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The Limits of Lament: Grief, Consummation, and Homeric Narrative

Tyler Flatt

This paper demonstrates how a particular type of narrative formula functions in both the Iliad and Odyssey to create a suggestive thematic link between the two poems, centered around nearly limitless grief and the means by which it may be satiated. I argue that this link has significant meta-narrative implications: it discloses a revealing tension between the forward movement of epic storytelling and the arresting effect of unrestrained lament, which threatens to overwhelm narrative development altogether through sheer intensity at key points in the story.

Homeric narrators employ a rare type of counterfactual—“mourning would have gone on indefinitely, had not x (usually sunrise or sunset) occurred”—to smooth transitions between critically important plot turns, among other purposes (de Jong, 2004). Though not a conspicuous feature of Homeric language at first glance, these if not-counterfactual sentences linking mourning with the movement of the sun are cleverly and consistently deployed to remarkable effect, quite out of proportion to their brevity and relative scarcity (they occur only five times in all of Homer; three times in the Odyssey and twice in the Iliad). A fresh analysis of these formulae, refining and extending earlier narratological studies (Lang, 1989; Morrison, 1992; Louden, 1993), reveals that the thematic connection between Odysseus’ reunions on Ithaca and funeral rites in the Iliad, observed by Breed (1999), is also reflected on the level of narrative structure; in both cases, these clauses give unique expression to deep feelings of grief and also contribute to their resolution by intervening to establish salutary boundaries.

In each poem, the paradigm is used sparingly, heightening the poignancy of scenes that naturally evoke considerable emotional intensity. It also signals the narrative’s determined progression towards plot peaks of even greater consequence. The large number of if not-counterfactuals of a more general type in both poems (38 in the Iliad, 20 in the Odyssey) testifies to their adaptability to a variety of uses, some more significant than others. Yet only this distinct semantic subset enjoys ‘top billing,’ fixed prominently in parallel locations at the respective nuclei of epic lamentation in the Iliad and Odyssey—the funerals of Patroclus (in which Achilles’ death and burial are also foreshadowed) and Hector on the one hand, and Odysseus’ long-delayed reunions with son, servants, and wife on the other. Just as unresolved grief threatens to totally arrest the lives of the poems’ characters, it also threatens to derail the forward development of epic narrative; thus, these mourning counterfactuals both offer emotional resolution within the limits of the story and reassert narratorial control precisely where it is most needed.

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Homer: Poetics and Exegesis

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