The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler

Chapter xv

The Odyssey in its Relation to the Other Poems of the Trojan Cycle, and its Development in The Hands of the Authoress.

The writer of the “Odyssey” appears to have known most of those lost poems of the Epic cycle — eight in number — that relate to Troy, but as all we know about them is from the summaries given in the fragment of Proclus, and from a few lines here and there quoted in later authors, we can have no irrefragable certainty that she had the poems before her even when she alludes to incidents mentioned by Proclus as being dealt with in any given one of them. Nevertheless, passages in “Od.” i. and iii. make it probable that she knew the Nosti or the Return of the Achæans from Troy, and we may suppose that Nestor’s long speeches (“Od.” iii. 102-200 and 253-328) are derived mainly from this source, for they contain particulars that correspond closely with the epitome of the Nosti given by Proclus.

We can thus explain the correctness of the topography of the Ægæan sea that is manifested in Nestor’s speeches, but no where else in the poem beyond a bare knowledge of the existence of Apollo’s shrine in Delos (“Od.” vi. 162) and an occasional mention of Crete. I see Professor Jebb says that the “Odyssey” “shows a familiar knowledge of Delos;" * but there is no warrant for this assertion from anything in the poem.

The writer of the “Odyssey” seems, in Book iv., to have also known the Cypria, which dealt with the events that led up to the Trojan war.

Book xxiv. of the “Odyssey” (35-97) suggests a knowledge of the “Æthiopis.” So also does the mention of Memnon (“Od.” xi. 522).

Knowledge of the “Little Iliad” may be suspected from “Od.” iv. 271-283, where Helen seems to be now married to Deiphobus, and from xi. 543-562; as also from xi. 508, 509, where Ulysses says that he took Neoptolemus to Scyrus. Ulysses entering Troy as a spy (“Od.” iv. 242-256) is also given by Proclus as one of the incidents in the “Little Iliad.” I do not see, therefore, that there can be much doubt about the writer of the “Odyssey” having been acquainted with the “Little Iliad,” a poem which was apparently of no great length, being only in four Books.

From the two Books of the “Sack of Troy” we get the account of the council held by the Trojans over the wooden horse (“Od.” viii. 492-517).

We have seen how familiar the authoress of the “Odyssey” was with the “Iliad”; there only remains, therefore, one of the eight Trojan poems which she does not appear to have known — I mean the “Telegony,” which is generally, and one would say correctly, placed later than the “Odyssey”; but even though it were earlier we may be sure that the writer of the “Odyssey” would have ignored it, for it will hardly bear her out in the character she has given of Penelope.

In passing I may say that though Homer (meaning, of course, the writer of the “Iliad”) occasionally says things that suggest the Cypria, there is not a line that even suggests knowledge of a single one of the incidents given by Proclus as forming the subjects of the other Books of the Trojan cycle; the inference, therefore, would seem to be that none of them, except possibly, though very uncertainly, the Cypria, had appeared before he wrote. Nevertheless we cannot be sure that this was so.

The curious question now arises why the writer of the “Odyssey” should have avoided referring to a single Iliadic incident, while showing no unwillingness to treat more or less fully of almost all those mentioned by Proclus as dealt with in the other poems of the Trojan cycle, and also while laying the “Iliad” under such frequent contributions.

I remember saying to a great publisher that a certain book was obviously much indebted to a certain other book to which no reference was made. “Has the writer,” said the publisher in question, “referred to other modern books on the same subject?” I answered, “Certainly.” “Then,” said he, “let me tell you that it is our almost unvaried experience that when a writer mentions a number of other books, and omits one which he has evidently borrowed from, the omitted book is the one which has most largely suggested his own.” His words seemed to explain my difficulty about the way in which the writer of the “Odyssey” lets the incidents of the “Iliad” so severely alone. It was the poem she was trying to rival, if not to supersede. She knew it to be far the finest of the Trojan cycle; she was so familiar with it that appropriate lines from it were continually suggesting themselves to her — and what is an appropriate line good for if it is not to be appropriated? She knew she could hold her own against the other poems, but she did not feel so sure about the “Iliad,” and she would not cover any of the ground which it had already occupied.

