- Chapman's Ironic Homer
Chapman's Scoptic Homer
In Thomas Randolph's The muses looking-glasse, published posthumously in 1643, Alazon and Eiron—two characters who personify the excessive and defective "extreames of Truth"—have a chat about Homer (1643, 50). Alazon claims for both himself and his interlocutor a Homeric genealogy, boastfully dubbing himself "the Hector of the age" and calling Eiron "Achilles," a label which Eiron rejects with characteristic mock-humility: "No, I am not Achilles: I confesse / I am no coward" (50, 51). In the conversation that follows, Alazon and Eiron each lay claim to the Homeric origins of the contrary rhetorical vices they embody. As they discuss their favorite authors, Eiron mentions his partiality for historians such as Tacitus and Machiavelli and then proclaims, "There is no Poetry but Homers Iliads," an assertion difficult to accept at face value since, as we are forewarned at the beginning of the scene, Eiron is rather apt to "dissembl[e] his qualities" (54; 50). As [End Page 151] might be expected from a character wont to "arrogat[e] that to himselfe which is not his," the braggart Alazon protests that he, and not Eiron, is the true heir of Homer's Iliad, crying out, "Alas! 'twas writ i'th' nonage of my muses" (50; 54). Yet Alazon's claim that the Iliad is the cradle of boastful, rather than ironic, speech, is complicated by his own predilection for false boasts, as well as by the fact that—as Aristotle points out in his treatment of alazoneia and eironeia in the Nicomachean Ethics—boastful speech and the mock-humble dissimulations of the ironist are sometimes awfully hard to tell apart (1982a, 103; 241-45). Since Randolph's Alazon and Eiron are both distinguished by the untrustworthiness of their claims—one deviates from the virtuous mean of truth by making false boasts, while the other "offend[s] in denying a truth"—the scene ends without any resolution to the question of whether Homeric epic gives birth to boastful speech, ironic speech, both, or neither (1643, 50).
The competing claims to a Homeric heritage made by Randolph's personifications of alazony and irony read like an epitome of George Chapman's translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, the first complete English translation of Homer, which was produced in a half-dozen installments between 1598 and 1616. Throughout the prefaces and commentaries to his Iliad and Odyssey, Chapman devotes particular attention to Homer's use of two rhetorical tropes, ironicè and scopticè, the latter term meaning scoffing, derisory, or sardonic. Chapman's commentaries constitute a large-scale effort to establish both the kinship and the difference between ironic and scoptic speech and to justify the literary and ethical fitness of each trope. The vast majority of Chapman's marginal glosses on speeches made by Homer's characters focus on admonitory, caustic, sardonic, or otherwise scoffing speech: he notes, for example, the "sharpe invective" of Hera, the "railing" of Thersites, Helen's "chid[ing]" of Venus and her "bitter reproofe" of Paris, the "rough speech" that Sthenelus delivers to Agamemnon and the "rebuke" that he receives in return from Diomedes, and the "sharpe jest" made by Pallas to Zeus.1 In his marginal notes, Chapman marks so many examples of "insultation" that his commentary reads like a primer for the would-be satirist who wishes to master the rhetorical figure that his contemporary George Puttenham alternately terms "Insultatio," "the Disdainfull," and "the Repochfull or scorner" (1936, 209-10). It is rare for Chapman to pass silently over the Iliad's numerous episodes of verbal combat. In the margins of the three-way flyting match of Book 11, for instance, Chapman highlights a riveting volley of abusive epithets by noting how "Diomed insults on Hector" and "Paris insults on Diomed" in an exchange so vehement that it has prompted some recent scholars to argue that it demonstrates Paris'—and Homer's—kinship with the iambic traditions of poetic blame and invective that grew out of the religious [End Page 152] rituals of archaic Greece (Nicoll 1998a, 225; Suter 1993, 8). In his Poetics, Aristotle identifies the pseudo-Homeric Margites as the origin...