Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.5.06

Markus Asper, Onomata allotria: Zur Genese, Struktur und Funktion poetologischer Metaphern bei Kallimachos. Hermes Einzelschrift 75. Stuttgart: Steiner, 1997. Pp. 291. DM 118. ISBN 3-515-07023-0.

Reviewed by Katharina Volk, Department of Classics, Princeton University,

In the 70 years since its discovery, Callimachus' Aitia prologue has been a source of never-ending fascination for classical scholars, and not just those concentrating on Hellenistic poetry. One need not be imbued with Alexandrian learning to know about "untrodden paths" and the "slender Muse," the relative merits of the "shrill sound of the cicada" and the "braying of asses," and the general inadvisability of measuring art with the Persian SXOI=NOS. These and other expressions have become household words among classicists and are generally believed to refer to Callimachus' "program," his highly influential ideal of small, polished, and learned poetry. Latinists especially have been eager to use the Aitia prologue and related texts as the master key to many a carmen deductum, happily charting every narrow road and untouched fountain mentioned by such poets as Vergil, Propertius, and Ovid.

However, despite their status as familiar catch phrases, Callimachus' metaphors for poetry remain difficult to understand and the object of considerable controversy, just as, in general, the readiness of scholars to invoke "Callimacheanism" is proportionally inverse to our rather limited understanding of exactly which type of poetry Callimachus favored and which, if any, he rejected. Given this somewhat paradoxical situation, Markus Asper (A.) has cleverly chosen what might be called a deliberately one-sided approach: his study of Callimachus' "poetologische Metaphern" (a reworking of A.'s 1994 Freiburg dissertation) offers a detailed examination of the images themselves, but on the whole explicitly refuses to speculate on their specific meaning in the context of Callimachus' text. In A.'s own terminology, his work on these metaphors concentrates on the "vehicle" while neglecting the "tenor" (cf. esp. pp. 16f., 22). Although this method may, at first, appear rather limited, it does turn out to be fruitful since it enables A. to look at the passages in question with fresh eyes and to examine the workings of Callimachean images unencumbered by any preconceived notion of the poetic "program" that they supposedly represent.

As the subtitle of the book suggests, A. looks closely at the "origin, structure, and function" of Callimachean metaphors for poetry. In general, he is able to show that Callimachus did not invent his images, but was rather drawing on a large store of traditional metaphors, many of which -- most notably the path and chariot metaphors -- can be traced back to Indo-European poetic language. While A. discusses in detail earlier uses of these images in Greek poetry (concentrating especially on Pindar), he is on the whole reluctant to assume that specific poets or passages acted as models for Callimachus, preferring to explain similarities rather by the fact that both the Hellenistic poet and his predecessors were availing themselves of the same traditional imagery.1 As for the metaphors' structure, A., in careful analysis, brings out their complexity, showing, for example, how Callimachus combined different images or played with the various connotations of a single metaphor. Finally, according to A., all Callimachean metaphors for poetry fulfill the same function, that of "Rezeptionssteuerung": thus, in the Aitia prologue, as elsewhere, the images combine to send the message to the reader, not so much that certain types of poetry are good and others are bad, but crucially that the poetry of the speaker, i.e., of Callimachus, is good and that that favored by his enemies (whose identity and objectives are deliberately left obscure) is bad. Callimachus is not writing a poetic program, but rather, in a captatio benevolentiae, attempts to win the sympathy and support of his readers.

A.'s book begins with a short introductory chapter. The second and longest chapter treats Callimachus' use of the path and chariot metaphors (notably in the Aitia prologue, fr. 1.25-28 P., though A. also discusses Epigr. 7 and 28 P.). A. correctly stresses the great antiquity of the image, which, as is well-known, is used frequently in Vedic texts and can be assumed to be part of the Indo-European heritage. However, A. seems to me to complicate matters unnecessarily by positing that the path and the chariot ride are specifically "lyric" (as opposed to "epic") metaphors for poetry (esp. pp. 24-26). The epic and the lyric traditions (both Greek and Indo-European) may not have been as distinct as A. assumes; and as for the fact that path imagery is used less frequently in epic (though not as rarely as A. appears to think2), and often in the form of "dead metaphors," this is not proof that the epic poets "borrowed" this kind of image from the lyricists. A more reasonable assumption, in my view, is that both epic and lyric drew on a common tradition of metaphors for poetry and that the path and chariot metaphors (just as other images for poetic activity) appear more prominently in (choral) lyric for the simple reason that this genre allows more scope for self-referential reflection (as A. points out himself, p. 24).

