Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.05.17


Patricia A. Rosenmeyer, The Poetics of Imitation: Anacreon and the anacreontic tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 279. ISBN 0-521-41044-4.


Reviewed by Peter Bing, Emory University.

1984 saw the publication of M.L. West's Teubner text of the Carmina Anacreontea. Now Patricia A. Rosenmeyer provides an important complement: the first book-length study of that collection. As her title makes clear, she aims not only to examine the anacreontic corpus, but to illuminate its particular mode of imitation. Much theoretical discussion of allusion and imitation in antiquity has focused on the intricate allusiveness of learned and highly self-conscious authors. But R. is dealing with a different and, to modern sensibilities, alien kind of corpus: one in which multiple authors submerge their personalities, expressly subordinating themselves to a peculiar vision of Anacreon, whose persona, attitudes, and verse they openly imitate. R.'s theoretical discussion is first rate and deserves to be placed alongside the major studies of allusion and imitation in ancient poetry over the past decade. Theory is, however, not always well served in practice: the close readings of individual poems are uneven in quality, sometimes insufficiently argued, or too compressed.

In a lively and useful introduction R. sets out the history of "the anacreontic question," i.e. the debate, which started with Stephanus' rediscovery of the Carmina Anacreontea in 1551 and his first edition in 1554, about whether the poems should be ascribed to Anacreon or not. Stephanus passionately argued both their authenticity and their quality. But subsequent scholars disputed both these contentions. The resultant controversy, centering on whether the poems were genuine Anacreon or "spurious," prevented scholars from examining the poems on their own terms -- that is, as self-conscious imitations of Anacreon. "Imitation," as R. memorably puts it, "is the modus scribendi of the collection."

Chapter one, "Origins: The role of Anacreon as model," deals first with the biographical tradition of Anacreon which, within a couple of generations of Anacreon's death, distilled the poet's life and art into a stereotype consisting of two main qualities: love and wine. R. then surveys the representations of Anacreon as a figure in literature, sculpture, vase-painting, and mosaic. Though differing in nuances, all are alike in reducing Anacreon to a stereotype. Turning to Anacreon's own works, R. finds that critics, in keeping with, and doubtless influenced by, the stock persona generated in antiquity, have -- anachronistically -- stressed the poet's amiable, unthreatening charm and elegance, his playful focus on love and wine. The stereotype, in other words, is a distortion, which the works themselves belie. These reflect an artist far more wideranging in his interests (politics, epitaphs, satires, hymns), a darker Anacreon given to portraying intense frustration and anger, violence and aggression. R .'s reading is a cogent and welcome corrective. But, as mentioned above, the interpretation of individual poems is not always up to the overall vision. In Anacreon PMG 396 (FE/R' U(/DWR FE/R' OI)=NON), for instance, R. brings out the pointed violence of the speaker's desire to box with Eros (PRO\S *E)/RWTA PUKTALI/ZW): "We see the poet trying to drink enough to become bellicose, to forget how bad the odds are against beating the god at his own game, and to dare to challenge him" (p.47). But I wish she were clearer about what it means to have a fist-fight with this god. Does fighting against Eros mean resisting desire? Or does wishing for a bout with this god mean that the speaker is ready for a new erotic campaign? Moreover, if the speaker is "trying to drink enough to become bellicose," why is water the first thing he calls for, i.e. why does he maintain the decorum of the symposium, drinking his wine mixed, and calling for wreaths?

In chapter two, "Anacreontic imitators: the model revised," R. shows how the Anacreontea celebrate Anacreon, but do so selectively. As in the art and literature discussed in ch.1, they reconstitute the poet as an amiable old drunk with a perpetually active libido. To this "construct" of Anacreon the poets of the Anacreontea -- who span the centuries from the Hellenistic era until the 5th and 6th cent. A.D. -- unflinchingly subordinate their own personalities, proud to mimic the stock persona "and thus achieve a completely timeless and universal literary status" (p.51). Their Anacreon exists in "the anacreontic sphere" (p.2), a key concept in R.'s understanding of these poems, and one of immediate appeal and persuasiveness. It comprises simply "la dolce vita...  All ... problems are eliminated...: money and power are rejected, death is merely a non-threatening reminder to enjoy what is left of life, and old age never interferes with the erotic urge. Love itself is easy and available; there is no jealousy or distress involved, but rather a gentle and pervasive sense of well-being, an eros that is more sensual than sexual" (ibid.).

