Bibliotherapy

Antoine Fabre d’Olivet-Homer And The Invention Of Epopeia

‘Homer and His Guide’, 1874, painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau.

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Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is another excerpt from Antoine Fabre d’Olivet ‘s ‘Discourse Upon the Essence and Form of Poetry‘, 1813, published as an introduction to his edition of the ‘Golden verses of Pythagoras‘ with his commentaries. Treuttel & Wurtz, Paris and Strasbourg. This is  chapter III, devoted to Homer and his time. The English translation was done in 1916 by NAYÁN LOUISE REDFIELD.

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§ III
Homer was not the first epic poet in the order of time, but in the order of things. Before him many poets were skilled in Epopœia*; but no one had known the nature of this kind of poetry; no one had united the opposed qualities which were necessary. There existed at this epoch a multitude of allegorical fables which had emanated at divers times from different sanctuaries. These fables, committed at first to memory, had been collected in several sets of works which were called cycles. There were allegorical, mythological, and epic cycles.

We know from certain precious texts of the ancients, that these sorts of collections opened generally with the description of Chaos, with the marriage of Heaven and Earth; contained the genealogy of the Gods and the combats of the Giants; included the expedition of the Argonauts, the famous wars of Thebes and of Troy; extended as far as the arrival of Ulysses at Ithaca, and terminated with the death of this hero, caused by his son Telegonus.

The poets who, before Homer, had drawn from these cycles the subject of their works, not having penetrated as far as the allegorical sense, lacking inspiration, or being found incapable of rendering it, lacking talent, had produced only cold inanimate copies, deprived of movement and grace. They had not, however, omitted any of the exploits of Hercules or of Theseus, nor any of the incidents of the sieges of Thebes or Troy; and their muse, quite lifeless, fatigued the readers without interesting or instructing them.

Homer came. He, in his turn, glanced over this pile of sacerdotal traditions, and raising himself by the force of his genius alone to the intellectual principle which had conceived them, he grasped the ensemble, and felt all its possibilities. The faculties of his soul and the precious gifts which he had received from nature had made him one of those rare men who present themselves, at long intervals, upon the scene of the world to enlighten it, shining in the depths of centuries and serving as torches for mankind. In whatever clime, in whatever career destiny had placed him, he would have been the foremost. Ever the same, whether under the thatched roof or upon the throne, as great in Egypt as in Greece, in the Occident as in the Orient of Asia, everywhere he had commanded admiration.

Some centuries earlier this same attribute might have been seen in Krishna or in Orpheus, some centuries later, in Pythagoras or in Cyrus. Great men are always great by their own greatness. Incidents which depend upon chance can only modify. Homer was destined to poetry by favourable circumstances. Born upon the borders of the river Meles, of an indigent mother, without shelter and without kindred, he owed, to a schoolmaster of Smyrna who adopted him, his early existence and his early instructions. He was at first called Melesigenes, from the place of his birth. Pupil of Phemius, he received from his benevolent preceptor, simple but pure ideas, which the activity of his soul developed, which his genius increased, universalized, and brought to their perfection. His education, begun with an assiduous and sedentary study, was perfected through observation. He undertook long journeys for the sole purpose of instructing himself. The political conditions, contrary to every other project, favoured him.

Greece, after having shaken off the yoke of the Phœnicians and having become the friend of Egypt rather than her subject, commenced to reap the fruits of the beautiful institutions that she had received from Orpheus. Powerful metropolises arose in the heart of this country, long regarded as a simple colony of Asia, and her native strength being progressively augmented by the habit of liberty, she had need of extending herself abroad. Rich with the increase of population, she had reacted upon her ancient metropolis, had taken possession of a great number of cities on the opposite shores of Asia, and had colonized them. Phoenicia humiliated, torn by internal dissensions, tossed between the power of the Assyrians and that of the Egyptians, saw this same Greece that she had civilized and to whom she had given her gods, her laws, and even the letters of her alphabet, ignore, deny her benefits, take up arms against her, carry away her colonies from the shores of Italy and of Sicily, and becoming mistress of the islands of the Archipelago, tear from her her sole remaining hope, the empire of the sea. The people of Rhodes were overpowered.

