ithaca is at peace. Consider however the stark difference between what we might call chronology and the narrative. Chronologically speaking, the beginning and end are as they were described, and time simply marches in a straight line forward through event after event until the end is reached. The narrative however moves back and forth in time. It stretches time and compresses it. It pauses, skips over, bounces back, and dances atop a chronological order in a kind of virtuoso display of narrative weaving. Not chronologically, but in “story-time,” the poem begins close to the chronological end—Ithaca is shown in its disorder, Telemachus is urged to leave and does so, Odysseus is released from Ogygia and washes ashore among the Phaeacians. As above, at this point, things pause. The forward chronological movement of the story is suspended as Odysseus is asked to tell of his rovings, and he does just that. From Books 9 through 12 Odysseus takes us back—in memory—to the actual beginning, the departure from Troy, and tells of the subsequent nine-years’ adventures. If we were on a time-line from Troy to peace in Ithaca, we would pause and draw a dotted line back to the beginning of that timeline and slowly begin to move forward along it, now covering things that happened before we started our forward movement at the launch of the epic. Then, when this remembered or “flashback” portion of the tale has caught up with Odysseus’ arrival among the Phaeacians, we stop again, skip a few days forward (Odysseus does not have to recount the experiences they have just all had together of the past day or so) and then the chronological movement begins again in “real” time. Odysseus is returned to Ithaca, joins the swineherd, is reunited with his son, kills all the suitors, is reunited with Penelope, etc.  One can encapsulate all this simply by saying much of the ten-years’ journey is presented by way of recollection, but setting the relentless march of real time against the back-and-forth of narrative “time” reveals the startling work that narrative has done. What work? Order out of chaos.

Paradoxically, the clean, linear, methodical march of time gives us chaos—one darn thing after another. Time as such presents us with no meaning, no distinguishing peaks or valleys, no differentiating criteria for significance. This moment lasts as long as that moment and the next moment; duration and sequence need the help of other, ordering things before they can reveal very much to us. Making eggs and toast could occupy as much space on someone’s timeline as saying goodbye to a dying loved one, but I doubt they are equivalent events. Likewise, simply recounting or listing a day’s actions—I got up, got dressed, ate breakfast, went to class, gave my sister the phone message about her appointment, ate lunch, washed my socks, etc. etc.—will not only bore the listener, it will move the teller to something like despair. Is this what life is? Really? Not at all, and the Muses know this. Narrative pries meaning out of the concealing clutch of mere chronology, meaning that genuinely attaches to events. A mere sequence of events is not a story or narrative and does not present to us the import or significance of things. Another way of saying this might be that we live our lives chronologically, but we understand them narratively. If Homer were telling the story of one’s day, he might say Zeus sent Apollo to inspire you to wash your socks, so that, thus occupied, you would forget your regular Skype session home and thus free your mother to spend that time talking her neighbor into bulldozing the local tattoo parlor. Whimsy aside, narrative places events in their proper relations and proportions. It passes over irrelevance and highlights significance.

Certainly in Homer’s case, he does not narrate as if he is creating meaning ex nihilo and imposing it on a properly meaningless sequence of events. The meaning is there, but it is not found in chronology.  The dance of narrative time atop chronological time demonstrates the manner in which art pulls meaning out of an apparently chaotic background and makes it comprehensible. In medias res thus both emphasizes and performs the work of narrative in bringing us a vision of the world that allows us to understand it, to, in a manner of speaking, inhabit the world’s authentic intelligibility.

One of the most noted exercises of Homer’s poetic craft, however, lies in his frequent use of similes—the famous Homeric, or epic similes. These figures of speech have so often attracted the studied imitation of later poets, that they now are considered an epic convention in their own right—alongside the invocation of the Muse, catalogs, descents into the underworld, etc. They deserve our attention here because similes share in the poetic work of teasing out meaning in human experience. This may sound counter-intuitive. Quite often, as figures of speech, similes are regarded primarily as ornamental or decorative. If caught in an honest moment, most readers would admit to hurrying through them, impatient to get back to the “real” action or matter in hand. As ornaments, they seem to us like flourishes—perhaps diverting and indicative of the poet’s skill, but not really part of the conceptual “heft” of the poems. If pressed, we might acknowledge the rhetorical effect the similes often have—they can (and do) give force and impact to the object described, such as is seen in the ocean surf simile as applied to the Argive armies. All of this falls short, however, of the kind of meaning it is the work of Homer’s similes to impart.

