Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.16

Maria S. Marsilio, Farming and Poetry in Hesiod's Works and Days.   Lanham:  University Press of America, 2000.  Pp. 112 + xxi.  ISBN 0-7618-1684-4.  $34.50.  

Reviewed by John Lewis, St. Edmund's College, Cambridge (
Word count: 1521 words

In her preface the author introduces her work as a book-length study of Hesiod's Farmer's Almanac, in her opinion a neglected and misunderstood area of Greek scholarship (vii). It is the use of diction, the author claims, that scholars have ignored in interpreting the Almanac, and "diction and semantics in the agricultural program suggest verbal and thematic analogies with the acts of speech and poetry. Thus, Hesiod's poem develops a rich tapestry between the life of farming and the life of poetry" (viii). This approach sets M.'s methodological agenda, which elevates linguistic parallels over moral issues and ultimately undermines Hesiod's own focus on justice. Intending to reach both "Classical scholars and the general scholarly reader," M. uses an engaging narrative to draw out the issues of language that she considers important and to present her interpretations of those issues. However, the brevity of the book, limited to 73 pages of preface, introduction and five chapters, plus 50 pages of notes, bibliography and index, constrains the author's ability to complete her central project to a level that will satisfy scholars and graduate students. This difficulty is somewhat exacerbated by her attempt to acquaint non-specialists with issues that are important to the study of Hesiod's poems but not directly connected to her central purpose.

The introduction addresses the identity of Hesiod as expressed in both the Works and Days and the Theogony. M. takes the position that the mystery of "Hesiod" the man is not an impediment to our understanding of the poet and his world; what is most important is the Hesiod presented in the poems. Although 6 pages to support this common-sense position, followed by two tables showing the general structure of the poems, may be a good way to introduce a general book to non-specialists, the reader may wonder if this book's purpose might have been better served by a simple description of the author's position followed by a deeper exposition of the central theme. This is the approach generally followed throughout most of the book: a descriptive exposition of the author's position, supported by textual evidence, and accompanied by footnotes that expose scholarly sources and disagreement.

Chapter One, "The Education of Perses," sets up the central contrast of characters: Hesiod the virtuous, self-sufficient poet, versus Perses, the lazy, dependent drone of the agora. This stress on each man's self-sufficiency in matters of survival acknowledges the core moral difference between the men in terms of efficacy and consequences: Hesiod's close adherence to the justice of Zeus works, while Perses' disregard for justice through his public pursuit of the property of others is ultimately doomed to failure. An example of M.'s method of connecting farming to poetry is seen in her discussion of the ἐπέων νομός (WD 403), the "range of words," seen as a pun on νόμος in line 388, translated as "custom" and "tune." The last is supported by two passages: ἔσθειν (line 278) gives νόμος the connotation of "range" or "feeding," and μέλπονται πάντων τε νόμους (Th. 66) is singing a tune. It is through just actions, either as a poet or as a farmer, that a person rises above concerns for the belly, explored by M. in a discussion of γαστήρ that suffers from the absence of the word in the Works and Days. However, M.'s concern for language leads her to de-emphasize the moral differences between Hesiod and Perses in favor of linguistic parallels: each man uses language and public speaking to obtain his livelihood, Perses by conniving against others, and Hesiod through poetic activity inspired by the Muses, and each is successful only to a degree. The two men are closer than they might realize. It is M.'s de-emphasis of the issue of justice that allows the beggar/singer distinction to succumb as it does. The reader should remember, however, that this interpretation does not represent Hesiod's own explicit views of the essential issue dividing him and Perses and is not an interpretation universally accepted by scholars as fundamental.

