Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.6.15


Kathryn J. Gutzwiller, Poetic Garlands. Hellenistic Epigrams in Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. Pp. xiii + 358. $45.00. ISBN 0-520-20857-9.


Reviewed by Richard Hunter, Pembroke College, Cambridge CB2 1RF, England, rlh10@cus.cam.ac.uk.

These are heady days for the Hellenistic epigram. While some at least of the world waits impatiently for the complete publication of the Milan papyrus of Poseidippos (P.Mil.Vogl. 1295, cf. G. Bastianini and C. Gallazzi, Posidippo: Epigrammi [Milan 1993]), things are stirring also in more familiar parts of the forest: David Sider's edition of the epigrams of Philodemos and Laura Rossi's work on the epigrams of Theocritus (Ph.D. Rome, 1998) are just two among many signs that these fascinating texts are slowly coming into their own. It is not that the epigrams of, say, Anyte, Asclepiades and Callimachus have lacked admirers; indeed some of the finest recent scholarship on Hellenistic poetry consists of 'readings' of individual epigrams. Nevertheless, the very size of the corpus has inevitably deterred close examination of more than a relatively small selection (usually by the 'big names'), and a synthetic account of just what is going on with these poems has long been a desideratum. If G.'s new book does not quite fit that particular bill, it nevertheless gives us more than enough to be going on with.

The emergence of the erotic epigram in the late classical and early Hellenistic periods remains a curiously provoking fact of literary history. There seem so many obvious explanations in terms of the formal and thematic trends of the time (move towards 'short poems', predominance of hexameters and elegiacs over lyrics, prominence of eros as a theme in many different branches of literature etc.) that the genuinely surprising nature of the phenomenon is often overlooked, and the pleasingly simple 'grand theories' of the past, most notably that of Richard Reitzenstein's Epigramm und Skolion, perhaps explain too much too neatly (cf. Wilamowitz, Hellenistische Dichtung I 120). The very number of epigrams which evoke the preparations, conduct or aftermath of the symposium shows just how important traditions of sympotic poetry were (cf. now A. Cameron, Callimachus and his Critics 70-103), but the relationship constructed between these traditions and inscriptional forms remains very imperfectly understood. The subject is not G.'s principal concern, and there is in fact some unclarity about the view she takes of it: 'short elegies or imitations of inscriptions' (p.11) is a dichotomy precisely requiring examination. G. offers a picture in which the near-simultaneous collection and editing of sympotic elegy (and perhaps skolia) and the appearance of 'Anyte's author-edited collection and probably assemblages attributed to Simonides and Anacreon as well' tended to erase the generic differences between elegy and epigram, 'which had largely derived from the symposium setting for the one and the inscriptional setting for the other'. What happened next (Asclepiades etc.) was that this epigram/elegy mixture led to 'a new type of epigram with erotic and sympotic, rather than dedicatory and sepulchral, themes ... Its character was formed by adapting the language and themes of old elegy to the rhythm and structures of inscriptional verse' (p.116-17). The emphasis here on formal considerations and the importance of collection within anthologies is a valuable leitmotif of much of G.'s recent work, but this book does not really clarify how erotic-sympotic epigram takes over 'the rhythm and structures of inscriptional verse'; with notable exceptions (e.g. pp. 124-5 on Asclepiades II G-P), G.'s many excellent readings of individual erotic-sympotic epigrams are directed to other targets. It may be, for example, that the apparently similar formal scope of 'erotic' and 'inscriptional' epigrams, and a shared generic nomenclature, conceal a persistent separation of structure and ideas; this separation may, of course, be broken down for particular effects ('erotic dedications' etc.), especially by erotic poets who turned their hand to 'inscriptional' verse, but it remains a possibility whose interest and importance is regularly overlooked.

G. does have a socio-historical explanation for the epigrammatic big bang, but it is not necessarily easy to swallow: epigrams focus on individuals and could reflect the 'shifting, local, and pragmatic' bonds of Hellenistic society by 'represent[ing] individuals as they now were -- marginal, drifting, fragmentary and fractured selves' (p.13), or, in other words, 'rootless and decentered selves' (p.53). I freely confess myself deeply sceptical about the following assertion: 'In a world lacking a civic and political center, the poetic ego who speaks in erotic epigram illustrates, through his constantly frustrated search for reciprocated affection, the perpetual estrangement of Hellenistic man' (p.120). This seems to me to misrepresent the political reality for some at least of the most important epigrammatists; as for Hellenistic estrangement, this is far more often asserted than demonstrated. So too, the jury is still out (to say the least) on whether 'the flowering of the art of variation in the late second century B.C. was connected with anxiety about the endangered status of Greek culture in the face of increasing Roman hegemony' (p.227). Fortunately, the success of G.'s book does not depend upon a view of such large-scale constructions.

