Who Composed Homer's Poems?
The texts of Homer's poems in ancient Greek have reached us in a written form authoritatively compiled and edited by two Oxford scholars in 1920. All significant modern verse translations, including the present one, are based on that edition,* known as the Oxford Classical Text or OCT.
Before the decade of the 1920's was out, the field of Homeric studies was revolutionized through a demonstration by American classicist Milman Parry, a demonstration whose influence on his field was akin to the influence of Darwin's publication of The Origin of Species on the life sciences. See A. Parry, Ed., The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry (1971).
Parry demonstrated beyond serious doubt that, before the Iliad and Odyssey were written down, the poems were composed orally over a period of centuries by generations of pre-literate bards who composed as they sang the verses.
Parry, and his assistant-successor Albert Lord, demonstrated their point by internal analysis of the poems, and drove it home by collecting and studying orally composed poems from Yugoslavia, where a tradition of oral poetry remained alive.
Among other conclusions, Parry and Lord found that the bards "performed" their songs from memory, often having learned the material by listening to a senior artist. The same song was never sung twice exactly the same way, and, indeed, the bards improvised to a large extent, while remaining faithful to the essential core of the song.
The Iliad and the Odyssey are written--and were orally composed--in the dactyllic hexameter meter. Each line has six feet (or metrical units) and most feet are dactyls: a stressed (or long) syllable followed by two unstressed (or short) syllables. The last foot in the lines is a spondee (two stressed syllables), and spondees occur elsewhere in the lines as well.
One of the characteristics of oral poetry is the use of stock phrases, now called "formulae," often repeated many times. The function of these formulae, Parry realized, is metrical convenience: if the basic thought in a line has been expressed, but more syllables are needed to fill out the line, the poet will add a formulaic phrase, such as "fast-running" before the name Achilles, or "winged words" to characterize an utterance.
Parry and Lord identified formular, recurring themes, as well as formular epithet-adjectives. They further identified other features of oral poetry which distinguish it from written or literate poetry, including a higher frequency of enjambment, defined as continuation of a sentence beyond the end of a line of verse. If the bard reaches the end of his verse and has not completed his sentence, he has little choice but to carry it over to the next line.
Later scholars have developed various aspects of Parry and Lord's basic point, but these more recent studies contain little to concern readers who are interested primarily in reading the poems in translation.**
Concerning translation, one scholar has contended that the oral origins of the Iliad and the Odyssey militate in favor of a "conversational" style of English.*** In support of his view he quotes from translations by Robert Fagles and Stanley Lombardo, translations which some may feel are so informal that they lose what Alexander Pope called "the spirit of an ancient." The same scholar's most recent work contains no reference to Pope, or to Robert Fitzgerald's excellent 1974 verse translation, still in print.
For most readers, particularly readers in translation, the oral origin of the poems is of little importance. The only extant Greek versions are written. The translations are written. Although it is of course possible to recite a translation orally, that does not convert a work composed in writing into one composed orally in the manner of the ancient bards.
While there is perhaps room for debate, there is no reason for the reader of the Iliad and the Odyssey not to embrace the view that the great poet existed, and that he wrote down the extant versions of the poems, probably around 600 b.c., in the period of transition from the oral tradition to the written tradition which extends to our time.
There is "no hint whatever" of versions of either poem "widely different from our own...so we need not feel that we have lost much of the distinctive hand of the great poet." Edwards, Homer, Poet of the Iliad, p. 27 (1987). The "main body of the poems must be what Homer composed, very much as he composed it." Bowra, Homer and his Forerunners, p. 10 (1955).
* 2014 addendum: This statement should perhaps now be qualified. In 2011 an English verse rendition of the Iliad by popularizer Stephen Mitchell appeared, assertedly based on the Greek version pieced together by British scholar Martin L. West. For thorough, authoritative critiques of West's work, see Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.09.12, and Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.06.21. In 2013 Mitchell's Odyssey appeared, based on the Greek text prepared by Peter von der Muhll.
** For example, some scholars have focused on finding correspondence between Homer's formulas and the main divisions in his hexameter lines (caesuras in the third and fourth feet; so-called bucolic diaeresis after the fourth). See, e.g., Kirk, The Songs of Homer, pp. 60f (1962). Another has drawn on recent work in linguistics to propose that "idea units" or "intonation units" correspond to metrical units in Homeric verse. Bakker, Pointing at the Past, p. 48 (2005).
*** Edwards, Sound, Sense and Rhythm, 11-12, 37 (2002).
Read Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Homer.