Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.09


Robert V. Albis, Poet and Audience in the Argonautica of Apollonius. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 1996. $52.50. ISBN 0-8476-8315-X (hb); $21.95. ISBN 0-8476-8316-8 (pb).


Reviewed by Alexander Sens, Classics, Georgetown University, Washington DC 20057, sensa@gunet.georgetown.edu.

That Hellenistic poets were deeply concerned with their relationship to earlier poetic tradition is a matter of scholarly consensus. In this book, published in 1996 but only recently sent to BMCR for review, Robert A[lbis] argues that in the Argonautica, Apollonius self-consciously evokes the tradition of earlier performance poetry even while producing a work of characteristically Alexandrian bookishness. Unfortunately, the book's value is diminished by seemingly unfounded critical assumptions and conclusions, and many of the specific arguments adduced by A. either entirely fail to convince or fall short of proving the point the author is claiming. On the whole, therefore, I found the book deeply dissatisfying.

In Chapter 1, A. notes that whereas earlier epic poetry was for the most part performed, Hellenistic poets were composing at least ultimately for a reading audience, and thus were forced to recreate a performance context within their works themselves, as Callimachus does in his "mimetic" fifth and sixth hymns. A. here argues that Apollonius too attempted to recreate a social context for his work by evoking in various ways the tradition of actual performance. Thus, for example, he suggests that the hymnic opening of the poem evokes the realities of rhapsodic performance, in which a hymn preceded the epic narrative itself. This strikes me as a huge critical leap, and A. says nothing about the possibility that rather than thinking of actual performance, Apollonius was instead alluding to what for him were essentially literary texts, e.g., Hesiod' Theogony, which opens in a similarly hymnic manner.

A brief discussion of the concept of inspiration and its connection to performance in earlier Greek thought lays the theoretical groundwork for Chapter 2, in which A. argues that the Apollonian narrator often presents himself as being under the power of divine inspiration in the manner of a performing rhapsode, in part by creating associations between his own experience and those of his main characters. A. opens by arguing that the opening line alludes in various ways to Demodocus' performance in Phaeacia, and that the poet "places his proem in the tradition of performed epic poetry by using as his model a representation of what was for him one of the oldest attested performances of poetry" (20). A. sees the opening phrase A)RXO/MENOS SE/O *FOI=BE as modeled directly on the statement in Od. 8.499 that Demodocus QEOU= A)/RXETO, and he follows the scholiast on A.R. 1 in arguing that A)RXO/MENOS SE/O means not only that the poet begins with the god but that he is inspired by him as well. I am myself very doubtful that we are to see an explicit allusion to Demodocus in these lines, especially in light of, e.g., Il. 9.97 E)/N SOI ME\N LH/XW SE/O D' A)/RXOMAI (which A. acknowledges in a footnote), while such passages as, inter alia, h.Hom. 5.293 = 9.9 SEU= D' A)RXA/MENOS and the opening of Aratus' Phaenomena suggest that Apollonius is instead reworking conventional hymnic language. A. convincingly points out correspondences between Jason's voyage and the poet's own project, both of which begin with Apollo, and connections with a number of other characters as well (most significantly Phineus and Orpheus). For all of this he finds a parallel in the account of the rhapsode's experience in Plato's Ion, in which the enthralled singer is said to identify with those he sings about, but A.'s claim that these and other passages in which Apollonius blurs the lines between his narrator and characters (e.g., cases of "direct" speech paratactically embedded in the narrative) show that the poet is presenting himself as E)/KFRWN and E)/NQEOS is ultimately circular, since it depends on the assumption that any time the poet identifies himself with his characters he is presenting himself as being in the throes of divine inspiration. In addition, many of the specific arguments adduced in the chapter are at least poorly expressed if not entirely ill-conceived. Consider, for example, the author's claim that the poet's name itself suggests a special connection with his patron deity, Apollo, and that by making Apollo so prominent in the poem, Apollonius "establishes himself as heir to the semi-mythical poetic personalities of the distant past whose names indicated their association with a divine inspirer (e.g., Musaeus), or reflected their activity as poets (e.g., Stesichorus)" (23). Had he wished, of course, Apollonius could have made much more of the connection (as Aratus cleverly plays with his own name in Phaen. 1-2), but in fact he avoids using the name Apollo in his proem, instead addressing the god as Phoebus, so that A. is forced to suggest that Apollonius avoids invoking Apollo by that name "to avoid make the play on names too obvious" (22). Given that "Apollo" is not used here, however, a more sophisticated case must be made that there is any "play on names" whatsoever.

