Dr. Glen Arbery may well be right when he suggests in his book, Why Literature Matters: Permanence and the Politics of Reputation, that “of all the poems in the history of the West, actual scripture aside…. God loves the Iliad most.” But if so, Homer’s other poem, the Odyssey is a close second.
To adapt the language Dr. Arbery uses later in the same paragraph, when I even think about the wandering, interwoven world of hospitality and endurance and endlessly beautiful craftsmanship that the Odyssey brings before the imagination, I feel God’s pleasure.
To [almost] quote Dr. Arbery once more:
The [Odyssey] presents the broken world as it is, fallen and savage, but capable of noble formality and tender mercies; groaning ceaselessly for redemption but without undue self-pity; conscious of being kingly, masterful, and godlike, yet also mortally aware of being subject to every loss and humiliation, including the ultimate form, mortality itself.
The Odyssey is not the Iliad, but I have no doubt that Homer is the supreme poet of western literature.
Maybe the most amazing thing—no, only one of the many amazing things—about the Odyssey is the almost complete avoidance of theorizing by The Poet. If what Keats meant by “negative capability” is that the author disappears in his work, then it is hard to think of anybody who ever more thoroughly disappeared than Homer. Only Shakespeare comes close.
Instead of theorizing, Homer presents to the imagination imaginatively real people in real places who do real things. Instead of lecturing, he reveals the world we live in by (among other ways) comparing people, settings, gestures, actions, and artifacts that reveal to us, not a hidden depth, but a surface beauty.
Thus to understand Homer, the reader must learn not to seek out hidden depths but to stay instead on that beautiful surface.
In Book 9, the unknown and far-from-home Odysseus is celebrating a festival held in his honor by the dream-like Phaiakians on their fantasy island of Scheria. He is enjoying the beautiful, muse-inspired artistry of the singer Demodokos, who has been commemorating the conquest of Troy through the cunning of this very Odysseus, who, as I said above, is unknown by the celebrants. He weeps, and, hearing him weep, the King (Alkinoos) calls for an end to the singing and asks “his suppliant and guest” to identify himself by name, along with his land and city, “so that our ships… can carry you there.”
Then resourceful Odysseus spoke in turn and answered him:
O great Alkinoos, pre-eminent among all people,
surely indeed it is a good thing to listen to a singer
such as this one before us, who is like the gods in his singing;
for I think there is no occasion accomplished that is more pleasant
than when festivity holds sway among all the populace,
and the feasters up and down the houses are sitting in order
and listening to the singer, and beside them the tables are loaded
with bread and meats, and from the mixing bowl the wine steward
draws the wine and carries it about and fills the cups. This
seems to my own mind to be the best of occasions.
But now your wish was inclined to ask me about my mournful
sufferings, so that I must mourn and grieve even more.
The listener (for Homer is himself “like the gods in his singing” and is singing the Odyssey “when festivity holds sway among the populace, and the feasters up and down the houses are sitting in order and listening to the singer”), the listener, I say, cannot easily fail to notice that while Odysseus is celebrating the feast with the Phaiakians, his home (to which he is striving to return) is being desecrated by the famous suitors who, says Odysseus’ frustrated son, Telemachus:
come and loiter in our house
and sacrifice our oxen and our sheep and our fat goats
and make a holiday feast of it and drink the bright wine
recklessly. Most of our substance is wasted. We have no man here
such as Odysseus was, to drive this curse from the household.
… Beyond all decency my house has been destroyed.
Consider the difference in tone between the two stories. Then add this description of the singer in book one, in Odysseus’ “lofty dwelling” where…
the haughty suitors came in, and all of them straightway
took their places in order on chairs and along the benches,
and their heralds poured water over their hands for them to wash with,
and the serving maids brought them bread heaped up in baskets,
and the young men filled the mixing bowls with wine for their drinking.
… A herald put the beautifully wrought lyre in the hands
of Phemios, who sang for the suitors, because they made him.
He played his lyre and struck up a fine song.
Then, after a brief conference between Telemachus and Athene:
The famous singer was singing to them, and they in silence
sat listening. He sang of the Achaians’ bitter homecoming
from Troy, which Pallas Athene had inflicted upon them.
The daughter of Ikarios, circumspect Penelope [Odysseus’ wife],
heard and heeded the magical song from her upper chamber,
and descended the high staircase that was built in her palace,
not all alone, since two handmaidens went to attend her.
When she, shining among women, came near to the suitors,
she stood by the pillar that supported the roof with its joinery,
holding her shining veil in front of her face, to shield it,
and a devoted attendant was stationed on either side of her.
All in tears she spoke to the divine singer,
“Phemios, since you know many other actions of mortals
and gods, which can charm men’s hearts and which the singers celebrate,
sit beside them and sing one of these, and let them sit in silence
go on drinking their wine, but leave off singing this sad
song, which always afflicts the dear heart deep inside me…”
Here in these two simple, elegant descriptions Homer has revealed two very different worlds, one perhaps an ideal civilization (the first Utopia?), one a broken and unruled home. Yet Homer never comments on either. He simply presents them and in that presenting he shows us all that we need to see on the radiant surface of his tapestry.