'Historia locuta est. Sed historiae obloquitur ipse vates et contra testatur sensus legentis' (History has spoken. But the poet's own words answer back, and the reader's impression adds its dissenting voice). This eloquent transition in F.A. Wolf's Prolegomena to his edition of Homer (1795) might stand as the motto and the problem of Homeric studies ever since. Wolf, who was the first to examine seriously how the Iliad and Odyssey came down to us, thought that such long and complex works could not have been composed in an illiterate age and that they showed signs of their disunity. Wolf expressed himself firmly, but with some trepidation; and in fact he did not deal in any breadth or depth with the larger problems posed by the text. But after him scholars set with a will to the work of 'analysis', seeking out evidence of multiple authorship, confident that history had routed literary criticism for good. Yet even the analysts remained loyal at least to the notion of Homer, for they took themselves to be relieving the masterworks of later accretions; and if they claimed to be working as historians, a historian of the 19th century might now find their view of Homer and his audience all too close to the attitudes or aberrations of that time. The early Greeks, who did not have the benefits of scientific enlightenment and technical progress, had to be primitive; and so their poets could not be credited with any kind of artistry which challenged the understanding.
LRB 6 August 1981 | PDF Download