Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.10.16


J. D. Reed, Bion of Smyrna. The Fragments and the Adonis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Pp. viii, 271. $59.95. ISBN 0-521-57316-5.


Reviewed by J.J. Clauss, University of Washington.

In the preface to his new commentary on Bion's fragments and the Epitaph on Adonis, J. D. Reed states: "My main goal is to place Bion in literary history between the poets he admired and those whom he inspired, and to make clear both his debt to tradition and his originality; particular attention is given to a coherent tradition within Hellenistic poetry that I have termed 'late bucolic,' of which Bion was a major exponent. I hope that he will emerge with a claim to a greater reputation than he has now, and that these pages will prompt a greater interest in his work, both for its own merits and for its value for the study of Greek and Latin literature." Reed has without a doubt achieved exactly what he set out to do and has produced an extremely thorough and very impressive work. Bion was very lucky to have found such a dedicated and enthusiastic commentator.

The Introduction is divided into ten sections (Bion's life, Bion bucolicus, Bion A)ADWNIA/ZWN, Poems possibly by Bion, Dialect, Meter and prosody, Some aspects of style, Bion's influence, The textual transmission, and About the texts and commentaries), providing 89 pages of introductory material for 13 pages of Greek text, 214 lines of verse. Each section is meticulously researched and clearly articulated. After looking at the meager information we have regarding Bion's life, Reed turns to his place in the bucolic tradition. In doing this, he makes an important distinction between "bucolic" as a genre and "pastoral" as a motif. The former involves a tradition that derives from certain works of Theocritus (Id. 1-7, 10-11, 14-15), imitates the poetic Doric dialect of these poems, and employs a particular metrical style that continues to evolve (p. 6); the latter involves themes of rustic life and herdsmen that might be found in other genres (e.g., Hesiodic didactic, Longus' Daphnis and Chloe). Reed then discusses some of the differences between Theocritus and Bion, a practitioner of "late bucolic". For instance, Theocritus' characters evince a rusticity that contrasts sharply with the elegance of their diction, while Bion is said to diminish the distance between the reader and his characters who have become "mouthpieces for rhetorically expressed commonplaces" (p. 10). His verse is described as "the felicitous expression of common ideas tinged with an idealized rusticity," that possesses a delicate tone, a wide range of subjects and tropes, epigrammatic wit, and sophisticated allusiveness (pp. 14-15). This is precisely what the reader will encounter when engaging the text.

In the analysis of the Epitaph on Adonis that follows, Reed sets the poem within its Hellenistic literary context. He describes it as a "typically Hellenistic mixture of mimetic and diegetic narration" (p. 15) that refashions the Adonis song in Theocritus' Id. 15 into a dirge influenced by the lament for Daphnis in Id. 1. Also typical of Hellenistic narrative is Bion's presentation of the story entirely from a female point of view. Reed aptly compares this poem to Callimachus' mimetic hymns, noting that, different from his predecessor, Bion's speaker does not address the participants of the festival but the goddess herself, as if a witness to the mythical event. Moreover, Bion's narration is shown to be impressionistic and dreamlike as opposed to Callimachus' academic and antiquarian style.

In the next section, Reed focuses on other poems possibly composed by Bion. Comparisons of Bion to Orpheus in the Epitaph on Bion suggest that he might have written a poem on Orpheus and Eurydice. Fr. 1, which depicts Apollo's futile attempt to revive Hyacinthus, leads one to suspect that Bion wrote another mythological poem in the bucolic mode similar to the Epitaph on Adonis. Reed then deals with those poems in the bucolic corpus that have been attributed to Bion, which he treats judiciously, refusing to be drawn into reckless speculation, as our knowledge of late bucolic is too tenuous. His rejection of the Epithalamius of Achilles and Deidameia on stylistic grounds is persuasive.

This section is followed by a discussion of dialect, meter and prosody. Bion's Greek, similar to other writers of late bucolic, is said to be essentially epic with a Doric accent, interspersed with several stock vocabulary items. For this reason, among others, Reed is cautious when it comes to accepting or introducing Doricisms. He also raises an important question: why was the Epitaph on Adonis, which has nothing to do with herdsmen, written in the same Doric as the bucolic fragments? Reed suggests that Bion did so in order to win a new place within the bucolic tradition by expanding the limits of the genre. Bion's meter and prosody are described as being refined in the manner of Callimachus, and the metrical analysis offered makes this clear. In this he differs from Theocritus whose verse is more Homeric than Callimachean. For Theocritus, Reed argues, this created a contrast between the archaic sound of the verse and the non-heroic themes. Bion diminishes this contrast, and in this is similar to other writers of late bucolic.

