Classical Epic: Homer and Virgil by Richard Jenkyns (1992)

W.A. Camps’s Introduction to Virgil was horrible to read, long-winded, verbose and highly repetitive; he describes the same series of events 3, 4, 5 times, first from the point of view of Aeneas, then of Turnus, then of the gods, then for its poerry, then for its symbolism etc etc, all without telling you anything particularly interesting or insightful. I found it so frustrating I gave up.

Richard Jenkyns’s dinky little primer (80 pages including Further Reading) is, by contrast, jaunty, accessible, logically structured, covers all the territory. It aims to be popular i.e. aims at a general audience, and his enthusiasm is infectious. Camps writes at great length without ever saying anything interesting. Jenkyns says something interesting in almost every sentence. Key learnings include:

Who was Homer?

There are two camps, unitarians and analysts. Unitarians think the Iliad and the Odyssey were written by one man in the same sense that Shakespeare was the author of Hamlet.

Analysts think the poems were the work of successive generations of anonymous authors. Analysts can themselves be subdivided into 2 groups: one group think the poems grew gradually as successive generations of minstrel poets added plotlines and details; the other type think this is so but posit the existence of a ‘redactor’, standing at the end of the oral line, who sorted the works out, synthesised various stories and consciously created the works we have today.

Milman Parry

In the 1930s a young American academic named Milman Parry revolutionised Homer studies. He had been on several extended sociological expeditions to poor illiterate villages in Bosnia, in the Balkans, and there was introduced to a fraternity of oral poets who could recite epic poems of enormous length purely from memory. He made many recordings of them in action and in conversation. It became clear that they had at their command a large number of ready-made formulae which they could slip into the poems at will to fit any metrical gap. Milman’s notions of ‘formulae’ were characterised by scope and economy: scope meant there were phrases to describe everything; economy indicated that they were short phrases, although they often came in grammatical variations which meant the poet could slip in the appropriate phrase to fill gaps in his lines. I like that Parry was dubbed the ‘Darwin of Homer studies’ in the sense that he gave it an utterly new, scientific basis.

Homer’s Greek was never spoken. It mashes together grammar and vocab from different dialects, embedded like different colours in a tapestry.

Parry didn’t actually change the who-was-Homer theories, just gave them a whole new dimension. But scholars stlil squabble to this day about whether they were written by one person at the end of a tradition of oral poets, or were assembled by a master writer but then continued to be adapted and retold in later generations. Nobody knows.

Against great men

Jenkyns highlights what you could call the bourgeois fallacy of literature which is that there is a kind of reader and critic who wants their literature to be produced by Great Geniuses. They are upset by the idea that the Iliad and Odyssey might be the result of communities of makers, spread over generations. Their critical approach depends on the notion that works of literature ought to display Fine Sensibilities and Moral Choices and Profound Psychological Insights and all the rest of it. So if it turns out that some of the greatest works of literature ever were produced by committees and communities, the entire humanist-bourgeois-moralistic school of criticism loses its assumptions and all its tools, what is there to write about?

Which is why I distance myself from that approach. For me a work of literature is a verbal machine, a semantic device, for eliciting psychological, cognitive and emotional responses. Who made it or why or what they intended are very secondary questions to analysing how the machine works and what it does to our brains when we read or hear it. This approach just seems to me more flexible and answerable to the weird, diverse and often inexplicable jungle of literary texts we engage with. Or proverbs or maxims or folk stories or limericks or the many other types of literary form or genre.

The whole insistence that literature must be original and must express the super-fine feelings of creative geniuses is a very narrow, blinkered view which only came into being with the Romantic Revolution around 1800. People who have only read literature from the last few decades, or the last two centuries at most, will get on fine with theis blinkered view because a lot of literature post 1800 was conceived and written in this way and a lot of criticism can justifiably focus on the author, their biography, their intentions and so on.

But if you read literature from before 1800 – from the Renaissance, the Middle Ages, the Icelandic sagas, the huge range of anonymous poems, the literature of the ancient world – it’s conceived and originated in completely different ways. Anglo-Saxon poetry, Beowulf, say, can’t be fitted into the post-Romantic, sensitive genius model but, like Homer, it obviously exists. So your critical approach must be modified to take account of the widest possible variety of literary artefacts.

