Thoreau forgets that the Iliad was a song

The title says it all. Thoreau was a pretentious son of a gun, especially when it came to writing and reading. In his aptly-named chapter Reading, he spends a great deal of time glorifying the ancient “works of genius” of the Romans and Greeks while at the same time bemoaning the state of both contemporary literature and contemporary literature of the middle ages. What specifically grinds my gears is his insistence that the spoken word is inferior to the written one.

“The orator yields to the inspiration of a transient occasion, and speaks to the mob before him, to those who can hear him; but the writer, whose more equable life is his occasion, and who would be distracted by the event and the crowd which inspire the orator, speaks to the intellect and health of mankind, to all in any age who can understand him.”

That’s what Thoreau says, still discussing the epics of Ancient Greece. Then he hits us with: “No wonder that Alexander carried the Iliad with him on his expeditions in a precious casket. A written word is the choicest of relics.” Now a pretentious pontificator is one thing, but a pretentious pontificator who forgets that the Iliad was created as an oral poetic epic while at the same time railing against the spoken word is something else entirely.


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