The Progress of the Canon

The Odyssey, by Homer (trans. Fagles)
The Odyssey, by Homer (trans. Fagles)

In Clara Reeve’s The Progress of Romance, Euphrasia declares that she venerates Homer “as much as one unlearned in his own language can do” (19). Unlearned in Greek, she has read the translatation by Pope. But, her praise is not without measure:

Homer must always claim our respct and even veneration.–But after all this can you forbear smiling at the extravagant fallies of his imagination, can you approve his violent machinery, in which we degrades his deities below his heroes, and makes deities of men.” (20)

Hortensius is surprised by this “bold attack,” and expresses some anxiety that Euphrasia “would engage me in a new course of reading,” that is, to change the definition of what is canonical so as to include, perhaps, the Provencals or the Troubadors (21-22). It is at that point that Euphrasia calls upon what was, at the time, a very non-canonical work: the “Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” declaring that if Hortensius reads it

“you will think that either the genius of Homer was transfused into the writer, or else that he was well acquainted with his works; for he certainly resembles Homer in many particulars… In the history of Sindbad, we have most of those that Ulysses meets with in the Odyssey: insomuch that you must be convinced the likeness could not be accidental.” (23)

Today, with The Arabian Nights now fixed as a piece of canonical world literature, it may be hard to imagine the incredulity with which Hortensius asks, “You cannot be in earnest in this comparison?” (22). Yet the comparison is not wholly impossible to imagine, as three small excerpts should make clear:

“…Then on the tenth
our squadron reached the land of the Lotus-eaters,
people who eat the lotus, mellow fruit and flower.
We disembarked on the coast, drew water there
and crewman snatched a meal by the swift ships.
Once we’d had our fill of food and drink I sent
a detail ahead, two picked men and a third, a runner,
to scout out who might live there–men like us perhaps,
who live on bread? So off they went and soon enough
they mingled among the natives, Lotus-eaters, Lotus-eaters
who had no notion of killing my companions, not at all,
they simply gave them the lotus to taste instead . . .
Any crewman who ate the lotus, the honey-sweet fruit,
lost all desire to send a message back, much less return,
their only wish to linger there with the Lotus-eaters,
grazing on lotus, all member of the journey home
dissoved forever.” (Homer, 9.94-110)

“The tenth we touch’d, by various errors toss’d,
The land of Lotus, and the flowy’ry coast.
We climb’d the beach, and springs of water found,
Then spread our hasty banquet on the ground.
Three men were sent, deputed from the crew
(A herald one) the dubious coast to view,
And learn what habitants possess’d the place.
They went, and found a hospitable race:
Not prone to ill, nor strange to foreign guest,
They eat, they drink, and Nature gives the feast:
The trees around them all their food produce;
Lotus the name: divine, nectareous juice
(Thence called Lotophagi); which whoso tastes,
Insatiate riots in the sweet repasts,
Nor other home nor other care intends,
But quits his house, his country, and his friends.” (Pope, ll.95-110)

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Sinbad the Sailor
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. as Sinbad the Sailor

“Things went on like this until fate brought us to a pleasant island, full of trees with ripe fruits, scented flowers, singing birds and limpid streams, but without any houses or inhabitants. The captain anchored there and the merchants, together with the crew, disembarked to enjoy its trees and its birds, giving praise to the One Omnipotent God, and wondering at His great power. I had gone with this landing party and I sat down by a spring of clear water among the trees. I had some food with me and I sat there eating what God had provided for me; there was a pleasant breeze; I had no worries and, as I felt drowsy, I stretched out at my ease, enjoying the breeze and the delightful scents, until I fell fast asleep.” (The Arabian Nights, 2.464)

The first example is a modern translation of Homer, and the second is the translation by Pope with which Hortensius and Euphrasia would have been familiar. The third example is a modern translation of one of the voyages of Sindband. It is clear that the subject material shows marked similarities, even down to the particularity of sophisticated concepts (consider, for example, the parallel between Pope’s “Nature gives the feast,” and The Arabian Nights‘ “I sat there eating what God had provided for me,”). It is easy to see why Euphrasia argues that the author of The Arabian Nights “resembles Homer in many particulars.”