Though not speaking directly about similes or Homer, G.K. Chesterton addresses the kind of meaning that is the essential point of poetic language:

We are surrounded in this world by huge and anonymous forces; as they rush by us we throw a name at them—love, death, destiny, remembrance—but the things themselves are infinitely vaster and more varied than the names. True artistic symbolism exists in order to provide another alphabet, for the direct interpretation of these infinite anarchic things, than the alphabet of language. It is not that a sea at sunset “represents” sorrow, but that a sea at sunset represents a great deal of the truth which is missed by the word, “sorrow.”[8]

Again, it is the work of poetry, including similes, to tease meaning out of anarchic human experience and to give it utterance. A proper simile is not a doily of decorative language draped superfluously over an innocent object. It brings the fullness of that object’s meaning to our imaginations. As hinted before, and as Chesterton notes, much of what is most important for us to see and recognize in our experience, we can only approach indirectly. It is the work of metaphor—of which simile is a species—to do just this. Poetry tends to begin when ordinary, discursive and propositional language falls silent. Juliet is beautiful, yes, and one could simply say so. But Romeo conveys infinitely more of that truth when he says, “she doth teach the torches to burn bright.”

Just after describing the amassed Argive armies through the metaphor of pounding surf, Homer turns to the Trojans:

[L]ike flocks of sheep in a wealthy rancher’s steadings,
thousands crowding to have their white milk drained,
bleating nonstop when they hear their crying lambs
so the shouts rose up from the long Trojan lines
and not one cry, no common voice to bind them
all together, their tongues mixed and clashed,
their men hailed from so many far-flung countries. (Iliad 4.503-509)

The profound pathos of Troy, or any desperate defense of home, is here. Of course the Trojans are a mighty, dreadful force, and before long we will see them routing the Greeks and panicking them among their ships. Yet Homer likens them in this passage to sheep—female sheep at that—desperate to feed their young, because this is how their complex vulnerability is made real. Their fears for those behind the walls of Troy, whose fears in turn can be felt behind them, rise in a comfortless cacophony of cries. How feeble is that paraphrase next to the original simile! To speak directly of this profound vulnerability is largely to fail. It requires the indirection of metaphor, and Homer’s great, epic similes present these elusive realities to us as could nothing else.

As indicated earlier, the justly famous opening invocation—Sing in me, Muse—deserves additional attention, especially in the context of poetry’s relation to meaning and experience. Mentioned already is the invocation’s being crowded with divinity. Before exploring this divinity in greater detail, however, we should note that “sing” suggests its own mark of elevation. Yes, of course the invocation refers to the way bards chanted and performed their poems, details that Homer is pleased to provide when speaking of Demodocus and his lyre: the peg that it hangs upon in Alcinous’ hall, the way the herald takes it up and puts it back for him, etc. Yet just as singing normally entails a raising of the voice, so too it suggests an elevated subject or matter. It is associated with religious practices across history and cultures. We think of singing as proportioned to the most important passions and human experiences. Even in our own day of media-driven banality, song continues to carry with it a discernable sense of dignity. One way of illustrating this is in reverse. Imagine doing something utterly mundane or prosaic but in song—say, ordering pizza, being pulled over, or haggling at a flea market; the effect is comic. Of course entire traditions of comic song exist, and the Irish in particular seem to have a knack for joking about death, drunks, and mothers-in-law all in song. But the point remains, I think. Epic poetry is of the highest elevation, and its being sung—history or cultural practice apart—seems entirely appropriate.

Yet the bard does not sing alone. He sings under the inspiration of a Muse. Antiquity is so dense with deathless gods and goddesses, it almost does not occur to us to ask about these Muses. They are connected to things like poetry and the arts, and no doubt Homer was simply following existing convention by invoking them. Is that not enough? Perhaps, but we miss something significant—and significance is our purpose—if we fail to look more closely at these Muses. First of all, they are female. That means they are associated with fecundity, increase, fruitfulness—things closely albeit metaphorically related to the labor of the poet. They are also, of course, associated with great beauty. Finally, they are divine. Tradition holds that the nine Muses are daughters of Zeus and the Titaness, Mnemosyne—goddess of memory. This association happily works in both ways; that is, memory is necessary for Homer’s poetic craft, especially as coming out of the oral tradition wherein poetry is remembered, not read; but memory also is served by or enhanced by the exercise of this art. The form of the art itself helps to preserve, and indeed did preserve, all kinds of learning. More generally, poetry, as we see, can lift what ought to be remembered, what is deserving of note or permanence, out of the mire of time and into a people’s awareness and admiration. Herodotus tells us that the purpose of history, for instance, is to give great men their due measure of praise. And, fittingly, there is a Muse of history—Clio.