Of course there is always this other explanation possible, I mean that traditions about Homer’s private life may have been known to the writer of the “Odyssey,” which displeased her. He may have beaten his wife, or run away with somebody else’s, or both, or done a hundred things which made him not exactly the kind of person whom Arēte would like her daughter to countenance more than was absolutely necessary. I believe, however, that the explanation given in the preceding paragraph is the most reasonable.

And now let me explain what I consider to have been the development of the “Odyssey” in the hands of the poetess. I cannot think that she deliberately set herself to write an epic poem of great length. The work appears to have grown on her hands piecemeal from small beginnings, each additional effort opening the door for further development, till at last there the “Odyssey” was — a spontaneous growth rather than a thing done by observation. Had it come by observation, no doubt it would have been freer from the anomalies, inconsistencies, absurdities, and small slovenlinesses which are inseparable from the development of any long work, the plan of which has not been fully thought out beforehand. But surely in losing these it would have lost not a little of its charm.

From Professor Jebb’s Introduction to Homer, Ed. 1888, p. 131, I see that he agrees with Kirchhoff in holding that the “Odyssey” contains “distinct strata of poetical material from different sources and periods,” and also that the poem owes its present unity of form to one man; he continues:

But under this unity of form there are perceptible traces of a process by which different compositions were adapted to one another.

In a note on the preceding page he tells us that Kirchhoff regards the first 87 verses of Book i. as having formed the exordium of the original Return of Ulysses.

My own conclusions, arrived at to the best of my belief before I had read a word of Professor Jebb’s Introduction, agree in great part with the foregoing. I found the “Odyssey” to consist of two distinct poems, with widely different aims, and united into a single work, not unskilfully, but still not so skilfully as to conceal a change of scheme. The two poems are: (1) The visit of Ulysses to the Phæacians, with the story of his adventures as related by himself. (2) The story of Penelope and the suitors, with the episode of Telemachus’s voyage to Pylos. Of these two, the first was written before the writer had any intention of dealing with the second, while the second in the end became more important than the first.

I cordially agree with Kirchhoff that the present exordium belongs to the earlier poem, but I would break it off at line 79, and not at 87. It is a perfect introduction to the Return of Ulysses, but it is no fit opening for the “Odyssey” as it stands. I had better perhaps give it more fully than I have done in my abridgement. It runs:

Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the strong citadel of Troy. He saw many cities and learned the manners of many nations; moreover, he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-God Hyperion; so

the god prevented them from ever getting home. Tell me too about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatever source you may know them (i. 1–10).

Then follows the statement that Ulysses was with the nymph Calypso, unable to escape, and that his enemy, Neptune, had gone to the Ethiopians (i. 11–21). The gods meet in council and Jove makes a speech about the revenge taken by Orestes on Ægisthus (i. 26–43); Minerva checks him, turns the subject on to Ulysses, and upbraids Jove with neglecting him (i. 44–62). Jove answers that he had not forgotten him, and continues:

“Bear in mind that Neptune is still furious with Ulysses for having blinded an eye of Polyphemus, king of the Cylopes. Polyphemus is son to Neptune by the nymph Thoösa, daughter to the sea-king Phorcys, but instead of killing him outright he torments him by preventing him from getting home. Still, let us lay our heads together and see how we can help him to return. Neptune will then be pacified, for if we are all of a mind he can hardly hold out against us unsupported” (i. 68–79).

Let us now omit the rest of Book i., Books ii. iii. and iv. and go on with line 28 of Book v., which follows after a very similar council to the one that now stands at the beginning of Book i. Continuing with line 28 of Book v. we read:

When he had thus spoken he said to his son Mercury: “Mercury, you are our messenger, go therefore and tell Calypso we have decreed that poor Ulysses is to return home. He is to be conveyed neither by gods nor men, but after a perilous voyage of twenty days upon a raft he is to reach fertile Scheria, &c.” (v. 28-34).

From this point the poem continues with only one certain, and another doubtful, reference to the suitors and Penelope, until (according to Kirchoff) line 184 of Book xiii. I had thought that the point of juncture between the two poems was in the middle of line 187, and that the ἔγρετο in the second half of the line had perhaps been originally εὗδεν; but it must be somewhere close about this line, and I am quite ready to adopt Kirchhoff’s opinion now that I have come to see why Ulysses was made to sleep so profoundly on leaving Scheria.

