BMCR 2001.07.12

Callimachus’ Book of Iambi

, Callimachus' book of Iambi. Oxford classical monographs. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. xxiv, 334 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm.. ISBN 019924006X.

“This book is an all but unchanged version of my dissertation submitted for the degree of D.Phil. in Trinity Term 1997. Since then some material has been added to the footnotes” (vii). These are the first words that greet the reader in the acknowledgements of Arnd Kerkhecker’s new book on Callimachus’ Iambi. And in fact, the colloquial style as reflected in the numerous questions posed to the reader that evoke the feel of work in progress, the occasional dismissive position-establishing argument, and the punctilious citations of works, read and unread, attest to the dissertational nature of the book. Moreover, the rush to publication appears to have memorialized the marginal comments of the author’s copy editor, Dr Leofranc Holford-Strevans, in a number of notes which contain within square brackets the perceptive comments of a certain L. A. H.-S. (pp. 19-20 n. 53, p. 45 n. 211, et passim). These features tend to distract from, and may possibly obscure, the substantial contribution that Kerkhecker’s book makes to the study of Callimachus’ Iambs.

In the preparation of his text of the Iambs, Kerkhecker reexamined Pfeiffer’s edition, collating original and photocopied papyri. The differences between this and Pfeiffer’s texts, of which there are quite a few, are listed on pages xxi-xxiv. The new text is not printed continuously, however; rather the fragments are embedded in the commentary, which is not necessarily bad, given the nature of what survives and the fact that the work is part of a monograph series. Yet, the book really wants to be a text and commentary and, in my opinion, would have been improved by being so configured. At the very least, the new text, even qua membra disiectiora, might have been given critical apparatuses to obviate the need to look back and forth at Pfeiffer’s and Kerkhecker’s texts and the latter’s footnotes and prefatory notes dealing with the text.

In the introduction, Kerkhecker identifies his goals quite clearly: (1) to examine the different witnesses and flesh out Pfeiffer’s reconstruction; (2) to distinguish fact from inference and conjecture; and (3) to provide an interpretation of each poem and the book as a whole (p. 1). The Iambs merit such attention, Kerkhecker adds, because they are in a way a microcosm of Callimachus’ art and as such give us a glimpse into how he resurrected, revitalized, and even ennobled an ancient genre. Given that the choice to take on iambic verse is significant in and of itself, Kerkhecker provides a brief history of the poetic tradition, looking at what little we know of Archilochus, Hipponax and Semonides, the demise of the iambus, and the rediscovery of the genre in Callimachus’ time and later. The author concludes that the reason Callimachus chose Hipponax, and not the more obvious Archilochus, as his model was the scazon, Hipponax’ metrical innovation that never lost its “iambic” character, as opposed to the trimeter, which had come to be used for any topic and tone. In fact, as Kerkhecker points out, early in the third century BC Hipponax was rediscovered by a number of writers contemporary to Callimachus such that the poet “is reacting, not only to the past, but to the present” (p. 7).

In the following ten chapters, which include an excursus on the papyri of Iambi V-VII, Kerkhecker looks at the fragments of each of the iambs in the order in which they were arranged in the book and offers a conclusion on the Compass, Composition, and Character of the work in the eleventh and final chapter. The discussion of each iamb consists of an introduction, including a detailed report on the papyri, and a section by section analysis of the fragments.

In Iambus I, Hipponax returns from the dead in order to advise the scholars and poets of Alexandria to put an end to their rancor. In his prefatory discussion, Kerkhecker focuses on the ancient conception of communication between the living and dead. A survey of earlier passages suggests that Callimachus’ mise en scene is different because only here does a denizen of the underworld visit the upperworld without invitation. Instances where the unburied dead appear unsummoned to the living are dismissed on the ground that they are in between worlds and thus not yet sequestered on the other side (pp. 30-31). While the point is well taken, I do not find the distinction all that significant, or the evidence cited sufficiently conclusive, to imagine that Callimachus was doing something radically new in this regard. What is more noteworthy, I believe, is the very fact that Callimachus chose to begin his new book of iambic verse with the supernatural appearance of one of the great archaic poets and the inventor of the meter of the inaugural poem. Like his dream and its allusion to Hesiod’s investiture by the Muses at the beginning of the Aetia, Callimachus situates his new book of poems in the poetic tradition that he wishes to resurrect and update.

