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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

D. Snider
A Commentary on the Odyssey of Homer - Part I

From, Homer's Odyssey: A commentary
[Please note that the Table of Contents here published, is created by Elpenor and is not to be found in the print version]

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Page 127

Hence these mythical statements which seek to get beyond all known geographical limits. Ulysses had to cross the Ocean stream, which ran round the whole earth; to go over it was indeed to go over the border. There below is the gloomy grove of Proserpine; there too, are the four rivers of the Lower Regions, with names terribly suggestive; into Acheron the stream of pain (or lake) flow Pyriphlegethon (Fire-flames) and Cocytus (the Howler), the latter being an offshoot of Styx (Hate or Terror). Where "the two loud-sounding rivers meet" the third one (Acheron) is a rock, a firm protected spot seemingly, there with mystic rites is the invocation of the dead to take place.

Thus we see that the poet's description remains spatial in his attempt to get beyond space. He has to express himself in images taken from the sensible world, even while pushing them beyond into the supersensible. He makes us feel that the image is inadequate, though he has to use it; poetry is driven upon its very limit. At this point specially we note the kinship of the Odyssey with Romantic Art, which through the finite form suggests the Infinite. Dante comes to mind, whose great poem is one vast struggle of the limited symbol with the unlimited spirit which is symbolized. Thus the old Greek song becomes prophetic, foreshadowing the next great world-poem, or Literary Bible, written in the light of a new epoch.

Strong is the sympathy which one feels with the ancient singer in this attempt to probe the deepest mystery of our existence. He must have reflected long and profoundly upon such a theme, building in this Book a world of spirits, and laying down the lines of it for all futurity. Probably the most gigantic conception in literature: the universal Hero, ere he can round the complete cycle of experience, must pass through the Beyond and come back to the Present. It deepens the idea of the Return, till it embraces the totality of existence, by making it reach through the Underworld, which is thus a domain in the spiritual circumnavigation of the globe.

The structure of the Book is somewhat intricate and it requires quite a little search to find the lines upon which it is built. It has at the first glance a rather scattered, disorganized look; for this reason the analytic critics have fallen upon it in particular, and have sought to tear it into fragments. It is possible that some few lines may have been interpolated, but it remains an organic whole, and the final insight into it comes from viewing it in its total constructive movement.

As the Book is an effort to make a bridge between the sensible and supersensible realms, manifestly this separation into two realms will constitute the fundamental division. The diremption into soul and body, into life and death, runs through the entire narrative, also that into men and women; but the main distinction is into Past and Present. The sensible world when canceled becomes Past, the distant in Time and possibly in Space; this Past through its characters, its spirits, is made to communicate with the Present.

Moreover the Past has its distinctions. To the Greek mind of Homer's age, specially in Phaeacia, the Trojan War is the grand central fact of the aforetime; thus the Past divides into the Pre-Trojan, Trojan, and immediate Past, in the Book before us. A complete sweep down into the Now is given—the sweep of the supersensible. Also the Present has two representatives: Ulysses along with his companions, and the Phaeacians.

In the Past, therefore, is arranged a long gallery of souls speaking to the Present, which listens and also has its communication. The problem now is to get a structural form which will hold the idea. Let the following scheme be sent in advance, which scheme, however, can only be verified or understood at the close of the Book on a careful review.

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Cf. Pharr, Homer and the study of Greek * Odyssey Complete Text
Iliad Complete Text * Homer Bilingual Anthology and Resources * Livingstone, On the Ancient Greek Literature
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