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It is quite unnecessary here to discuss the question, on which the learned are very far from being agreed, whether Homer—the "Prince of Poets"—had any real existence; whether he was really the author of the two great poems which bear his name, or whether they are the collected works of various hands, dovetailed into each other by some clever editor of ancient times. Homer will still retain his personality for the uncritical reader, however a sceptical criticism may question it. The blind old bard, wandering from land to land, singing his lays of the old heroic times to a throng of admiring listeners, must always continue to be the familiar notion of the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Such was the universal creed of the world of readers until a comparatively recent date; and the speculations of modern scholars, in this as in other cases, have been much more successful in shaking the popular belief than in replacing it by any constructive theory of their own which is nearly so credible. "Homer" is quite as likely to have been really Homer, as a mere name under whose shadow
the poems of various unknown writers have been grouped.
There is extant a Life of the poet, said to have heen composed by the Greek historian Herodotus, quoted as such by early writers, and possibly, after all, quite as trustworthy as the destructive conjectures of those critics who would allow him no life at all. There we are told that his birth, like that of so many heroes of antiquity, was illegitimate; that he was the son of Critheis, who had been betrayed by her guardian; that he was born near Smyrna, on the banks of the river Meles, and was thence called "Melesigenes." His mother is said afterwards to have married a schoolmaster named Phemius, by whom the boy was adopted, and in due course succeeded to his new father's occupation. But the future bard soon grew weary of such confinement. He set out to see the world; visiting in turn Egypt, Italy, Spain, the islands of the Mediterranean, and gathering material for at least one of his great works, the adventures of the hero Odysseus (Ulysses), known to us as the Odyssey. In the course of his travels he became blind, and thence was called "Homefos "—" the blind man"— such at least is one of the interpretations of his name.* In that state returning to his native town of Smyrna, he, like his great English successor, Milton, composed his two great poems. One of the few passages in which any personal allusion to himself has been traced, or fancied, in Homer's verse, is a scene in the Odyssey,
* Said to lie an Ionian term—"One who follows a guide." There are several other interpretations of the name, not necessary to be given here.
where the blind harper Demodocus is introduced as singing his lays in the halls of King Alcinous :—
"Whom the Muse loved, and gave him good and ill—
So, in the same poem, the only other hard who appears is also blind—Phemius, who is compelled to exercise his art for the diversion of the dissolute suitors of Penelope. The fact of blindness is in itself by no means incompatible with the notion of Homer's having constructed and recited even two such long poems as the Iliad and the Odyssey. The blind have very frequently remarkable memories, together with a ready ear and passionate love for music.
For the rest of his life, Homer is said to have roamed from city to city as a wandering minstrel, singing his lays through the towns of Asia Minor, in the islands of the Archipelago, and even in the streets of Athens itself, and drawing crowds of eager listeners wherever he went by the wondrous charm of his song. This wandering life has been assumed to imply that he was an outcast and poor. The uncertainty of his birthplace, and the disputes to which it gave rise in after times, were the subject of an epigram whose pungency passed for truth—
"Seven rival towns contend for Homer dead,
But the begging is not in the original lines at all, and a wandering minstrel was no dishonoured guest, wherever he appeared, in days much later than Homer's. Somewhere on the coast of the Levant he died and was buried, leaving behind him that name which retains its spell hardly weakened by the lapse of some twenty-seven centuries, and the two great poems which have been confessedly the main source of the epic poetry, the heroic drama, and the early romance of Europe.
Other works are ascribed to Homer's name besides the Iliad and the Odyssey, but the authorship appears more doubtful. If we trust the opinion of Aristotle, Homer was the father of comic narrative poetry as well as of epic. The poem called 'Margites,' attributed to him, contained the travels and adventures of a wealthy and pedantic coxcomb: but slight fragments only of this have been preserved—enough to show that the humour was somewhat more gross than one would expect from the poet of the Odyssey, though redeemed, no doubt, by satire of a higher kind, as in the surviving line which, in describing the hero's accomplishments, seems to anticipate the multifarious and somewhat superficial knowledge of the present day—
"Full many things he knew—and ill he knew them all."
Admitting the personality of the poet himself, and his claim to the authorship of both Iliad and Odyssey, it is not necessary to suppose that either poem was framed originally as a whole, or recited as a whole upon every occasion. No doubt the song grew as he sung. He would probably add from time to time to the original lay. The reciter, whose audience must depend entirely upon him for their text, has an almost unlimited licence of interpolation and expansion. It may be fairly granted also that future minstrels, who sung the great poet's lays after his death, would interweave with them here and there something of their own, more or less successful in its imitation of the original. Such explanation of the repetitions and incongruities which are to be found in the Iliad seems at least as reasonable as the supposition that its twenty-four books are the work of various hands, "stitched together "—such is one explanation of the term "rhapsody"—in after times, and having a common origin only in this, that all sung of the "wondrous Tale of Troy."
That tale was for generations the mainspring of Greek legend and song, and the inspiration of Greek painters and sculptors. At this day, the attempt to separate the fabulous from the real, to reduce the rich colouring of romance into the severe outlines of history, is a task which even in the ablest hands seems hopeless. The legends themselves are various, and contradictory in their details. The leading characters in the story— Priam, Helen, Agamemnon, Achilles, Ulysses, Paris, Hector and Andromache—appear in as many different aspects and relations as the fancy of each poet chose. In this respect they are like the heroes of our own "Eound Table " romances; like Arthur and Guinevere, Lancelot, Tristram, and Percival—common impersonations on whom all kinds of adventures are fastened, though the main characteristics of the portrait are preserved throughout. What amount of bare historical truth may or may not underlie the poetical colouring— whether there was or was not a real Greek expedition and a real siege of Troy, less "heroic" and more probable in its extent and details than the Iliad represents it—is no question to be here discussed. So far as liter