Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.12

Charles Segal, Aglaia: The Poetry of Alcman, Sappho, Pindar, Bacchylides, and Corinna.   Lanham:  Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.  Pp. xx, 352.  ISBN 0-8476-8616-7.  $63.00.  

Reviewed by Nigel Nicholson, Classics Reed College (
Word count: 2338 words

This book seems unsure whether its purpose is to make a sustained argument about the poetic structures of Pindar's Odes or to collect S[egal]'s essays on the Greek lyric poets. While there are three essays on Bacchylides, two on Sappho, and one each on Alcman and Corinna, there are eight on Pindar, as well as a general chapter on performance, much of which is taken up with an analysis of Pythian 1. Further, both the introduction and the preface almost wholly concern Pindar, and locate the publication of the collection within recent developments in Pindaric scholarship.

Of the sixteen essays included in this book, all but one have been previously published, with the bulk of the previously published work appearing between 1974 and 1988. Many of the articles have been consistently cited since publication and will be familiar to students of the field. I will begin my review with the Pindar material.

The chapters on Pindar are unified by two recurrent arguments, both of which may seem familiar now, but for that familiarity S. deserves much of the credit. The first argument is alluded to in the Aglaia of the title, which points to the dominant position of Pindar in this collection. Aglaia is the name Pindar gives to one of the Charites (Ol. 14.13), but more than that it is a reference to the "Zeus-given gleam," αἴγλα διόσδοτος, which Pindar declares at Pythian 8.96-97, casts upon men "a brilliant radiance and honey-sweet time of life." This is a key passage for S.'s vision of Pindar's poetry: he argues that Pindar focuses on the moments of contact between mortal and immortal, the moments of brilliance that anchor in absolute meaning a potentially meaningless life. These moments receive a particular narrative and metaphorical shape through Pindar's "mythicizing" (106). In Chapter 6 ("Naming, Truth and Creation in the Poetics of Pindar"), S. identifies a recurrent pattern in the Odes in which a hero (or an object or geographical feature) emerges out of a dark, feminine, vegetative and watery shapelessness into an Olympian, patriarchal radiance of form, order and truth, often symbolized by an act of naming. Thus, in Ol. 6.53-71, Iamus emerges from a "limitless thicket" where he has been "hidden" and "drenched" by the "rays of violets," to be named, adopted by his grandfather, and installed as a prophet at Olympia (117-19). The use of this narrative to describe different actions also serves to reveal connections between these seemingly unrelated events. Thus in Pythian 1 the brilliance of the lyre and its enforcement of Zeus' order through its cry are parallel to the naming of the newly-founded city of Etna, so that the temporal rule of Hieron is joined to the Olympian moral order as well as the aesthetic order that the lyric poet exemplifies (124-26).

The second argument that unifies the Pindar essays is S.'s insistence on the internal coherence of the Pindaric ode. Each ode is unified not only by the recurrent rhetorical structures that Bundy and his followers elucidated, but also by images, often unique, whose repetition helps "to shape and clarify the ode's organic coherence as it proceeds from its beginning to its end" (229). Oddities in an ode are thus to be explained by a clearer grasp of the poetic meaning of the passage in question and its relation to the rest of the ode. The images that S. focuses on are mostly those evoked by the narrative outlined above: water, especially sea water, light and darkness, and trees and flowers, and their development is traced along the same boundaries, the boundaries separating chthonic from Olympian, mortal from immortal, and temporal from eternal.