The chapter first examines two themes, "drink" and "old age," in which the Anacreontea reveal strong verbal echoes, and even verbatim quotation, of Anacreon. Such allusions stress the poems' identification with their declared model, yet according to R. they also reveal telling differences which illuminate the peculiar qualities of an anacreontic Anacreon. R. claims that the carpe diem theme, for instance, shows none of the pessimism or melancholy present in the archaic original: death is distant, without menace -- merely an excuse to "party-on" at the endless anacreontic revel. Similarly, whereas in Anacreon the poet's white hairs prompt self-deprecating resignation to diminished powers and rejection in love, the anacreontic poet's age -- like that of an Aristophanic hero -- is a lusty winter, frosty but kindly, undiminished in strength and enjoyment.

R. finds in these allusions a distinct anacreontic ethos, which she integrates into her sweeping view of the anacreontic sphere. Yet as in ch.1, the appealing concept is sometimes undermined in individual interpretations; here problems crop up which cast suspicion on the overall thesis. Take, for instance, anacreontic poem 52A:

*POLIAI\ STE/FOUSI KA/RAN·
DO\S U(/DWR, BA/L' OI)=NON W)= PAI=·
TH\N YUXH/N MOU KA/RWSON.
BRAXU/ ME ZW=NTA KALU/PTEIS·
O( QANW\N OU)K E)PIQUMEI=.
R.'s interpretation here is baffling -- except as an inapposite projection of a larger scheme, the "anacreontic sphere". She asserts that, in contrast e.g. to Horace's melancholy use of the carpe diem theme, "there are no such echoes of sadness or regret in the anacreontic text: we perceive a narrator who is born old, and will never die" (p.54). But is that the sense of BRAXU/ ME ZW=N TA KALU/PTEIS in v.4? For one whom wreaths no longer crown but grey hairs, one who desires wine not as a stimulant but in order to cut himself off from (what's left of) his waking life, surely the point of KALU/PTEIS lies precisely in a somber sense of impending death: for if KALU/PTEIN can -- briefly (BRAXU/) -- refer to the drowsy old man's symposiastic coverlet (is he shivering in his infirmity?), it soon assumes a different meaning in connection with the dead, that is to "bury". It is hard, I submit, to make this gibe with R.'s "anacreontic sphere," or to read it as something other than a very melancholic poem indeed: white hairs and resignation go together after all.

R.'s second step in this chapter is a section entitled "the poetics of imitation". It contains an excellent discussion, contrasting on the one hand the ancient "literary norm of antagonism" by which "the whole economy of literary influence and exchange is based on rivalry and aggression, not cooperation" (p.70), and on the other, the anacreontic mode whereby "the new poet surrenders himself completely ... to something more valuable than the individual, namely tradition. This extinction of personality or loss of self is the initial step in anacreontic poetic inspiration; the inevitable second step is absorption into Anacreon, the anacreontizing of the speaker" (p.69). R. ably elaborates the unique anacreontic aesthetic, which is precisely an eschewal of uniqueness, an embrace of conformity. This aesthetic is proclaimed in the programmatic first poem of the Anacreontea -- an initiatory dream-encounter with Anacreon, who embodies precisely those qualities anacreontic poets seized on for imitation: beauty, vitality, sex-appeal transcending age; an endless appetite for love and wine. Anacreon gives the speaker a wreath that exudes his smell (TO\ D' W)=Z' *A)NAKRE/ONTOS v.13), i.e. that carries the anacreontic essence, and the speaker binds it about his head, thereby adopting the elder poet's role. The sympotic wreath is here a symbol of a generic, scil. anacreontic, investiture and is tellingly opposed by R. to other such emblems, e.g. the hesiodic laurel staff.

In chapter three, "Reading the texts: a sterile abundance of words," R. gives an incisive account of the Anacreontea's main stylistic and thematic features. Here the overarching principle is that of a deliberately "restricted scope" (p.114). This applies both to expression and subject matter. R. convincingly shows that the ostensibly sterile abundance of words (anaphora, refrain, repetition of key-words) -- one of the most criticized features of the Anacreontea -- is in fact "always a copious sameness" (p.92). Corresponding to the frequency of anaphora is a striking paucity in metaphor and simile. The latter typically refer to, and establish ties with, "texts" outside the immediate sphere of the poem. Anaphora, by contrast, is self-contained, forever echoing its own past words. Both features, the profusion of anaphora and the rarity of simile and metaphor, reflect a generic "self-involvement" which help define the anacreontics as "a closed and potentially self-sufficient tradition" (p.81).

As with expression, the themes of the corpus are severely limited. R. points out the stunning fact that no less than a quarter of the Anacreontea include a recusatio, a motif restrictive by definition. Myth is scarce. Likewise, the poems shun all mention of historical context. Clearly identified authorial voice is also absent, except for Anacreon's, and even his appears explicitly only in five poems (though cf. Bathyllus in an additional four). Everything evokes a never-ending party in no particular era, at no specified place, with mostly anonymous participants whose existence and actions are forever open-ended: there is age without death, desire without fruition, drinking without drunkenness. R. sees here endless "variations on a 'safe' selection of linguistic and thematic features [whereby] the anacreontic poet has the potential for infinite renewal" (p.114). Reassuringly familiar, unthreatening throughout, the corpus exudes the timeless appeal of escapism.

