Homer's The Illiad - Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations

This is a deeply disappointing collection that I would not recommend to any student of the Iliad. And one can be forgiven for being disappointed, after all Harold Bloom is the editor. When I was a University student in the seventies, Bloom was revered, in particular by students of the Romantic poets. Bloom had written what was (and still is) a vital text on Shelley (Shelley's Mythmaking") and had followed that up with a magnificent survey of the Romantics in, "The Visionary Company". When my interests turned to Blake, Bloom was there with Blake's Apocalypse".


And so, when later in life I developed a keen interest in the Iliad, I was overjoyed to see that Bloom had pulled together a collection of essays to help me understand this complicated yet surprisingly readable poem.


WRONG! Of all the thousands of commentaries on the Iliad, Bloom somehow managed, with a notable exception or two, to pull together some of the most arcane, obtuse writings I can imagine. Even the specialists will be challenged by some of the subject matter here. And the presentation? Well, for the most part the prose is turgid, representing the worst of academic stylism. The exception is the lucid and beautifully written excerpt from E.R. Dodds', "The Greeks and the Irrational." But this is to be expected, as this is justly one of the most famous and important books ever written on the subject of ancient Geek culture. I found the rest of the essays to be overly technical and narrow in scope and compass. If you have read Victor Davis Hanson's "Who Killed Homer", you will find most of the sins he enumerates present in this collection.


But the MOST disappointing part of this entire collection is the introduction itself. In which we see Bloom at his worst - preachy, tendentious, over weaning. He takes the opportunity to take a few pot shots at the authors represented in the collection and to advance his own, in my view eccentric, conception of the poem. You know you are in for a rough ride when from the very outset we are treated to a comparison of the Iliad with the Hebrew Bible - a comparison in which the Iliad does not come off on top. At the end of the introduction, we read that while Homer himself is the "best of the poets", unfortunately, he lacks a "quality of trust in the transcendent memory of a covenant fulfilled, a lack of the sublime hope that moves the Hebrew poet Deborah." Geez, I'm sorry but, umm, who cares?


Clearly, Bloom had an axe to grind - and grind it he did. It is as though he was determined to make the case for the Bible's superiority to the Iliad. As an introduction to a collection of essays, Bloom's is, in a word, "lacking"!


So where does that leave the interested reader. Well, it's not easy. I can think of no good general introduction that is separately published. That said, Bernard Knox wrote an introduction to Robert Fagles' translation of the Iliad that is almost transcendent. It puts to poem in context, describes the central action and delves into the poem's main cultural foundations. I would recommend that a first time reader of the Iliad equip him or herself first with this and second with Stanley's Lombardo's brilliant modern translation - oh, and stay away from this collection.