An illiterate peasant can say something as profound as Shelley. Some of the greatest stories are folk stories. Some of the greatest wisdom is in proverbs. Get your head round it.

Back to Homer, most critics think the author of the Iliad and of the Odyssey cannot be the same man. Jenkyns tends to think they are but not because he’s wedded to the Great Man theory, more for the accumulation of technical evidence.

Homer’s gods

The ungodlike behaviour of Homer’s gods offended Plato. He thought they ought to be more dignified. Indeed, Homer’s men and gods are very similar in their selfishness and their emotional responses, but with 2 key differences: the gods are immortal and the gods are happy; men are mortal and, on the whole, miserable. But this means:

The gods’ desires and passions are shallower and more transitory than men’s. Men are complex and deep in a way that the gods are not; they face challenges and dilemmas from which the gods are exempt. (p.29)

The most distinctive thing about the Iliad is its phenomenal virile energy. It has a fierce love of life. It is Nietzschean. It asserts life and nothing but life. The most intense experience a man can have is fighting in battle. Death is always near so every moment is superhumanly intense. Nothing matches the complete, pure, 100% masculine experience of victorious fighting, of killing an opponent.

The pitilessness seems to be a necessary part of the vision…a fundamentally tragic conception, high, austere and unflinching in a fashion not easily grasped by the modern liberal imagination. (p.28)

Menis, anger, is the first word of the Iliad. It is a 11,693-line long poem about male anger.

The Christian idea is that God is great because he loves us. Homer’s idea is the reverse: the gods are great because they get involved, a bit, superfically; but deep down they are immortal and wonderfully indifferent, light-hearted, care-less. Essentially frivolous.

This offended the stern moralist Plato. Which is why I don’t like Plato, whose philosophical approach leads him to the ludicrous idea that this world is simply a cheap reproduction of the Ideal World which exists on some other plane and is much to be preferred. Nonsense. This is the only world and that is why it is so important to live as intensely and fiercely as Homer’s heroes.

The Iliad is named after Troy because Ilium was the old Greek word for Troy. So the title Iliad could be translated as ‘Troy Story’. Except that isn’t what the poem is really about. It is the story of Achilles’ anger and the tragic vision of the universe which that anger invokes, calls forth, embodies.

The Iliad covers a period of one month. The central 21 books of the poem cover just three days.

The Odyssey

Many readers remember the Odyssey as a picaresque series of exotic adventures. But it isn’t. The actual action ofthe poem covers a similiarly brief period with all the exotic adventures being told in a flashback to the court of King Alcinous of hte Phaeacians.

The Odyssey is actually a nostos, the story of ‘a return home’. It’s also easy to forget that Odysseus’s journey home is mirrored by his grown-up son Telemechus’s journey away from home, to mainland Greece, to meet and ask Odysseus’s comrades in the war what has become of him.

In the Iliad man is alone, and Homer dramatises this in the superficial bonding of Priam and Achilles when the former comes to beg the latter for Hector’s body. I’ve always through this scene one of the most beautyiful and heartrending in all literature, but Jenkyns brings out how they are grieving for different things and remain isolated in their own worlds.

Anyway, by contrast, Odysseus’s nostos continually brings him into greater and greater society.

There is lots of evidence that there were and are two Odysseuses in the ancient tradition: one was a wily trickster, whose character appears much earlier than the Homeric poems, and owes a lot to folk legend. The other is the upright noble king of the Iliad type. The two traditions are combined in the Odyssey.

The Odyssey is, despite its many grim moments, a comedy. The hero arrives home safe and sound to be reunited with his wife and son. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished.

It is also a poem about showing hospitality to the stranger at the door.


Virgil obviously copied the worldview, historical setting, characters and key events from Homer. Yet there would have been no point doing it if you just ended up as a second-rate Homer. Virgil co-opts Homer big time but he is trying to do something different and the poem is full of this effort, of struggle, of difficulty, to rethink and remodel his exemplars.

