BMCR 2001.09.07

Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society

, , Matrices of genre : authors, canons, and society. Center for Hellenic Studies colloquia ; 4. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. 346 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0674003381 $50.00.

“…there was at the end a sense of achievement. This achievement, however, was of a complex nature. On the one hand there was a strong feeling that one had gained certain insights into the treatment of genre in Hellenistic poetry and had become more and more aware that it was not just a matter of ‘Kreuzung der Gattungen’, but something far more subtle and sophisticated. On the other hand, this increased ‘knowledge’ seemed to open up many more questions, which were at present hard to answer, or even to formulate, as was underlined by a discussion in which several general questions were addressed, like: “What is genre?”, “What kind of view of genre are we—both consciously and unconsciously—applying to our texts: ancient, modern, or a mixture of both?”, “How are form, contents, style, function and context interrelated?” In the end it was impossible to give definitive answers to the above questions, but the fact that they were posed and discussed at all proved to be an important stimulus to go on thinking about what, to all concerned, seemed to be a very crucial aspect of Hellenistic poetry.”

These words conclude the prefatory remarks, not to the present colloquium volume on ancient poetry and poetic genres, but to the third Groningen colloquium volume on Hellenistic poetry:1 yet the perception, at once of accomplishment and aporia, captures both the essential and evasive character of the subject of inquiry. The same dual character is evident, and explicitly touched on by the editors and at least one contributor (Glenn Most 15-18) of Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society, the result of a Center for Hellenic Studies colloquium organized in August 1996 by Mary Depew and Dirk Obbink. The organizers requested that the participants consider the issue of genre from the following perspective (5): “What role do authors play in Greece and Rome in the models of literary production, the genres that were recognized and the competing schemes for classifying them and for accounting for change, selection, and authority?” The scale of inquiry is large, and covers a cultural space of many determinants: appreciation of poetic genre in archaic Greece, Alexandria and Augustan Rome involves a quite varied socio-cultural terrain. The resulting volume is a major contribution to an ongoing discourse on poet and genre and raises a number of questions in suggestive new ways. Does, for example, an ambiguous generic status affect a work’s reception (Sephanie West on Lycophon’s Alexandra)? Does a teleological conceptualization of genre impose a diachronic ordering of what may be synchronic features (Eric Csapo on Aristophanes and Menander)? How do we configure the directional tension in lyric in Horace’s use of occasional Greek lyric encoded in book form to in turn create simulated, or actual occasion (Alessandro Barchiesi). The reader will leave the volume with, if not definitions of individual poet and poetic genre, an enriched vision of a complex rapport.

The volume’s editors open with an introduction situating the inquiry in terms of several contemporary perspectives on genre in antiquity and definition of genre, among them Daniel Selden, Gregory Nagy and Charles Segal.2 The introductory remarks both justify the project in terms of new understanding of ancient poetry (especially the performance culture of early Greek poetry), and concede an awareness of the limits of our understanding of other cultures’ manner of ordering: the citation of Borges’ Chinese encyclopedia (13) is an apt reminder of these limits.

Glenn Most’s “Generating Genres: The Idea of the Tragic” that opens the work is a concise, lucid and often quite amusing discussion of the idea of the “tragic” and the history of its semantic value that would be excellent reading at the opening of any tragedy course. Most argues that our conception of the term “tragic”, whether used as an everyday adjective or as a metaphysical category, and our association of the “tragic” with Greek “tragedy” is the result of a long evolution of generic definition and even generation. Aristotle’s Poetics already treats tragedy apart from its ritual, politic and specifically Athenian context: the de-contextualization continues era after era, the idea of the “tragic” coming to have a quite different value, and an existence apart from specific tragic authors, works or audiences. Yet this new, hypostasized genre has had a powerful role in informing modern understanding of Greek tragedy. Most follows this evolution through Aristotle, post-Aristotelian treatments of tragedy (e.g. Horace, Epictetus: the treatment of individual tragic scenes in philosophy is especially striking), the Renaissance and Renaissance treatment of ancient literary theory and Schiller’s association of tragedy with Kantian conceptualization of the sublime. In a discussion of remarkable clarity Most demonstrates some of the real inconcinities that may lie behind a seemingly unambiguous generic classification. While the choice of the “tragic” for this analysis is a particularly illustrative one (for the reasons outlined 18-20), it would be very intriguing to see a similar evolutionary treatment of other poetic types, e.g. lyric. In what respects does our conceptualization of lyric (as in “a lyric voice”) inform, or even distort, our readings of, e.g., Sappho?