As for the path and chariot metaphors in the Aitia prologue (Apollo's advice to the speaker), A. argues convincingly that Callimachus combines images from three different backgrounds: using a traditional metaphor for poetic activity, the poet at the same time evokes religious and mystical associations and also presents the choice of the "narrower" path as morally superior. While Pindar's Paean 7b is often regarded as a model for the Callimachus passage, A. shows that this extremely fragmentary text does not necessarily contain the image of the "untrodden" road, or indeed the alternative between two paths, and he ventures that it was in fact the Aitia prologue (and its supposed underlying "program") that inspired scholars like Lobel and Snell to supplement the papyrus in such a way as to make Pindar appear as the forerunner of Callimachus. Instead, A. argues that the juxtaposition of two roads, a "bad" one frequented by the masses and a "good" one walked on only by initiates, is an image from (mystery) religion. In this context, A. cites especially the Pythagorean maxim TA\S LEWFO/ROUS MH\ BADI/ZEIN (pp. 79f.) and suggests that the path imagery is ultimately eschatological: he who chooses the "right" or "pure" road in this life will walk on the equivalent path also in the afterlife, i.e., will be redeemed. A.'s discussion of mystical imagery here and elsewhere is a particular strong point of his book. Closely related to the religious path metaphor is the moral one, and A. is certainly correct to make a connection between the designation of Callimachus' "untrodden paths" as "narrower" (and thus more strenuous) and the traditional image of the choice between two ways of life, as found in Hesiod, Op. 290-292 and in the well-known story of Hercules at the Crossroads. According to A., the chariot and path metaphors in the Aitia prologue, with their blending of the poetic, the religious, and the moral, thus serve to recommend Callimachus' poetry to the reader: the implication is that the speaker has heeded Apollo's advice and, in his work, chosen the right path. What exactly this right path stands for is a question that A., true to his methodology, does not answer; however, in his view, the metaphor itself is constructed in such a way as to keep its exact "tenor" obscure (p. 100).

In his third chapter, on water metaphors, specifically on Hymn 2.105-112 (Apollo and Envy), A. is less reluctant to pronounce on the meaning of Callimachus' imagery. Following Frederick Williams, he concludes that PO/NTOS (in Envy's words, "I do not like the poet who does not sing even as much as the sea," 106) has to stand for Homer. While A. is right to stress that Homer was indeed regarded as an "Überdichter" in Hellenistic times (p. 122), it seems to me that his identification with the sea fails to work in the context of Callimachus' imagery: if the small, pure spring is regarded as superior to the large, muddy river (108-112), it is hard to see how the sea can appear as some sort of unattainable ideal, given that, at least in reality, it is larger and dirtier than any river. To equate PO/NTOS with Homer also contradicts A.'s own view (p. 121) that Envy's words serve only to state a kind of condicio sine qua non for poetic activity: even Envy cannot reasonably demand that the minimum to expect from a poet is that he equal Homer. A. attempts to bolster his identification with what he calls the TE/MACHOS-schema, i.e., the depiction of Homer as some large entity from which later poets "cut slices" for themselves. As A. points out himself, the application of this schema to water imagery is not attested before Callimachus but gains some currency later, when the description of Okeanos as the father of all streams in Il. 21.195-197 is applied to Homer himself and he is imagined as some source of water (often indeed the sea) from which all later poetry is "derived." However, this metaphor does not appear to be at work in the Hymn to Apollo, which does not touch on the "genealogical" relations between the different bodies of water, but is concerned only with their relative size and purity.

The fourth chapter treats the metaphors of quantity ("big" vs. "small"; "thick" vs. "thin") that run through the entire Aitia prologue. According to A., the criterion of quantity is employed in the text in two different ways, with a shift occuring after line 12. Initially, the argument concerns the actual length of poems, with the speaker countering the Telchines' attack that he has not written a work "in many thousand lines" (4) by demonstrating that the short poems of specific authors are better than their longer ones (9-12); after that, quantity becomes a metaphor for poetic style, with the "short" and the "thin" standing, of course, for the preferable (but as far as A. is concerned, largely undefined) type of poetry that is exemplified by Callimachus' own. In this context, A. dedicates a long discussion to the "slender Muse" and to the buzzword LEPTO/S, demonstrating convincingly that the MOU=SA LEPTALE/H is preferred not because slim is beautiful (the ancients rather thought the opposite), but because in popular medicine thinness was associated with health, and, most important, because LEPTO/S and PAXU/S were commonly used to denote intellectual ability, meaning "smart" and "dumb, dense," respectively.