The four central chapters on individual odes contain greater or lesser degrees of these two principles. The immediate aim of Chapter 9 ("Time and the Hero") is to defend the reading of xrñnow at Ne. 1.46, as Douglas Gerber ("What Time Can Do (Pindar, Nemean 1.46-7)," TAPA 93 (1962) 30-33) had already done. But S.'s defense has a much larger aim, to place this local act of time in relation to the "whole of time" which Heracles will spend on Olympus. S. shows that the strangling of the snakes, as one narrative of emergence into the light, is but a small part of the greater emergence into the light that is Heracles' achievement of immortality. It is the poet's vision, symbolized by the prophecy of Tiresias, that is able to see this larger story, and bring the time of the moment into contact with eternal time. Chapter 10 ("Arrest and Movement") argues for the unity of Nemean 5 through an examination of the development of images of the sea, voyages, vegetative growth and stillness. Pindar offers, S. argues, a less enduring glory to the victor than the famous statue of the proem, a glory that grows and decays, but a glory that can still capture the type of eternal radiance that is open to mortals. Chapter 12 ("Myth, Cult, and Memory") argues for a similar conception of epinician glory in Is 3/4 (which S. sees as one ode). Images of seasonal change and the setting and rising of stars proffer to the victor a certain permanence beyond the growth and decay visible on the human level, while the image of the cult of the Heraclids, with its fire that burns all night long, suggests that the glory Pindar offers does have some contact with the unchanging divine. In Chapter 11 ("Pindar's Seventh Nemean," a shortened version of the article which appeared in TAPA 98 (1967) 431-80), S. argues that a struggle between dark and light, and death and life structures the entire ode, but that the ode, through the images of Eleithyia, the garland of poetry and Thearion's home, asserts the victory of the forces of generation, among which stands the poet himself.

These four chapters, together with Chapter 6, offer a compelling vision of the structure of the Pindaric ode, firmly rooted in American New Criticism, as well as excellent readings of the individual odes. The emphasis on the confidence of the poet's vision of his power and the nearly divine status of the victor is, however, too strong, and some uncomfortable resonances are not picked up. Two examples: in Ne. 1 Chromius is in some ways more like Amphitryon, in that he plays second fiddle to the unnamed but ever present Hieron; and in the final lines of Ne. 7, Pindar's rejection of Odyssean words is confused by his embracing of "flexible words" (οὔ ... ἀτρόποισι). Who can fail at this point to think of Odysseus, the man of many turns (ἄνδρα πολύτροπον)? Chapter 5 ("The Gorgon and the Nightingale"), however, can serve as something of a corrective here. In this chapter, S. analyses Pindar's treatment of the Gorgon myth in Py. 12. Again this appears as the basic narrative described above, but here the suppression of the chthonic feminine element is more violent, and pity is elicited for the slain Gorgon. Albeit in a civilized form, the Medusa's wail is still shown as basic to the athletic, musical and ritual order of the city, so that the Olympian triumph is not without its shadow. We might compare here also Ol. 6, where although Iamus is firmly brought into a male Olympian world, Pindar continues to use the imagery of motherhood to describe the victor's ancestors (77) and hometown (100), and his own poetic inspiration (84).

The remaining two chapters on Pindar are the weak links in a strong line-up. Chapter 7 ("Messages to the Underworld") examines this recurring motif, but the conclusion (Pindar "is able to bring knowledge of the living to the Underworld, and vice versa ..., and thus he soothes the bleakness of Hades") does not surprise. There should also be a reference forward to Leslie Kurke, The Traffic in Praise (Ithaca, 1991), 62-82. Chapter 8 ("Pindar, Mimnermus, and the "Zeus-given Gleam") argues that Py. 8.95-97 alludes to Mimnermus fr. 1 (West), but there is insufficient evidence to prove an allusion. S. is undoubtedly right, however, that this Pindaric passage must be read in the context of the depressing gnomes familiar from poets like Mimnermus.

The articles on the other lyric poets do not have the same tight connections. Most take as a premise the poetic unity of a poem, and offer the same quality of close reading as the Pindar essays, but, although individually the chapters offer much of interest, they do not bolster each others' arguments. Chapter 2 ("Sirius and the Pleiades") engages the much-discussed lines of Alcman's Great Partheneion, 60-63, arguing that the Pleiades are to be thought of as stars, and are a metaphor here for Agido and Hagesichora. Along the way, S. takes the opportunity to argue that the Partheneion is marked by a delicate playfulness, as for example in the disjunction between the faint Pleiades and the bright and baneful Sirius to which they are compared. In Chapter 3 ("Eros and Incantation"), S. locates Sappho's poetry within an oral culture to argue that the multiple repetitions of sound and rhythm imitate the experience of love and attraction which the poems themselves describe. Chapter 4 ("Beauty, Desire and Absence"), the one previously unpublished chapter in the collection, compares Sappho's representation of Helen with that of other lyric poets, and finds that Sappho's portrait pays more attention to the inner experience of Helen and avoids judging her. While it is true that Alcaeus fr. 42 LP does not look at Helen's experience, it seems hasty to say that its condemnation of Helen is "unambiguous" (68): the juxtaposition of her role to that of Thetis in the destruction of Troy must confuse such an attitude. Both of the Sappho chapters examine the relation between private experience and public symbolic forms in Sappho's poetry (to the bibliography cited in Chapter 4 should be added P. A. Miller, Lyric Texts and Lyric Consciousness (Routledge, 1994)), and both chapters locate Sappho in some sort of paideutic social context, as someone who gives shape to the present and future experiences of her circle.

