The Authoress of the Odyssey, by Samuel Butler, , at sacred-texts.com
Before I quit my subject, I should perhaps answer a question which the reader has probably long since asked himself. I mean, how it is conceivable that considerations so obvious as those urged in the foregoing Chapters should have been overlooked by so many capable students for so many hundreds of years, if there were any truth in them. For they lie all of them upon the surface; they are a mere washing in the Jordan and being clean; they require nothing but that a person should read the "Odyssey" as he would any other book, noting the physical characters described in the Scherian and Ithacan scenes, and looking for them on some West coast of the Mediterranean to the West of Greece.
The answer is that the considerations which I have urged have been overlooked because, for very obvious reasons, it never occurred to any one to look for them. "Do you suppose, then," more than one eminent scholar has said to me directly or indirectly, "that no one has ever read the 'Odyssey' except yourself?" I suppose nothing of the kind, and know that it was only possible for the truth when once lost (as it soon would be on the establishment of the Phœnicians at Drepanum) to be rediscovered, when people had become convinced that the "Odyssey" was not written by the writer of the "Iliad." This idea has not yet been generally accepted for more than a hundred years, * if so long, but until it was seized and held firmly, no one was likely to suspect that the "Odyssey" could have come from Sicily, much less that it could have been written by a woman, for there is not one line in the "Iliad" which even hints at the existence of Sicily, or makes the reader suspect the
author to have been a woman, while there are any number of passages which seem absolutely prohibitive of any other opinion than that the writer was a man, and a very strong one.
Stolberg in the last century, and Colonel Mure in this, had the key in the lock when they visited Trapani, each of them with the full conviction that the Cyclops incident, and the hunting the goats, should be placed on Mt. Eryx and the island of Favognana—but they did not turn it. Professor Freeman, Schliemann, and Sir H. Layard, all of them visited Trapani and its immediate neighbourhood either as students or excavators, and failed to see that there was as splendid a prize to be unburied there without pick and shovel, outlay, or trouble of any kind, as those of Nineveh, Mycene, and Hissarlik—and why? Because they were still hampered by the long association of the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" as the work of the same person. Knowing that the "Iliad" could hardly have been written elsewhere than in the Northern half of the West coast of Asia Minor, if would never occur to them to look for the "Odyssey" in a spot so remote as Trapani. They probably held it to be the work of some prehistoric Herodotus, who would go on from scene to scene without staying longer than he could help in any one place, instead of feeling sure, as I believe they should have done, that it was the work of one who was little likely to have travelled more than a very few miles from her own home. Moreover, Admiralty charts are things of comparatively recent date, and I do not think any one would have been likely to have run the "Odyssey" to ground without their help.
But however this may be, I do not doubt that the habit of ascribing the "Odyssey" to Homer has been the main reason of the failure to see the obvious in connection with it. Surely it is time our eminent Iliadic and Odyssean scholars left off misleading themselves and other people by including the "Odyssey" in their "Introductions" to the work of "Homer." It was permissible to do this till within recent years; anything else, indeed, would have been pedantic, but what would have been pedantic a hundred years ago, is slovenly and unscholarly now.
Turning from her commentators to the authoress herself, I am tempted to wonder whether she would be more pleased or angry could she know that she had been so long mistaken for a man—and that man Homer. It would afford her an excellent opportunity for laughing at the dullness of man. Angry, however, as she would no doubt be, she could hardly at the same time help being flattered, and would perhaps console herself by reflecting that poets as great as she was are bound to pay the penalty of greatness in being misunderstood.
Horace tells us that mediocrity in a poet is forbidden alike by gods, men, and publishers, but, whether forbidden or no, there are a good many mediocre poets who are doing fairly well. So far as I can see, indeed, gods, men, and more particularly publishers, will tolerate nothing in a poet except mediocrity, and if a true poet by some rare accident slips in among the others, it is because gods and publishers’ readers did not find him out until it was too late to stop him. Horace must have known perfectly well that he was talking nonsense.
And after all it is well that things are as they are; for the mediocre poet, though he may hang about for many years, does in the end die, or at any rate become such a mere literary Struldbrug as to give plain people no trouble, whereas the true poet will possess himself of us, and live on in us whether we will or no, and unless the numbers of such people were severely kept in check they would clog the wheels of the world. Half a dozen first-class poets in prose or verse are as many as the world can carry in any comfort; twenty Shakespeares, twenty Homers, twenty Nausicaas would make literature impossible, yet we may be sure that every country in every century could yield two or three first-class writers, if genius were to be known at once, and fostered by those who alone know how to foster it. Genius is an offence; like all other offences it must needs come, but woe to that man or woman through whom it comes, for he or she must pass through the Scylla and Charybdis of being either torn in pieces on the one hand, or so misunderstood on the other as to make the slipping through with life in virtue of such misrepresentation more mortifying than death itself.
