W2720 SCHOOL ESSAY BY ISAAC BALDWIN MCQUESTEN
Jan 1 1868 [Estimated Date]1
From: [University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario] THE HOMERIC CONTROVERSY
Of the personal existence of Homer no doubts appear to have been entertained till about the end of the 17th century, when Hedelin and Perrault, French writers, brought forward a theory entirely at variance to that formerly held by all scholars, and denying the existence of any such personage. This theory was afterwards more fully developed by Heyne and Wolfe. To examine briefly the nature and importance of these doubts, and then to determine whether Homer ever existed or not is the subject of our consideration.
Perhaps the greatest objection maintained by those denying the existence of a Homer is that at the time when the Father and Prince of Epic Poetry was supposed to flourish, the art of writing was entirely unknown. Nor is this objection to be treated with contempt. Can we think it at all probable that one man should conceive and perfect in his own brain, without any help but the memory of himself and others, a poem of 15000 lines, and that one of the noblest songs that minstrel ever sang, surpassing in symmetry and beauty throughout any production of ancient times?
Then when we bring into consideration the Odyssey, next in sweetness and grandeur--the Hymns, Margites and other minor poems attributed to the same author, we cannot say that these objections brought forward by far from ignominious doubters, are without foundation.
Then again, it scarcely seems probable that at that early dawn of civilization the composer of a poem at once so beauteous and lofty should have had such a perfect knowledge of all the different pursuits men were then engaged in. There we see the sailor making his ship all taut for a storm that is brewing in the far-off horizon. Here the woodman is felling the trees, and the carpenter at work upon some structure. On yonder mountain slope the shepherd is tending his flock. While on the plain we hear the din of hostile armies engaged in the ennobling fight. All, is most vividly presented before the eyes of the enchanted reader.
Nor was the composer by any means ignorant of geography. He speaks with the utmost accuracy of places far removed from one another and then insignificant in the eyes of all Greece. He roams with us through the Peloponnesus, sails through the broad Aegean and Ionian seas, and visits all the then great cities.
But let us for a few moments set aside these considerations and view the Iliad and Odyssey merely as a literary composition.
How vast and stupendous the design! The deeds of mortals form but a small portion of the work. The Gods deign to mingle in human strife. Their weapons offensive and defensive are represented. Their heavenly mansion opened to mortal views. The poet describes the [intestine, crossed out] quarrels of the blessed immortals.
Then how thrillingly interesting the narrative, even the most ordinary affairs, clothed so richly that we cannot repress our admiration.
Is it then probable that one man could, at one time, when education and refinement were so inconsiderable, compose a work of such thrilling interest and so uniform through all its long course--and that too, long before the art of writing was known?
Some again, believe the Iliad and Odyssey to have been at first short rhapsodies, composed to sing at feasts and public occasions, and entirely disconnected; and that afterwards they were compiled and improved by different personages, till they reached the state in which they have been handed down to us.
But let us glance very briefly at the other side of the picture. This last statement does not appear at all probable, for all the books of the Iliad and Odyssey are linked closely together, being one continued narrative; moreover, notwithstanding the beautiful variety, there is, nevertheless, a similarity of idea, and of certain peculiar expressions running through the different books. Would not these things seem to point to a singularity of time and authorship?
Then again, the personal existence of a Homer was never doubted till a comparatively late period. Plutarch and other biographers never even hint at such a thing; and had they not a far better chance of knowing that such was the case, than men of 150 years ago, whose theories are almost entirely based on conjecture?
[Two long question marks appear in the margin of the above paragraph.]
As to Homer's birth-place, nothing is positively known. Five cities dispute that honour. Though it seems that Smyrna can lay the greatest claim to that most illustrious of Grecian poets, that the Homeridae emigrated from Ephesus to that place at a time when the Aeolians and Achaeans composed the chief part of the city; and the tradition of the siege of Troy caused the deepest interest; that, when the Ionians were driven out of Smyrna, the Homeridae settled in Chios; that the illustrious poet then taught school, till a merchant Mentes induced him to travel; and that while visiting Ithaca he became subject to a disease of the eye, which terminated in total blindness. So many traditions, however, respecting his birth, his career and his death have been handed down to us, that the true circumstances attendant upon these must remain as they have for so many hundred years, ever enshrouded in mystery.
But from the continuous strain of brilliancy, sweetness and elegance of the poetry; from the symmetry and consistency of the narrative throughout; and from the great similarity of the different books, we are constrained to believe that some one man, and he a man of surpassing genius, at a time when education was in a very primitive state, composed two poems that will ever stand foremost in the literature of the world--the Iliad and the Odyssey.
50 [Crossed out.]
45 [This number likely represents the grade mark for the essay.]
1 We have estimated the date as being consistent with Isaac's university studies. He entered Upper Canada College in 1864, and graduated from the University of Toronto in 1869, with honours in Modern Languages. In 1870, he graduated with an M.A. from University College, and studied law under Vice-Chancellor Proudfoot in Hamilton, and wrote the exams to enter the Law Society of Upper Canada. He first began working with Proudfoot in 1869, and became a partner in 1873, the same year in which he married (Minnes 1). He also wrote an essay in Latin (undated) and a "Translation of Ode XV bk.1," (W2714) which we have not transcribed here. (See also W2726, W2780, W2795, W2771, W2795, W2780).