Wolfe, Jessica. Homer and the Question of Strife from Erasmus to Hobbes. U of Toronto P, 2015. xv + 607 pp. ISBN: 978-1442650268. $110.00 cloth.
As Jessica Wolfe proposes in the introduction to her magnificent new study, “if Virgil is the great poet of praise for his Renaissance audience, then Homer is, conversely, the master of blame, a poet who instructs readers in effective methods of vituperation and other forms of verbal correction” (11). In this rich, wide-ranging book, Wolfe examines how successive writers during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries turned to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and some of the mock-epics latterly attributed to him (like the Batrachomyomachia and Margites), to articulate, understand, and assess contemporary controversies and conflicts, be they political, religious, scholarly, or military. It charts the many different ways in which contemporary conflicts such as the Reformation or English Civil Wars were read through the lens of Homeric epic and argues that Renaissance interpretations of the Iliad and Odyssey were “shaped by diverse and conflictive responses to its representations of eris—of strife, conflict, or discord” (7). “Strife” is a far more supple and inclusive concept than war with which to work here since it enables the anatomization of both verbal and physical clashes, together with the question of whether discord might in some contexts prove necessary or productive. That is to say, this is not a reception history of Homer as war poetry, or of the concept of war in Homer as understood by Early Modern readers.
Wolfe begins by revealing how Erasmus drew on Homer extensively in the Adages for a series of commonplaces (numbering over 400) derived from rebukes, insults, or witticisms uttered by the ancient poems’ speakers. More than any other source, Homer provided Erasmus with an arsenal of verbal “javelins” (as the later writer put it) that might be contemplated and deployed in an age “enthralled by and anxious about quarrel” (58). Erasmus was both attracted to and repelled by verbal aggression, and in the antique poet identified a shared ambivalence about the ethical and political legitimacy of contention and debate. This fascination with the simultaneous capacity of words and rhetoric to harm or heal was enriched further by Hesiod’s influential account of the two Erides: the goddess of strife responsible for war and discord, and her twin who nurtures productive competition and rivalry. This formed an enduring component of subsequent writers’ (including Spenser’s) considerations of Homeric eris and its relationship to concord, friendship, and philia. Wolfe’s attention next turns to the gioco-serious conception of Homer identified by Erasmus, and the ways in which this was responded to by Philipp Melanchthon and François Rabelais. She explores at length how these writers, working with a “Homer” whose corpus included the two epics as well as the parodic Homerica, and reading such works (like Erasmus) as a storehouse of commonplaces, identified how the poet used comedy as an eirenic tool, “providing solutions to conflict or criticizing the eristic values of heroic poetry” (113).
Chapters 4, 5, and 6 look to three seventeenth-century writers and their respective treatments of Homer as a poet of strife. George Chapman, as Wolfe shows, responded to both the comic and tragic aspects of Homeric epic and read the poet as a master ironist and purveyor of “scoptic” (scoffing or derisory) speech. For Chapman, Homer offered a model of prudent and effective satirical discourse that might nevertheless prove politically viable following the 1599 Bishops’ Ban. John Milton and Thomas Hobbes each went to Homer as a storehouse for models of contention and agon that spoke to their own respective political and theological beliefs. Milton’s imitations of Homeric conventions and allusions in Paradise Lost distilled the epics into sustained explorations of the fraught process of rational deliberation or pondering of possibilities in a world defined by political and theological liberty. Hobbes, who translated both epics in the 1670s, reworked Homer into a mouthpiece for his own Erastian views about monarchy.
Spenserians will be most interested in chapter 3, “Spenser, Homer, and the Mythography of Strife,” which incorporates Wolfe’s substantial 2005 Renaissance Quarterly article of the same name. Wolfe argues that although not a direct imitation of Homeric epic, The Faerie Queene builds into its allegorical “substructure” a series of fables about strife and love (“fierce warres and faithfull loves” indeed) drawn from the Greek epics themselves, the Homerica, and from Early Modern Homeric paratexts (Early Modern works of commentary, translation, and biography). We are shown the full extent to which Spenser returns to Homeric episodes and motifs, often at moments requiring judgement, competition, or contention, and are reminded of the Homeric archaeology of fairyland: the houses of Mammon and Ate; Phaedria’s Phaiakian dystopia; Mammon’s Hephaestian forge; Acrasia’s Circeian bower; Florimell’s Aphroditean girdle; Cambina’s Nepenthe; Artegall’s Achillean shield (178). The first half of this chapter concentrates on the image of the “great gold chaine ylincked well” of ambition held by Philotime (II.vii.46), by which aspirant courtiers might seek to elevate themselves, based on Zeus’s chain from book 8 of the Iliad (and subsequent reinterpretations). Wolfe explores how Spenser reworks this image into a symbol of the complementary relationship between strife and love mentioned above that pervades the cosmic and moral design of The Faerie Queene. Images of concatentation abound in the poem, as do moments in which conflict and competition may ultimately prove positive or generative, and Wolfe offers a series of careful close readings of such episodes. Book IV of The Faerie Queene attracts particular attention through the multiple chains, bonds, and oppositions encountered and embodied by its protagonists, and through the presence of Ate and Duessa as persistent foils to the heroes. The chapter continues to trace iterations of the union of love and strife through to the Mutabilitie Cantos, and the Homeric models offer a valuable means of understanding the function of change, struggle, and conflict within the immutable, providentially ordered universe of the poem as a whole.
Throughout this chapter, discussion is rarely located alongside secondary works linking Spenser and Homer or placing The Faerie Queene in relation to classical epic (one thinks, for example, of Susanne Lindgren Wofford’s 1992 The Choice of Achilles, which usefully anatomizes the poetics of division and discord in Homer and Spenser). Instead, Wolfe works extensively here with the Spenserian and Homeric primary sources, and the classical and Early Modern works elucidating the intellectual and literary traditions with which Spenser fashioned his poems. Spenserians will encounter a wealth of insights through this kind of close textual and contextual reading of the poet’s works, and find particular value in placing Wolfe’s application of a Homeric lens to Spenser within her broader history of the ancient poet’s continued resonance and influence during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
University of East Anglia