Till I had got hold of the explanation given on page 173, I naturally thought that the strange sleep of Ulysses had been intended to lead up to something that was to happen in Ithaca, and which had been cancelled when the scheme was enlarged and altered; for without this explanation it is pointless as the poem now stands.

I do not now think that there was ever any account of what happened to Ulysses on his waking up in Ithaca, other than what we now have, but rather that the writer was led to adopt a new scheme at the very point where it became incumbent upon her to complete an old one. For at this point she would first find herself face to face with the difficulty of knowing what to do with Ulysses in Ithaca after she had got him there.

She could not ignore the suitors altogether; their existence and Penelope’s profligacy were too notorious. She could not make Ulysses and Penelope meet happily while the suitors were still in his house; and even though he killed them, he could never condone Penelope’s conduct — not as an epic hero. The writer of the “Odyssey” had evidently thought that she could find some way out of the difficulty, but when it came to the point she discovered that she must either make Ulysses kill his wife along with the suitors, or contend that from first to last she had been pure as new fallen snow. She chose the second alternative, as she would be sure to do, and brazened it out with her audience as best she could. At line 187, therefore, of Book xiii. or thereabouts, she broke up her Return camp and started on a new campaign.

To bring the two poems together she added lines xi. 115-137, in which Teiresias tells Ulysses about the suitors and his further wanderings when he shall have killed them. I suppose Teiresias’ prophecy to have originally ended where Circe’s does when she repeats his warning about the cattle of the Sun-god verbatim (xii. 137-140) with the line

ὀψὲ κακῶς νεῖαι ὀλέσας ἄπο πάντας ἑταίρους·

The first line of the addition to Teiresias’ original prophecy (xi, 115) is also found with a slight variant in ix. 535, but it merely states that Ulysses will find trouble in his house, without mentioning what the trouble is to be.

With the two exceptions above noted, there is not only nothing in the original poem (i.e., Book i. 1-79 and v. 28-xiii. 187 or thereabouts) to indicate any intention of dealing with the suitors, but there are omissions which make it plain that no such intention existed. In the proem the Muse is only asked to sing the Return of Ulysses. In the speech of Jove at the council of the gods (i. 32–43), he is not thinking about the suitors, as he would assuredly do if the writer had as yet meant to introduce them. In repeated speeches of the gods, and especially in Book v. which is Book i. of the original poem (see lines 36–42, 288, 289, and 345), * it seems that Ulysses’ most serious troubles were to end when he had reached Scheria. So again Calypso (v. 206–208) tries to deter him from leaving her by saying that he little knows what he will have to go through before he gets home again, but she does not enforce her argument by adding that when he had got to Ithaca the worst was yet to come. I have already dealt with the silence of Ulysses’ mother in Hades.

Noting, therefore that omission is a more telling indication of scheme than lines which, when a new subject is being grafted on to an old one, are certain to be inserted where necessary in order to unify the work, I have no hesitation in believing that Books i. 1–79 and v. 28-xiii. 187 or thereabouts, formed as much as the authoress ever wrote of the original poem; I have the less hesitation in adopting this conclusion because, though I believe that I came to it independently as any one must do who studies the “Odyssey” with due attention, I find myself in substantial agreement with Kirchhoff in spite of much difference of detail, for I cannot admit that the two poems are by two or more separate people.

The introduction of lines xi. 115–137 and of line ix. 535, with a writing of a new Council of the gods at the beginning of Book v. to take the place of the one that was removed to Book i. 1–79, were the only things that were done to give even a semblance of unity to the old scheme and the new, and to conceal the fact that the Muse after being asked to sing of one subject spends two thirds of her time in singing a very different one, with a climax for which no one had asked her. For, roughly, the Return occupies eight Books and Penelope and the suitors sixteen.

That lines xi. 115–137 were non-existent when Book xiii. was being written is demonstrated by the fact of Ulysses’ saying to the Phæacians that he hoped he should find his wife living with her friends in peace (xiii. 42, 43). He could not have said this if Teiresias had already told him that his house would be full of enemies who were eating up his estate, and whom he would have to kill. He could hardly forget such a prophecy after having found Teiresias quite correct about the cattle of the Sun-god. Indeed he tells Penelope about his visit to Hades and his interview with Teiresias (xxiii. 323), so it is plain he remembered it. It is plain, again (from xiii. 382, &c.), that Ulysses was then learning from Minerva about the suitors for the first time — which could not be if Teiresias’ prophecy had been already written.

