The Canon: The Making of Homeric Verse. By Milman Parry

June 11, 2009

In 1933, a bold, brave and very young Harvard University classicist, Milman Parry, set out to solve the Homeric Question. He wanted to know how the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed. In order to investigate that famously impossible issue, he chose an unusual method: he packed some bulky equipment, travelled to what was then Yugoslavia and recorded the epic performances of illiterate singers, guslari, in the local coffeehouses.

His fieldwork gave him unprecedented insight into the mechanisms of oral composition and the social contexts and functions of oral poetry. In a brief period of feverish activity, he recorded, transcribed, filmed and - last but not least - wrote fundamental articles on oral epic.

He demonstrated that the guslari composed their poems by combining and adapting traditional expressions, or "formulae", that they had learnt from other singers; he also showed that Homeric epic stemmed from a similar tradition of recomposition in performance, based on inherited formulae.

Just two years later, at the age of 33, Parry was dead - killed in Los Angeles by an accidental gunshot. He had just started writing his first book. Decades later, his son, Adam Parry, edited the notes and articles he left behind and published them as The Making of Homeric Verse (1971). This is the single most important contribution to Homeric studies in the 20th century - and the closest thing to an intellectual conversation Adam ever had with his father.

It has to be said, however, that the Homeric Question remains unsolved. Parry's work is fundamental to any answer, but has been used to support widely divergent positions. Some take it as proof that the Homeric poems were written down at a very early date. Others claim that the poems stem from a multiform tradition of recomposition in performance, becoming fixed only in the late 6th century BC. All Homerists claim descent from Parry, but disagree violently with each other.

Ultimately, it seems to me that our Iliad and Odyssey are the result of extremely complex processes involving both orality and writing - processes that we cannot hope to reconstruct with certainty.

Beyond his contribution to Classics, what is truly exciting about Parry is his intellectual openness and his ability to connect with many different people. Bela Bartok, who helped Parry transcribe the music of the guslari, found in him a kindred spirit. Parry's assistant, Albert Lord, inspired a generation of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists working on oral poetry around the world. The Albanian writer Ismail Kadare wrote a novel about Parry and Lord in which they travelled to Albania, rather than Yugoslavia.

But Parry's greatest achievement is that he himself became the subject of epic poetry. This is how the illiterate bard Milovan Vojicic sang of him in 1933, using the formulations of his ancient epic diction: "A grey falcon flew/from the beautiful land of America/he flew over lands and cities/until he came to the shore of the sea .../Our history will remember him for many ages ... ".

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