Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.11.14 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.11.14

Floris Bernard, Christopher Livanos, The Poems of Christopher of Mytilene and John Mauropous. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 50.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2018.  Pp. xxii, 601.  ISBN 9780674736986.  $29.95.  


Reviewed by Baukje van den Berg, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Division of Byzantine Research (Baukje.VandenBerg@oeaw.ac.at)

Preview

In the preface to his collection of poems (pp. 316-319 in the present volume), the eleventh-century Byzantine intellectual John Mauropous (ca. 1000-after 1075) writes that he has selected the poems in question as a sample from his oeuvre at large and “offer[s] just these gifts to friends of words as a small taste of an array of wines” (p. 319, lines 28-29). In this excellent volume published in the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (DOML) series, Floris Bernard and Christopher Livanos have now made widely accessible Mauropous’ gifts to modern “friends of words,” along with the collection of poems by another eleventh-century Byzantine author, Christopher of Mytilene (also born ca. 1000). The volume presents a revised edition and facing English translation of the poems of these two prominent authors, who flourished around the middle of the eleventh century. A brief introduction provides readers with the necessary background against which to understand the poems, outlining the main events of the mid-eleventh century, introducing the lives and works of the poets, and describing the formal features, genres, and occasions of their poetry. Brief explanatory notes accompany the translation.

To bring these two collections together into one volume is a suitable choice. Both poets enjoyed successful careers during the reign of emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055), and, even though they never explicitly refer to one another, their poetry is the product of the same historical context and intellectual world. It is commonly assumed that Christopher and Mauropous themselves edited the collections of poems in a conscious effort to promote their intellectual legacies. Their Various Verses, as both collections are entitled in the main manuscripts, give us snapshots of the major events, daily life, and intellectual milieu of eleventh-century Constantinople. They describe chariot races (Christopher, poem 90), an infestation of mice in the poet’s home (Christopher, poem 103), scholarly polemics (e.g., Christopher, poems 23 and 40; Mauropous, poems 33 and 34), and statues and buildings in Constantinople (e.g., Christopher, poem 50 on the bronze statue of a horse in the hippodrome and 95 on the Church of Saint George in Mangana; Mauropous, poem 69 on the bathhouse of Blachernai), to mention only a few of the manifold subjects addressed. To a large extent, the two collections cover similar genres and occasions—both collections contain, for instance, funerary poems, satires, encomia, and epigrams—while they also share certain stylistic qualities. The meter of choice is the prosodic dodecasyllable: Mauropous writes exclusively in Byzantine twelve-syllable verses, while Christopher occasionally employs ancient meters (dactylic hexameters, anacreontics, and elegiac distichs). Some poems, moreover, testify to their original function as Gebrauchstexte: verses were exchanged between friends as gifts, borrowed by colleagues to read, and presented to the emperor on specific occasions. In this way, these collections—and hence this volume—give us valuable insight into contemporary literary culture and the many different functions of poetry in it.

The reader first encounters the collection of Christopher of Mytilene, consisting of 145 poems, some of which are fragmentary owing to damage to the sole manuscript transmitting the entire collection (Grottaferrata Z.α.XXIX). The arrangement of the collection is largely chronological, but a second rationale behind the order of the poems appears to be poikilia (“variation”):1 the various riddles among Christopher’s poems are distributed evenly over the collection (poems 21, 47, 56, 71, and 111), poems in the ancient meters never follow one other, longer and shorter poems alternate, and there is much thematic and generic variation (imperial encomia, satires, religious poems, and funerary poems follow one another seemingly randomly). Certain poems, however, cluster around the same event, for instance the funerary and consolatory poems related to the deaths of Christopher’s mother Zoe (poems 57-60) and his sister Anastaso (poems 75-79), allowing us a peek into the poet’s emotional life. The collection in its entirety paints a colorful and varied picture of life in the mid-eleventh century, while at the same time manifesting Christopher’s rhetorical skill in the whole range of the art of poetry, in form as well as content.

A different arrangement underlies the collection of John Mauropous, a successful teacher and intellectual with close ties to the imperial court of Constantine IX Monomachos. The main manuscript of Mauropous’ Various Verses is Vaticanus Graecus 676, which is believed to be the master copy produced under the poet’s supervision. The collection displays a careful and conscious symmetric arrangement, with a preface and epilogue marking its beginning and end. It proceeds thematically—major themes include the iconographical programme of a church (poems 2-26), funerary poems for friends (poems 35-39) and the emperor (poems 81-85), and poems about the author himself or addressed to himself (poems 89-93). Again, the poet shows us the variation of his oeuvre and his rhetorical versatility, inviting us to read further into his works, to sample more of his array of wines, should this first taste have piqued our interest.

Bernard and Livanos have succeeded in “reflect[ing] the fluent, sometimes almost colloquial style of the original,” an aim they express in the introduction (p. xx). The result is a smooth and readable English translation that, at the same time, stays close to the Greek original. Technical terms and titles of Byzantine administrative offices have been transcribed or translated for the sake of readability, with further explanation in the notes following the translation. These notes also explain the context of the poems, identify references to Biblical and classical texts, and draw attention to wordplays and puns in the Greek that are inevitably lost in translation. In line with the DOML format, the notes are limited to the most necessary issues for understanding the poems; they do not aim to provide a full commentary or detailed interpretation. This is not a criticism of the translators’ approach, but rather speaks to how this volume should stimulate and assist future studies of the poets and their work.

The volume makes available Christopher and Mauropous’ collections of poems to scholars and students of Byzantium and Byzantine literature, and to anyone interested in the eleventh century, whether from a historical or literary perspective. It advances our understanding of Christopher of Mytilene and John Mauropous as prominent figures of the eleventh century, as literati and intellectuals in their historical context. The book makes a useful companion to existing studies on Byzantine poetry of the eleventh century, most notably Floris Bernard’s Writing and Reading Byzantine Secular Poetry, 1025-1081.2 At the same time, it complements the study of the literary production of other periods, not least the Byzantine twelfth century, which produced a remarkable amount of writings in verse, often in the same poetic forms and with the same functions as eleventh-century poetry. Recurrent themes in Christopher’s and Mauropous’ collections of poems are the importance of education and the pleasure of literature—this skillful volume allows a wide audience of students and scholars to share in this literary pleasure.


Notes:


1.   On the arrangement of Christopher’s collection, see K. Demoen. 2010. Phrasis poikilê: Imitatio andVariatio in the Poetry Book of Christophoros Mitylenaios. In Imitatio, Aemulatio, Variatio. Eds. A. Rhoby and E. Schiffer, 103-118. Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.
2.   F. Bernard. 2014. Writing and Reading Byzantine Secular Poetry, 1025-1081. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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