Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.01


Richard Hunter, Theocritus and the Archaeology of Greek Poetry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xii + 207. $54.95. ISBN 0-521-56040-3.


Reviewed by James E. G. Zetzel, Columbia University, zetzel@columbia.edu.

In the one-page epilogue to his admirable new book, Richard Hunter suggests that it is the extraordinary influence of the bucolic poetry of Theocritus in Rome and the later tradition that has narrowed the way that modern readers approach this diverse and complex poet. As a mere Latinist, I can attest to the truth of his suggestion: when I was a student, the Theocritus that I met was the author of the pastoral poems, not the author of the fascinating and various poems that compose the greater part of the corpus -- the Heracliscus and the Dioscuri, the Ptolemy, the Hieron or Charites, and the Epithalamium for Helen. Indeed, my examiners in Greek translation in 1970 could use a selection from the latter part of the collection as a sight passage in the firm belief (quite true in my case) that the candidates would never have seen it before. It was not until I read F. T. Griffiths' Theocritus at Court (Leiden, 1979) that I had any inkling that the non-bucolic poems were not only wonderful and demanding texts, but that they as well as the bucolics had an immense influence on Roman poetry.

Griffiths was, I believe, one of the first scholars writing in English in modern times to devote serious critical attention to the non-pastoral Theocritus, but since that time a great deal more has been written about them -- and about time. H.'s new book offers close readings of seven poems in the latter part of the Theocritean corpus, along with a considerable amount of comment on other poems. His primary interest, as the title of his book indicates, is in the way in which Theocritus uses and comments on earlier Greek poetry, in particular the poetry of the archaic period. His book is not easy reading: although he translates all Greek, the reader would be well advised to have a good text and commentary on Theocritus at hand. But H.'s book is also rich, original, and altogether worth the effort that it requires.

H.'s introductory chapter approaches Theocritus from three different directions: he begins ("Towards Theocritus") by looking at the poet in the context of third-century poetry, introducing the complexity of poetic styles, the changes in the nature of poetic composition in the previous centuries -- particularly the divorce of music from verse --, and the problem of "elite" or "popular" literature; to explain this last, he compares Theocritean style with a well-chosen passage from the Fragmentum Grenfellianum. In the second section ("The Poetic Context") he looks at Theocritus in relation to three of his immediate predecessors of the late fourth/early third century, Erinna, Philitas, and Asclepiades; he uses a close analysis of a passage from Idyll 7 to illuminate his central interest, the richness of the literary texture (his phrase) of Theocritean poetry. Hunter argues, and demonstrates, that literary history is itself a mode of poetic composition, and one that is crucial to Theocritus' poetic project. The final and longest section of the introduction ("The Languages of Theocritus") discusses the problem of literary dialect in Theocritus -- the range of dialectal criteria and associations, the non-uniformity of the corpus, and the ways in which different poems draw attention through their use of language (epic/Ionic, Doric, and various intermediate stages) to their generic and literary affiliations.

All three of these discussions prepare in different ways for the complex arguments which Hunter makes in the following chapters about the intertextual strategies of a number of different poems: that they are on the one hand an attempt to revive and interpret the poetry of the relatively distant past -- in most cases, the lyric poets -- and on the other hand reflect the mediating effect of the intervening generations -- the poetry of the fifth and fourth centuries. Dialect is one important technique that Theocritus uses to evoke generic models and to establish both similarity and difference between his own compositions and those that he chose to revive in his work. As a whole, it should be noted, H.'s introductory chapter, even apart from the argument for which it prepares, is an extraordinary synthesis of the various approaches to Hellenistic poetry that other scholars have employed. For a long time, I have looked for some brief exposition of Alexandrian poetics to assign to students of Latin poetry, one that makes clear both the technical complexity and the literary virtuosity of Theocritus, Callimachus and their contemporaries. This chapter is it: it is an extraordinary distillation of philology, literary history, and intelligent criticism that should be read by anyone who has an interest in Hellenistic literature.

In the chapters which follow, H. gives a series of readings of particular Theocritean texts: Idyll 22 (Dioscuri) in chapter 2, Idyll 16 (Hieron) in chapter 3, Idyll 15 (Adoniazusae) in chapter 4, Idyll 18 (Epithalamium for Helen) in chapter 5, and the three pederastic Idylls 12, 29, and 30 in chapter 6. Each of these discussions is in a sense independent of the others, but they exhibit a theme common to all these texts -- and, indeed, to much of Alexandrian poetry --, the use of archaic literary models. But H. is not simply concerned to point out allusions and intertextualities among particular texts; he uses the relationships between Theocritus and various earlier poets as instances of the ways in which Theocritus draws attention to his own generic affiliations and links the poetic (and historical) past to the literary (and political) present. The longest and most elaborate of H.'s analyses is that of Id. 22, and H.'s treatment is as programmatic as he makes the poem itself to be. He begins by discussing the importance of hymns not only in the archaic world, but in Ptolemaic Alexandria as well -- the real difficulty of making important distinctions between men and gods (not easy, in dealing either with the Dioscuri or the Ptolemies) and the relevance of such distinctions at once to contemporary poetry of praise and to the classification of archaic poetry being made in the Library of Alexandria in and after Theocritus' time. He makes an acute link between the presence of an active tradition of hymnic poetry that can be traced without break back to the archaic world and the literary "recuperation" of the archaic by the Alexandrian poets: "Poems which reconstruct and adapt the past are, in two senses, a kind of historical writing. The past, here represented by an earlier text, is seen through the new text, so that both ends of a historical process are displayed... [T]he linking of the past to the present is not only a central structuring mode of such poems, but also to some extent their very purpose" (51-52).