The bulk of the book consists of two closely related kinds of material: 'close readings' of individual epigrams arranged (broadly) by author, and arguments about the arrangement of books of epigrams published by the leading figures of the genre. G. is already well known through her articles for some very perceptive epigram readings, and the current book does not disappoint. She is a subtle and alert reader who understands the particular kind of demands which epigrammatic silences impose. From an excellent paragraph (p.65) about Anyte's poem on the death of a (?) cock (AP 7.202) to some very instructive pages on Antipater's poems on past poets (pp.259-65) -- G.'s discussion of this poet is in fact a very timely 'rehabilitation' -- the book is full of insightful observations; it will never be a waste of time to look up the Index to see what G. has to say about a particular poem. As for the second subject, if we accept -- as the Poseidippos papyrus makes it increasingly hard not to -- the very high probability that, during the third century, some epigrammatists 'published' collections of their own (or their own and others) poems, then it makes obvious sense to try out readings of surviving poems as parts of a whole and, in particular, to look for poems which may have occupied 'programmatic' positions. It is the considerable achievement of G.'s book to have put this subject very firmly on the map; it will, I think, no longer be possible to read these poems without wondering about the issues which G. has raised. There is, of course, a price to be paid. In the nature of things, such arguments must remain highly speculative, and there is an understandable temptation, to which G. sometimes succumbs, to want surviving poems always to have been crucial texts. G. pushes the evidence of our surviving anthologies (papyrus evidence, alphabetization etc.) about as far as it will go -- her reconstruction of Meleager's Garland, in the wake of Wifstrand, Cameron etc., is something of a tour de force -- but in the end it is literary arguments which must bear the bulk of the proof. Where these do not carry conviction, and I was unpersuaded in a fair number of cases, they will, I hope, stimulate thoughtful dissent. To take a fairly simple case, many may be reluctant to accept Anyte XVIII G-P as the 'source' of Theocr. 1.1-2, Asclepiades I G-P and Nossis I G-P and draw inferences from this about its programmatic position in her putative collection (G. pp.71-2); nevertheless, the verbal similarities among these poems do provoke thought, and a reading of the pastoral invitation of Anyte's poem as an invitation to the reading of an epigram collection was certainly a speculation worth making, and one for which G. could have adduced the imagery of very many later discussions of the joys of literature. In short, it is hard to think of any other significant corpus of Greek poetry where so much basic interpretation remains to be done; G. has done major service by reminding us of this simple truth.