Do what we may we cannot help it. Dead mind like dead body must, after a decent interval, be buried out of our sight if living mind is to have fair play, and it might perhaps not be a bad thing if our great educational establishments had more of the crematorium and less of the catacomb about them than they have at present. Our notions of intellectual sanitation are deplorably imperfect, and unless the living become more jealous of letting dead mind remain unconsumed in their system, a fit of intellectual gout must ere long supervene, which, if not fatal, will still be excruciatingly painful. Since, therefore, there are such insuperable difficulties in the way of eliminating geniuses when we have once absorbed them, and since also, do what we may, we can no more detect the one genius who may be born among a multitude of good average children, than Herod could detect the King of the Jews among the babes of Bethlehem, we have no course but to do much as Herod did, and lay violent hands upon all young people till we have reduced every single one of them to such mediocrity as may be trusted to take itself off sooner or later. To this end we have established schools and schoolmen; nor is it easy to see how we could more effectually foster that self-sufficiency which does so much towards helping us through the world, and yet repress any exuberance of originality or independence of thought which may be prejudicial to its possessor during his own life, and burdensome to posterity when he is dead and gone.
Obviously wise, however, and necessary as our present system is, we nevertheless grumble at it. We would have any number of first-class geniuses in art, literature and music, and yet have plenty of elbow room for ourselves. Our children too; they cannot show too many signs of genius, but at the same time we blame them if they do not get on in the world and make money as genius next to never does. Like the authoress of the "Odyssey" we are always wanting to have things both ways; we would have others be forgotten, and yet not be forgotten ourselves; when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, we would fain shuffle on another that shall be at once less coil and less mortal, in the good thoughts of coming generations,
but if this desire is so universal as to be called natural, it is one which the best and sanest of us will fight against rather than encourage; such people will do their work as well and cheerfully as they can, and make room for others with as little fuss as possible when they have had their day.
If, however, any man resents the common course of nature and sets himself to looking upon himself and cursing his fate that he was not born to be of the number of them that enter into life eternal even in this world, let him console himself by reflecting that until he is long dead, there is no certain knowing whether he is in life or no, and also that though he prove to be an immortal after all, he cannot escape the treatment which he is the more sure to meet with according as he is the more immortal—let alone the untold misery which his works will inflict upon young people.
If ever a great classic could have been deterred from writing by a knowledge of how posterity would treat her, the writer of the "Odyssey" should have been so, for never has poem more easy to understand failed more completely of being understood. If she was as lovely as I should like to think her, was ever sleeping beauty hidden behind a more impenetrable hedge of scholasticism? How could it be otherwise? The "Odyssey," like the "Iliad," has been a school book for nearly 3000 years, and what more cruel revenge could dullness take on genius? What has the erudition of the last 2500 years done for the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey" but to emend the letter in small things and to obscure the spirit in great ones?
There was indeed, as I said in my opening Chapter, a band of scholars a century or two before the birth of Christ who refused to see the "Iliad" and "Odyssey" as the work of the same person, but erudition snubbed them and snuffed them out so effectually that for some 2000 years they were held to have been finally refuted. Can there be any more scathing satire on the value of scholastic criticism? It seems as though Minerva had shed the same darkness over both the poems that she shed over Ulysses, that they might go in and out among eminent Homeric scholars from generation to generation, and none should see them.
The world does indeed know little of its greatest men and women, and bitterly has it been reproached for its want of penetration, but there are always two sides, and it should be remembered that its greatest men and women commonly know very little of the world in its more conventional aspects. They are continually flying in the face of all that we expect of greatness, and they never tell us what they are; they do not even think that they are great; if they do we may be sure that they are mistaken; how then can we be expected to appreciate people correctly till we have had plenty of time to think them over?
And when we have thought them over, how little have our canons of criticism to do with the verdict which we in the end arrive at. Look at the "Odyssey." Here is a poem in which the hero and heroine have been already married many years before it opens; from the first page to the last there is no young couple in love with one another, there is in fact nothing amatory in the poem, for though the suitors are supposed to be madly in love with Penelope, they never say or do anything that carries conviction as to their being so. We accept the fact, as we do the sagacity of Ulysses, because we are told it, not because we see it. The interest of the poem ostensibly turns mainly on the revenge taken by a bald middle-aged gentleman, whose little remaining hair is red, on a number of young men who have been eating him out of house and home, while courting his supposed widow.
Moreover, this subject, so initially faulty, is treated with a carelessness in respect of consistency and plausibility, an ignorance of commonly known details, and a disregard of ordinary canons which it would not be easy to surpass, and yet, such is the irony of art that it is not too much to say that there is only one poem which can be decisively placed above it. If the "Odyssey" enforces one artistic truth more than another, it is that living permanent work in literature (and the same holds good for art and music) can only be done by those who are either above, or below, conscious reference to any rules or canons whatsoever—and in spite of Shakespeare, Handel, and Rembrandt, I should say that on the whole it is
more blessed to be below than above. For after all it is not the outward and visible signs of what we read, see, or hear, in any work, that bring us to its feet in prostration of gratitude and affection; what really stirs us is the communion with the still living mind of the man or woman to whom we owe it, and the conviction that that mind is as we would have our own to be. All else is mere clothes and grammar.
