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The The Humour of Homer
by [?]

The Humour of Homer {59}

Footnote{59}:
A lecture delivered at the Working Men’s College,
Great Ormond Street, 30th January, 1892.

The first of the two great poems commonly ascribed to Homer is called the Iliad–a title which we may be sure was not given it by the author. It professes to treat of a quarrel between Agamemnon and Achilles that broke out while the Greeks were besieging the city of Troy, and it does, indeed, deal largely with the consequences of this quarrel; whether, however, the ostensible subject did not conceal another that was nearer the poet’s heart–I mean the last days, death, and burial of Hector–is a point that I cannot determine. Nor yet can I determine how much of the Iliad as we now have it is by Homer, and how much by a later writer or writers. This is a very vexed question, but I myself believe the Iliad to be entirely by a single poet.

The second poem commonly ascribed to the same author is called the Odyssey. It deals with the adventures of Ulysses during his ten years of wandering after Troy had fallen. These two works have of late years been believed to be by different authors. The Iliad is now generally held to be the older work by some one or two hundred years.

The leading ideas of the Iliad are love, war, and plunder, though this last is less insisted on than the other two. The key-note is struck with a woman’s charms, and a quarrel among men for their possession. It is a woman who is at the bottom of the Trojan war itself. Woman throughout the Iliad is a being to be loved, teased, laughed at, and if necessary carried off. We are told in one place of a fine bronze cauldron for heating water which was worth twenty oxen, whereas a few lines lower down a good serviceable maid-of-all- work is valued at four oxen. I think there is a spice of malicious humour in this valuation, and am confirmed in this opinion by noting that though woman in the Iliad is on one occasion depicted as a wife so faithful and affectionate that nothing more perfect can be found either in real life or fiction, yet as a general rule she is drawn as teasing, scolding, thwarting, contradicting, and hoodwinking the sex that has the effrontery to deem itself her lord and master. Whether or no this view may have arisen from any domestic difficulties between Homer and his wife is a point which again I find it impossible to determine.

We cannot refrain from contemplating such possibilities. If we are to be at home with Homer there must be no sitting on the edge of one’s chair dazzled by the splendour of his reputation. He was after all only a literary man, and those who occupy themselves with letters must approach him as a very honoured member of their own fraternity, but still as one who must have felt, thought, and acted much as themselves. He struck oil, while we for the most part succeed in boring only; still we are his literary brethren, and if we would read his lines intelligently we must also read between them. That one so shrewd, and yet a dreamer of such dreams as have been vouchsafed to few indeed besides himself–that one so genially sceptical, and so given to looking into the heart of a matter, should have been in such perfect harmony with his surroundings as to think himself in the best of all possible worlds–this is not believable. The world is always more or less out of joint to the poet–generally more so; and unfortunately he always thinks it more or less his business to set it right–generally more so. We are all of us more or less poets–generally, indeed, less so; still we feel and think, and to think at all is to be out of harmony with much that we think about. We may be sure, then, that Homer had his full share of troubles, and also that traces of these abound up and down his work if we could only identify them, for everything that everyone does is in some measure a portrait of himself; but here comes the difficulty–not to read between the lines, not to try and detect the hidden features of the writer–this is to be a dull, unsympathetic, incurious reader; and on the other hand to try and read between them is to be in danger of running after every Will o’ the Wisp that conceit may raise for our delusion.