This is a powerful interpretation. Yet, again, one wonders if the appealing inclusiveness of R.'s view does justice to the variety of shadings present in the texts. For instance, R. insists that anacreontic action has no consequences, and thus that drinking never entails intoxication. But what about a poem like 9, where the speaker orders a companion "let me drink, drink without stopping for breath, by the gods, I ask you, I want, I want to be mad" (A)/FES ME, TOU\S QEOU/S SOI, / PIEI=N, PIEI=N A)MUSTI/: / QE/LW, QE/LW MANH=NAI vv.1-3)? The last verse here is a refrain interspersed in a catalogue of mythical madmen who wrought destruction with their arms. The speaker, by contrast, wants to kill no one; he just wields a cup and wants to be mad. To keep this speaker sober, R. must argue that QE/LW conveys a desire forever unfulfilled ( p.84). But couldn't the poem be seen as a response to a companion's attempt to restrain the speaker, to convince him not to drink A)MUSTI/? And if so, doesn't that suggest that the speaker may already be quite far gone? Indeed, can't one imagine someone singing this song roaring drunk, as though in affirmation of his drunkenness? N.b. also that in her discussion of poem 12 (p.198), which likewise ends with QE/LW, QE/LW MANH=NAI, R. assumes that madness is achieved. It is hard to argue otherwise when the speaker says "I am completely glutted with Lyaios' wine" (E)GW\ DE\ TOU= *LUAI/OU / ... KORESQEI/S 12.9-10). But can R. have it both ways?

Chapter four, "The anacreontic anthology," discusses the organization of the corpus. To what extent, asks the author, can we discern an ordering principle, and how does it relate to that of earlier anthologies? R. looks to the Homeric Hymns, the Theognidea, Attic Skolia, and various Hellenistic epigram anthologies for possible models, finding various degrees of order or randomness. The question of order is thorny since the Anacreontea may consist of multiple collections. Following West, she sees four groups of poems: two possibly Hellenistic (1, 4, 6-20 and 21-34, 3), two compiled in the 5th or 6th cent. A.D. (35-53 and 54-60, plus 2, 5). These were then shaped into a single collection, perhaps by a contemporary of Cephalas in the 10th cent. A.D. There is thus also a question of whether these earlier groups show traces of collective form.

The Anacreontea have clear introductory (1, 2) and closing poems (60). R.'s reading of the latter, a lacunose and corrupt text containing the longest myth in the corpus, the story of Apollo and Daphne, is especially strong. The poem's speaker declares himself an anthologizer, "obtaining from everywhere the flower of wisdom," i.e. song (PA/NTHI / SOFI/HS LAXW\N A)/WTON vv.3-4). His activity springs from erotic frustration: "I have escaped the stings of eros," he says, "by singing of the love of Phoebus, his fruitless passion" (TOU= ME\N E)KPE/FEUGA KE/NTRA / LALE/WN E)/RWTA *FOI/BOU, / A)NEMW/LION TO\N OI)=STRON vv.17, 14-15). Following Daphne's metamorphosis, Phoebus, "thinking to master the girl, imagined that by plucking her green leaves he was accomplishing the rites of Aphrodite" (O( DE\ *FOI=BOS ... / KRATE/EIN KO/RHN NOMI/ZWN / XLOERO\N DRE/PWN DE\ FU/LLON / E)DO/KEI TELEI=N *KUQH/RHN vv.20-23). R. plausibly suggests that the myth offers an analogy for the situation of the speaker: Apollo's plucking springs from thwarted love just as the act of anthologizing ("plucking everywhere the bloom of song") springs from erotic frustration. But telling the myth is not sufficient cure for love. The speaker says he needs a weapon with which to hit the mark, but wants to discard the god-conquering bow of Aphrodite whose power governed the myth (vv.24-29). The solution: imitate Anacreon (TO\N *A)NAKRE/ONTA MIMOU= v.30). R. finds in this poem an affirmation of the anacreontic world: "The way to imitate is not merely to sing of love, thereby running the risk of reinforcing the pain and deferring the solution, as happened in the case of the mythological example, but to embrace the entire ethos of anacreontic poetry: drinking, dancing, and forgetting all cares" (p.136).