Yet, as Kerkhecker rightly notes, Hipponax Redux is a changed man. His new war is not against specific individuals but against cantankerousness itself (p. 33); as such, “Iambic criticism has (here) turned conciliatory. The Iambicist corrects himself as well as others. Callimachus acts as Hipponax preaches and ingeniously surpasses the mordant speaker of the poem” (p. 34). Moreover, as Kerkhecker also notes, different from his archaic model Callimachus created a dramatic setting for the reenactment of his Iambs, much as he did in and for his hymns. These are useful observations that help us better appreciate Callimachus’ contribution to the renovation of the genre.

Kerkhecker’s reading of the Bathycles parable (the story about the man who, on his deathbed, charged his son Amphalces to give his golden cup to the best of the seven wise men) is very interesting. In the surviving fragment, Bathycles, a well-heeled Arcadian, appears to be bed-ridden with gout and, in his final moments of life, assuming the posture of a symposiast, offers to bestow his drinking cup as a kind of “Nobel prize” (pp. 37-38). As such, Thales’ decision to reject the cup might result not only from a sense of modesty but also because of the nature of the prize. I would like to have seen Kerkhecker pursue this point and how it might affect our reading of the poem as a whole.

Iambus II. Animals originally had the power of speech, until the swan demanded immortality and the fox criticized Zeus as unjust; as a result, Zeus transferred their vocal characteristics to humans, which is why Eudemus has a dog’s voice, etc. Kerkhecker argues that there is a fundamental inconsistency in the story that arises from the combination two different tales (an aetiology for why animals cannot speak and for the various forms of loquacity among human beings; p. 58). The failure of the two tales to merge successfully, Kerkhecker argues, should not be ascribed to Callimachus but to the speaker whose iambic persona he created. “Wilful inconsistency is the hallmark of the speaker’s self-indulgence … Callimachus’ interest is more in the teller than in the tale” ( ibid.). In his criticism of individual faults, the speaker dresses up vituperation as aetiology and as such his criticism proceeds indirectly. In Iambus I, the poet was a member of the audience criticized by Hipponax; here he speaks up but disclaims responsibility, citing Aesop as his source.

Iambus III. Bemoaning the present fall from grace and a world dominated by self-interest and greed, the speaker complains about the loss of a certain Euthydemos, whose mother introduced him to a rich man. Kerkhecker sees this poem as closely related to the previous two: the past (old masters and the Golden Age) provides a foil for the corrupt present (nasty scholars, animal-voiced contemporaries, and now greedy lovers). In the previous poems, Kerkhecker notes, Callimachus both inserts personal attacks as illustrations and “laughs at the disgruntled sermonizing of his speaker” (p. 81). Lines 30 to the end are paraphrased as follows: “I was brought up honestly, and thought (when I met you) that I had found the Good—but now I see the gods idle, have wrought my own ruin, and should have served Cybele or Adonis rather than Apollo and the Muses” (p. 75-76). Kerkhecker suggests that the reference to “seeing the Good” ( τὠγατηὸν βλέψαι) and the use of the name Euthydemus evoke Platonic philosophy. As such, the speaker “confuses passion for an individual boy with the pursuit of the Good” (p. 76). The proposal that the speaker is a misguided Platonist lamenting a lost Golden Age over a failed love affair is appealing. It is in this poem, Kerkhecker states, that the poet speaks openly for the first time in the collection (p. 82).

In Iambus IV, a certain Simus interrupts an argument between the poet and a rival under the assumption that he is their equal. This prompts the telling of another story, the contest between the laurel and olive trees which the bramble bush interrupts only to be abused by the laurel. Kerkhecker offers a useful explication de texte of what is the longest running section that survives of the Iambi (85 of 117 lines) and proceeds to argue how it fits within the sequence of the previous poems. As above, he distinguishes Callimachus the speaker from Callimachus the author. While the speaker clearly assumed the role of the victorious olive tree for most of the story, at the end, when the laurel viciously attacks the bramble bush for assuming social parity, he resembles the speaker at the beginning of the poem who similarly chides Simus. As such the speaker’s tale turns against himself. “The poem is not about a quarrel, but about quarrelling; not about poetics, but about manners. Callimachus depicts himself, the notorious quarreller, and shows his own discomfiture” (p. 115). The iambic poet’s initial persona gradually comes across as bumbling and inconsistent.

