Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.08.30

Christopher A. Faraone, The Stanzaic Architecture of Early Greek Elegy.   Oxford/New York:  Oxford University Press, 2008.  Pp. xi, 199.  ISBN 9780199236985.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by Chris Eckerman, University of Oregon, Eugene (
Word count: 1938 words

Faraone suggests that archaic Greek elegists composed in five-couplet, ten-line stanzas. He argues that the idea of the Greek elegiac couplet being a stichic meter that could be used at any length is a development of the classical period. He furthermore suggests that knowledge of the five-couplet form deteriorated due particularly to the loss of musical accompaniment on the aulos. Faraone finds corroborative evidence in support of his thesis in extant archaic elegy, and, in addition, he suggests that the formal structure of the five-couplet elegy remains in the classical and Hellenistic period in places such as Andromache's elegiac lament in Euripides' eponymous play as well as in Callimachus' Aetia prologue. This thesis may seem revolutionary to all except the most engaged scholars of elegy who will recognize stirrings of this argument, as Faraone notes, in previous literature. This is an interesting book, and Faraone is clearly on to something here. The question is: how far do we want to take his argument?

In the first chapter, Faraone situates his study within scholarly literature on Greek elegy and notes that "the time is right to revive a much older theory about the unique poetic form of early elegy. H. Weil...suggested that many of the early elegists organized their poems into 'strophes' that occasionally display a kind of responsion similar to that found in choral poetry" (3). Faraone seeks to revive and refine the findings of Weil, who wrote his foundational article in the 1860s, and also F. Rossi, who understood "how the rhetorical structure of a fragment fits comfortably within and is indeed creatively articulated by [stanzaic] divisions" (4). Faraone, accordingly, clearly positions his work in relation to his predecessors. His argument is not so much revolutionary as it is supportive and corrective. In addition, he furthers the work of his predecessors substantially.

Before moving on to the next chapter, Faraone focuses on some background topics: terminology and musical accompaniment. He notes that he will use the term stanza rather than Weil's strophe to refer to the formal units that he wishes to study; his brief exposition on the history of the word stanza is itself well worth reading. Faraone's stanza was a good choice, since strophe denotes formal metrical responsion that elegy simply does not have. With regard to musical accompaniment, Faraone follows the contemporary communis opinio in his belief that elegy was originally generally performed to the tune of the aulos. However, Faraone does not think that we should assume that the tune was a simple one, repeated over and over again with every couplet. Rather, assuming that elegiac poetry was regularly performed in ten-line stanzas, he suggests that "the aulete could in theory, at least, play a longer and presumably more complex melody that might span all five-couplets without repeating itself" (7). In and of itself, this is an interesting suggestion. And, though Faraone does not marshal any evidence in support of his hypothesis, it reminds us how little we know about melodic accompaniment in relation to elegiac poetry.

In chapter two, Faraone addresses archaic elegies that both support and pose problems to his thesis. As his chapter title, "Internal Structure," suggests, Faraone is interested in structural elements that provide corroborating evidence for complete five-couplet stanzas: this includes the thematic and rhetorical coherence of poems as well as devices such as ring composition, prayers, catalogues, and priamels. Admirably, Faraone supports his thesis rather persuasively when he addresses poems that are prima facie problems, and he reaffirms our trust in his argument when he analyzes poems that have been transmitted to us already in five-couplet form. Moreover, this chapter has very good analysis of the internal structure of elegy, since Faraone identifies four distinct forms. However, some of Faraone's interpretation may seem disconcerting to skeptical readers. For example, since Mimnermus 2.11-16 does not fit Faraone's ten-line, stanzaic form, he suggests that two couplets may have dropped from our text. Some readers may be willing to live with this interpretation, but others might begin to wonder how often Faraone will suggest that lines have fallen out of our texts in order to support his thesis.

In his third chapter, "Composition," Faraone moves from studying primarily discrete stanzas and their internal structure to viewing them in relation to other contiguous stanzas. His goal is, "to lay out a second set of criteria, in addition to the internal ones discussed in the previous chapter, for isolating individual elegiac stanzas and describing how they work in a series within longer elegiac compositions" (44-45). He starts with Tyrtaeus 10 and shows how the poem can be broken into three ten-line stanzas, the first descriptive, the second exhortative, and the third again descriptive. The stanzas are thus marked by different themes and tones and, in addition, they are marked off with formal elements such as ring composition; but this leaves us with one unexplained couplet since Tyrtaeus 10 has 32 lines. Faraone suggests that Tyrtaeus 10 may have had four five-couplet stanzas instead of the 32 lines that are preserved in the MSS of Lycurgus and are paraphrased by Plato. Thus, Faraone hypothesizes a loss of four couplets. Again, suggestions such as this may make some readers fear that he is trying to force early Greek elegiac composition into a procrustean bed. After all, the couplet of exhortation at the end of Tyrtaeus 10 may be interpreted to provide a strong cap to the three ten-line "stanzas" that preceded; in that case, it provides formal variatio and striking closure to the preceding material. At any rate, Faraone shows, convincingly, that elegists regularly broke up exhortative and descriptive material into recognizable stanzas, and the second half of the chapter shows, rather brilliantly, that his approach to stanzaic architecture can reap rich benefits. He suggests that Solon 27 may be missing a couplet: and, here, impressively, the broader context of the poem corroborates the suggestion that a couplet is missing. Clearly, we must judge the argument for thinking of early Greek elegy in five-couplet units on a case-by-case basis.

