Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.07.17

Grace M. Ledbetter, Poetics before Plato: Interpretation and Authority in Early Greek Theories of Poetry.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2003.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 0-691-09609-0.  $29.95.  

Reviewed by Anastasios D. Nikolopoulos, University of Patras (
Word count: 1344 words

Poetics before Plato is an engaging book, not least because Grace Ledbetter (hereafter L.) has a thesis. She argues in chapters Four and Five that Plato's dialogues Ion and Protagoras together with the Apology introduce a distinctly Socratic theory of poetry, which responds to the views of earlier poets, notably Homer, Hesiod and Pindar. These latter are not to be assimilated into a single archaic Greek poetics. Consequently, each one is treated in a separate chapter (One to Three). There is, however, a common denominator that underpins all three: the "effort to minimize interpretation by poetry's audiences in an effort to maintain the poet's authority over his work" (p. 2).

L.'s Homer has pretensions to divine knowledge "that has the immediacy and pleasure of sensory experience" (p. 13). The poet shares this privilege with the audience, who can make it their own without engaging in a process of interpretation, not even in the case of the passages presenting the author's poetics. Hesiod, according to L., also presents himself as a medium of divine knowledge. However, he is less privileged than the Homeric narrator, sharing his human audience's incapacity to distinguish between truth and lies. Finally, Pindar also claims to convey authoritative knowledge derived from the Muses and consisting in "the evaluations in his poems of praise" (p. 68). L.'s discussion of these three poets, not the only ones whose work was produced before Socrates,1 is based on sound knowledge of the extensive secondary literature, which is conveniently listed in a footnote near the beginning of each chapter, except for Pindar (p. 11 n. 9 on Homeric poetics and p. 41 n. 4 on Hesiod's poetics).

However, given that her reading of Homer, at least, proceeds from Auerbach's theory, I expected more than a footnote citing De Jong's article on Odysseus' Scar, which raised serious objections to that theory two decades ago.2 It is even more surprising to find no mention of the oral composition theory in L.'s discussion of Homeric poetics, although studies by oralists like Thalmann are referred to in footnotes. L. treats Homer, the author of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as a historical person on a par with, say, Pindar. Homer had clear and uniform views on his poetry, which can be unveiled by careful examination of all the relevant passages in the two epics: the invocation of the Muses at the opening of the catalogue of ships in Iliad 2 (which is actually quoted and translated twice, both on p. 17 and p. 21, and translated again on p. 47), the reference to Achilles' epic performance in Iliad 9 (but not Odysseus' performances in the Odyssey "because he lacks the genuine poet's particular connection to the Muses" [p. 20]), the proem to the Iliad (but not to the Odyssey), and the episodes involving Phemius, Demodocus and the Sirens in the Odyssey. After her dismissal of any ambiguities in the use of the first person plural in Iliad 2.486 it is surprising to read on p. 21 n. 38 that with regard to Odyssey 12. 189-91 "since both readings are possible, the ambiguity stands".3 In short, drawing distinctions between "the true (i.e., inspired) poet" and mere storytellers or poet figures, between the typical audience and exceptional ones like Odysseus in Odyssey 8 and Penelope in Odyssey 1, is less useful for the study of Homeric poetics than an inclusive approach. Besides, what is problematic in Penelope's response as an audience (μεμνημένη Odyssey 1.343, quoted on p. 36) is what is required of the Muses elsewhere (μνησαίαθ' Iliad 2.492, quoted on p. 23).4 Memory is clearly a crucial issue in Homeric poetics, which L. has not dealt with despite its obvious relationship to knowledge, her primary concern.

Oral tradition enters L.'s discussion of Hesiodic poetics in the section on "Poetic Therapy as Mimesis" (pp. 48 ff.). There it is observed that traditional poetry can only approximate exact repetition (without any bibliographical reference) and therefore is a defective simulacrum of the Muses' eternal performance on Mount Olympus (very Platonic!). Accordingly, Hesiod's human audience differs from the divine one: "for humans, poetry provides relief from workaday pain, and a respite from routine suffering" (p. 50). Again, L. misses the opportunity to bring in the issue of memory, which is explicitly associated with pleasure at Theogony 102-3, quoted by L. on the previous page: "he quickly forgets his bad thoughts and his cares / he no longer remembers [μέμνηται]: the gifts of these goddesses instantly divert the mind". Is it not a notable paradox that the gift of Mnemosyne's (i.e., Memory's) daughters should bring forgetfulness? Has Hesiod intentionally omitted the present from the Muses' gift to himself (32, a line mentioned on p. 44, cf. the description of the Muse's song as inclusive of the present too in line 38), as suggested by G. B. Walsh?5