In Chapter 3 ("The Poet's Voyage"), A. argues more convincingly that at some level at least Apollonius' identifies his own narrative and the voyage of the Argo. Of particular interest is his discussion of how seemingly distracting digressions are in fact an integral part of narrative. Here, A. argues that lengthy digressions usually occur at moments when the Argo's progress is impeded, and have the effect of slowing the progress of the narrative and thus assimilating the reader's experience in reading to the experience of the Argonauts themselves (55 ff). Apollonius, A. concludes, assimilates himself to his subjects "by portraying himself as performing the same activity as his characters" (65). As interesting as such observations may be, however, it does not necessarily follow that such narrative maneuvers show the poet to be recreating oral performance.

In the next chapter, A. argues that in Argonautica 3 too the poet assimilates the experiences of his narrator and of his readers with those of his poem's main characters. The chapter begins with the observation that in the opening invocation of the book, the Muse Erato is cast not only as an inspirer of Apollonius' song but as a charmer of unwed maidens, of which Medea is an obvious example. The verb used in this connection, QE/LGW, is appropriate to both poetry and love, and all of this taken together suggests a parallelism between the enchanting power of poetry and that of Eros. In the balance of the chapter, A. argues that this association is reinforced by specific allusions to epic antecedents. Perhaps the most plausible of the allusions treated in the chapter is the first: at A.R. 3.444-5, Medea holds her veil over her face in language that unambiguously recalls Penelope's appearance among the suitors at Od. 1.334, where the queen of Ithaka asks the bard Phemius to change the subject of his song, which, she says, is bringing her grief. This reminiscence, the author argues, "creates an association between the effects of passion and of poetry." The suggestion is interesting and reasonable, but the implications of the allusion require more careful consideration than A. gives them: for Penelope in this instance, poetry explicitly fails to charm, although she acknowledges that other songs might succeed. Moreover, in order to be fully convincing, the author's conclusion would need to be supported by other similar allusions, but A.'s arguments for intertextually significant connections are usually not compelling. He argues, for example, that the expression E)NI\ STH/QESSI FI/LON KH=R in Penelope's speech at Od. 1.341 is directly recalled at A.R. 3.760 E)N STH/QESSI KE/AR E)LELI/ZETO KOU/RHS, which describes the sleepless fretting of the love-sick Medea, and he concludes from this that "Medea's reaction to love is again modeled on Penelope's reaction to poetry." As A. notes in passing, however, the phrase KH=R E)N STH/QESSI actually occurs in three other Homeric passages (Il. 14.139-40; Od. 7.309; 16.274-5), and, whereas contextual similarities help point to Od. 1.340 as the model for A.R. 1.477-8, the specific connection between A.R. 3.760 and that Odyssean passage needs to be articulated more clearly than A. does. Nor is it at all "significant" that at 4.1060-1, where Medea has another sleepless night, this time out of fear rather than love-sickness, the poet uses "entirely different vocabulary" (77). Similar methodological fuzziness attends A.'s argument that the exchange of gifts between Medea and Jason further "links love and poetry" (81). Jason promises Medea love and KLE/OS, "properly the possession of an epic hero, whose glory is guaranteed by the epic tradition," while Medea gives Jason drugs described as QELKTH/RIA, derived from the verb QE/LGW, forms of which "function as a leitmotiv for the power of lover and poetry." More particularly, A. argues that at 3.766, the expression QELKTH/RIA FA/RMAKA once again evokes Penelope's speech to Phemius. In order to be convincing, such an argument would need at least to explain why one should think of that Odyssean passage rather than the other Homeric passages in which QELKTH/RION occurs (Il. 14.215; Od. 8.509), but these passages are (so far as I can tell) nowhere discussed.

A.'s treatment of A.R. 3.673 reveals another methodological problem: the author's practice of adopting any editorial conjecture that will support his argument without offering anything more than a cursory discussion in a footnote, often involving special pleading. Here, A. adopts Ardizzoni's conjecture KRU/CEN D) E(KATERQE PAREIA/S for the mss.'s DRU/CEN KTL., and then uses the passage to argue that by having Medea cover her cheeks, Apollonius alludes to two passages in which Odyssean characters, Odysseus at Od. 8.94-5, and Penelope at Od. 1.334 react to poetry by covering their heads. The image of Medea tearing her cheeks links her to the mourning NU/MFH in the simile at 656-64, as A. admits in a footnote, and there is accordingly no reason to think that "[t]his could be the work of a scribe familiar with the very common image of the widow scratching her cheeks" (77 n.16). The reader is here invited to "See Hunter 1989 on 3.672," although that commentator prints DRU/CEN and does not discuss Ardizzoni's conjecture. Undeterred by the textual problem, the author even goes on to speculate implausibly that the expression recalls Socrates' covering of his head before speaking about erotic matters (Phdr. 237a4).