In the rest of the chapter, H. deals with a set of problems within this complex and puzzling poem: the relationship between Id. 22 and Homeric Hymn 33, which he argues reveals the historical process of intellectual development as well as simply allusive technique. He emphasizes duality itself as the core element of the poem -- each of the internal narratives (Amycus, Lynceus) describes a contest, and the two narratives themselves are also stylistically contrasted -- and this agon in turn reflects the contest between Theocritus' poem and the poetic tradition to which it adheres. He goes on to discuss another pair of relationships -- between the two Idylls 13 (Hylas) and 22 as complementary narratives, and between these poems taken as a pair and the corresponding episodes in Apollonius. Hunter cautiously accepts the priority of Apollonius (for the opposing argument, see now A. Cameron, Callimachus and his Critics [Princeton, 1995] 426-36), but he avoids relying on that belief as a peg on which to hang his literary argument, which is eminently convincing in itself. After dealing with the problem of the Homerizing style of the Lynceus narrative, he concludes by arguing (76) that "The doubleness which is everywhere in this poem is here [the conclusion of the poem] used to express the Hellenistic poet's familiar sense of the weight of tradition. Just as Polydeuces is not really imaginable without his brother, so Theocritus cannot really separate what is his from what the tradition offers; both make their contribution, and it is in that blending where we must look for the source of poetry" (italics his).

My summary clearly does not do justice to an extremely detailed and subtle argument. What H. does, with extraordinary success, is to use a close reading of the intertextual relationships of Id. 22 to develop a metapoetic reading of the text: allusivity and learning, in H.'s approach, are not an end in themselves, but are in fact one of the major preoccupations of Theocritus. In each of the succeeding chapters, H. takes a particular poem or poems and shows how the poems themselves focus on a particular issue, in which Theocritus uses earlier texts to define his own position and his own difficulties. Thus the Hieron uses Simonides to explore the relationship of poet and patron (and, as he acutely notes, does so from the point of view of the poet, while Id. 17 deals with the problem of defining the patron); the Adoniazusae is both an echo of mime and an exploration of the problem of artistic mimesis, and H. suggests that the Syracusans Gorgo and Praxinoa, new immigrants to Alexandria, are in a sense parallel both to Theocritus himself and to the history of the mime in its move from the Syracusan Sophron to Theocritus in Alexandria. The Epithalamium for Helen, with its debts to archaic epithalamium, involves the consideration of the changes in the nature of song from archaic times to Alexandria (musical virtuosity as well as the separation of words and music). The pederastic poems provide the occasion for a complex analysis of poetic self-deception, parody, and the changes of erotic conventions between archaic poetry, particularly Theognis, and the Hellenistic age. This chapter serves as a capstone and conclusion to H.'s (and Theocritus') explorations of the processes of time and change, of the distance and closeness between the poet and his models and between past and present.

To give a detailed assessment of H.'s arguments would take a reviewer more expert in Hellenistic poetry than I; the bald summary given is inadequate, and merely draws attention to the main direction of H.'s book. I have only admiration for the manner in which he interweaves close readings of these poems as poems with the elucidation of their relationship both to literary models and to their contemporary context. A few of his metapoetic inferences are not entirely convincing, and some of the relationships between Theocritus and predecessors that he finds (particularly the section on Theocritus and Homer in the discussion of Id. 16) seem to me to stretch the texts too far. But on the whole, H.'s sane and careful judgments complement perfectly his profound learning and lucidity.

H.'s interpretation of Theocritus is both eloquent and elegant. He is honest about uncertainties of date, influence or interpretation; he avoids the extremes of current interpretations of Alexandrian poetry which read it either as written by and for an elite of scholars or as composed purely for festival competition or royal delectation. Above all, he creates a picture that is (to me) both convincing and appealing, of a poet who recognizes and employs the complementarity of allusion and originality, who seeks to revive and honor the earlier traditions of Greek poetry as a means of creating something that simultaneously partakes of those traditions and is completely his own. Both H.'s Theocritus and H. himself in his readings of the poems emerge as creative talents of extraordinary generosity. This is, as I said at the outset, an admirable book, and it is admirable both for the scholarship it displays and the manner in which it displays it. Like all students of Hellenistic poetry, I had great respect for H. before reading this book; reading it has increased my admiration both for H. and for Theocritus.