BMCR 1990.01.04

From Homer to Tragedy: The Art of Illusion in Greek Poetry

, From Homer to Tragedy: The Art of Illusion in Greek Poetry. London: Routledge, 1990. xiii, 268 pages. ISBN 9780415035996

Unlike T. S. Eliot in The Wasteland, ancient authors, although they constantly drew upon and referred to earlier literary works, did not typically footnote their sources. Recognizing and evaluating the poets’ debts to their predecessors is, therefore, not always easy. Even the variety of names used to refer to this phenomenon—allusion, reference, imitation, echo, reminiscence, or the commentary staple “cf.”—suggests the topic’s elusiveness. Not that allusions are illusory, but rather they are so varied and (at times) subtle and often so much a part of the texture of the text that the critic is hard pressed to sort them out and explain the intricate and nuanced ways in which they function. The lacunose nature of Greek and Latin literature adds to the difficulty of the task, since the critic is handicapped by not knowing the full richness of a poet’s use of other works.

Some areas of Greek and Latin—Greek lyric, Hellenistic, and Augustan poetry in particular—have been well served by the study of allusion. Greek tragedy, however, has received considerably less attention in this regard. Commentaries, going back to the scholia, mention references to earlier treatments, and there have been some important works on individual aspects or plays, but there has never been a sustained and systematic treatment of allusion in Greek tragedy. Garner’s book seeks to provide just that. His goal is ambitious: to catalogue and to analyze the allusions to earlier poetry in Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. He makes no claim to have discovered all the allusions in the tragic texts (more will occur to others), nor does he think that his explanations are exhaustive (he recognizes—and frequently refers to—the open-endedness of allusions). But he offers the fullest collection to date of allusions in the tragic playwrights and the most sustained attempt to analyze them.

Following G. Conte’s discussion of the similarity between metaphor and allusion, Garner appropriates for his discussion of allusion the terms for metaphor made famous by I. A. Richards: tenor (the primary text under consideration), vehicle (the text alluded to), and ground (the common elements between the two). He opts for the word “trigger”, used in a slightly different sense by A. W. H. Adkins, to indicate that which leads one to suspect the allusion, e.g., the use of a rare word found in both passages, a previous echo of the work which makes the reader predisposed to note a further allusion, the familiarity of the verse(s) alluded to. And he offers his own term “collusion” to refer to “such allusions which have no trigger or a very weak one” (24). Although Garner acknowledges that the distinctions between allusion, collusion and imitation (borrowings “from a specific passage without suggesting any interaction,” 20) are often impossible to make definitively, he repeatedly tries to make these distinctions. While Garner is correct that allusions are not monolithic in function, the reader may often find his attempts at distinctions self-defeating, and several of his assertions that something is not an allusion seem to involve special pleading.

After an introductory chapter in which he explores how this works in Greek lyric poetry (examples from Mimnermus, Tyrtaeus, Sappho and Stesichorus), he proceeds through the extant tragedies (minus Rhesus, but plus Cyclops) in rough chronological order. One chapter is devoted to Aeschylus, three to Sophocles and Euripides combined, and a final chapter offers a summing up and some general tendencies and patterns in the three playwrights. Six indices follow the text; these comprise the raw material for the whole enterprise. The two longest ones, “Passages Used by Poets” and “Poets’ Allusions By Work” (annotated as to type—allusion, collusion, imitation), are invaluable. Many of these references have been noted by others, but nowhere else can one find so handily such a wealth of material. These lists will be frequently consulted and will help further discussion on the topic of allusion in Greek tragedy.

The treatment of the individual plays is, naturally, uneven in length, since the extent of allusion varies from play to play ( Ion, for example, has fewer discernible literary references than any of the surviving plays). Garner’s analyses also vary in their persuasiveness. I comment individually on only a few of the longer discussions. In his section on the Oresteia Garner identifies Aeschylus’ characteristic, and very interesting, technique in the trilogy of alluding on a lexical level to passages (in Homer) which refer to other stages in the dramas’ narrative. Oddly, however, he says nothing about Aeschylus’ use of Stesichorus in the trilogy. On PB Garner offers an interesting analysis based on allusions associating Prometheus with Achilles. The discussion of Alcestis (which already appeared in CA 1988), arguing that it alludes heavily to the Iliad and to epinician, complements and puts into a sharper focus much of the work that has been done on this problematic play. The treatment of Antigone, which seeks primarily to