Vital Signs

Homer Nods

The author David Halberstam gave the principal address at the convocation opening Brown's 1994-95 academic year. Time was when only the president of the university spoke, but recent presidents have instituted the policy of having a distinguished visitor give the main address. Halberstam is indeed a distinguished man with many significant books to his credit. Perhaps he will not mind being compared with Homer.

"Homer sometimes nods" is the way Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable reports the expression, which goes back to Horace's Ars Poetica. I had always heard: "even Homer nods." No matter. for both amount to much the same thing—even the best of authors can occasionally create a weak poem or line or make a mistake. I think we can all grant this, but some critics have taken the expression literally, and have sought out cases in which Homer in fact nods: i.e., contradicts either himself or common sense.

Such observers point with glee at the fact—as they would have it—that in his Iliad, Homer has Pylaimenes, a Trojan warrior slain in Book Five, return to weep for the death of his son in Book Thirteen. They chortle to think that the hero Achilles can forget in the course of a day—and but two books later—that an embassy of his friends had come to him the previous evening to beg him to return to battle. They become nearly hysterical when...

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