Chapter & Verse: The contemporary relevance of Homeric poetry

Chapter and Verse is a series that features JHU Press authors and editors discussing the literary landscape of poetry and prose, whether their own creative work or the literature of others.

Guest post by Erwin F. Cook

The following is excerpted from the Food for Thought Lecture Professor Cook originally presented at Trinity University on May 1, 2013.

I initially balked at the request to talk about the contemporary relevance of Homeric poetry. I did so because I am of the camp that maintains great art does not need to be defended on these terms, which is to say its skill, beauty, and profundity give it all the relevance it needs to be of lasting relevance. But I do recognize that my justification, which also keeps me from studying ancient graffiti and medieval doorknockers, assumes that at some level of remove there are enduring qualities to these works that do indeed, and will always, give them contemporary relevance. Instead of trying to sell the Iliad in these terms, however, I found I could do something more in the spirit of the original request and show how it allows us to see certain aspects of the contemporary world with almost shocking clarity. In particular, I will deal with the Iliad’s unvarnished portrayal of the human will to power, the sociology of inner-city street gangs, and the psychological damage that warriors sometimes suffer on the battlefield.

To make my point, I will take two radically different approaches to the scene, one by comparing Homeric society to inner city gang behavior, and another comparing Homeric warriors to Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

Click here to keep reading Professor Cook’s full lecture.

mccrorie_iliadErwin Cook is T. F. Murchison Professor of the Humanities at Trinity University, San Antonio, and contributor to Edward McCrorie’s translation of Homer’s Iliad.