Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.04.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.04.11

Alexander Müller, Die Carmina Anacreontea und Anakreon: Ein literarisches Generationenverhältnis. Classica Monacensia, Bd. 38.   Tübingen:  Gunter Narr Verlag, 2010.  Pp. 300.  ISBN 9783823365754.  €68.00.  

Reviewed by Alexia Zotou, Rafina (


The relationship between the poetry of Anacreon and that of the Anacreontic corpus had not been systematically studied before Müller, whοse book is therefore a very welcome contribution. His main thesis is that the Anacreontic poets composed their work on the basis of the poetic programme of Anacreon himself.

The book is divided into six chapters. Chapter I presents a well-structured introduction in which Müller gives a brief outline of the book along with a critical survey of previous scholarship. He argues convincingly that Lambin and Rosenmeyer spoke of mimesis in Anacreontic poetry, without offering a concrete definition of the term.1 Thus it remained unclear, how or in which way exactly the Anacreontic poets viewed Anacreon and his poetry.

In Chapter II, M. first provides a detailed analysis of the term ''Generationenbegriff,'' identifying its different meanings in a variety of contexts. Müller then demonstrates that none of these meanings sufficiently describes the connection between generations in literature and sets out to fill this gap. To do so, he introduces a new definition of the term ''Generation'' as a group of texts that share the same poetic programme, i.e. the same thematic or formal principles (Grundsätze). When such a group of texts is used as a model for another group of texts, written at a different time period, then these two belong to different generations but a relationship is established between them, which is called ''Generationenverhältnis''. This kind of relationship is different from a mimetic one. In the case of mimesis the later text adopts some elements from the text that serves as its model but in the end the two texts have quite different poetic programmes, whereas in the case of two texts that are connected through a ''Generationenverhältnis'' the poetic programme is the same.

In Chapter III, Müller attempts to reconstruct the image of Anacreon and his poetry that the Anacreontic poets most likely had in mind when composing their own works. This reconstruction is achieved by means of a list of testimonia presented in chronological order.2 By arranging the testimonia in chronological order he aims to show what sort of image of Anacreon was assumed in each period and finally which image exactly the Anacreontic poets had in mind. He comes to the conclusion that it was the same as the one constructed in the classical period, if not earlier (p. 101). This image was defined primarily by the erotic and sympotic elements of his poetry.

In Chapter IV he offers an analysis of the poems and attempts to prove that the poetic programme on which their composition was based follows closely that of Anacreon himself. Chapter V provides a conclusion to the study, while Chapter VI presents a bibliography.

The structure of the book is quite clear, and the book as a whole is very readable. Yet Müller sometimes get carried away in his attempt to illustrate the similarities between Anacreon and the Anacreontic poets. For example, he often speaks of ''unfulfilled desire'' or of ''the pain of love'' (p. 223) as recurrent motifs in both Anacreon's poetry and the Anacreontic corpus, which, in his view, implies a shared poetic programme.

But the ''unfulfilled desire,'' which is basically Sapphic, is not so prevalent in the Anacreontic corpus while ‘’pain of love’’ here does not have the tragic connotations of Sappho or Archilochus (e.g. fr. 193 West).

Detailed comments on a number of individual points follow.

Müller interprets both poem 9 and Anacreon 56 G as statements of poetic programme; but, as opposed to poems 2 and 23, where such statements are explicit, the lyric ''I'' in poem 9 mentions different persons who once experienced madness: Alcmeon, Orestes, Heracles and Ajax. In rejecting their excessive behavior, the ''I'' simply defends his own wish to be carried away by sympotic madness (θέλω μανῆναι) without implying any rejection of epic or tragedy. Also problematic is Müller's assumption that the difference between war madness (kriegerische Ekstase) and sympotic madness is stressed here. One might wonder if the madness of the figures mentioned should even be characterized as ''war'' madness.

Μüller's interpretation of poem 16 is also doubtful, in particular with respect to its connection with the poetry of Anacreon. In this poem the lyric ''I'' gives detailed instructions to a painter who is to make the portrait of an absent hetaira, as ἀπεοῦσαν, v. 4 indicates. The presence of this participle in the beginning of the line emphasizes the fact that the reconstruction of the portrait takes place from memory. The Αnacreontic poet's directions to the painter are introduced in the imperative: γράφε (v. 5, 6, 9, 10, 22, 24); cf. ποίησον (v. 19). Noting that the same verb γράφε is repeated six times in the course of a 34-line poem, Müller (p. 274) interprets this repetition as an indication of inner unrest and unfulfilled desire, which connects the poem to Anacreon, to whom Müller attributes the Sapphic motif of unfulfilled desire as a general characteristic. This interpretation seems flawed. Nothing in the text suggests inner unrest or unfulfilled desire.