In chapter four, Faraone turns to the performance of elegy. How might the thesis of the five-couplet stanza relate to the performance of elegiac poems at symposia? Faraone, developing the work of R. Reitzenstein and others, suggests that five-couplet stanzas could be performed in turn by members of the symposium, frequently with one person responding to the song of a previous person; he finds evidence for such songs in the Theognidea. For example, he finds two five-couplet poems, one of which (53-62) seems to respond to another (39-48) in thematic and formal qualities, and, as Faraone notes, "such dramatic re-performance of the archaic repertoire is, indeed, one of the basic premises of the Theognidea, namely, that the original poet is present in the voice of those who take up his persona and repeat his verses" (83). Faraone looks at multiple passages and, again, much like the passage from Solon 27, his thesis is corroborated by outside evidence when he addresses Theognidea 486-487. Faraone's approach, in fact, has the advantage of clarifying awkward narrative passages, such as 467-496 of the Theognidea where conflicting narrative voices make it unlikely that this is a single poem. Thus, the catena symposiale style of elegiac performance envisioned by other scholars works well with Faraone's thesis.

In his fifth chapter, "Improvisation," Faraone examines whether there are passages of elegy that may be accretions (in the language of textuality) or improvisations (in the language of performance) to archaic elegies. For example, are there passages that seem to reflect not Tyrtaeus per se, but rather Tyrtaeus plus the additions of fifth-century symposiasts? This is an ambitious question, and Faraone does a good job of arguing for passages that are possible accretions to earlier archaic elegies, but he does not address how we might attribute these accretions/improvisations to symposiasts systematically. In fact, he does not use the term accretion because he wants to think of the extant texts as transcripts of oral performances that contain both archaic elegies and later innovations. Faraone's hypothesis may be correct, but he does not provide any evidence to support the argument that the texts are transcripts of oral performances. After all, we could just as easily attribute the "accretions" to scribes who inserted into the manuscript tradition their own additions to Tyrtaeus or conflated multiple poems, as scholars have regularly suggested in the past. And, more importantly, if Faraone is correct, how did these symposiastic improvisations enter the textual tradition? I would have liked to see that question addressed. Could the improvisation of one singer on one occasion regularly have had the power to change a tradition?

In chapter six, "Innovation and Archaism," Faraone turns to Xenophanes of Colophon's elegiacs and Euripides' Andromache. Faraone convincingly establishes that Xenophanes, and others, wrote in six-couplet stanzas. Now, this should seem to cause a problem to Faraone's five-couplet thesis. In fact, Faraone suggests that we should think of Xenophanes of Colophon as an innovator, someone pushing the boundaries of traditional form. This surely may be right, but there is no way to know. Alternatively, Xenophanes may have been composing in a genre that did not have any strict rules regarding the construction of stanza length, contra Faraone, or one might even suggest that Xenophanes retains an Ur-six-couplet stanza, while most of the other poets that Faraone examines were innovators. Why not? The simple truth is that we do not know. And we may wonder what the payoff is of thinking of elegy as deriving from five-couplet stanzas. Would we be better off simply appreciating the five-couplet stanzas that elegists regularly composed? Faraone ends the chapter looking at Andromache's lament at Eur. Andr. 103-116 and compares it with a sixth-century BCE, five-couplet Ambracian epitaph. He uses these passages to suggest that early elegiac laments were often written in five-couplet stanzas. The section would be more persuasive if Faraone did not have to strain to explain Andromache's fourteen-line lament.

In his last chapter, Revival, Faraone looks at Callimachus' 'prologue' in the Aetia and suggests that it can be divided into two halves, each of two ten-line stanzas. Skeptical readers might find it problematic when Faraone suggests that a lost couplet has fallen from the text to support his thesis. Regardless, Faraone has valuable comments on the form of the prologue and he is particularly sensitive to formal elements such as ring composition and verbal echoes, as he is throughout the book.

In his conclusion, Faraone recaps his most important arguments and ends with a saying of Jack Winkler's: that scholarly books are written in a manner that either seek to close down or to encourage further scholarly discourse. Certainly, Faraone's book deserves to be placed in the latter category. I, for one, will now read elegiac poems with a greater appreciation for their regular stanzaic architecture and I have little doubt that this book will motivate further productive scholarship on the form of early Greek elegy. Ultimately, of course, this study remains speculative. Some readers will be fully convinced, others will be partially convinced, and others may find it too prescriptive, feeling as though Faraone were searching for a lost Platonic form. Surely, no one will doubt that elegy was frequently composed in runs of five couplets after reading this study, and Faraone has done a great job of pointing out the formal and thematic characteristics that contribute to cohesive ten-line runs. Be that as it may, it may be equally productive to study the satisfying artistic forms that elegists constructed with ten-line stanzas rather than to read the history of elegy as the history of a lost, and perhaps occasionally re-found, archetype.2


1.   Weil, H. (1862), "Über Spuren strophischer Composition bei den alten griechischen Elegikern," RhM 17: 1-13; Rossi, F. (1953/54), "Studi su Tirteo", AIV 112: 369-437.
2.   The book is attractively produced and there are relatively few typographic errors. The book also includes three appendices: in Appendix 1, Faraone argues that line 11 of Mimnermus 12 marks the beginning of a now lost stanza; Appendix II is on the stanzaic architecture of Solon 4; and Appendix III addresses the form and content of Theognidea 133-142. In addition, the book includes a useful glossary of, primarily, metrical terms as well as an index of passages, an index of subjects, and an index of Greek words and terms.

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