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Volume 7, Issue 5: Poetics

Such Strange Pleasure

Wes Callihan

Surely indeed it is a good thing to listen to a singer such as this one before us, who is like the gods in his singing; for I think there is no occasion accomplished that is more pleasant than when festivity holds sway among all the populace, and the feasters up and down the houses are sitting in order and listening to the singer, and beside them the tables are loaded with bread and meats, and from the mixing bowl the wine steward draws the wine and carries it about and fills the cups. This seems to my own mind to be the best of occasions.

With these words to the Phaiakian king and his people gathered together in the great hall, the hero Odysseus begins the tale of his long, strange trip that makes up books nine through twelve of the Odyssey . His prologue perfectly captures the ideal setting and the universal attitude toward epic poetry in Homer's day: at the end of the day, nothing pleases more than to sit and listen to the singer tell his tale.

And the Odyssey is the best of tales, told by the best of tellers. We may even have a living picture of Homer in the depiction of the blind Phaiakian bard Demodokos in book eight. He is a great singer of tales and has the respect of all the people, and many readers cannot help but feel that Homer has, perhaps tongue in cheek, placed himself in the poem in the same way that Rembrandt has placed his own face in some of his paintings. We hope that Demodokos is really Homer.
The Odyssey is an epic, like the Iliad , but in most other ways the two are very unlike. The Iliad has the somber subject of a tragedythe Wrath of Achilleusand a tragedy's somber ending. The Odyssey has the thrilling subject of a romance (in the old sense)the adventures of Odysseus as he returns to his home country after the Trojan War and restores order in his kingdom. And it has the happy ending of comedy (in the old sense).
The Odyssey also differs in its hero. Like Achilleus, Odysseus is great. But unlike Achilleus, he overcomes obstacles, rather than being overcome. Achilleus is unable to control his own nature and its results; Odysseus is able to use his own resourceful nature and manipulate circumstances to his advantage. Achilleus is driven by fate and finds glory in fighting and dying nobly; Odysseus finds glory in using his mind and surviving.
The message of the Odyssey is therefore very different from that of the Iliad , and even Achilleus supports itOdysseus, visiting Hades, finds there the spirit of Achilleus, who says he would now rather be a thrall behind a plow in the land of the living than a king in the land of the dead (How different from Satan in Paradise Lost , who says it is better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven!).
The gods are a minor note in the Odyssey compared to their role in the Iliad , because the emphasis is not on the greater forces that drive man, but on his ability to overcome odds by using his mind. The Odyssey , for all its fantastic elements, is more to the human scale than the Iliad , the grandeur of which soars to superhuman heights.
The Odyssey is not set in a distant heroic past, as is the Iliad . Instead, it seems to be set in the here-and-now, with the exception of the fantastic and the supernatural, and they are impingements on the modern (to Homer's audience), not a throwback. It is because of this that there are few, if any, epic similes in the Odyssey ; they are not needed because the whole setting is familiar, not remote.
For all these reasons, many people today prefer the Odyssey . It is more like a modern novel. It relies less on repetition, the stock epithets, the extended similes, the involvement of deities, and the heroic ethic of war and glory than does the Iliad, and these elements are difficult for moderns to appreciate. This is unfortunate, for the Iliad is a glorious poem, and it offers the chance to enter the mindset of a different culture (something which our chronological and cultural arrogance makes almost impossible for us). But at least the Odyssey gets appreciated. And frequently, appreciation for the Odyssey leads to appreciation of the Iliad.
Historically, critics have given the laurel to the Iliad as the greater poem because it is a tragedy, and ever since Aristotle tragedy has been considered the most noble kind of poetry. But the Odyssey's attractions are great. The poem is full of the spirit of restless adventure, of curiosity about strange lands and people, of delight in gaining knowledge of the world and using it shrewdly. There is very little battle in the poem, and the only extended battle scene comes after a far more extended description of Odysseus's cleverness in reconnoitering his situation and setting up his enemies for their fall. All of these characteristics of the Odyssey are indicated in the opening lines of the poem, where Odysseus is called a "man of many ways" in regard to his intellectual resourcefulness. A following line, "many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,"indicates Odysseus's curiosity about the world, a mental characteristic shared by none of the other heroes of either the Iliad or the Odyssey.

As one that for a weary space has lain
Lulled by the song of Circe and her wine
In gardens near the pale of Proserpine,
Where that Aeaean isle forgets the
And only the low lutes of love
And only shadows of wan lovers pine,
As such an one were glad to know the brine
Salt on his lips, and the large air again,
So gladly, from the songs of modern speech
Men turn, and see the stars, and feel the free
Shrill wind beyond the close of heavy flowers
And through the music of the languid hours,
They hear like ocean on a western beach
The surge and thunder of the Odyssey.
Andrew Lang

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