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Literary Value of Homer 


Quintillian's (11) judgment on Hesiod that `he rarely rises to great heights... and to him is given the palm in the middle-class of speech' is just, but is liable to give a wrong impression. Hesiod has nothing that remotely approaches such scenes as that between Priam and Achilles, or the pathos of Andromache's preparations for Hector's return, even as he was falling before the walls of Troy; but in matters that come within the range or ordinary experience, he rarely fails to rise to the appropriate level. Take, for instance, the description of the Iron Age

("Works and Days", 182 ff.) with its catalogue of wrongdoings and violence ever increasing until Aidos and Nemesis are forced to leave mankind who thenceforward shall have `no remedy against evil'. Such occasions, however, rarely occur and are perhaps not characteristic of Hesiod's genius: if we would see Hesiod at his best, in his most natural vein, we must turn to such a passage as that which he himself -- according to the compiler of the "Contest of Hesiod and Homer" -- selected as best in all his work, `When the Pleiades, Atlas' daughters, begin to rise...'

("Works and Days, 383 ff.). The value of such a passage cannot be analysed: it can only be said that given such a subject, this alone is the right method of treatment.

Hesiod's diction is in the main Homeric, but one of his charms is the use of quaint allusive phrases derived, perhaps, from a pre- Hesiodic peasant poetry: thus the season when Boreas blows is the time when `the Boneless One gnaws his foot by his fireless hearth in his cheerless house'; to cut one's nails is `to sever the withered from the quick upon that which has five branches'; similarly the burglar is the `day-sleeper', and the serpent is the `hairless one'. Very similar is his reference to seasons through what happens or is done in that season: `when the House- carrier, fleeing the Pleiades, climbs up the plants from the earth', is the season for harvesting; or `when the artichoke flowers and the clicking grass-hopper, seated in a tree, pours down his shrill song', is the time for rest.

Hesiod's charm lies in his child-like and sincere naivete, in his unaffected interest in and picturesque view of nature and all that happens in nature. These qualities, it is true, are those pre-eminently of the "Works and Days": the literary values of the "Theogony" are of a more technical character, skill in ordering and disposing long lists of names, sure judgment in seasoning a monotonous subject with marvellous incidents or episodes, and no mean imagination in depicting the awful, as is shown in the description of Tartarus (ll. 736-745). Yet it remains true that Hesiod's distinctive title to a high place in Greek literature lies in the very fact of his freedom form classic form, and his grave, and yet child-like, outlook upon his world.

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