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  • Writer's pictureWilliam Walter

Poetry Bee Blog #3: The First Poet of Western Civilization

Updated: Dec 22, 2023

Homer and His Guide (1874) by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

In the first two PQFTDs, we talked about firsts: the first American poet (Anne Bradstreet) and the first known English poet (Caedmon). We are now going to talk about the first poet of Western Civilization, Homer. It is to Homer that we attribute the two most celebrated epics in the western world, the Iliad and the Odyssey. Both poems, written in dactylic hexameter, are about the Greek people. The first is about the Trojan War, a ten-year battle between two Greek-speaking peoples, namely the confederation of the Greek city states and the Trojans. The second epic deals with the return of the Greek hero Odysseus from battle, his adventures abroad and the strife he encounters when he returns home to his own kingdom of Ithaca.

What do we know about Homer? Nothing really—except two things, of which we are not entirely sure. One is the rumor that he was blind. The other is something which we can sort of figure out from reading his epics, and that is that he probably lived near Troy and not on the Greek peninsula, or Peloponnesus. We make that guess because when Homer describes the geography around Troy, he is pretty much accurate; however, the geographical details of the Peloponnesus contained in his epics are rather hazy and flawed.

We are indebted to Homer not only for his own two works, but for the corpus of literature inspired by his poems. There have been so many English works inspired in part by the adventure of Odysseus and the battles between the Trojans and Greeks, it is really hard to count them. To mention just a couple, the great British poet Tennyson, wrote several poems on the characters or adventures found in the Odyssey, such as “Ulysses” and “The Lotus Eaters.” James Joyce, to name another author, wrote a novel titled “Ulysses,” which is based on Homer’s epic. (Ulysses is the Roman name of the Greek hero.) In school James Joyce wrote an essay about Odysseus, titled, “My favorite hero.”

Homer’s epics were originally written in Greek, and so there are few modern readers who can enjoy the beauty of the poem as it was originally written. However, many good translations of the Odyssey have been made by English-speaking poets. Two of the most famous early translations were made by the poet/dramatist John Dryden (1700) and the poet Alexander Pope (1715). Other popular and praiseworthy translations have been made throughout the years including those by William Cowper (1791), Richmond Lattimore (1951), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Robert Fagles (1990).

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