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A monument of memorialisation: "The Apotheosis of Homer" (1827) by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres

In the Iliad, soldiers are "more loved by the vultures than by their wives". Stripped of armour and honour, their pale bodies lie draped across Troy's battlefields in a bitter picture of the futility of love. An image of something beautiful gives way instantly to an image of bloodshed at many points in Homer's epics, not because the poet relished the contrast between them, but because he felt that he owed them equal reverence. As Adam Nicolson illustrates in a book that overflows with power, confidence and the joy of self-discovery, we find in Homer a pleasure for the sights and sounds of death. 

Nicolson's quest is to discover why Homer matters, and where his poetry came from. It will come as little surprise that much of this book is therefore dedicated to exploring the poems' origins in oral tradition. Moving between passages of autobiography and literary criticism, Nicolson takes us through the scholarship of Milman Parry, the early-20th-century classicist who found — in the course of writing his doctoral thesis no less-evidence for the origins of Homer's poems in performance by studying their epithets ("resourceful Odysseus", "rosy-fingered Dawn"). These epithets often clash with the contexts in which they are applied, so dirty linen can still be called "gleaming", which led Parry to argue that they were merely the building blocks of song. 

While Nicolson departs from Parry on many points, he maintains his interest in the importance of the poems' song-like metre, the dactylic hexameter, which he does a very good job of illustrating. The more one immerses oneself in this world of oral poetry, the more aware one becomes of our inadequacies as listeners compared to the audiences of antiquity.  

There are moments in the Iliad where we know we would struggle to keep pace. Book II is perhaps the hardest to digest. That is the book in which the poet provides a "catalogue" of men who went to fight at Troy, a long list with little accompanying detail, just scores of names and the foreign places from which they came. Where the Hellenes of the 8th century BC found monumentality in roll-calls like this, today we must seek it elsewhere. When Nicolson ploughs the past for clues about Homer's origins, it is really this alternative sense of monumentality that he is seeking. Nicolson is forever reaching out for something more tangible than the faceless welter of orality.

One may speak of oral composition, but an oral poem, he correctly observes, need not be composed on the spot ex nihilo. Composing a poem orally might involve reviving a story a father or grandparent told long ago. The nature of oral epic, Nicolson suggests, is such that it may preserve phrases and stories and references from a much earlier age. 

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