It is surprising, seeing what a little further modification would have put everything quite straight, that the writer should have been content to leave passages here and there which she must have known would betray the want of homogeneity in her work, but we should be very thankful to her for not having tidied it up with greater care. We learn far more about her than we should do if she had made her work go more perfectly upon all fours, and it is herself that we value even more than her poem. She evidently preferred cobbling to cancelling, and small wonder, for if, as was very probably the case, the work was traced with a sharply pointed style of hardened bronze, or even steel, * on plates of lead, alteration would not be so easy as it is with us. Besides, we all cobble rather than cancel if we can. It is quite possible, but I need hardly say that it is not more than a mere possibility, that the abruptness of the interpolation in Book iv. lines 621–624, may be due simply to its having been possible to introduce four lines without cutting the MS. about very badly, when a longer passage would have necessitated a more radical interference with it.

We look, then, for the inception of the poem in Books is 1–79 and v. 28-xiii. 187 or thereabouts, or more roughly in Books v. — xii. inclusive. These Books, though they contain no discrepancies among themselves, except the twenty lines added to the prophecy of Teiresias above referred to, are not homogeneous in scope, though they are so in style and treatment. They split themselves into two groups of four, i.e., v.-viii. and ix.-xii. The first group is written to bring Ulysses to Scheria and to exhibit the Phæacians and the writer herself — the interest in Ulysses being subordinate; the second is written to describe a periplus of Sicily.

Book ix.-xii. appear to have been written before Books v.-viii. We may gather this from the total absence of Minerva. It is inconceivable that having introduced the Goddess so freely in Books v.-viii. the writer should allow her to drop out from the story when there was such abundant scope for her interference. These Books are certainly by the same hand as the rest of the poem. They show the same amount of Iliadic influence; nowhere does a woman’s hand appear more plainly; nowhere is Sicily, and more particularly Trapani, more in evidence, direct or indirect. It is from the beginning of Book ix. that we get our conviction that the Ionian islands were drawn from the Ægadean, and the voyages of Ulysses, as I have already shown, begin effectively with Mt. Eryx and end with Trapani. We may, therefore, dismiss all idea that Books ix.-xii. are by another writer.

Not only is the absence of Minerva inexplicable except by supposing that at the time these Books were written it was no part of the writer’s scheme to make her such a dea ex machinâ as she becomes later, but the writer shows herself aware that the absence of the goddess in Books ix.-xii. requires apology, and makes Ulysses upbraid her for having neglected him from the time he left Troy till she took him into the city of the Phæacians (xiii. 314–323). The goddess excuses herself by saying she had known all the time that he would get home quite safely, and had kept away because she did not want to quarrel with her uncle Neptune — an excuse which we also find at the end of Book vi., in which Book she has, nevertheless, been beautifying Ulysses and making herself otherwise useful to him. I suppose Neptune did not mind how much his niece helped Ulysses, provided she did not let him see her.

I know how my own books, especially the earlier ones, got cut about, rearranged, altered in scheme, and cobbled to hide alteration, so that I never fairly knew what my scheme was till the book was three-quarters done, and I credit young writers generally with a like tentativeness.

I have now, I believe, shown sufficient cause for thinking that Books ix.-xii., i.e., the voyage of Ulysses round Sicily, were the part of the “Odyssey” that was written first. I am further confirmed in this opinion by finding Ulysses fasten his box with a knot that Circe had taught him (viii. 448)— as though the writer knew all about Circe, though the audience, of courses, could not yet do so. A knowledge of Book ix., moreover, is shown in Book ii. 19, a passage which does not appear in my abridgement. Here we learn how Antiphus had been eaten by Polyphemus; Book ix. is also presupposed in i. 68, which tells of the blinding of the Cyclops by Ulysses.

We may also confidently say that Books v.-viii. were written before i.-iv. and xiii.-xxiv. (roughly), but what the vicissitudes of Books v.-viii. were, and whether or no they drew upon earlier girlish sketches — as without one shred of evidence in support of my opinion I nevertheless incline to think — these are points which it would be a waste of time to even attempt to determine.