Hortensius’s initial reaction seems to come from his belief that what is not original is not worth reading–indeed, his dismissal of The Arabian Nights comes in his declamation that Euphrasia’s argument “will only prove that this Arabian writer imitated Homer as many others have done.” But it is at this point that Euphrasia makes a very modern argument about the subjectivity of a reader:

“If I am not mistaken, it will prove something more;–namely, that there is frequently a striking resemblance between works of high and low estimation, which prejudice only, hinders us from discerning, and which when seen, we do not care to acknowledge: for the defects of a favourite Author, are like those of a favourite friend; or perhaps still more like our own.” (24)

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom

Hortensius agrees to read “the Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” and to consider the implications of its relation to Homer. The striking pertinence of the argument between Euphrasia and Hortensius should certainly resonate in the present, where the discussion of canon formation very often turns to ideas of originality, genius, significance, and the author’s participation in the culture of letters. After all, Harold Bloom’s theory of “The Anxiety of Influence” was central when, in 1994, he formulated his own argument for core texts in The Western Canon. Hence Hortensius and Euphrasia’s discussion was never resolved and has never gone away–in fact, it is still with us when we consider whether the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, Anne Rice, and J.K. Rowling are worth study. And as with The Arabian Nights, that decision may well be rendered so absolute, centuries hence, that it will be difficult to imagine why there was ever a debate at all.

Works Cited
The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. Translated by Malcom C. Lyons. London, UK: Penguin, 2008.

Homer. The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York, NY: Viking Penguin, 1996.

Pope, Alexander. “The Odyssey.” In The Complete Poetical Works of Alexander Pope. Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Reeve, Clara. The Progress of Romance, through Times, Countries, and Manners; with Remarks on the Good and Bad Effects of It, on Them Respectively; in a Course of Evening Conversations. Colchester, UK: W. Keymer, 1785.


  1. Thanks for this, Cooper. I hadn’t read Reeve’s work, but from your blog I feel I’ve gathered some understanding of it. It stands to reason, of course, that debates about relative aesthetic value have a long history, as responses to art are both highly individualized and strongly influenced by culture, and will, therefore, run the gamut. What’s interesting to me, however, is that we’re hyper-aware of the resemblance and prejudice of which Reeve speaks, and yet we cannot, as a culture, seem to stop ourselves from distinguishing between that which we consider higher and lower art. I, incidentally, am by no means arguing that we should, though to make a case for the validity of such judgment calls is too difficult to do in any kind of concrete terms, without resorting to such expressions as, “I know art when I see it!” or without simply providing examples: “Anna Karenina is art; The Help is not.” These offerings are of course entirely subjective, and yet they are not necessarily without meaning. What do you think? The following link is to a lengthy discussion on this topic amongst some burgeoning scholars and which represents the debate in such interesting terms as, for instance, one in which Twelfth Night and a Taco Bell menu are pitted against each other for relative worth:

  2. Julia,
    Thank you for your comment.
    Canon formation has always been something in which I have had an interest, and I think I tend to lean toward Harold Bloom’s vision of how things should/do end up in the canon. Of course, that is a twentieth-century viewpoint, and it reflects the twentieth-century canon that Bloom knew and was familiar with.
    Ideas about canon formation are ever-shifting; and one begins to wonder which comes first: the canon, or the theories about its formation and what belongs in it. Sometimes, it seems there is a chicken-or-egg type situation.

    Your point about a lack of concrete terms is well-taken. The subjectivist position of “I know art when I see it,” is certainly one position–but there are other alternatives. The problem with defining what makes art art is that any rule of measurement sufficiently developed enough to be useful also has the downside of excluding as art things which people generally hold to be art. Kantian arguments for art are pretty specific, as far as such things go philosophically, and yet even Kant is general in what he defines as art: it is what all people who are possessed of correct reasoning agree is art; for Kant argues that anyone making a free and correct use of reason will come to the same conclusions about an object’s beauty as all other people who are also making a free and correct use of reason. For Kant, beauty is *not* in the eye of the beholder, nor it is a quality of objects, rather it comes in the form of the purposiveness of the object.

    But, we are getting ahead of ourselves even here, for I think an even more important argument has been subsumed by us in the course of rushing on to art: the question of whether the purpose of the canon is to only contain the finest works of art. Is the canon meant to contain exemplary art alone, or does it have some other function or purpose? That question is the one upon which canon formation in the twenty-first century turns, and one which I think remains very much unanswered.

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