- The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary by M. L. West
M. L. West is a leading scholar of early Greek poetry and editor of the Teubner edition of Homer’s Iliad. Few, then, will disregard this exhaustive study of the Iliad, even if the author himself predicts a hostile reception (v, 431). The book is intended as a forceful riposte to excesses of the influential “oral theory,” and it attempts to rehabilitate the methods of the so-called Analysts. While West will likely win few converts to this latter project, he is right that Homeric studies could use some controversy, and his book merits open-minded engagement.
The first several chapters present a useful digest of the author’s views on Homer, a poet (not named Homer) born around 700 B.C. and flourishing in the vicinity of Smyrna. “P” (as West calls him) produced the Iliad not all at once, but over a long period, perhaps as much as forty years. The book’s main purpose is to work out the staged composition of the poem, using methods developed [End Page 129] by the Analysts, but under a premise of unitary authorship. The basic reconstruction is presented in chapter 5: originally book 1 and the opening of book 2 were followed immediately by the events of books 11 and 16. Books 3–9 and 12–15 are essentially massive internal expansions of this original draft (which apparently never had its own ending, since everything after book 16 seems to be composed for the expanded version). This reconstruction explains a host of familiar narrative inconsistencies, e.g., the suspension of Zeus’s plan in books 3–7, the mirage-like Achaean fortifications, and the fact that the Embassy of book 9 seems to be forgotten in 11 and 16. More generally, the “primary layer” features a more restricted cast of human and divine characters, whereas the expansions disclose a broader perspective on the Trojan War.
West himself remarks that “most of this was seen long ago” (55), and in some respects his argument offers a useful distillation of what is most convincing in the Analytic tradition. Yet West adopts uncritically many principles of the Analysts that would appear incongruous with his own premise of unitary authorship. The problem is most keenly felt in the “Analytical Commentary,” where he identifies a host of “secondary expansions” subsequent to the two primary expansions to books 1–16. Here West relies heavily on a principle, taken over from the Analytic tradition against the “Oralist’s blithe nostrum” of formulaic composition, that similar passages should be distinguishable as “model” and “copy” and that the copy generally betrays itself by being awkward or unsuitable to its context (50–51).
West never explains why “P” (a master poet working over the space of some four decades) should have resorted so often to borrowing from his own work, or why when he did so his second rendition of a motif should so often have been less rather than more successful than the first. For the Analysts, with their parade of inferior poets, interpolators, and diaskeuasts, a progressive corruption of the Iliad’s “first draft” was to be expected; they saw a poem being ruined rather than improved. In seeing the progressive development of the Iliad under the hand of a master storyteller, West takes on a greater critical responsibility than his forebears. Yet in relating suspected expansions almost exclusively to the structural requirements of the growing poem, his discussion sometimes verges on the banal. A remark to the effect that Nestor’s lengthy tale at 11.670–762 “has no bearing on the present situation and seems to be included so that Patr.’s stay is not too brief” (260) recalls Analytic criticism at its most frigid. At other times, West seems to evaluate disparate passages according to a single baseline expectation; when he argues of Andromache’s speech at 22.477–514 that “the discontinuities and awkward transitions . . . suggest that the whole...