L.'s view of Pindaric poetics is founded on fr. 150: μαντεύεο, Μοῖσα, προφατεύσω δ' ἐγώ. On the whole, her argument that "Pindar's poet" claims for himself the prerogative of interpreting authentically and authoritatively the Muse's language is convincing. It is, however, an inherently problematic hermeneutic gesture to use as one's cornerstone a one-line fragment from an unknown work. It would be less suspect if readers were provided with the necessary information on contemporary divinatory practice, which would help them understand the distribution of labor between the mantis and the prophet, suggested by "Pindar's poet".6 Only on p. 63 does L. comes close to an explanation of the distinction, when she writes that the poet "understands the language of the Muses and translates what he understands into the language of his human audience." But the idea that gods have a language of their own is implicit in the five Homeric comments on divine names, which are not taken into account by L.7

Chapters Four and Five aim to uncover Socrates' views about the composition, performance and interpretation of poetry. L. states clearly at the very beginning of the book that her discussion is founded on the firm belief that Socrates in the Apology, Ion and Protagoras reflects genuine Socratic thought, distinct from Plato's own views on poetry found in the Republic. Yet even readers who have not been converted by Vlastos' exposition of this view will appreciate her acumen in walking through the minefield of Platonic studies. In Chapter Four the ground is cleared with observations on what Socratic poetics is not about: it does not reject poetry per se or the traditional view that poetry harbors wisdom of divine origin. Its single most important novelty, according to L., is its rejection of the poets' authority to interpret poetry, to discuss the significance of their own verses. This is the subject of Chapter Five, which is largely a close reading of the section of Protagoras on the interpretation of Simonides' poem.8

Against Ferrari's view that Socrates explicitly denies that poems have determinate meanings, L. argues that Socrates denies the possibility of agreement about the poet's intentions.9 Her argument might have been more persuasive if she had included a discussion of what is meant by "a poet's intentions", a phrase that is merely paraphrased as "poets and what they mean" in p. 109.10 Finally, I would be willing to agree with L. that Socrates' interpretation "is ridiculing the intentionalist presuppositions of their own methods of literary criticism" (p. 111) if Socrates were not preoccupied with authorial intention in the passage from the Apology, which L. presents as a positive paradigm of Socratic interpretation. In her own translation: "What in the world does the god mean, and what riddle is he propounding?" (21b3-4), cited on p. 115.11

The task L. set herself was not an easy one. The result cannot be recommended as the only book one needs to read on the subject of pre-Platonic poetics. Still, it is a book with an interesting thesis, worth taking seriously by all engaged in advanced study of ancient views on poetry and its interpretation. The present reviewer's objections and reservations are merely the measure of the book's importance and overall clarity of argument.


1.   There are, however, en passant references to other poets, e.g. Theognis and the poet of the Homeric Hymn to Apollo on p. 57.
2.   Instances of hardcore narratology like I. J. F. De Jong, Narrators and Focalizers: The Presentation of the Story in the Iliad. Amsterdam 1987 and S. Richardson, The Homeric Narrator. Nashville, Tenessee 1990 are completely absent from L.'s bibliography.
3.   I would like to draw attention to S. Richardson's observation that "it is striking that the Homeric narrator refers to himself in the first person only these passages whose purpose is, paradoxically, to deny his autonomy" (op. cit., p. 181).
4.   In his Teubner edition M. L. West adopts Heyne's view that 2.491-2 are not genuine verses of the Iliad, but remarks that they were known by Ibycus.
5.   G. B. Walsh, The Varieties of Enchantment. Chapel Hill and London 1984, p. 142 n. 36. M. L. West (ed.), Hesiod: Theogony. Oxford 1966, p. 166 considers line 32 "a shorter equivalent of the full phrase seen in 38."
6.   The same lack of references to sources or bibliography is observed in p. 111 where L. affirms vaguely: "As he often does in other contexts."
7.   See G. S. Kirk, The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume I: books 1-4. Cambridge 1985, p. 94 on 1.403-4.
8.   To the bibliography cited in p. 100 n.2 one may add a study by Stavros Tsitsirides published in Greek, γένεση τῆς λογοτεθνικῆς ἑρμηνείας, Athens 2001, and the German commentary by B. Manuwald, Platon: Protagoras. Göttingen 1999.
9.   G. Ferrari. "Plato and Poetry." In G. A. Kennedy, ed., The Cambridge History of Literary Criticism. Volume One: Classical Criticism. Cambridge 92-114 (not 102-3 as wrongly stated on p. 120; also read Ferrari 1989 instead of 1991 in p. 92 n. 33).
10.   A good, though not definitive, discussion of the subject can be found on pp. 78-80 of Tsitsirides' study.
11.   It is deplorable that there are no citations of the Greek text in the last two chapters except for Apology 22b3-c4 in p. 93 n. 35.

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