Homer is well-known for his epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, published sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries BC. Throughout the history of the English language, poets have based their writing on the themes, characters, ideas, and concepts Homer presented in his epics. Authors like Geoffrey Chaucer, John Milton, Virgil, and Alexander Pope were influenced by his storytelling. Homer’s influence also touched Greek playwrights like Euripides, Sophocles, and Aeschylus.
Definition of Homeric
Homeric poetry refers to the works of Homer, written in the “epic” style. These poems deal with themes of pride, war, and honor while including well-known mythological figures like the Greek gods (Artemis, Athena, Apollo, and more), Achilles, Agamemnon, and Odysseus.
The term “Homeric” also applies to poems written in Homer’s style long after his lifetime. For example, poems inspired by his style, characters, and intentions. Below, readers can explore the characteristics of Homer’s poetry and a couple of poems inspired by his works.
Characteristics of Homeric Poetry
- Unrhymed dactylic hexameter
- Epic themes
- Use of similes
- The intervention of divine forces
- Use of ring composition (chiastic structure)
- Heroic character traits (honor, strength, courage)
Who Was Homer?
Homer’s identity is one of literature’s longest-lasting questions. Today, it’s common to see scholars speculate on his identity and suggest one or more of a few commonly cited theories.
Homer was born sometime between the 12th and 8th centuries BC on the coast of Asia Minor, but the exact location or century is unknown. He lived prior to creating chronological dating, making pinning down his birth and death nearly impossible. Herodotus, commonly known as the father of history, believed Homer was born around 850 BC others suggest that he lived near the end of the events of the Trojan War. Additionally, there are seven cities along the coast of Asia Minor that cite themselves as Homer’s birthplace. The general location comes from the dialect in which Homer’s epics were written in—Asiatic Greek.
Homer is credited with writing The Iliad and The Odyssey, two of the most important literary works in the history of the written language. Some scholars believe homer is a single individual, while others have suggested that his name was used to credit a group of storytellers whose work developed as it was retold orally for centuries. It’s possible that Homer was a single individual, best known for telling the stories contained in The Iliad and The Odyssey but that he didn’t put them together himself.
Famously, Homer has been described as blind. This comes entirely from a depiction of a poet/minstrel in The Odyssey—Demodokos, who was also blind.
Examples of Homeric Poetry
The Iliad by Homer
There is no better example of Homeric verse than Homer’s work. The Iliad is one of two epic poems credited to Homer. It’s believed to have been written sometime in the 8th century BC in Ancient Greece. It was first published in English in 1581 and is over 15,600 lines long. The epic is also known as the Song of Ilion or Song of Ilium.
The poem is written in dactylic hexameter, the metrical pattern commonly associated with Homer’s work. It is also divided into twenty-four books in what is known today as Homeric Greek. That is, a combination of Ionic Greek with other similar dialects. Here are a few lines as translated into English by Alexander Pope:
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
The epic poem tells the story of the Trojan War and the heroes involved. Specifically focusing on Achilles and his conflict with Agamemnon. Throughout, readers hear of the death of Patroclus, the fickle will of the Gods, and the ten-year war outside the gates of Troy. Finally, the poem concludes with Hector’s death at the hands of Achilles.
While not strictly conforming to the style, form, and content of Homer’s epic poems, Pope’s ‘Rape of the Lock’ is a great example of the type of poetry Homer inspired. This mock-epic takes a trivial event in the lives of upper-class society and turns it into a grand issue. It speaks about 18th-century society and vanity. Some of the similarities between Pope’s mock-epic and Homer’s works include the invocation of the Muses in the first lines. Pope begins with:
What dire offence from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing — This verse to Caryl, Muse! is due:
This, ev’n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If She inspire, and He approve my lays.
Here are the lines Homer uses at the beginning of The Odyssey, one of the best examples of a muse invocation in world literature:
Tell me, O Muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men […]
Read more Alexander Pope poems.
The Aeneid by Virgil
The Aeneid is one of the best-known examples of an epic poem inspired by Homer’s work. It was written in Latin sometime between 29 and 19 BC. It focuses on the character of Aeneas who, along with his father and a few other Trojans, escapes Troy at the end of the Trojan War. The poem is, as Homer’s works were, written in dactylic hexameter. There are a few lines:
There was a city of ancient days that Tyrian settlers dwelt in, Carthage, over against Italy and the Tiber mouths afar; rich of store, and mighty in war’s fierce pursuits; wherein, they say, alone beyond all other lands had Juno her seat, and held Samos itself less dear. Here was her armour, here her chariot; even now, if fate permit, the goddess strives to nurture it for queen of the nations.
Virgil’s Aeneid, which is nearly 10,000 lines long, is commonly studied alongside Homer’s epics in an effort to expand readers’ understanding of the Greek/Roman world and explore the influence of the “epic” on world literature.
The term is used to describe writing that is created in the style of the Greek poet, Homer. This could refer to his own epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, or it could be used to describe later poems that use similar themes, characters, and formats.
Homeric ideals include personal honor and honoring one’s family and friends, the importance of one’s legacy or reputation, courage, good morals, and physical strength. These are character traits that the most important heroes in Homer’s epics, Achilles and Odysseus demonstrate and struggle with.
The Homeric age, or the Heroic Period, is regarded as lasting from 1200-800 BC. It’s during this period that most scholars believe Homer (if he was a single person) lived. During this time, Greek legends were shared orally from one storyteller to the next.
The heroes in Homer’s epics were motivated by glory, reputation, honor, and the desire to demonstrate their strength and faith. They can show these character traits in battle.
Related Literary Terms
- Epic Poetry: a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.
- Epic Simile: a long poetic comparison, that uses like or as, and which goes on for several lines. It grows more complicated and reveals its meaning as the lines progress.
- Canto: a subsection of a long narrative or epic poem. It is made up of at least five lines but it is normally much longer.
- Heroic Couplet: a form of poetry commonly used in epics and narrative poems. It is composed of a pair of rhyming lines that are written in iambic pentameter.