Homer, of Greek nationality although born in Asia*, profited by these advantages. He set sail in a vessel, whose patron, Mentes of Leucas, was his friend, wandered over all the possessions of Greece, visited Egypt, and came to settle at Tyre. This was the ancient metropolis of Greece, the source and sacred repository of her mythological traditions.

It was there, in this same temple of the Master of the Universe, where twelve centuries before Sanchoniathon had come to study the antiquities of the world, that Homer was able to go back to the origin of Greek cult and fathom the most hidden meanings of its mysteries ; it was there that he chose the first and noblest subject of his chants, that which constitutes the fable of the Iliad.

If one must believe in the very singular accounts which time has preserved to us, thanks to the blind zeal of certain Christians who have treated them as heresies, this Helen, whose name applied to the moon signifies the resplendent, this woman whom Paris carried away from her spouse Menelaus, is nothing else than the symbol of the human soul, torn by the principle of generation from that of thought, on account of which the moral and physical passions declare war. But it would be taking me too far away from my subject, examining in detail what might be the meaning of the allegories of Homer (See preceding post).

My plan has not been to investigate this meaning in particular, but to show that it exists in general. Upon this point I have not only the rational proof which results from the concatenation of my ideas, but also proof of the fact, which is furnished to me by the testimonials of the ancients.

These testimonials are recognized at every step, in the works of the philosophers and chiefly in those of the Stoics. Only a very superficial erudition is necessary to be convinced of this. But I ought to make an observation, and this observation will be somewhat novel: it is that, the poetic inspiration being once received by the poet and his soul finding itself transported into the intelligible world, all the ideas which then come to him are universal and in consequence allegorical. So that nothing true may exist outside of unity, and as everything that is true is one and homogeneous, it is found that, although the poet gives to his ideas a form determined in the sentient world, this form agrees with a multitude of things which, being distinct in their species, are not so in their genus.

This is why Homer has been the man of all men, the type of all types, the faithful mirror, 1 wherein all ideas becoming reflected have appeared to be created. Lycurgus read his works, and saw there a model of his legislation. Pericles and Alcibiades had need of his counsels; they had recourse to him as a model of statesmen. He was for Plato the first of the philosophers, and for Alexander the greatest of kings; and what is more extraordinary still, even the sectarians, divided among themselves, were united in him. The Stoics spoke only of this great poet as a rigid follower of the Porch; at the Academy he was considered as the creator of dialectics; at the Lyceum, the disciples of Aristotle cited him as a zealous dogmatist; finally, the Epicureans saw in him only a man calm and pure, who, satisfied with that tranquil life where one is wholly possessed by it, seeks nothing more. The temples, which devout enthusiasm consecrated to him, were the rendezvous for mankind.  Such is the appanage of universal ideas: they are as the Divinity which inspires them, all in all, and all in the least parts.

If, at the distance where I am placed, I should dare, traversing the torrent of ages and opinions, draw near to Homer and read the soul of this immortal man, I would say, after having grasped in its entirety the allegorical genius which makes the essence of poetry, in seeking to give to his universal ideas a particular form, that his intention was to personify and paint the passions, and that it was from this that epopœia had birth. I have not sufficient documents to attest positively that the word by which one characterizes this kind of poetry after Homer, did not exist before him; but I have sufficient to repeat that no one had as yet recognized its real nature. The poems of Corinna, of Dares, or of Dictys, were only simple extracts from the mythological cycles, rude copies from certain theosophical fragments denuded of life; Homer was the first who caused the Voice of Impulse, that is to say Epopœia, to be understood: that kind of poetry which results from intellectual inspiration united to the enthusiasm of the passions.

