Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.06.13


David Mulroy (trans.), Early Greek Lyric Poetry. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992. Pp. xii + 227. ISBN 0-472-10296-6.


Reviewed by Lee T. Pearcy, The Episcopal Academy.

Once upon a time, there was gold and there was dross, and we knew the difference. This was gold:

To me the man who happens to sit
opposite you seems like a god
as bending close he listens and replies
to your sweet voice ...
This was dross:
In every topic, there is a complex group of elements that is essential to the raw material. Naturally, one cause of sublimity is the consistent selection of the most important of these elements and the ability to arrange them into an organic whole. One author will be admired for his selection of details; another, for his arrangement. In describing erotic passion, Sappho ...
Students of archaic Greek poetry or the Presocratics must deal with the fact that they cannot read any complete work by these poets and philosophers (Sappho fr. 1 is the exception that may prove the rule). How does one read a text with holes in it, a poem with its beginning or middle or end missing, an argument without a conclusion?

Until very recently, the opening step in answering these questions has been to draw a sharp distinction between gold and dross, fragment and testimonium, and to privilege the former. Sappho's erotic poetry has had greater interest than Longinus's introduction of it. This gambit seems almost inevitable to many readers because it has been common to nearly all modern and modernist approaches to these texts, from Diels-Kranz to Hugh Kenner's influential chapter on "The Muse in Tatters" in The Pound Era. How else to grasp Sappho or Parmenides, except by reading their actual words?

The seeming naturalness of the dichotomy between quotation and context should not keep us from seeing that it proceeds from a particular aesthetic of reading and a historically conditioned view of the author's role in creating a text. By questioning the privileged status of the author, postmodern approaches to texts allow us to take a different view of archaic Greek literature. The distinction between the poem of Sappho and its surround is still there to be felt, but now the fact of its imbedding has begun to become part of our reading.

Mulroy's book, for all that it seems to be an unpretentious anthology of archaic Greek lyric poetry in translation, reflects this new awareness of contexts and authorities. For each poet, Mulroy first gives lines preserved on papyrus and then quotations from later authors in chronological order. Most of the quotations are surrounded by substantial excerpts from the context in which they are found. Mulroy's collection may well contain as many words of Athenaeus and Plutarch as of Tyrtaeus or Corinna, and students who use it will become familiar with, or at least be encouraged to wonder about, the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, Dionysius of Halicarnassus, and other arcane matters not often exposed to the gaze of undergraduates.

Sometimes matters important for interpreting or teaching rest on a fragment's context. Reminding students that attribution of the Thermopylae epitaph to Simonides depends on an ambiguous context in Herodotus, or that we would not suppose that Archilochus 105 West was allegorical if Heraclitus had not told us in his Homeric Allegories, may encourage them to ask how we know what we think we know about other ancient texts. Sometimes a fragment's context says more about the quoter than about the lines quoted. It is interesting to know that Aelian invokes the authority of Anacreon against those who maintain that female deer have no antlers, but that knowledge is unlikely to add much to students' interpretations of the quotation. And some contexts may provoke wonder, or unease, at the gulf separating Us, and our way of reading, from Them, and theirs. Before quoting Alcaeus, OI)=NOS GA\R A)NQRW/PW| DI/OPTRON, Johannes Tzetzes observes that "Dionysus is sometimes depicted as a bald old man, because 'people who are drunk reveal things that should not logically be spoken.'" Because?

By providing a context for each fragment, then, Mulroy has made these lyric texts more problematic and enriched them for the students who seem the natural audience of this book. He has served his intended readership in other ways as well. He provides a general introduction which, in a staccato style, sets out basic information on historical background, meter and types of lyric poetry (stichic, elegiac, epodic, melic), main themes of lyric, and doxography. Each poet's works have an introduction, and running commentaries link the translations of fragments and their sources. Useful appendices will enable interested students and teachers to trace sources of the fragments, harmonize this translation's numbering with standard editions, and acquire basic information about the ancient sources of our knowledge of lyric poetry. There are notes, which are mostly on Realien, a bibliography, and an index.

And the translations themselves? One hardly notices them. Their modest refusal to call attention to themselves is an indication of their uniform quality, and of this book's concern to set them in a context.

A person knowing no Greek who gave careful attention to a translation of Herodotus, Kirk-Raven-Schofield's Presocratic Philosophers, and this book would know something worth knowing about archaic Greece.