- Homeric Epic and Its Reception: Interpretive Essays by Seth L. Schein
This collection of essays composed over more than four decades holds together remarkably well, though the range is certainly wide, from close reading of small-scale lexical matters to broader thematic issues. There are twelve chapters in all, ten of which have been previously published, though many of these not in especially prominent publications. As the author explains, the original works have only been lightly revised, though several chapters have postscripts that provide updated bibliography and brief comments. The quality of work is always high, and although some parts of the book are most appropriate for Homeric specialists, the general reader will find most of the contents informative and rewarding.
This is especially true for the final two chapters on reception. “‘War—What Is It Good For?’ in Homer’s Iliad and Four Receptions” nicely pairs Simone Weil’s The Iliad, or the Poem of Force with Rachel Bespaloff’s On the Iliad, and Alice Oswald’s Memorial: An Excavation of the Iliad with Christopher Logue’s War Music. Schein compares and contrasts each of the two pairs, which are philosophical and poetic in nature respectively. While appreciative of the brilliance of all four receptions, he also carefully explains how they differ from the Homeric treatment of war. “An American Homer for the Twentieth Century” is thorough [End Page 279] and excellent in its survey of the Iliad and Odyssey in undergraduate great books courses. This necessarily involves discussion of translation, but the essay also insightfully explores the historical and cultural contexts of the employment of the Homeric epics in American undergraduate courses of the last century.
Despite the title, only these two final chapters focus on reception, though “Homeric Intertextuality: Two Examples” might be thought to involve a kind of self-reception within Homeric poetry. I found unpersuasive its optimism about allusive interconnections between the Iliad and Odyssey—or their traditions, since the author is aware that a precise definition of the process would be problematic—but the skilled exploration of the possibilities is worthy of consideration. “Mythological Allusion in the Odyssey: Herakles and the Bow of Odysseus” also employs close reading, successfully uncovering the nuanced meanings of the Homeric use of external myth. These chapters provide examples of the many expert interpretations of lexical and metrical matters that appear in the book.
Most generally, the book is dedicated to literary criticism of Homeric poetry. Schein pursues this enthusiastically as a unitarian with reference to oral poetics and neoanalysis. A good example of his approach is “Odysseus and Polyphemos in the Odyssey,” which rebuts the analytical interpretation of the Cyclops episode by Denys Page by showing how the scene is thematically embedded within larger themes of the entire epic. Schein’s interest in oral poetics and neoanalysis leads to an interesting pair of chapters about Milman Parry and Ioannis Kakridis. The discussion of Parry perhaps unfairly critiques a late address by him that was only posthumously published, but it reminds us that anthropological approaches in Homeric studies are rooted in romantic notions of recreating historical contexts. The favorable discussion of the often under-appreciated Kakridis is welcome, though the portrayal of Kakridis as a proto-oralist, or a superior unitarian compared to German neoanalytical scholars, is debatable. Schein’s rather expansive approval of very different employments of neoanalysis in more recent scholarship is also an example of the occasional inconsistency that arises in this collection. For example, there are many types of “allusion” that are praised or employed in the course of the book, and one sometimes desires a more thorough and stable statement of methodology.
Overall, however, the reader will come away illuminated about the nature of both Homeric scholarship and Homeric poetics. Besides documenting a long and productive career in Homeric studies, the collection reads well in its ultimately cohesive interweaving of recurring topics. As a result, the book convincingly demonstrates the progressively rewarding nature of scholarship about the great Homeric epics.