Sunday, August 5, 2012


M. L. West, The Making of the Iliad: Disquisition and Analytical Commentary. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. x, 441. ISBN 9780199590070. $160.00.

Reviewed by Andrew Ford, Princeton University (

Version at BMCR home site


M. L. West's The Making of the Iliad is old-school analysis with a twist; for him the text's repetitions and inconsistencies are not signs left by editors stitching together independent songs but marks of a single poet's revisions as he developed and expanded a central theme over a lifetime. We have, then, no "wretched patchwork" but a coherent and well-designed work, "the greatest of all epics" (p. 3). Nonetheless, analysis is bound to be a hard sell to Homerists accustomed to regard it as overly speculative and superseded by oralist poetics, and West allows in his Envoi that some may dismiss the book as "a self-indulgent bacchanal of the imagination" (p. 431). Still, it is hard to imagine any reader of Homer not welcoming an imaginative reading of the poem by the editor of the Teubner Ilias, the author of Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad and four decades of articles on matters Homeric.1

Six brisk introductory chapters discuss method and sketch the poet's working life (pp. 1-77). On method, West believes that the analysts very often put their fingers on real problems, problems he finds unanswered by what he calls the "oralist faith." He holds that almost the entire Iliad (a few interpolations excepted) is the work of a single poet, whom he dubs P. He assumes that the Iliad, like any long work, must have been composed over a considerable period of time, and there is no reason that P had to start at 1.1 and move inexorably forward to 24.804 (or is it 803? Cf. West ad loc.). West envisions P as writing (far more likely than having written for him) a text that he could go back to and revise. The Iliad bears more overt traces of revision than other long works because of a combination of factors, including the likely cumbrousness of seventh-century texts and the readiness with which epic verse could be generated to fill a patch without requiring that its context be re-composed.

On the poet, the slender internal evidence is pressed for a "conjectural" vita for P that includes voyages to Samos and Mykale (for a competition) and service to the Aineiadai in the Troad. P's active career is put around 680- 640, leaving him open to influence from other early poets. Without re-arguing the priority of Hesiod, West identifies over twenty passages which may betray the Boeotian's influence (Index, s.v. "Hesiod, possible echoes of") and makes Tyrtaeus (10 IEG2) or another contemporary elegist the source of Priam's expostulation at 22.71-6 (p. 385). Here and often in the commentary West takes the old view that, between two closely similar passages, the one that coheres better with its context is the earlier. Oralist and intertextualist poetics will object not only to the uncertainty of the test but to the very attempt to sort such passages into hierarchies.

Though West rejects the idea that the Iliad was stitched out of Einzellieder, he accepts that short songs focused on a definite theme—the kind of thing Demodocus performs—were a staple of the singer's art. He is accordingly hospitable to Neoanalysis as a way to get at the songs that P might have heard or performed himself and on which he could have drawn to expand his Iliad (Ch. 3). No supporter of the dictation theory, West supposes that P used writing, and just possibly read epics (p. 28 n.1).

West summarizes his analysis in Ch. 5, which identifies the "tectonic" expansions in the poem's "core" story (now to be seen in Bks. 1-3.14, 11, 16) as well as larger insertions like the teikhoskopia or Patroclus' funeral games. (The Doloneia is altogether out, but receives commentary.) There are many lower levels of expansion; nor is Achilles' great speech in Bk. 9 spared.

The heart of the book is a 350-page "Analytical Commentary" that goes through the poem with equal attention to its unifying strategies (West admires Schadewaldt's Iliasstudien) and the residual signs of its evolution. Here West drops polemic and refers very briefly to other matters: readers are advised to have at hand Indo-European Poetry and Myth and The East Face of Helicon for parallels and Studies for textual issues.2 The result of offloading so much material is a crisp, droll and fast-paced commentary focused above all on story.

West's methods can be illustrated from the first substantial intervention he makes in the text. This comes early in Book 2, with the dawn following Agamemnon's false dream from Zeus (2.49). It would be plausible psychology and a dramatic advance in "the plan of Zeus" if at this point the king, emboldened by his dream, were to summon his troops for battle; and so Agamemnon does, but almost 400 lines later (at 2.441). What happens meanwhile is that he huddles with his chiefs and calls the Achaeans to an assembly (agorênde 2.51) to test them. In arguing that 2.50-441 is P's later, not altogether harmonious elaboration, West does not confine himself to identifying incongruities but points out a neat textual join: the transitions that begin and end the overlay are closely similar, with 2.50-51 ≈ 2.442-43 except that the latter replaces agorênde with what we were expecting, polemonde (p. 93).

When the intervening matter itself is analyzed, some may cry, "Who cares how the poem came to be!" But teachers of the Iliad know that West is not the only one who will ask why Agamemnon calls a council in Bk. 2 when he has no need of one, far less the "perfunctory" council of chieftains at 53-86 (neatly excisable) with its "pointless third iteration" of his dream. Why is his proposal to test the troops ignored in Nestor's reply and never explained to the army (pp. 101-2)?

This is not to say that analysis is the only way to answer such questions, or even that its answers are fully satisfactory: if one asks how Agamemnon expected his despairing speech at 2.110-41 to motivate the army, it is just a start to propose that it was modeled on the one the king gives, with more reason for despondency, in Bk. 9 (2.111- 18 = 9.17-25). West undoubtedly speculates when he goes on to say the speech was cobbled together so P could insert a scene in which the army bolted and was checked; but he has a suggestive model to point to—the tradition in the Cypria that the restive troops were restrained by none other than Achilles.