Before turning to Iambi V-VII, Kerkhecker reexamines and approves of Lobel’s and Pfeiffer’s presentation of the text, offering some modifications of detail of his own. The results do not, however, affect the reading or interpretation of the text.

In Iambus V, the poet assumes the posture of an advisor and by way of tactful, though apparent, language urges a grammar teacher to give up the sexual pursuit of one of his students. The first half of the poem reveals the “rhetoric of altruism” as the speaker tries to stop the randy school teacher from buggering his students. But what happened in the second half remains shrouded in mystery. Kerkhecker reasonably asks if the speaker collapsed “from lofty moralizing into low selfishness” (p. 142), in such a way that his “pretentious mindedness” was deflated (p. 145), as in Iambus III. Possibly. He compares the Hipponactean model (fr. 118 West) and notes that we find here “mannerisms of benevolence, not of unbridled aggression” and continues “[p]erhaps, after his discomfiture in IV, the speaker is changing. Perhaps, the spirit of Iambus I is finally taking hold. Perhaps, in Iambus V, he is doing the right thing, though in an odd way—something that will happen again in Iambus VI” (p. 146). Perhaps.

Iambus VI is a combination of propempticon and ecphrasis where “generic expectations are disappointed” (p. 179). A friend of the speaker is about to go to Olympia to see Phidias’ statue of Zeus, which the poet goes on to describe. Instead of instilling the reader, not to mention his friend, with a sense of awe at the consummate skill of the most celebrated sculptor in the Greek world, the speaker focuses on the measurements of the base, throne, footstool, and statue and the cost of the work as well. As for the propempticon, we encounter “No complaint about the imminent separation ( σχετλιασμός), no prayer for his friend’s welfare, no encouragement in the face of danger, no promise of sacrifice to the saviour gods and of a feast on the occasion of his safe return. Instead, a list of pointless facts” (p. 173). In his discussion, Kerkhecker argues against ancient and modern critics of the poem’s ecphrastic melt-down by stressing the tongue-in-cheek nature of the narrative: “The facts are not there for their own sake. They are there to surprise and disappoint, to reduce and deflate, to entertain and amuse through their misplaced exactitude and incongruous ingenuity” (p. 170). I find this reading very satisfying, particularly given the general interpretation of the iambs that Kerkhecker offers up to this point. The esthetic mentality pilloried here—that art can be measured in so uncritical a fashion—parallels the criticism aimed at the Telchines and is of a piece with Callimachean esthetics in general.

Iambus VII also concerns a cult statue, that of Hermes Perpheraios. As we learn from the ancient summary, the statue was washed away in a flood of the river Scamander and eventually found in the nets of some fishermen from the Thracian town of Aenus. When they failed to split it up for firewood and burn it whole, they threw it back into the sea only to discover it again. This time they revered the statue, passing it around (hence the name), and brought it into their city. A central question that the poem raises (aside from reconstruction) is its presence in a book of iambic verse. Kerkhecker points out that it forms a pair with the previous poem by way of similarity (both poems are about statues and are in the same meter [trim. + ith.]) and contrast (Zeus of Olympia (is to) Hermes of Aenos as chryselephantine sculpture in a pan-Hellenic sanctuary (is to) wooden image of a local deity as historical (are to) mythical artists as silent (are to) speaking statues). Moreover both poems draw on traditional forms (ecphrasis and propempticon in Iambus VI; epigram and narrative hexameter poem in Iambus VII [pp. 182-83]) and enhance “the humorously irreverent attitude to divinities qua artefacts” (p. 195). What brings this poem within the fold, Kerkhecker argues, is the same interest in self-irony found in the other pieces of the collection: “It is about a god making fun of himself (Hermes is aptly chosen)” and as such is “another variation on the theme: ‘how seriously to take yourself'” (p. 196). A valiant attempt here to find order when none is apparent.