Virgil co-opts huge parts of both the Iliad and the Odyssey into a poem which somehow manages to be shorter than either of them.

Primary and secondary epic

The distinction between primary epic (anonymous product of illiterate societies) and secondary epic (written product of literate societies, generally with a named author) is boringly familiar. Jenkyns adds a wrinkle I hadn’t thought of: secondary epic is generally more moralising, more earnest and serious than primary epic. That’s one of the appeals of primary epic – its amoral energy.

In Homer the gods are frivolous and happy-go-lucky, and the human heroes have a kind of heroic freedom of action: they defy the gods as they go to their deaths. In the Aeneid (or Paradise Lost) the characters carry a heavy burden of meaning/destiny and nobody is ever happy-go-lucky. The fierce Nietszchean joy has evaporated. Everything is an effort and a burden and a sacrifice. I’ve just read T.S. Eliot’s essay on Virgil where he describes Aeneas as having ‘a very heavy cross to bear.’ Exactly, and the poem also bears that weight.

Poiund’s definition of epic

It’s easy to overlook but when Ezra Pound says an epic is a long poem with history in it, both the Iliad and the Odyssey do NOT have history in them, not proper history, autheticated factual history. They both come from the Greek Dark Ages of legends and myths.

By contrast, Virgil’s Aeneid emphatically is a poem with history in: book 6 features the parade of future Roman heroes which refers to umpteen real historical personages and their military achievements, and here and at the end of book 8 (the shield) Virgil goes out of his way to include real history in his poem.

The burden of meaning

Again: many poets in Roman times wrote long epic poems, but the heroes generally had their adventures and that was it. Only in Virgil is their this tremendous weight of significance and symbolism, and all the way through the sense of tremendous effort, and its self conscious sense of burden and heavy historical meaning which Milton copied.

Aeneas introduces himself as ‘pius Aeneas’ (1.378) and his awareness of the burden of responsibility to family, state and the gods repeatedly threatens to crush him. It makes Aeneas a new type of epic hero. This is cognate with Eliot’s notion that Aeneas has what none of the Homeric heroes have, and what will become a great Christian virtue, humility. He accepts that his destiny is bigger than he is.

Virgil’s prisms

Virgil uses a prismatic method. He walks round his men and women, examining them from all angles. The most obvious way this is done is by comparing them to other figures from myth or history. Thus Aeneas is compared at various points to Achilles, Hector, Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus, Jason and Augustus. The point is not that Aeneas is like any of these: it is precisely the differences that the reader is invited to ponder and define.

Dido and Aeneas

Jenkyns makes a neat observation about Aeneas and Dido: it is best to think of them as Homeric characters who have got out of their depth. They continue to behave with the insouciance of the Homeric heroes, but somehow their world they inhabit has become darker and dominated by this effortful quest and destiny which Aeneas is cursed to fulfil. Aeneas starts out as a Homeric hero but he rapidly finds himself in a world where the Homeric rules no longer apply. Compare and contrast with the heroes of the Iliad in particular, who are confidently in and of their world. They are masters of it. Aeneas gropes his way through an alien world.

Jenkyns makes the neat point that, after her moving appearance to him as a phantasm after the fall of Troy, Aeneas never sees, or even thinks about, his lost wife Creusa again: and this is because ‘a good marriage is complete; its memory does not trouble the spirit.’ Unlike the doomed affair with Dido which, of course, very much does trouble his spirit for some time afterwards.

Aeneas the listener

One mark of the Homeric heroes’ at-homeness in their world is the long fluent speeches they make. It’s their world, they’re completely at home in it, they make lengthy speeches about it.

Aeneas, by contrast, speaks but doesn’t make many speeches. More often than not he is listening to ther people’s speeches, taking instruction, learning about his destiny.

And he is frequently puzzled and perplexed, led on by half-prophecies and obscure omens, knowing that something awaits him in Italy but only given the details half way through the poem. No-one in a Homeric poem is perplexed in this way. They are crystal clear about their grievances and their anger etc.

The Aeneid is a poem about a troubled man. It should start: ‘Arms and a troubled man I sing’.

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