Certainly, one must always consider whether other interpretations make West's "problems" disappear. But the theory cannot be dismissed, as it often has been, simply because no two analysts agree exactly (p. 57), for so-called Unitarian interpretations are far from convergent themselves. Nor can West's reasons for re-arranging lines be reduced to nit-picking; this is not Bentley turning Milton into prose. West's perspective is rather like Aristotle's, who thought the Iliad and Odyssey about as unified as the sprawling nature of epic allowed (Poet. 1462b3-11) and praised Homer for "taking one piece of the Trojan story and diversifying it by incorporating episodes such as the catalogue of ships" (1459a35-37). At least one merit of West's hypothesis is that it does not suggest that the art of Homeric epic was in any way primitive; paradoxically he, like unifying readers, holds P responsible for every last word.

Still, one may ask, if P could fix his text, why didn't he fix it better and conceal the seams? West's answer comes in his discussion of the notorious duals referring to the three-man embassy to Achilles in 9.182-98 (pp. 13-14). Like many, West sees the duals as the residue of an early version in which Odysseus and Ajax were the ambassadors. He conceives that P had already drafted 182-98 when he was inspired to add Phoenix, "to add emotional weight to the appeal." It was easy to insert a verse including him when the ambassadors are appointed at 9.168, but the fact that those duals follow just fourteen verses later is proof in West's eyes that P did not dictate and compose in one fell swoop but worked with a written text that he could go back to and fill in.3 If we ask, why didn't P at the same time change the duals to plurals (trivially easy for an oral poet)? the answer is simply, "probably he did not read through his whole text with a view to ensuring that it flowed smoothly" (p. 14). West adds that such carelessness is understandable in a performative milieu in which the resourcefulness of oral style would have allowed him to emend his text on the fly.

Granting this, it can be hard to picture the process when West gets down to moving small groups of lines, as in his analysis of 9.372-429 as a "freewheeling appendage" to Achilles' great speech: if these 57 verses consist of no less than six separate chunks (p. 223), what a mess that page must have been!

West presents analysis as an alternative to oralist poetics, and his disagreements with Gregory Nagy have been well aired.4 Which approach one favors depends on what one is interested in, for their differences are often due to their having different objects in view. West's ultimate objective is the text made by that unus maximusque poeta who must stand—nihil ex nihilo fit—as the source of the Iliad. It is easy enough to point out that this corresponds to no empirical reality but is West's abstraction from the data; but this is only to say that, like any interpreter, West must construct the text as he construes it. Nagy's ultimate concern, equally ideal, is the Tradition, the ever-evolving medium that generated (in a Chomskyan sense) Homeric poetry.5 Hence the difference between them is not simply whether "Homer" wrote but what textualization means. West insists that once the oral versions of the Iliad were written down, the usual processes of textual transmission took over, calling for traditional philological approaches. In Nagy's sweeping vision, transcription itself is part of the tradition and variation in the written sources is the continuing operation of the system of oral poetics. For Nagy, this system is what needs representing and is best represented as a multi-text. A consequence of this broad view is that P's poem must be recognized as an "authentic" multiform by an undoubted master of the style (call him W if you like), though Nagy would deny it (and any version) originary status.

Whether one is interested in one or many Iliads, there are aesthetic gains to be had here. Most obviously, analysis brings out how much epic expansiveness depends on the play between retardation and returning to theme. These are highlighted by West's careful tracking of cross-references and of characters as they drop from sight and reappear. Another aesthetic gain, already made visible in the Teubner text, comes from pushing through the artificial book divisions (cf. on 6.1) to highlight the narrative's own breaks in its récit. This allows readers to try out the story to different rhythms, and to notice P's cunning ways of wrapping up a tale (e.g. on 3.15). Lastly, sensitivity to "seamless joins" injects extra energy into many innocuous-seeming lines.

To do justice to West's complex argument requires, as he suggests (p. 431), reading the Iliad alongside it, and indeed reading it in several different forms.6 Anyone who reads or teaches the poem (even, such is West's clarity, in Lattimore's translation) will come away with a deeper sense of the structure and fullness of the work, whether or not the analytical hypotheses are accepted. West's close and sustained attention to the text abounds in exciting perspectives and cannot fail to refresh the poem for Homerists of any stripe.


1.   Martin L. West (ed.), Homeri Ilias, 2 vols. (Stuttgart-Leipzig, 1998-2000); Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad (Munich-Leipzig, 2001); Hellenica 1: Epic (Oxford, 2011) collects 28 articles.
2.   Indo-European Poetry and Myth (Oxford, 2007); The East Face of Helicon: West Asiatic Elements in Greek Poetry and Myth (Oxford, 1997).
3.   Contra Richard Janko, "The Homeric Poems as Oral Dictated Texts" Classical Quarterly N.S. 48.1 (1998), pp. 1-13, for whom the fact that Homer "never went back to erase the tell-tale duals" is "proof that we are dealing with an orally dictated text" (p. 8).
4.   Some of it in BMCR: Nagy 2000.09.12, reprinted with revisions in Homer's Text and Language (Austin, 2004) Ch. 3; West 2001.09.06 (cf. 2004.04.17), reprinted with revisions in Hellenica Ch. 15.
5.   Nagy replies to criticisms on this score in Homeric Responses (Austin, 2003) 1-19.
6.   My resolve to follow these paths has made this review a little tardy; I thank the editors for their forbearance.

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