Chapter Two, "Farming and Poetry: The Language of the Almanac," strengthens the connection between poetry and farming with parallels between the woodcutter and the poet. Selection of materials followed by shaping is common to the task of each, but the farmer's use of what he can find, and the poet's use of tradition, result in a tension between self-sufficiency and the need to use the work of others. The poet asserts choice and authority over his own work by modifying, extending or omitting traditional material (23). Analogously to the farmer's need to store grain for the winter, Perses is admonished to store the truth of poetry in his heart (line 27); the farmer and Perses are each νήπιος (lines 286, 397, 456, 633) if they fail to remember (μιμνήσκω) to increase their stores. Similar linguistic parallels illustrate the themes of reciprocity, fame and prosperity, and the mind of Zeus. In particular, M. parallels the cicada to the poet as a singer (27-28), shifting from the summer activities of each into the matter of sailing in the summer. But her use of the cicada as a parallel to the farmer, based on ἐφεζόμενος (583) and ἐζόμενον (593), seems to be less secure, especially given the cicada's reputation for sloth.1 Chapter Three, "Hesiod's Winter," uses the poet's description of the harshness of winter to heighten the contrast between the beggar and the farmer/singer. The illustrations here range from the obvious, such as the parallel between Perses' chatter in the market and in the forge (33) to the more allusive effects of the wind, the "boneless one," ἀνόστεος, and the ῥαψωδός as a "stitcher of song (lines 506, 524, 544). The effect of Hesiod's drawing of a parallel between himself and his misguided father, who desired to earn his living as a trader but was forced to turn to farming, strengthens Hesiod's claim to represent the ideal life, which Perses should emulate through farming.

Chapter Four, "The Quarrel of Hesiod and Perses," returns to the similarities between the two men. Each competes in an agonistic context, each must appeal to those making judgements, and each is after gain. The tension in the poet's work is found in Hesiod's praise of kings in his poetic contest, Theogony 81-92, contrasting with his condemnation of kings in Works and Days 33-41. Hesiod is confident of his ultimate success not only because he knows that Perses cannot survive a lawsuit, but also because Hesiod is closer to Zeus than Perses. This closeness to Zeus is a different perspective on the matter of justice that was de-emphasized in Chapter One, and the reader may wonder why this chapter has been placed here instead of after Chapter One. The expansion of the poetic parallels between Hesiod and Perses in Chapter Five further serves to subordinate matters of justice to linguistic similarities and thus to undermine Hesiod's concern for his relationship with Zeus. This is a matter deserving of fuller discussion. How one understands justice and morality conditions one's own view of the poem, for us as for Hesiod and his audience, and this understanding is fundamental to how the linguistic interplay between farming and poetry should be interpreted.

Chapter Five, "Farming and Poetry: Hesiod, Callimachus and Pindar," succumbs to the demands of length: M. cannot fully explore issues important to her subject, but can only to mention that these issues exist and provide a few examples. M. compares Callimachus Hymn 3.170-182, Od. 18.366-375, and Hes WD 414f. using Peter Bing's argument that Callimachus alludes to the Homer and Hesiod passages.2 M. will be helpful to non-specialist readers in raising such an issue, but seven pages is simply too short of a space in which to address the plowing metaphor adequately across such a span of time. We get a taste of the richness here, but not the full banquet. Despite obvious virtues in raising such an important issue, the promise of book-length study of the Almanac that includes later Greek poetry is unfulfilled.

Methodologically M. generally (but not always) focuses on her own message without burdening the text with issues of scholarly interpretations. For a book this short this strategy is not a weakness, but rather adds cohesiveness to the narrative. It is primarily through the endnotes that different problems and dissenting interpretations are raised. For example, M. states with clarity that Hesiod is confident of success in his quarrel with Perses, given a legal setting overseen by judges. To Hesiod straight justice comes from Zeus, and Hesiod's treatment of kings differs from Perses' given the latter's use of bribery. The linguistic support for this position is in κυδαίνω (line 38) (48). The endnotes introduce us to wider references, including Gagarin's disagreement with M.'s assessment of the bribery, which is cited without stating exactly what the disagreement entails.3 M.'s interpretations are important to all students wishing to understand the way in which language can be used to support parallels between farming and poetry, but neither the questions she raises, her bibliographic sources, nor her interpretations can be accepted as exhaustive. Given these provisos, this book is a helpful addition to linguistic interpretations of the farmer's poem.


1.   R. M. Rosen, 'Poetry and Sailing in Hesiod's Works and Days. Class Ant 9 (1990), p. 107-109; G. Nagy, The Best of the Achaeans (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979) p. 302 n. 11, citing Archilochus fr, 223, for the cicada as poet. J. C. B. Petropoulos, Heat and Lust: Hesiod's Midsummer Festival Scene Revisited. (London: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1994), p. 77n. 29, parallels cicada and Perses. M. acknowledges each in her n. 113, with Callimachus fr.1, 29-38 (Pfeiffer).
2.   Peter Bing, "Callimachus' Cows: A Riddling Recusatio." ZPE 54 (1984): 1-8.
3.   Michael Gagarin, "Hesiod's Dispute with Perses." TAPA 104 (1974): 103-111.

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