I have discussed some of the methodological problems with the author's intertextual arguments at some length because they seem to me representative of the difficulties with the entire book, and because the value of the latter part of the chapter, in which A. sets out to show how Medea is sometimes associated with the poet himself, is also undermined by similar issues (pp. 85-6 are singularly unpersuasive), although the final suggestion that the movement in the Argonautica from Apollo to Aphrodite and back to Apollo mirrors that in Pindar Pythian 4 is more stimulating.

Chapter 5 is to my mind the most interesting in the book. A. argues that the word OI)=MOS, which occurs only in the seemingly over-long description of the Argo's return home in Book 4, in fact has a larger programmatic significance for Apollonius' entire project. In A'.s view, the word is used to create a parellelism between the narrator's own uncertainty about the proper "path" to follow in his song -- i.e., which of the many contradictory antecedent versions of the events he should follow -- and the Argo's voyage. A. opens by arguing that the traditional invocation of the Muse with which the book begins reflects the poet's anxiety about deciding among competing traditions, and he refers to Call. fr. 75.76-7 Pf., where the poet's "Calliope" is treated as an intermediary between him and his source Xenomedes. In this chapter, too, the fundamental weakness of A.'s approach is that he begins by merely asserting a potentially controversial claim and then proceeds as if the matter were settled: A. points to the similarity between OI)=MOS and OI)/MH and notes that OI)=MOS is often used metaphorically of song, only to proceed as if all examples of OI)=MOS in the poem were therefore to be treated as metapoetically significant. This need not follow, of course, but at least in this case, A. appears to be on slightly firmer ground, since, as he shows, the word OI)=MOS occurs in the Argonautica principally in passages where the Argo's path is in doubt, and in several places occurs in conjunction with other language that suggests a connection to poetry. Thus, for example, at 4.643-4 the word is used when Hera turns the Argo away from the stream of Ocean, while at 4.1547, it is appears in a simile in which the Argo, searching for a navigable exit from the Tritonian Lake, is compared to a serpent; at 4.43, the expression STEINA\S OI)/MOUS bears a similarity to Callimachus' programmatic use of a version of the collocation at Aet. fr. 1.27-8.

The final chapter is something of an appendix, and treats the chronological relationship between certain passages of the Argonautica and of Callimachus' poetry. A. argues that the important role played by Apollo in Apollonius' poem is inspired by the place of the god in the Argonautic sections of Callimachus' Aetia. Inter alia, A. notes that the opening words of Apollonius' poem, A)RXO/MENOS SE/O, *FOI=BE, recall Calliope's instruction to the poet to tell the story of the Argonauts A)/RXMENOS W(S the Argo returned to Haemonia from Colchis (Aet. fr. 7.25 Pf.). Whereas Callimachus thus begins with the return voyage, Apollonius, by contrast, tells the tale from its inception, and places the first story told in the Argonautic section of the Aetia (that of Apollo Aegletes) near the end of his own account. A. suggests that these manipulations of Callimachus may be a way of indicating how Apollonius " has adapted avant-garde Callimachean poetics for his more conservative epic by giving Callimachean subjects a fuller, more expansive treatment" (129). Similarly, A. draws a contrast between the "bookish" seduction of Cydippe in the Aetia and the more emotional, spontaneous seduction of Medea in the Argonautica in order to suggest that this difference may serve as a metaphor for the poets' own self-presentation: "whereas Callimachus chose to expose his laborious manner of composition, Apollonius affected the aura of an orally performing poet" (130). I wonder, however, whether the generic difference between the Aetia and the Argonautica makes such a claim essentially a comparison of apples and oranges: Callimachus, too, adopts refined variations of such "oral" mannerisms in other contexts (e.g., h. 3.186).

By choosing to compose a continuous hexameter poem on the voyage of the Argo, Apollonius self-consciously associated himself with a long tradition of epic poetry, and at some level A.'s main thesis, that Apollonius situates his work in a tradition of poetry that was originally performed in public, therefore needs little argument. The more particular case that the poet sets out to evoke the original performance of epic requires that Apollonius think of the early epic antecedents on which he draws as "oral" poetry and not already as essentially written documents. This may be true, but A.'s book, despite offering some specific insights, does not succeed in making the case.