For practical reasons, Kerkhecker groups together his discussion of Iambi VIII-XI in one—the next—chapter, given the paltry remains of the poems.

Iambus VIII survives only in its summary, one line cited by the ancient Diegesis, and a couple of possible lines among the fragmenta incertae sedis (fr. 220, 222, 223 Pf.). The iamb celebrated the victory of Polycles of Aegina in the Diaulos Amphorites and included the founding myth for the athletic event: the Argonauts’ race to fetch water during their stop on Aegina in the final stretch of their journey home. Kerkhecker’s explanation for the inclusion of this iambic epinician in the collection is tempting: given that Iambi VI-XI are about sculptures, Iambus VIII could well have been spoken by a statue of the victorious Polycles.

Iambus IX, as the Diegesis tells us, also features a talking statue, and it is once again Hermes who explains the form he has assumed. The lover of a certain Philetadas asks an ithyphallic statue of the god located in a palaestra if he is his arousal was caused by his young boyfriend. The god attributes his state to a mystery and adds that his interrogator loves Philetadas for ill. From this, Kerkhecker states that the poem contrasts, recondite and crude, legendary and Iambic, and divine mysteries and low lust (p. 207). Unfortunately, little more can be said about this poem with any confidence.

Iambus X contains two aetia: why swine are sacrificed to Aphrodite Kastnietis of Aspendos in Pamphylia and why Artemis of Eretria will accept anything that is sacrificed to her. Of the first aetion, we learn from the Diegesis that a Mopsus vowed to sacrifice to Aphrodite the first animal he caught and it was a wild boar; we are told nothing of the other aetion. Kerkhecker explains the first line—that Aphrodite is not one goddess (fr. 200a 1 Pf.)—as a combination of Plato’s two Aphrodites in the Symposium and the two aspects of the goddess worshipped in Aspendos (“Tongue-in-cheek pedantry bringing Plato into line with reality?” p. 211). As Kerkhecker states, there must have been an explanation for the odd cult of Artemis as well. There is too little here on which to base a reading of the poem. At least, as Kerkhecker points out, we can say that the iamb suits this part of the collection with its focus on local statues of Olympian gods and the “deflating perspective” among the iambs in general (p. 212). I don’t see, however, how the fragments convey the idea that Aphrodite is commended for getting what she wants (p. 213).

Iambus XI survives solely in the summary of the Diegesis and in its opening line cited there. The poem is also aetiological, explaining the meaning of the phrase “Connidas’ property is up for grabs.” According to the ancient summary, the poem corrected the name of the property owner (Connidas and not Connarus), and, given the opening line, it was probably Connidas himself, speaking from the tomb, that voiced the correction. As it would seem from the quoted line, we are at Connidas’ tomb in Selinus. He was a pimp who promised his inheritance to Aphrodite and his friends. But when his will was reported to have said “Connidas’ property is up for grabs,” everyone left the theater and stole his goods. Kerkhecker argues that the poem ends in the “surprise of expectant heirs cheated,” satirizing the speaker’s “cheeky view of what is due…to the gods” (p. 217). Maybe. The striking contrast he observes between the last poem (goddesses who take anything and everything) and this one (the goddess who loses everything) is potentially significant.

With Iambs XII and XIII, Kerkhecker notes, we return to “the world of I-V”—Callimachus confronting his friends and enemies—with a “celebration of the power and value of poetry in XII, and a defense of his own poetry in XIII” (p. 218). As such, the two function as a fitting conclusion to the book.

Iamb XII begins in hymnal form with an invocation to Artemis, an appropriate choice as she is the goddess of childbirth; the poem was offered as a gift to Callimachus’ friend Leon on the occasion of the Amphidromia, a feast celebrated seven days after the birth of a child (in this case, his daughter). Kerkhecker likens this to the “Chinese-box-poem” structure of Iambus IV whereby a “specific occasion, dramatically evoked, gives rise to a poem that contains an account of a similar occasion within a similar poem” (p. 247). Here, the myth features the celebration of the Hebdoma of Hebe, on which occasion Apollo claims that his gift, a poem, is the best, because, different from gold, it never perishes. The private setting of both the poem’s addressee and the gods in the myth makes the lyrical iamb more personal than the opening poem of the collection where the “public I” through the character of Hipponax attacks fellow scholars at a symposium. The Iambicist has thus, according to Kerkhecker, become more mellow and speaks for no one but himself (p. 249).