In the fifth chapter, A. turns away from treating specific metaphors and considers instead the general question of the Aitia prologue's relationship to contemporary poetics. A. successfully demolishes the view that the Telchines' ideal of E(\N A)/EISMA DIHNEKE/S identifies them as Peripatetic critics. In his eyes, Callimachus' answer to his detractors is likewise removed from the aesthetic theories of his time. Thus, the prologue as a whole does not serve as a manifesto in some debate about the right kind of poetry, but rather has the intratextual function of winning the readers' sympathies for the work that follows. Having reached this conclusion, A. uses the rest of the chapter to launch a fierce attack on a number of recent scholars whom he terms "Metapoietiker." In this section (pp. 224-234), which has no real connection with the rest of A.'s argument, A. denounces all interpretations of Callimachus (and other poets) that detect hidden statements about poetry in passages that make perfectly good sense on their own, especially in narratives. In his opinion, these "metapoetic" readings are clearly distinguished from his own approach, which treats only Callimachus' explicit remarks about poetry. While I agree with A. that many of the examples he cites are farfetched and unconvincing, it seems to me that the line between implicit and explicit statements about poetry (in A.'s terms, between passages that are read as "metapoietisch" and those that are "poetologisch") is a fine one and one that is often blurred. That Callimachus does not always clearly indicate whether or not his words are to be taken as metaphors for poetry becomes clear, for example, from A.'s own thoughtful interpretation of Epigr. 28 P. ("I hate the cyclic poem"; pp. 56-58), where, as he shows, the metaphors of the "road" and of the "fountain" oscillate between the poetic and the erotic and cannot be pinned down with certainty. However, A.'s insistence that in this epigram, the poet's statements be read as metaphors and not be taken at face value (as some scholars have suggested) brings him dangerously close to the hated "Metapoietiker," those people who refuse to accept the literal meaning of a passage and go on burrowing beneath the surface. A.'s wholesale rejection of "metapoetic" readings on methodological grounds thus fails to convince. It seems reasonable to judge individually and on its own merits every interpretation that detects a hidden reference to poetry in a particular passage: if it is bad, it is because it is bad, not because it is "metapoetic."3

A. shares two characteristics with his subject Callimachus: immense learning and a certain obscurity of style. His command of the secondary literature is impressive, even though the sheer number and length of the footnotes sometimes makes the reader wish that the author had kept his Muse a bit slimmer. At points, the relevance of a footnote to the text remains unclear; at others, one would have preferred a certain piece of information to be mentioned in the text instead. One the whole, A.'s line of argumentation might be somewhat more lucid: the reviewer is a native speaker of German, but at times had difficulty grasping an argument or even understanding the meaning of single sentences. Luckily, however, A. provides a very clear summary of his results at the end of the book.

It is unlikely that A.'s work will be the last word in the study of Callimachus' metaphors for poetry since, for obvious reasons, his agnostic attitude is unlikely to be shared by those intent on determining the meaning of the Aitia prologue. Still, his rich and thought-provoking book ought to become the starting point for anyone who sets out to illuminate Callimachus' poetic ideas: before reconstructing any kind of Callimachean "program," it is advisable to pay close attention to the raw material, in this case, to the origin and nature of the numerous and difficult metaphors and to the specific ways in which the author uses them. This approach is not the wide and easy road to Callimachus, but the narrower and more strenuous path. But then, of course, we know which is better.    


1. For a comprehensive treatment of metaphors for poetry in pre-Hellenistic Greek writers, including the ones discussed by A., see R. Nünlist's forthcoming book Poetologische Bildersprache in der frühgriechischen Dichtung, Stuttgart.  

2. Compare the discussion in A. Ford, Homer: The Poetry of the Past, Ithaca 1992, 40-48.  

3. For a recent level-headed and very attractive metapoetic reading of a Hellenistic poem, see R. Albis, Poet and Audience in the Argonautica of Apollonius, Lanham, MD, 1996.