The style adopted by the poet is also shown to be typical of Hellenistic verse and late bucolic in particular. Reed calls attention to Bion's bold expressions and epigrammatic conceits, his repetitions and chiastic phrases, his preference for sense-pauses at the main caesura and enjambment, his mannered word-patterns created with reference to the main caesura, and the spiraling rhythm of his narrative in which key words are repeated as he moves on to the next section.

If Reed's presentation of Bion's poetic achievement should strike one as overly effusive, even panegyrical, he is apparently not alone in his enthusiasm. In the next section, he studies the imitations of and allusions to Bion's poetry, as far as can be reconstructed. The evidence suggests that Bion was read and imitated from the early first century BC until the middle of the sixth century AD without interruption. The Epitaph on Adonis in particular was highly regarded by Greek writers and was "'discovered' by Latin poets by the time of Catullus and thereafter [it became] a standard text for cultivated Romans," although Reed admits that he has found no indication of its having been cited by Roman writers after the early first century AD (p. 61). This situation may change someday, particularly following the publication of this text and commentary that should, as the author hopes, bring more attention to this neglected writer.

The section on the textual tradition is among the best I have ever read on any author. Reed's treatment is thorough, lucid, even pleasant to read. We are treated to as much of the history of this text as anyone could hope to reconstruct. We learn that by the end of the sixteenth century the poet was rediscovered and his surviving work published; in the eighteenth century there was a spate of new editions that were "more appreciatory than literary-critical" (p. 83); beginning with Brunck's 1772 edition, the text experienced the "emendatory fury" (ibid.) of various scholars; Wilamowitz's text shows readings that cannot be sustained and has critical apparatuses that are uninformative and misleading; Gow's Oxford text is considered "workmanlike and conservative, but does not evince special attention to Bion and the problems of his text" (p. 86). Reed states that he has seen all of the 47 printed editions he cites, and that he was "especially concerned to track down and record the sources of emendations" (p. 87). Judging from his detailed analysis of the textual tradition and the notes to the fragments (all but one of which come from Stobaeus) and the Epitaph on Adonis (which can be traced back to two fourteen century MSS, V and R), I can't imagine that he missed very many, if any at all.

The commentary is as thorough and lucid as the Introduction. For the fragments, Reed often provides the context of the ancient citations made by Stobaeus and Orion, which I find both helpful and illuminating. For both the fragments and the Epitaph on Adonis, he would appear to leave no issue untouched, dealing with textual, linguistic, stylistic, generic, metrical, and literary historical matters, and with Bion's imitations of earlier writers and imitations of his own work by later poets. The author's punctilious research and in-depth knowledge of Bion come through everywhere. For instance, regarding Fr. 2.14 where the MSS read OU)=LON XEI=MA FE/REIN: NIFETO\N KRUMW/S TE FOBEU=MAI, recent editors have preferred Crispinus' and Wilamowitz's emendations (FE/REI for FE/REIN, DE/ for TE respectively) because they did not like the strong asyndeton. Reed counters by offering striking parallels where snow and chills are paired and by calling attention to the poet's penchant for inserting sense-breaks at the main caesura and to his frequent use of asyndeton. Finally, his attempts to find Bionian influences among the Romans should certainly be of interest to Latinists.

One might complain that Reed offers too much detail in the commentary (on 2.6, for example, is it necessary to state that warming oneself at the hearth was one of the pleasures of winter and cite Hesiod, Alcaeus, Xenophanes, etc. as proof?), but I have found most of what he offers germane and enlightening. The text comes with a translation, which is very clear and helpful, but when translating phrases or lines in the commentary a different translation is sometimes used for no apparent reason (Fr. 5.1 in the text is translated "have recourse to a craftsman" and in the note "resort to a professional craftsman"). I was disappointed to see that the Index Locorum does not cover all of the ancient texts referred to in the book; Reed does not state a rationale for those which he cited.

Before reading this book, I must confess that I did not consider Bion a great or influential poet. While his poetic achievement may not put him on the same level as Callimachus or Theocritus, Reed has succeeded in showing that Bion is a poet worth paying attention to for the elegance of his work, his contribution to the bucolic genre, and his influence on later writers. I really enjoyed and learned much from this excellent book.