As regards the mind of the writer of the "Odyssey" there is nothing in her work which impresses me more profoundly than the undercurrent of melancholy which I feel throughout it. I do not mean that the writer was always, or indeed generally, unhappy; she was often, at any rate let us hope so, supremely happy; nevertheless there is throughout her work a sense as though the world for all its joyousness was nevertheless out of joint—an inarticulate indefinable half pathos, half baffled fury, which even when lost sight of for a time soon re-asserts itself. If the "Odyssey" was not written without laughter, so neither was it without tears. Now that I know the writer to have been a woman, I am ashamed of myself for not having been guided to my conclusion by the exquisitely subtle sense of weakness as well as of strength that pervades the poem, rather than by the considerations that actually guided me.
The only approach to argument which I have seen brought forward to show that the "Odyssey" must have been written by a man, consists in maintaining that no woman could have written the scene in which Ulysses kills the suitors. I cannot see this; to me it seems rather that no man could have brought himself to disregard probability with so little compunction; moreover a woman can kill a man on paper as well as a man can, and with the exception of the delightful episode in which Ulysses spares the lives of Phemius and Medon, the scene, I confess, appears to me to be the most mechanical and least satisfactory in the whole poem. The real obstacle to a general belief that the "Odyssey" was written by a woman is not anything that can be found in the poem, but lies, as I have already said, in the long prevalence of an opinion that it was written by the same person as the "Iliad" was. The age and respectability of this opinion, even though we have at length discarded
it, will not allow us to go beyond ascribing the "Odyssey" to another man—we cannot jump all at once to the view that it was not by a man at all. A certain invincible scholasticism prevents us from being able to see what we should see at once if we would only read the poem slowly and without considering anything that critics have said concerning it.
This, however, is not an easy thing to do. I know very well that I should never have succeeded in doing it if I had not passed some five-and-thirty rebellious years during which I never gave the "Odyssey" so much as a thought. The poem is so august: it is hallowed by the veneration of so many ages; it is like my frontispiece, so mysterious, so imperfect, and yet so divinely beyond all perfection; it has been so long associated with the epic poem which stands supreme—for if the "Odyssey" be the Monte Rosa of literature, the "Iliad" must, I suppose, for ever remain as the Mont Blanc; who can lightly vivisect a work of such ineffable prestige as though it were an overlooked parvenu book picked up for a few pence at a second hand book stall? Lightly, no, but inexorably, yes, if its natural health and beauty are to be restored by doing so.
One of our most accomplished living scholars chided with me in this sense a year or two ago. He said I was ruthless. "I confess," he said, "I do not give much heed to the details on which you lay so much stress: I read the poem not to theorise about it, but to revel in its amazing beauty."
It would shock me to think that I have done anything to impair the sense of that beauty which I trust I share in even measure with himself, but surely if the "Odyssey" has charmed us as a man's work, its charm and wonder are infinitely increased when we see it as a woman's. Still more must it charm us when we find the writer to be an old friend, and see no inconsiderable part of her work as a reflection of her own surroundings.
Have we, then, a right in sober seriousness so to find her? I have shown that in the earliest known ages of Greek literature poetesses abounded, and gained a high reputation. I have shown that by universal consent the domestic and female interest in the "Odyssey" predominates greatly over the male.
[paragraph continues] I have shown that it was all written in one place, and if so—even were there no further reasons for thinking so—presumably by one hand: I have shown that the writer was extremely jealous for the honour of woman, so much so as to be daunted by no impossibilities when trying to get rid of a story that she held to be an insult to her sex. These things being so, is it too much to ask the reader to believe that the poem was not written, as Bentley held, by a man for women, but for both men and women, by one who was herself a woman?
And now as I take leave of the reader, I would say that if when I began this work I was oppressed with a sense of the hopelessness of getting Homeric scholars to take it seriously and consider it, I am even more oppressed and dismayed when I turn over its pages and see how certain they are to displease many whom I would far rather conciliate than offend. What can it matter to me where the "Odyssey" was written, or whether it was written by a man or a woman? From the bottom of my heart I can say truly that I do not care about the way in which these points are decided, but I do care, and very greatly, about knowing which way they are decided by sensible people who have considered what I have urged in this book. I believe I have settled both points sufficiently, but come what may I know that my case in respect of them is amply strong enough to justify me in having stated it. And so I leave it.
262:* I see that my grandfather, Dr. Butler, of Shrewsbury, accepts it in his Antient Geography, published in 1813, but I do not know where he got if from.