The Homeric Question and Wordsworth’s Poetics

Posted: January 10, 2019 in Uncategorized

“Wolf’s Prolegomena has long been recognized as one of the most important books in the history of classical studies. . . . This English translation, with a detailed historical introduction, makes it fully accessible to the modern reader. . . . The analytical and unitarian interpretations of Homer have, indeed, been argued over ever since. It is gratifying that the work which started this famous controversy is available once again.” —H. B. Nisbet, Times Higher Education Supplement

“This is the first English translation of Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum, a seminal work for classical scholarship. An introduction places Wolf in the cultural setting of eighteenth-century Germany, especially with regard to Homeric studies, showing how he was influenced by contemporary textual criticism of the Old Testament, and how Wolf’s work was originally received.”–Choice

Twenty-three poems that transformed English poetry

Wordsworth and Coleridge composed this powerful selection of poetry during their youthful and intimate friendship. Reproducing the first edition of 1798, this edition of Lyrical Ballads allows modern readers to recapture the book’s original impact. In these poems—including Wordsworth’s “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” and Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere”—the two poets exercised new energies and opened up new themes.

  1. Eduardo Barba says:

    I will begin with saying that the “Penguin Classics” cover for Wordsworth and Coleridge is quite gravitating, attention grabbing and to put plainly, beautiful. When I first saw the post, it immediately struck me as pleasant to look at. The artwork on the cover almost makes me forget that there is even a title associated with such a cover and looks like a painting that belongs in the Louvre. I also find it interesting how the highlighted portion of the text states that if Homer wanted to remain historically relevant he needed to become an ancient poet, yet Brian stated that not one single person has gotten rich from writing poetry. Coincidentally, the Iliad is one of the most famous works in poetry and although he may not have made a fortune, he cemented his place in history. Many of us may do the same with things that may not make us millions yet have a passion for.

    • The image on the Penguin edition of lyrical ballads is Tinturn Abbey, the medieval monastery from which one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems takes its name. A medieval church certainly will bring to mind Gothic literature, which today in class I said Wordsworth found objectionable. The thing to notice here is that this is not a creepy wreck of a church lit by the moon, lightning, or some other dramatic source. Rather, it seems simply to be a vestige of an older and simpler pre-industrial time. Though it is a ruin, its demise seems to have been gradual, causing it to settle into and merge with the natural surrounding. As such, it gives the viewer occasion to ‘reflect in perfect tranquility’ on the passage of time and the finitude of individual lives, and to do so in a way which, though conscious of death, evokes neither morbidity or terror. Though the ruined church brings to mind countless associations, it does not stand for any specific meaning. It is this sober attitude and reduced set of expectations that Wordsworth considered the source with legitimate art and poetry.

      As for wealth and fame, it is possible that some persons have achieved either or both through the production of poetry. But Wordsworth will argue that persons who sought to achieve those goals, while using poetry simply as a means toward an ulterior pecuniary end, will have produced mere writing, but not enduring art. Homer stood the test of time not because he wrote what would be a bestseller at the time, but rather because what he wrote speaks to all persons, in all times and places. At least that’s how Wordsworth saw it. For him, Homer was not a glorious prophetic seer, but rather an entirely human songwriter who just happened to be keenly attuned to the pathos of human experience.

    • I just reread my comment and gasped in horror at all my typos. Sorry about that.

  2. Nick Canfield says:

    After discussing the misconceptions of Homer’s status, reading the paragraphs in the pictures was very enjoyable. I thought the most interesting statements were the description of a “historically plausible ancient poet” and that the idea that his poems needed to “popular or semipopular lays” rather than decadent and ornamental tenet/guideline of the upper-upper class in order for him to give clues to his real historical persona. I think that it’s the misconceptions of Homer that make the study of his works more valuable, as well as entertaining.

    • The ‘Homeric question’ is something you might recall from IT3. While tradition taught that Homer enjoyed godlike vision and nobility of character, scholars began in the Enlightenment to question this assumption. Gradually, it came to be thought that Homer could not have been the man we formerly imagined, as all evidence suggests that the society to which he belonged was not just technologically primitive but essentially illiterate. Further, speculation and research increasingly suggested that Homer was not a single individual, but rather a large number of different individuals whose works were only collected and collated centuries later.

      It’s not surprising to see how Wordsworth’s understanding of Homer reflect his views on poets in general. While the presiding wisdom of his day argue that poets are very special persons with some unique connection to higher powers, Wordsworth’s “Preface” argues that there is not qualitative difference between poets and everyone else. Poets are inspired by no muse, possessed by no demon, or in touch with no higher faculties or powers. Poets merely lay claim to a greater power of memory and an expanded capacity for association between past and present events. Anything beyond that, as far as Wordsworth is concerned, is science fiction. It will be interesting to see how Wordsworth’s best ‘frenemy’ Coleridge weighs in on this topic. It seems here that Wordsworth, though one of the preeminent Romantic poets, nevertheless retains Enlightenment notions regarding the identity and status of Homer. Meanwhile, other Romantics, captivated by the notion of the Primal Imagination and original genius, will return to the belief that Homer was something more than an ordinary mortal.

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