The three chapters on Bacchylides address three very different issues. Chapter 13 ("Bacchylides Reconsidered") argues that Bacchylides' epithets are far from ornamental, but rather function as signposts of important themes in each poem. "Croesus on the Pyre," Chapter 14, compares Bacchylides' narrative of Croesus to Herodotus', and finds the former emblematic of an archaic aesthetic, in which external details, appearance and the action of the gods are stressed, in contrast to the more classical narrative of Herodotus, in which the agency and spiritual growth of an isolated mortal is the focus. Chapter 15 ("The Myth of Bacchylides 17") defends the unity of this problematic dithyramb. That Theseus visits Amphitrite and brings back a cloak, when Minos challenged him to visit his father and bring back a ring, tokens not poor composition, S. argues, but a kind of trumping of Minos' challenge. Instead of simply performing the more martial masculine task, Theseus demonstrates his maturation in the sexual sphere, symbolized by the cloak which Amphitrite gives him, an appropriate response to Minos' immature assault of Eriboea. S. certainly shows that the challenge and response are bound by the logic of mythology, but this explanation surely does not remove the inconcinnity of this narrative. Chapter 16 ("Pebbles in Golden Urns") stands on its own at the end of the collection, being concerned not with poetic issues, but with the dating of Corinna. S. argues that the secret ballot in fr. 654 P ensures a date for Corinna after the floruit of Pindar since secret balloting would not have been known prior to that. In a new addendum, however, S. retracts this argument, persuaded by the evidence of a vase painting that secret balloting was known at least before 460.

As this collection appears therefore, it lacks unity. I, for one, regret that a higher value was not placed on unity, and that the volume was not restricted to essays on Pindar. S.'s essay, "God and Man in Pindar's First and Third Olympian Odes," HSCP 68 (1964): 211-67, would also have fitted perfectly with the Pindar essays.

The original articles have been left largely unchanged (except Chapters 11 and 16, as noted above). Some references to more recent bibliography have been added, especially for Alcman, but, as I have indicated in places, these references are often incomplete. Repetition is minimal, and appropriate cross-references are provided where appropriate. There is no final bibliography collected, which can make it awkward to locate references.

S. defends the republication of these essays in an essentially unchanged form as a correction to the New Historicism which has turned Pindaric scholarship away from "the literary and the poetic, that is, the language and imagery, the myths, the grand archaic and classical themes of time, transience, the gods, human limits, love, loss, memory, suffering, and sorrow" (xiii). But this is to misconstrue the work that has been done. New Historicism does not ignore the poetic; rather it insists that the poetic be revealed as fully implicated in the political. S. notes that he may seem old-fashioned in his focus, but, more importantly than that, he is in danger of performing the very operation that Pindar performs so successfully, the aestheticization of the exercise of power. As S. says in Chapter 1 ("Poetry, Performance, and Society in early Greek Literature"), Pindar looks beyond the immediate situation of performance to "more imaginative possibilities" (17), but while we should examine and appreciate these possibilities, as S. does, we should also see how this process of imaginative abstraction is deeply implicated in the very concrete exercise of power.

Nevertheless, as S. hopes, these essays will continue to be of use to scholars with like or different concerns, both as a record of an influential strand of Pindaric scholarship (in particular) and as fine examples of the close reading of highly wrought works. As with all books in this Rowman and Littlefield series, the collection is very reasonably priced, and this will ensure the continued dissemination of these essays.

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