The invocation of the Muse resonates even more deeply, however, when we recollect that the very word, “Muse,” is etymologically related to a host of words in many languages clustered around mind, thought, understanding, reason, and again, memory. (The Proto-Indo-European “men” is thought to be the culprit.) It is no wonder that, a bit later than Homer’s day, the Muses became associated with many of the bodies of learning comprising the liberal arts. Perhaps paradoxically, some consider the Muses linked etymologically as well to words from which we derive “mute” and “mystery.” (Greek “myein”—to close, to be shut; Proto-Indo-European “meue.”) This seems counterintuitive as the Muses help the poet to speak. But Homer’s treatment of his subjects and their details, his use of similes, catalogs, narrative structure, character and the other elements of poetic art, make it very clear that he is giving utterance and form to the elusive, mysterious things in human experience that resist—yet require—utterance, and our comprehension, apprehension, reflection. Things like mortality, love, divinity; things larger than our words for them.

It is fitting, I think, that we thus end where we began: “Sing in me, Muse.” We sing because song is best proportioned to the high, mysterious, elusive yet compelling realities of which we treat. We invoke a deity, one specially endowed with power to inspire about such realities, because these realities lie partly beyond our ken, because our abilities could easily fail in the effort, and because we might offend the deity if we fail to give it its due measure of deference (!). And we do all this because, as we have seen, it is the work of poetry also to examine life, albeit by its own means. Homer’s epics launch a civilization not because they lay out a set of rules to be followed (though some such can be distilled from his works) nor even because we define “civilization” down to the point where it simply means an enduring, Homer fan-club (though his continuous appeal cannot be an accident). They launch a civilization because they urge, compellingly and comprehensively, the necessity of understanding our condition, good and bad, through experience; they do so by giving us in narrative form the experience of greatness, failure, tragedy, love, family, war, friendship, and society; they do so by giving us finally, a profound grasp of ourselves, our nature, and our condition. They reach toward understanding the meaning, the significance, of being human.

While these may sound like gaseously abstract or general things, they, like civilization itself, are not to be taken for granted. As I mentioned, beginnings can be either betrayed or forgotten. In a discourse about art, nature, and the west, 20th century playwright Samuel Beckett gives voice to a profound urge in the modern spirit. He says that he yearns for an art that turns away from its predecessors, an art that is “weary of puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.”[9] Instead, he prefers “The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.”[10](Proust and Three Dialogues, 103). Rather than give utterance to and thus comprehension of the mysterious meaningfulness of our lives, he wishes art to repel any such meaning and to dissolve all such comprehension. Perhaps he is being playful. Perhaps Beckett presumes so utterly on the rooted solidity of his poet predecessors that no amount of nihilistic whimsy can erase their achievement. But the sentiment he voices is deep in our day, and deepening; the civilization it either toys with or disdains, is darkening. Over against these things, at least humanly speaking, is Homer, chanting low but clearly, “Sing in me, Muse.”


[1] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Everyman’s Library (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 1.

[2] Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (New York, The Free Press, A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., 1978), 39.  

[3] Bernard Knox, introduction to Homer, The Iliad, trans. Robert Fagles, (London, Penguin Books, 1998), 6.

[4] Homer, The Iliad, trans Robert Fagles (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 18.693-707.

[5] Homer, The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (London, Penguin Books, 1996), 9.125.

[6] Mark Van Doren, preface to The Noble Voice: A Study of Ten Great Poems, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1949), xiii.

[7] Homer. The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fitzgerald, Everyman’s Library (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992), 127.

[8] G.K. Chesterton, Chesterton on Shakespeare (Henley-on-Thames, Oxon: Darwen Finlayson Limited, 1971), 188.

[9] Samuel Beckett, “Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit,” in Proust and Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit (London: John Calder, 1965), 103.

[10] Ibid.

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“No one here tells us what to think. We read the great books, look into them deeply, and then discuss them actively in class, which has forced me to take responsibility for my own education.”

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Ridgecrest, California

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