In order to attain to the perfection of this kind of poetry, it is necessary to unite to the imaginative faculty which feeds the genius, the reason which regulates the impulse, and the enthusiasm which inflames the mind and supplies the talent. Homer united them in the most eminent degree. Thus he possessed the first inspiration and the complete science, as much in its essence as in its form; for the poetic form is always dependent upon talent.

This form was then highly favourable to genius. The Greek verse, measured by musical rhythm and filled with a happy blending of long and short syllables, had long since shaken off the servile yoke of rhyme. Now, by rhythm was understood the number and respective duration of the time of which a verse was composed. A long syllable was equal to a time divided in two instants, and equivalent to two short syllables. A foot was what we name today a measure. The foot contained two times, made up of two long, or of one long and two short syllables. The verse most commonly used was the hexameter, that is, that in which the extent was measured by six rhythmic feet and of which the whole duration was twelve times. Thus poetry received only the laws of rhythm; it was a kind of music whose particular harmony, free in its course, was subject only to measure.

I have never found any authentic evidence that the Greeks had ever used the rhyme in their verse. It is stated, however, that they have not differed from other nations in this respect. Voltaire said so but without proof. What is most certain is that, taking the word epos, a verse, in its most restricted acceptance, expressing a turn, a turning around again, the early poets constructed their verse in form of furrows, going from right to left and returning from left to right. Happily this bizarrerie did not last long. If the Greek verses had thus turned one upon another, or if the rhyme had forced them to proceed in couplets bent beneath a servile yoke, Homer would not have created the Epopœia, or these frivolous obstacles would have vanished before him. His genius, incapable of enduring chains, would have refused to clothe itself in a form capable of stifling it. But this celebrated man would no doubt have changed it; one can judge by the energetic manner with which he attacked that which he found in use.

The Greek language, which preserved still in his time something of the Phœnician stiffness and the Celtic roughness, obliged to adapt itself to all the movements of his imagination, became the most flexible and the most harmonious dialect of the earth. One is astonished, in reading his works, at the boldness of his composition. One sees him without the least effort, bending words at his pleasure, lengthening them, shortening them to produce something new, reviving those no longer in use, uniting them, separating them, disposing of them in an unaccustomed order, forcing them to adapt themselves everywhere to the harmony that he wishes to depict, to sentiments of elevation, of pleasure or terror, that he wishes to inspire.

Thus genius, dominating form, creates master-pieces; form, on the contrary, commanding genius, produces only works of the mind. I must say finally and no longer veil from the attention of my judges, the aim of this discourse: whenever rhyme exists in the poetic form, it renders the form inflexible, it brings upon it only the effort of talent and renders that of intellectual inspiration useless. Never will the people who rhyme their verses attain to the height of poetic perfection; never will real epopœia flourish in their breasts. They will hear neither the accents inspired by Orpheus, nor the stirring and impassioned harmonies of Homer. Far from drawing the allegorical genius at its source and receiving the first inspiration, it will not even recognize the second one. Its poets will polish painfully certain impassioned or descriptive verses, and will call beautiful the works which will only be well done.

A rapid glance over the poetic condition of the earth will prove what I have advanced. But I ought to explain beforehand what I understand by first and second inspiration; the moment one can judge by the energetic manner with which he attacked that which he found in use. The Greek language, which preserved still in his time something of the Phœnician stiffness and the Celtic roughness, obliged to adapt itself to all the movements of his imagination, became the most flexible and the most harmonious dialect of the earth. One is astonished, in reading his works, at the boldness of his composition. One sees him without the least effort, bending words at his pleasure, lengthening them, shortening them to produce something new, reviving those no longer in use, uniting them, separating them, disposing of them in an unaccustomed order, forcing them to adapt themselves everywhere to the harmony that he wishes to depict, to sentiments of elevation, of pleasure or terror, that he wishes to inspire.