In poem 22 the lyric ''I'' first makes reference to two mythological exempla of transformation, Niobe and Procne, and then lists a number of objects into which he wishes to transform himself in order to be near his beloved. Müller (p. 156) attempts to identify the connection between the lyric ''I'' and the tragic mythological figures. He assumes that the lyric ''I'' must be experiencing great pain on account of having been deprived of his beloved, and hence wishes to be transformed into anything that will bring him closer to her; this sort of pain is then viewed as comparable to those of Niobe and Procne. Moreover he notes a lighter, almost comic mood in the subsequent strophes (156), adding that this juxtaposition of the serious and the comic brings the poem very close to the poetry of Anacreon. Yet it seems that the only thing that the lyric ''I'' and the mythological figures have in common is the practice of transformation, while any element of seriousness is in fact absent.

In his interpretation of the same poem, Müller (p. 157) also suggests that, while in lines 5- 6 the lyric ''I'' expresses the wish to be close to his beloved in a Platonic way, i.e. experiencing only an emotional desire („seelisches Verlangen“), in the remainder of the poem (vv. 7-16) the ''I'' expresses the same wish urged by an erotic desire (“erotisches Verlangen”). But it seems unlikely that this dualistic approach to erotic passion, i.e. its division into emotional and physical, will prove useful for the interpretation of the text; the erotic gaze of lines 5-6 is clearly not purely emotional, for looking at the beloved also involves physical attraction. Moreover, even if we grant Müller's dualistic approach to passion, the expression of an emotional desire, as Müller calls it, will still occupy only two lines (vv. 5-6), while the erotic one a much longer body of text (vv. 7-16). As a result his claim (p. 157) that the poem belongs to the Anacreontic tradition, in which ''sentimental longing or yearning'' appears much more regularly than erotic desire, cannot stand.

In poem 26 the lyric ''I'' employs a double priamel to express his preference for erotic discourse. The lyric ''I'' says that while one man may speak of the Theban cycle and another of the war of the Phrygians, he speaks of his own ἁλώσεις. Μüller (p. 222) interprets the poem as dealing with unfulfilled desire or the unsuccessful end of a love affair. It seems much more likely, however, that the phrase στρατὸς ὀμμάτων (vv. 6-7) refers to the existence of more than one love-affair, as does the reference in verse 3 to his ἁλώσεις. The use of the plural in the case of Love is in fact quite common in the corpus. And there is no mention of unfulfilled desire in the text. The fact that one faces the beloved and feels hurt by love's arrow is quite different from an unfulfilled love.

Müller also occasionally draws attention to alleged similarities between texts, which in fact lack textual support. In poem 2 the lyric ''I'' expresses its wish to sing the drinking song “ὑπὸ σώφρoνος λύσσης”(v. 6). Regarding this oxymoron Müller points to the Anthologia Palatina (AG 9, 406, 5-6), where there is mention of σώφρων μανίη, but also rightly notes that there is no direct influence of that on the Anacreontic poem. Yet he attempts (p. 132 n. 496) to link the reference to ''sane madness'' to a passage in Plato's Phaedrus (235c), in which Anacreon is called ''wise''. But this cannot be correct because the description of Anacreon in the Platonic text as ''wise'' does not suggest self-control but efficiency in handling matters of love. Moreover, the oxymoron ''σώφρων λύσσα'' may be interpreted simply as a Dionysiac topos (cf. Eur. Bacch. 504; 641A.P. 11, 32, 4; Athen. 10, 447 f = Ion von Chios fr. 89, 15-16 West).

If we leave aside certain individual cases, in which Müller's proposed interpretative tool – i.e. the direct connection between the poetic programme of the Anacreontic poets and Anacreon – ought to have been used more sparingly, the book will prove useful to any reader of the Anacreontic poetry wishing to gain a full appreciation of both the Anacreontic poetry itself and its exact relationship with its model.


1.   Lambin Gérard, Anacréon. Fragments et imitations , Rennes 2002; Rosenmeyer, Patricia A., The poetics of imitation , Cambridge 1992.
2.   These are cited in the footnotes, while the main body of the text interprets them and puts them in a larger context. At the end of the chapter M. provides a table in which he categorizes the information he has compiled according to various criteria, such as theme (sympotic, erotic) or the citation of a fragment of Anacreon in the source.

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