It is in Books v.-viii., and especially in the three last of these books, that the writer is most in her element. Few will differ from Col. Mure, who says of Scheria:

There can be little doubt from the distinctive peculiarities with which the poet has invested its inhabitants, and the precision and force of the sarcasm displayed in his portrait of

their character, that the episode is intended as a satire on the habits of some real people with whom he was familiar.

(Language and Literature of Ancient Greece, Vol. I., p. 404).

Speaking on the same page of the obviously humorous spirit in which the Phæacian episode is conceived, Col. Mure says:

This episode is, perhaps, the most brilliant specimen of the poet’s combined talent for the delineation of character and for satirical humour. While there is no portion of his works a right understanding of which is so indispensable to a full estimate of his genius, there is none, perhaps, which has been so little understood. Appeal may be made to the tenor of the most esteemed commentaries, still more, perhaps, to the text of the most popular translations, where the gay sarcastic tone of description and dialogue which seasons the whole adventure, is replaced by the tragic solemnity of the gravest scenes of the “Iliad.”

People find what they bring. Is it possible that eminent Homeric scholars have found so much seriousness in the more humorous parts of the “Odyssey” because they brought it there? To the serious all things are serious. Coleridge, so I learn from the notes at the end of Mr. Gollancz’s Temple Shakespeare, saw no burlesque in the speeches of the players which are introduced into Hamlet. He says:

The fancy that a burlesque was intended sinks below criticism; the lines, as epic narrative, are superb.

As Mr. Gollancz has given no reference, so neither can I. Mr. Gollancz continues that if Coleridge had read Act II. Scene i. of Dido and Æneas— a play left unfinished by Marlowe — he would have changed his mind, but I do not believe he would.

At the same time I take it that the writer was one half laughing and the other half serious, and would sometimes have been hard put to it to know whether she was more in the one vein than in the other. So those who know the cantata “Narcissus” will admit that there are people who are fully aware that there is no music in this world so great as Handel’s, but who will still try to write music in the style of Handel, and when they have done it, hardly know whether they have been more in jest or earnest, though while doing it they fully believed that they were only writing, so far as in them lay, the kind of music which Handel would have written for such words had he lived a hundred years or so later than he did.

We may note, without, however, being able to deduce anything from it as regards the dates at which the various parts of the poem were composed, that in the first four Books of the “Odyssey” the season appears to be summer rather than winter. In all the other Books (of course excluding those in which Ulysses tells his story) the season is unquestionably winter, or very early spring. It is noticeable also that snow, which appears so repeatedly in the “Iliad,” and of which Homer evidently felt the beauty very strongly, does not appear, and is hardly even mentioned, in the “Odyssey.” I should perhaps tell some readers that winter is long and severe in the Troad, while on the West coast of Sicily snow is almost unknown, and the winter is even milder than that of Algiers.

I ought also perhaps hardly to pass over the fact that amber, which is never mentioned in the “Iliad,” appears three times in the “Odyssey." * This may be mere accident, nevertheless Sicily was an amber-producing country, and indeed still is so; a large collection of Sicilian amber exists in the museum of Castrogiovanni, the ancient Enna, and I have been assured on good authority, but have not verified my informant’s statement, that some fine specimens may be seen in the South Kensington Museum. Speaking of Sicilian amber the Encyclopædia Britannica says:

The most beautiful specimens are, perhaps, those which are found at Catania. They often possess a beautiful play of purple not to be observed in the product of other places.

I cannot make out whether the first four Books were written before the last twelve or after; probably they were written first, but there is something to be said also on the other side. I will not attempt to settle this point, and will only add that when we bear in mind how both the two main divisions of the “Odyssey”— the Phæacian episode with the Return of Ulysses, and the story of Penelope and the suitors, show unmistakeable signs of having been written at one place, by a woman, by a woman who is evidently still very young, and that not a trace of difference in versification, style, or idiom can be found between the two divisions, the only conclusion we should come to is that the poem was written by one and the same woman from the first page to the last. I think we may also conclude in the absence of all evidence to the contrary — for assuredly none exists that deserves the name of evidence — that we have the poem to all intents and purposes in the shape which it had assumed in the hands of the authoress.

249:* Introduction to Homer, Macmillan, 1888, p. 172.

255:* None of these three passages will be found in my abridgement.

256:* Cf. “Od.” ix. 391–393.

260:* iv. 93, xv. 460, xviii. 296.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31