Iambus XIII offers a defense of the criticism leveled against the polyeideia of the poet’s work. As Kerkhecker notes, the defense recalls the opening of the Aetia, where the poet also begins with the critic’s point of view. Following an invocation to the Muses and Apollo, in which mention of a libation identifies the setting as a symposium, Callimachus presents his critic’s accusation in lines 2-22. In his attack on the Iambi, the critic, according to Kerkhecker, insists that Callimachus should have stuck to one genre and takes the poet to task for an inauthentic use of dialects. The attack recalls the quarrelling scholars of Iambus I, to which, then, this poem forms a companion piece. In Iambus XIII, Callimachus appears to have assumed the role he assigned to Hipponax in Iambus I (cf. line 92): he attacks the claim of someone who believes he is the sole representative of the Muses (p. 260). In his response, Callimachus offers as counter-examples the far-ranging Ion of Chios and a craftsman who makes different types of vessels. Behind the critic’s position, according to Kerkhecker, stands Plato, who argued against the crossing of genres and made considerable use of the craftsman metaphor, particularly in his condemnation of poetry in Republic X (pp. 261-263). As in the prologue to the Aetia and the Hymn to Apollo, here too “the poet not only addresses, but condescendingly redefines, the crude terms and categories imprudently offered by the other side…an external (quantitative) criterion is replaced by an internal (qualitative) one” (p. 268). Iambus XIII is seen to offer a fitting conclusion to the book, characterized by its diversity of subject and meter, as it returns to the symposium of scholars with which it began and establishes its author as the legitimate disciple of Hipponax (p. 270).

In the final chapter of his book, Kerkhecker takes on the issue of whether the four lyric poems ( mele) that follow Iambi I-XIII in the Diegesis belong to the book of iambic verse or are independent works. Given that only I-XIII are called “iambs” in the Diegesis, that the mele are metrically distinct, and that the lack of a collection title can be explained by the fact that, like the hymns, they were independent compositions, Kerkhecker concludes, and I agree, that Callimachus’ book of Iambs contained thirteen and not seventeen poems. Moreover, he goes on to argue that the metrical and thematic progression of the poems bespeaks a conscious arrangement that probably goes back to the author and not a later collector, making this one of the “earliest extant examples of a Gedichtbuch” (p. 283). The idea arose, Kerkhecker agues, from contemporary interest in systematizing knowledge of the past, the editorial practice of arranging poems in books, and the discussions regarding the question of genre (pp. 287-289).

Based on his reading of the individual poems, Kerkhecker interprets the arrangement of the book as follows: Iambi I-IV reveal the gradual evolution of an iambic persona that ultimately fails in Iambus IV and assumes a new attitude in Iambus V, where the speaker reveals a more easy-going attitude. The poet’s self-examination and transformation undergone in I-V has led him to look at others, including the gods, with an amused but more compassionate attitude; he has thus become the kinder and gentler Hipponax that we encounter in the rest of the book. Along with this sequential reading of the book, Kerkhecker has argued for a structural pattern in the second half which supports the division of the book into two sections (I-V and VI-XIII). VI-XII are addressed to friends; VII, IX, and XI introduce speaking monuments; VIII-X deal with heroic myth; XIII looks back to I thus closing the second half and the book. On the basis of what survives, this is a reasonable reconstruction of the book and a sound foundation for future research on Callimachus’ iambic verse.

To conclude, Kerkhecker has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of both the individual Iambs, the collection as a whole, and its relationship to the wider context of Callimachean and Alexandrian poetry. My chief reservations are those expressed at the beginning of this review. Had the author and editors been more patient, Kerkhecker’s excellent work and his interesting and often compelling conclusions would not be diminished by their less than felicitous form of presentation.