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H

OMER is the greatest of all the epic poets, and he has

left us the earliest pictures of European civilisation.

Both as poetry and as history the Iliad and the Odyssey hold a place apart in world-literature, and it is appalling to think of what would have been the consequences if they had not been preserved. They constituted the Bible of the Greeks in historic times; thus the philosophers, Plato among them, are constantly quoting lines from them to illustrate a point of morals or to clinch a spiritual argument just as Christians have been in the habit of using scriptural texts. To the Greeks Homer was the poet, just as to us the Bible is the book; and they, like us, have often found a deeper significance or a more poignant consolation than was originally intended in plain words which have gathered, in the long succession of time, a charm of association and the added beauty that is memorial. Moreover, these truly great poems, temples open to sunshine and sea-breezes, and built of noble numbers, have been models for the epic in every western age that knew them, or the works that perpetuated their pattern (e.g. Virgil's Æneid). It is probable that we should never have had the “artificial epics,” as they have been called, of Virgil, Lucan, Dante, Milton, and the rest, if the Homeric poems had been lost. It is even possible that such a loss would have prevented the “grand style” of poetry from being consciously cultivated. But what perhaps illustrates the enormous influence exerted by those happily preserved masterpieces of man's imagination is this strange fact

that even in the workaday world of to-day plain people know the meaning of the adjective “Homeric,” though they may not have read a single line of any translation of Homer. We all know what is meant when a speaker or a writer alludes to “Homeric grandeur” or “Homeric laughter,” or observes that “even Homer sometimes nods.” Furthermore, the chief Homeric characters are known to us all for their predominant qualities: Achilles for his valour, Helen for her beauty, Ulysses for his resourcefulness, Penelope for her faithfulness. Any orator, even if his pedestal be only a soap-box at a street-corner, can use one of these names to point a moral; they are as familiar on our lips as the names of Hamlet or Pecksniff, Othello or Micawber.

I have spoken, and shall go on speaking, of Homer as a poet, human and indivisible; this is done “without prejudice,” as the lawyers say—that is, without expressing any present opinion as to the way in which the Homeric poems came into being. He or she who wishes to visit the "wide expanse”

That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne,

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and to “breathe its pure serene” (the inspired Keats gets the absolutely just word here!), need know nothing whatever about that controversial labyrinth, the Homeric Problem. Indeed, a childlike ignorance of the whole vast discussion started by Wolf's Prolegomena (published in 1795) is a real advantage, for it puts the new votary in the position, as it were, of a listener to the recital of the poems in the springtide of historic Hellas when nobody had even begun to doubt whether the Iliad and the Odyssey had been created by the same master-poet, the selfsame blind old singer of a later but still beautiful legend, which shows us many cities contending for the honour of being his birthplace. For these poems can be read in verse translations—with joy to the reader—for the story, and to become acquainted with the noble men and women, the not more noble gods and goddesses, who love and hate and fight and speak and live and die in their stirring vicissitudes.

Achilles the Hero

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There are no better stories to be found in books; no personages better worth knowing. In Achilles we have a hero indeed; lacking the Christian gentleness that is an aureole about Lancelot's bowed head, it is true, but though barbaric in the violence of his anger and his unrestrained sorrow, yet a glorious fighter, a gentleman unafraid of the early doom ordained for him (even his chestnut steed knows all about it), capable of the tenderest compassion and of high-born courtesy to a suppliant enemy. In Ulysses, again, we meet the heroic adventurer, bravely enduring all the toils and terrors of a world that is still wonderland; a lover of his wife, too, to the end, and unable to find, even in the embraces of an ageless goddess in her garden-close in a fairy isle, any cure for his homesickness—for, if he had no word equivalent to our “home” on his lips, yet he had the thing itself in his muchenduring heart.

Then there are the Homeric women, fair and wise and holy -hardly equalled for noble simplicity in the long galleries of heroic womanhood, from Sophocles to Shakespeare. There is Andromache, the loving young wife and mother who, in losing her chivalrous and valiant Hector, loses all that makes life worth living. There is Penelope, lacking nothing of the gentle dignity of the lady of a great house, even when that house is invaded by turbulent suitors who waste its substance and seduce her serving women, utterly destroying the kindly discipline of the household; keeping under hard trial her beauty and her honour, the respectful affection of her son, Telemachus, and her loyalty to her longabsent lord. Then there is the maiden Nausicaa on the eve of a fair marriage-perfect in her sense of household duties, her virginal delicacy, her charming common-sense, her gracious and generous courage. Above all and before all, there is Helen, the innocent cause of the wars of the Greeks and Trojans alike, who is all the more impressive because we see so little of her and because Homer, unlike the makers of medieval romances, is far too wise to attempt a catalogue of her charms—here is an early example of the “nothing too much” which is the secret of so many triumphs of Greek art! Because of this reticence the beauty of Helen has lived through the ages and made flaming altars of the hearts of innumerable poets.

Helen of Troy

Almost all our knowledge of Helen's beauty is derived from a few lines in the third book of the Iliad where she goes up to the walls of Troy to see the fight between Paris and Menelaus. “So speaking, the goddess put into her heart a longing for her husband of yore and her city and her father and mother. And straightway she veiled herself with white linen, and went forth from her chamber, shedding a great tear.” When the elders of

, Troy, seated on the wall, saw her coming, softly they spoke to one another winged words: “Small wonder that the Trojans and mailed Greeks should endure pain for many years for such a woman. Strangely like she is in face to some immortal spirit.” The other Trojan women, when Troy fell, became the spoils of the victors, slaves and paramours; Cassandra lost her life, Andromache her little son, as later stories tell. But Helen was restored to her husband and her gleaming palace in Sparta, and we meet her again when Telemachus goes there, in hopes of getting news of his father. She is then once more the fairest of earthly queen's, her beauty august as Dian's, and the perfect hostess, as she sits in her golden arras-covered chair and Philo, her hand-maiden, brings her the wonderful silver work-basket on wheels, which she received as a parting gift from Alcandra, wife of the King of Thebes in Egypt. And she recognises Tele

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A picture representing the homage of Poets of all Ages to the "great Blind Father of Song."

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