Hoffman, Elizabeth A. “Exploring the Literate Blindspot: Alexander Pope’s Homer in Light of Milman Parry.” Oral Tradition 1:2 (1986), 381-397.
Hoffman observes that Alexander Pope, in his 1715 Iliad, recognized two categories of communication in the Iliad. She finds the preface says “one involves active, participatory communication fo ‘Hearers,’ the other passive, impersonal composition for readers” (Hoffman 1986, 381). This distinction, says Hoffman, was not well explored prior to the second half of the twentieth century. She sees this as a blind spot which has remained problematic.
Pope and his contemporaries assumed that “an original text of Homer’s work” existed (Hoffman 1986, 382). Hoffman finds that even in Pope’s comments on “a 3rd century BC relief, ‘The Apotheosis of Homer,’ by Archelaus of Prienne” (Hoffman 1986, 382), the only detail that escapes notice is a scroll in Homer’s hand, presumably ignored because it was a given that creative expression would be written. Though Pope and others knew of a pre-literate memory, Hoffman takes them to consider the lack of writing as a severe hindrance to creative and memorable work (Hoffman 1986, 384). Her view is that even through most of the 18th century public and private audible reading was the default, so orality came to be associated strongly with writing. Non-oral reading has possibly tended to separate print and orality in the twentieth century (Hoffman 1986, 385). In some ways, Hoffman sees Pope and the other poets of his time as recovering a sense of set oral forms which could bear meaning adequately (Hoffman 1986, 386).
Pope observed the differences between Homer and Virgil, agreeing that some of the difference is between oral and literary foundations, even though, according to Hoffman, Pope thought genuine oral dependence belonged to a time period before Homer (Hoffman 1986, 386). However, Pope still thought Homer could turn people into hearers and Virgil could turn them into readers (Hoffman 1986, 387). Hoffman notes that Homer may be more akin to an oral composition, as described by Albert Lord in 1960 as something that was created in performance (Hoffman 1986, 389). Yet neither A. Parry or Alfred Lord managed to identify markers of the difference between oral and written composition (Hoffman 1986, 390).
Hoffman notes that Pope considered Homer as the superlative poet, also ascribing him credit as an historian and interdisciplinary specialist who could preserve the culture (Hoffman 1986, 390). She finds it worthy of note that Pope took “a change in the ‘Mode of Learning’” as a major contributor to the lack of invention in poetry after Homer (Hoffman 1986, 391). Plato himself speaks to a decay in learning as a result of the increased prevalence of writing in the time after Homer and before Virgil.
As readers, rather than listeners, Hoffman considers that our normal reaction is geared to written creations, rather than oral creations (Hoffman 1986, 392). For this reason it is very difficult to translate a piece of oral poetry into a meaningful written form, though Pope certainly did well. She notes that Pope himself found this a frustrating task (Hoffman 1986, 393). He further considered that much of his frustration was caused by artless use of print media. Hoffman notes Pope’s publication of the Dunciad, a parody of Homer, written for fools. Here intelligence is enslaved by dependence on print (Hoffman 1986, 395).
By Hoffman’s accounting, Pope’s work with Homer is the last great work in English which can nearly capture Homer’s tone, and it does so because Pope understood orality (Hoffman 1986, 395). Hoffman suggests a concerted scholarly effort to recapture the power of orality in the pre-literate cultures so as to rightly understand the genres of the past.