In the remainder of the chapter, R. finds other poems at the end of each of West's groupings which suggest closure (i.e. poems 20 and 51-53). The implication is that there were certain framing principles at work in each group prior to the composition of the present anthology. Apart from this there are broad metrical clusters, a few thematic groupings, and echoes in diction throughout the collection. But overall R. concludes that there are few organizing strategies at work in the Anacreontea. From this negative finding, R. draws a striking positive conclusion: the collection is "by definition random and 'unorganized'" (p.141). For the "suspended animation" which, in R.'s view, typifies the anacreontic world means that a reader can start anywhere and move in any direction, since that world is unchanging and circular. As neat as her conclusion is, one might feel that R. is here overinterpreting the evidence. In particular, I would ask how the randomness of the Anacreontea differs from that of e.g. the Theognidea, which R. herself describes as lacking "a clear sense of overall structure" (p.118). Are the Theognidea likewise random "by definition"? If so, how does their world compare to that of the anacreontics? If not, and assuming that randomness need not be thematic, should one not lay out the interpretative possibilities more thoroughly before claiming that the anacreontics are deliberately and programmatically "unorganized"?

In the previous chapters R. dealt mainly with the self-sufficient world of the anacreontics. Now she turns outwards to "The allusive text," as chapter five is called, and charts intertextual links with literature across a vast time-span: from Homer through the Greek novel. This chapter, twice as long as any other in the book, is also the least satisfying or instructive, in large measure because, after archaic lyric, R. cannot say unequivocally which text has influenced which -- so uncertain is anacreontic chronology! -- and must admit that, even in the early texts, influence may not be direct, but mediated through multiple layers of reception (e.g. on Homer, p.155). This is a problem of which she is, to her credit, keenly aware. It means, however, that she can often say little more than that the anacreontics are part of on-going literary traditions (e.g. p.180, 224).

To be sure, there are insightful readings of individual passages and allusions throughout, as for instance when R. notes that anacreontic 8 quotes Archilochus 19 (OU)/ MOI TA\ *GU/GEW ... ME/LEI v.1) but adds the gloss "the Sardian king," thus aiding readers who may no longer know who Gyges is. As R. points out, this tells us something meaningful about "the anacreontic orientation towards timelessness and accessibility" (p.161), though it also offers a startling hint about what some of its audience did not know. Most of the chapter, however, is concerned not with specific allusions, but with anacreontic evocation of stock literary topoi: the poems use the same erotic/sympotic palette as do sources as diverse as Plato, Theocritus, Hellenistic epigram, Philostratus, and Achilles Tatius. To my view, R. spends too much time cataloguing generic similarities in e.g. the depiction of Eros, which only show that the Anacreontea belong to a traditional, and very wide-spread, literary discourse, and too little time noting what stock motifs are significantly absent from the anacreontic world. As an example of the latter -- and one which I wish there were more of -- R. points out that by contrast with epigram the anacreontics do not describe wizened old prostitutes; they avoid obscenity; there are no betrayals or deceitful lovers; no prayers for a beloved's safe voyage home or away; little specificity about the beloved's gender or name. "Anacreontic loves are always available and easy, never untrue, or psychologically or physically distant" (p.189, cf. also p.223). Such observations, not catalogues of commonplaces, give sharper definition to the corpus.

R. situates the anacreontics in the vast literary discourse which we broadly call sympotic. The "performance fiction is that they were composed for and sung at symposia" (p.191). R. seems to lean toward the view that the poems were never part of actual symposia. Gellius, however, speaks of *A)NAKREO/NTEIA performed at a symposium, and cites anacreontic 4 as an example (9, 19, 4ff.). I would have liked to see R. argue this one way or another, but she never does (cf. p.125). In poem 22, for instance, R. notes the exuberant expansion of a motif from the Attic skolia. Sympotic revelers would take turns wishing, in the space of a couplet, that they were some object with which their beloveds come into close physical contact (PMG 900, 901). In anacreontic 22, by contrast, a single speaker enumerates a whole list of such objects. The effect, as R. observes, mirrors that of the skolia, except that there the list formed cumulatively as the revellers would take turns singing their couplets. Thus far R. (p.166). I would like to know, however, whether the anacreontic transformation of the list into a monologue suggests that a real sympotic context is no longer present? Is it significant that in the anacreontic poem there are seven items, and that seven was one of the most common numbers of couches at actual symposia? What do we know about symposia in the period which the poems span? In her introduction R. promised to explore "the literary manifestation of symposiastic ... ideals in a post-classical society" (p.9). But no attempt is made to set those ideals against the backdrop of post-classical sympotic Realien. With the past decade's flowering of work on the symposium, that is an unfortunate omission.

The book ends with a painfully brief chapter on the later reception and adaptation of the Anacreontea, Byzantine times are covered in five and a half pages; the centuries following Stephanus' rediscovery of the poems in 1554 get two and a half. The only use of this discussion is to suggest that the easy accessibility of anacreontic diction and meter, the pleasant if limited and highly decontextualized subject matter, gave the corpus an enduring appeal. This conclusion is insufficient to offset the embarrassing thinness of the discussion. And it is unfortunate that such an interesting study ends on a note that is not up to its own high standard.