Thus genius, dominating form, creates master-pieces; form, on the contrary, commanding genius, produces only works of the mind. I must say finally and no longer veil from the attention of my judges, the aim of this discourse: whenever rhyme exists in the poetic form, it renders the form inflexible, it brings upon it only the effort of talent and renders that of intellectual inspiration useless. Never will the people who rhyme their verses attain to the height of poetic perfection; never will real epopœia flourish in their breasts. They will hear neither the accents inspired by Orpheus, nor the stirring and impassioned harmonies of Homer. Far from drawing the allegorical genius at its source and receiving the first inspiration, it will not even recognize the second one. Its poets will polish painfully certain impassioned or descriptive verses, and will call beautiful the works which will only be well done.

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Note: 

Epopœia: The word Epopœia is taken from the Greek ἐπο-ποιός which designates alike a poet and an epic poem. It is derived from the Phœnician words ‏אפא‎ (apho) an impassioned transport, a vortex, an impulse, an enthusiasm; and ‏פאח‎ (phohe), a mouth, a discourse. One can observe that the Latin word versus, which is applied also to a thing which turns, which is borne along, and to a poetic verse, translates exactly the Greek word ἔπος, whose root ‏אוף‎ (aôph) expresses a vortex. The Hebrew א‏ופן‎ (aôphon) signifies properly a wheel.

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Homer’s birth place dispute: It is needless for me to observe that the birthplace of Homer has been the object of a host of discussions as much among the ancients as among the moderns. My plan here is not to put down again en problème, nor to examine anew the things which have been a hundred times discussed and that I have sufficiently examined. I have chosen, from the midst of all the divergent opinions born of these discussions, that which has appeared to me the most probable, which agrees best with known facts, and which is connected better with the analytical thread of my ideas. I advise my readers to do the same. It is neither the birthplace of Homer nor the name of his parents that is the important matter: it is his genius that must be fathomed. Those who would, however, satisfy their curiosity regarding these subjects foreign to my researches, will find in ‘La Bibliothèque grecque’ de Fabricius, and in the book by Léon Allatius entitled ‘De Patriâ Homeri’, enough material for all the systems they may wish to build. They will find there twenty-six different locations wherein they can, at their pleasure, place the cradle of the poet. The seven most famous places indicated in a Greek verse by Aulus Gellius are, Smyrna, Rhodes, Colophon, Salamis, Chios, Argos, and Athens. The nineteen indicated by divers authors, are Pylos, Chios, Cyprus, Clazomenæ, Babylon, Cumæ, Egypt, Italy, Crete, Ithaca, Mycenæ, Phrygia, Mæonia, Lucania, Lydia, Syria, Thessaly, and finally Troy, and even Rome.

However, the tradition which I have followed, in considering Homer as born not far from Smyrna, upon the borders of the river Meles, is not only  the most probable but the most generally followed; it has in its favour Pindar; the first anonymous ‘Life of Homer’; ‘the Life of Homer’ by Proclus; Cicero, in his oration for Archias; Eustathius in his ‘Prolégoménes sur l’Iliade’; Aristotle,’Poétique’, l. iii.; Aulus Gellius, Martial, and Suidas. It is known that Smyrna, jealous of consecrating the glory that it attributed to itself, of having given birth to Homer, erected to this great genius a temple with quadrangular portico, and showed for a long time, near the source of the Meles, a grotto, where a contemporaneous tradition supposes that he had composed his first works. See ‘La Vie d’Homère’, par Delille-de-Sales, p. 49, and the works he quotes: ‘Voyage de Chandeler’, t. i., p. 162, et ‘Voyages pittoresques’ de Choiseul-Gouffier, p. 200.

More about Antoine Fabre d’Olivet: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antoine_Fabre_d’Olivet 🌿Text Source: https://sacred-texts.com/cla/ogv/ogv06.htm
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