In the 20
century a whole new light on the problem was thrown by an American scholar Milman Parry.
own formulaic diction, and Serbo-Croatian living traditions, Parry becameconvinced that Homer had no
in his hand to start with
. It was not literature in the first place. Itwas improvised singing, with its special language suited to the structure of hexameter and heroicsubjects. No single man could handle such a language to express his private thoughts, but learnt it, asone learns carpentry, and thought-patterns that go with it.
slaves, not geniuses; in the hurryof improvisation they had no time to conceive an attitude to what they were doing; they were onlycombining, recycling, expanding a range of ageless phrases and motifs. The oral and traditional (i.e. non-authorial) nature of the poems was the answer to all our misgivings about their aesthetics. Or rather awhole new aesthetics had to be invented now in the hope of appreciating them. As Adam Parry (the sonof M. Parry)
saw it, his father has ‘…
taken Homer out of the convention
al context of ‘Greek Literature’,
and placed him in the context of other, new and old, oral traditions
.To secure his point, Milman Parry had to emphasize that gulf between pen-and-paper poetry and oralversification.
Homer, Hesiod’s Theogony, early Homeric hymns are on this side of the fence, Attic
tragedy, Apollonius, Virgil e.t.c.
on the other. To some extent he was able to demonstrate thedifference he looked for from the texts themselves. In his Parisian thesis he showed, for example, thatApollonius and Virgil use epithets in a wholly different way. The majority of their epithets are
(appropriate to a particular situation, like
, whereas Homer’s epithets
are almost always
‘ornamental’, i.e. independent of
their surroundings, and used first and foremost formetrical convenience
According to the principle of ‘economy’
that Parry postulated, Homericdialect seldom retained epithets of the same metrical value, if one epithet was enough to do the job of filling the required space in a hexameter line. Virgil, on the other hand, uses metrically equivalent
; this is because he was genuinely interested in their meaning in context
, whereasneither Homer, nor his audience, says Parry, were not
. And here we reach the most pregnant (and themost controversial) pa
rt of Parry’s
teaching that prompted H.T. Wade-
Gery to call him ‘the
.Again and again Parry emphasized that mere metrical convenience is all that matters to an improvising
under the pressure of performance. Calling
a ship ‘black’ (
), or a hero divine (
) or blameless (
) or the son of Peleus (
), all singer
caredabout was to fill the hexameter line before or after the main caesura or bucolic diaeresis; he did notcare, says Parry, how appropriate the title blameless may be to the adulterous Aegisthus. What he caredabout was that
.1.29), in the genitive, fitted perfectly well after a weak caesurain the third foot; and
the ‘thrifty’ epic dialect
left singer no other choice, except
. If we
epithets at face value we have to admit that ‘...the poet has
actually falsified our
conception of the heroes’
(so we must forsake studying their character!)
. Even if we do find
Parry 1971, p.137
Ibid., Introduction, p.xxxv
Parry 1971, p. 24ff.
derive from the most profoundly original aspect of Virgil’s
(Parry 1971, p.31)
Ibid., pp. 137, 305
Ibid., Introduction, p.xxvi
epithet phrase ‘blameless Aegisthus’ became a hot point in the whole controversy. Milman Parry’s
opinion on it was challenged by another member of his family, Parry, A.A. (1973).
Parry 1971, p.136 It is noteworthy that ‘the characters of Homer’s persons’, their ‘judicious and astonishingdiversity’, their ‘liveliness and affection’, was a point of special praise in Pope’s Preface.