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cropped CAT 6 George Cooke. Homer. BA 98.png

CAT 6. Engraved by George Cooke. Homer. In Historic Gallery of Portraits and Paintings, vol. 6. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharpe, 1810. Melville Memorial Room, Berkshire Athenaeum.

Homer, epic Greek poet to whom the Iliad and Odyssey are attributed. From entry in HG 6:  “We are ignorant of the epoch, or the place, which gave birth of Homer; it is only presumed that he lived a little time after the Siege of Troy, and that he then become informed of the principal occurrences of the warriors who there distinguished themselves. . . . The conception of the Iliad indicates an imagination lively, fertile, and comprehensive; the delineation of the characters, and their various achievements, discovers an observer replete with genius; and the fictions, which embellish the poem, are the happy efforts of an imagination as rich as it is brilliant. . . . The Odyssey has neither the fire nor the majesty of the Iliad; it . . . announces the vigorous old age of Homer. . . . Homer possesses all the resources of the figurative style, and all the delicacy of the simple. . . . His poems may be compared to the shield of divine manufacture, which he has so ably described. He presents us with the most faithful picture of the achievements of war, and of the labour of peace; he places the universe before our view—he has all the beauties of the various dialects he employs—his most unfinished passages surpass the finest pieces of other poets, all of whom he excels in vigour, in the extent of his genius, in the richness of his fancy, and in the powers of invention. . . . [T]he ancients admired and venerated him as the highest priest of nature; who had admitted him into her innermost sanctuary, and made him a partaker of her sublimest mysteries” (n.p.).

Melville acquired Pope’s translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey as part of the Classical Library in 1849 (Sealts no. 147, vols. 32-34). In 1858 he acquired copies of the same works in Chapman’s translation (Sealts nos. 277, 278). Melville wrote to his friend George Duyckinck that the arrival of “Chapman’s Homer” on the shelf might cause Pope’s version “to go off shrieking, like the bankrupt deities in Milton’s hymn” (NN CO 327). In the Chapman edition he copied out various passages from Pope for comparison (Cowen 6: 17-269; MMO 277).[1] Melville’s many fictional tributes to Homer include Jack Chase’s assertion in White-Jacket that “Homer himself was once a tar, even as his hero, Ulysses, was both a sailor and a shipwright” (NN WJ 270). In Moby-Dick Ishmael praises an anonymous scrimshaw artist for creating a “maziness of design” comparable to that of the “Greek savage” who fashioned “Achilles’s shield” (NN MD 270). Writing of “the great Illiad” in Mardi, Melville declares that “old Homer’s temple shall lift up its dome, when St. Peter’s is a legend” (NN M 229).

[1] Here and subsequently I cite the pagination from the 12-volume edition of Cowen—which is retained in the four-pages-in-one layout of the Garland edition (see “Key to Principal Secondary Sources”).