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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 34


The transition from Book Third to Book Fourth involves a very significant change of environment. In Sparta, to which Telemachus now passes, there is occurring no public sacrifice to the Gods, but a domestic festal occasion gives the tone; he moves out of a religious into a secular atmosphere. Pylos allows the simple state of faith, the world unfallen; Sparta has in it the deep scission of the soul, which, however, is at present healed after many wanderings and struggles. Nestor, as we have seen, is quite without inner conflict; Menelaus and Helen represent a long, long training in the school of error, tribulation, misfortune. Pylos is the peace before the fall, Sparta is the peace after the fall, yet with many reminiscences of the latter. This Fourth Book reaches out beyond Greece, beyond the Trojan War, it goes beyond the Hellenic limit in Space and Time, it sweeps backward into Egypt and the Orient. It is a marvelous Book, calling for our best study and reflection; certainly it is one of the greatest compositions of the human mind. Its fundamental note is restoration after the grand lapse; witness Helen, and Menelaus too; the Third Book has no restoration, because it has no alienation.

The account of the various Returns from Troy is continued. In the preceding Book we had those given by Nestor, specially his own, which was without conflict. He is the man of age and wisdom, he does not fall out with the Gods, he does not try to transcend the prescribed limits, he is old and conservative. The Returns which he speaks of beside his own, are confined to the Greek world; that was the range of his vision.

But now in the Fourth Book we are to hear of the second great Return, in which two Greeks participate, Menelaus and Helen. This Return is by way of the East, through Egypt, which is the land of ancient wisdom for the Greek man, and for us too. It is the land of the past to the Hellenic mind, whither the person who aspires to know the antecedents of himself and his culture must travel; or, he must learn of those who have been there, if he cannot go himself. Egyptian lore, which had a great influence upon the early Greek world in its formative period, must have some reflection in this primitive Greek book of education. So Telemachus, to complete his discipline, must reach beyond Greece into the Orient, he must get far back of Troy, which was merely an orientalizing Hellenic city; he must learn of Egypt. Thus he transcends the national limit, and begins to obtain an universal culture.

But the moment we go beyond the Greek world with its clear plastic outlines, the artistic form changes; the Hellenic sunshine is tinged with Oriental shadows; we pass from the unveiled Zeus to the veiled Isis. Homer himself gets colored with touches of Oriental mystery. The Egyptian part of this Fourth Book, therefore, will show a transformation of style as well as of thought, and changeful Proteus will become a true image of the Poet. The work will manifest a symbolic tendency; it will have an aroma of the wisdom of the East, taught in forms of the parable, the apologue, with hints of allegory. The world, thrown outside of that transparent Greek life, becomes a Fairy Tale, which is here taken up and incorporated into a great poem. We shall be compelled to look thoroughly into these strange shapes of Egypt, and, if possible, reach down to their meaning, for meaning they must have, or be meaningless. We shall find that this Fourth Book stands in the front rank of Homeric poetry for depth and suggestiveness, if not for epical lucidity.

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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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