Some details. P.8 '... whether the reader of a book epigram knows the referents of the poem to be historical or fictive, or is uncertain of the choice, makes little difference in terms of the expected literary response'. This is surely too simple; the poet's assumption of such knowledge can, for example, be a principal poetic strategy (the importance of names in creating a sense of the 'meta-epigrammatic' deserves more attention than it has so far received). P.77. G. ingeniously suggests that 'even honey I spit from my mouth' in Nossis I is a dismissive allusion to Erinna, the 'nonerotic beelike poet', who (p.87) had been lionised, and hence 'neutralised', by subsequent male epigrammatists. Pp.129-30. Following Daniel Garrison's Mild Frenzy, G. not merely connects the priamel of Asclepiades I with the priamel inscribed at Delos (Arist. EE 1214a 5-6), but also sees here an allusion to and modification of Epicurean ideas of hedone (citing Lucr. 2.1-7 in support); it is a strength of G.'s method that she is always alive to the wider intellectual context in which Hellenistic poetry was written, even if non-explicit connections between poetry and philosophy are desperately hard to establish. For what it is worth, I remain sceptical about a supposed allusion to Asclepiades I in Poseidippos I, and hence of the evidential value of the latter poem for a 'philosophical' reading of the former (G. pp. 157-8). Pp. 148-9. G. has an interesting discussion of Asclepiades XVI G-P (PI=N, A)SKLHPIA/DH KTL.) as a closural poem in which we suddenly realise with a shock that all the poems we have been reading were set at a symposium: 'the call to drink, as a call to the symposium, urges the solace of song, so that Asclepiades' collection is offered as both a statement of the lover's condition and a source of escape from it'. It may be added that the close recall of Alcaeus fr. 346 supports G.'s positioning of the poem: Asclepiades sites his poetry within a tradition, and this expression of historical sense would well suit the 'sphragis-like' form alleged. We thus see that 'not against you alone has bitter Eros directed his bow and arrows' (vv. 3-4) is consolatory in two related senses; in a densely textual poetics, the poet is never alone. The implication of the closural position may, however, be rather different than the one offered by G.: drinking may here be figured as an alternative to poetry, to 'these tears', and the poem becomes a kind of excuse for stopping. In Plato's Symposium, the performance of different accounts of eros is an alternative to heavy drinking, and a collection of erotic epigrams may be seen as a poetic analogy to that central text. Pp.161-2. It is odd that G. does not seem to entertain the possibility of irony in Poseidippos' challenge to Eros in VII G-P. P.183. The suggestion that the Roman elegists' claim to Callimachus as a model 'was surely based, very largely, on his erotic epigrams' is a curious misjudgement; the Aitia is the crucial text here (cf. Prop. 2.1.39-40, 2.34.31-2 etc.). P.212 (and cf. pp.39-40). G. offers a defence of the final couplet of Callimachus XXIX G-P (= fr. 1.37-8) as forming a ring with the 'Reply to the Telchines' in 'Callimachus' collected poetry books'; the previous verse, "the other sang poems beyond envy", 'lifts the veil covering Callimachus' covert presence and encourages the reader to hear the final self-quotation in the poet's own voice'. This is singularly unconvincing, whatever one thinks of the notion of 'collected poetry books'; the case against the couplet remains very strong (cf. D'Alessio's note ad loc.). P.215. G. makes the interesting suggestion that H(/MISU/ MEU YUXH=S E)/TI TO\ PNE/ON KTL. in Callimachus IV G-P alludes to Stoic pneuma, which 'imparts intelligence to the soul it occupies. If but half of his soul still breathes, that is, thinks rationally, then we can better understand how the other half, rendered irrational by passion, can slip away unseen'. I'm not sure in fact that I do quite 'better understand', but this is one of the many cases where G. has helpfully put her finger on a usage which demands explanation, even if not the one G. offers. The expected contrast is between 'breathing' (i.e., on the most 'natural' interpretation, 'living') and 'not breathing', i.e. 'being dead'; this suggests that the mysterious disappearance of the now invisible half is 'like death', a point marked by the etymological play (strangely ignored by commentators) on A)I/DHS 'not seen/preventing sight' and A)FANE/S (cf. Pl. Crat. 403a6, Gorg. 493b4, Et.Mag. 17.16-21 Gaisford). It may therefore be worth suggesting that Callimachus presents himself initially as a Demeter whose 'half soul' has been snatched away, as Persephone was snatched by the lustful Hades while playing with her young friends (A)IDWNEU\S | H(/RPACEN ... PAI/ZOUSAN h.Dem. 2-5, cf. vv. 2-3 of the epigram); the poet's ignorance of what has happened thus picks up the ignorance with which the opening of the Homeric Hymn is filled. P.219. G. fails to produce good reasons to believe that Callimachus II G-P ('I hate the cyclic poem ...') alludes to Asclepiades I; the echo of Asclepiades XXXII in Call. fr. 398 is, by contrast, clearly marked verbally. Her interpretation of Callimachus' poem, however, demands attention: 'The imperfection of the echo reflects its unreality, its quality as imagined thought, or suspicion'. Pp.233-5. G. helpfully sets the art of epigram variation in the second and first centuries BC within the context of educational practice and rhetorical declamation; in this period, the epideictic function of 'inscriptional' epigram is renewed and given new directions under the impulse of the intensely 'epideictic' culture of the Romans. Pp. 253-5. G.'s helpful discussion of the ambiguity of E)/XW in Asclepiades XLI (cf. also Richard Thomas' remarks in Hellenistica Groningana III, forthcoming) misses a probable play also on PURKAIH/, both 'fiery heat (of desire)' and 'funeral pyre'. Pp.257-8. Does the lament of the Nereids for Corinth (Antipater LIX G-P) evoke the lament of Thetis and the Nereids for Achilles? In both cases, Greece's loss is irreparable. P.299. I cannot agree with G. that it is 'amazing' that scholars have not recognised the 'conclusory nature' of Meleager LIV, though G.'s speculation may (or may not) be correct. AI)DESQEI\S MOU=SAN E)MA\N I(KE/TIN does not necessarily imply 'in exchange for [my emphasis] my suppliant Muse'; the 'parallel' of Catullus 76 (not adduced by G.) would suggest a rather different nuance.