Both Joseph Day’s and Mary Depew’s contributions on archaic poetry are informed in part by recent scholarship closely associating poetry and material culture, particularly the cultural phenomenon of oggetti parlanti. The experience of reading inscribed epigrams has been the focus of a good deal of recent scholarship from a variety of perspectives: Joseph Day’s “Epigram and Reader: Generic Force as (Re)-Activation of Ritual” is a further, and especially in its focus on deictic language, novel, contribution to the discourse on this reading of speaking objects. Day contends that archaic inscribed verse functions as a genre of performance poetry, and that the act of reading aloud in effect re-creates the initial dedicatory situation. The viewer/reader, in viewing the agalma and reading aloud its dedicatory inscription, at once instantiates a relationship of viewer, object, dedicator and dedicatee and re-creates the initial ritual act of dedication. The ancient reader of CEG 1.326 (Day’s example) calls forth through this recreation the charis of the initial ritual moment. Day’s treatment raises a number of suggestive thoughts especially concerning the relational language of dedicatory epigram and the dual effect of ritual object and ritual language. There remains the question whether, and to what extent, such inscriptions were widely read (a question Day touches on at 43). The reader may now also wish to take into account P. Bing’s recent cautionary remarks in his “Pleasure in Reading? Inscribed Epigram and its Readers in Antiquity”.3

The association of agalma and text is also the focal point of Mary Depew’s “Enacted and Represented Dedications: Genre and Greek Hymn”. In her reading of archaic hymn Depew, like Day in his reading of epigram, pays particular attention to the deictic language that, as she well puts it, “puts the singing of a song on display…and in a particular temporal and spatial context” (63). Depew’s paralleling of dedicatory object and hymn, and her highlighting of the visual imagery of hymn, develops a convincing conceptualization of hymn as ritual poetry that recreates and reinforces celebratory occasion. At the same time the deictic language contributes to the hymnic narrative taking on the character of ktema, or display piece (76, the discussion of inscribed hymn here is intriguing). Depew concludes with a brief discussion of the decontextualization of hymn in tragic choral lyric and in Hellenistic poetry which is especially interesting for its treatment of the changing use of context in hymn over time, a topic Depew will hopefully pursue at greater length.

Ian Rutherford and Deborah Boedecker both treat instantiation of genre. In his “Formulas, Voice, and Death in Ehoie-Poetry, the Hesiodic Gunaikon Katalogos, and the Odysseian Nekuia”, Ian Rutherford similarly follows the evolution of a genre from archaic inception to Hellenistic model. Rutherford proposes a four-step generic evolution of ehoie-poetry. Beginning from an early stage of catalogue poetry with a prominent role of the ehoie-formula, this poetry comes to blend with genealogical poetry, the ehoie-formula now assuming a secondary generic or “automatized” role (Rutherford’s discussion here is informed especially by the conception of automatization of the formalists Tynjanov and Sklovsky). A canonical phase follows, familiar to us as the Hesiodic Gunaikon Katalogos. The Hellenistic poets in turn use the model of the Gunaikon Katalogos in the catalogues of erotic elegy (e.g. Hermesianax fr. 7 CA). Among the many intriguing features of this overview are the several moments of generic Kreuzung that occur in the genre’s development, raising the question, touched on in several of the essays in this volume, of the nature of Kreuzung at different periods. Rutherford’s discussion of the catalogue of women in Odyssey 11 and ehoie-poetry is an illuminating example, among our earliest extant texts, of a feature widely associated with much later literature.

Deborah Boedeker’s “Herodotus’ Genres” assesses Herodotus’ conceptualization of the genre of his work in part through his evaluation of other genres, and in part through his comments on the compositional features of his own, the constraints under which he composes, and the audience(s) of his narrative. Following an excellent succinct introductory section on current debate on the historical truth-value of the Histories (98-102), Boedeker examines Herodotus’ occasional reference to poetic narrative of past events and their truth-value (a process she well compares to Conte’s formulation of the “staging” of genre of Augustan poets 105), and also those of prose logographoi. Particularly with the instantiation of a new genre this self-characterization in terms of other extant genres is a valuable indication of the author’s perceived purpose. The following discussion of Herodotus’ comments on his own work begins with a valuable summary of Herodotus’ comments on his logos. I found also especially suggestive Boedecker’s comments on Herodotus’ use of the first person and his self-positioning in regard to his own performance situation.

Eric Csapo’s “From Aristophanes to Menander? Genre Transformation in Greek Comedy” poses a series of challenges to critics who would see a linear, and declining, evolution of comedy. Csapo begins by highlighting some of the fallibilities inherent in a genre definition based on one author. Here he is very good on the possibility that it was the ancient genre delineation of Old and New Comedy that may itself have determined the selection of generic exemplars (e.g. Aristophanes, Cratinus for Old Comedy) rather than the authors who informed the generic definitions. Csapo continues, in a narrative of literary histories at once informative and amusing, to outline the real damage done both by teleological and biological models for literary genres. In a study in some ways similar to Holt Parker’s work on the illusion of Sappho as schoolmistress,4 Csapo convincingly demonstrates the enduring influence of often quite insubstantial historical assumptions. Here Csapo catalogues the fable convenue of an Athens culturally and spiritually worn out for much of the 4th century as the explanation of a linear development of comedy, a development not substantiated by the surviving evidence. The evidence suggests a more complex, and in many ways more synchronic existence of comic styles, in which audience sympathy gradually came to prefer an ethical style over a political one, perhaps determined by a change in political and ideological preferences. As a commentary on how theories of genre evolution perpetuate themselves Csapo’s discussion of comedy presents a salutary warning.

Kreuzung der Gattungen has become something of a cliché for Hellenistic poetry: in part for this reason the thought-provoking treatments of genre of Marco Fantuzzi and Stephanie West are all the more interesting. Marco Fantuzzi begins his rich, insightful “Theocritus and the ‘Demythologizing’ of Poetry” with a reading of the openings of Idd. 16 and 17, passages that have proved especially enigmatic to many readers, in terms of their appropriation and re-fashioning of lyric programmatic stances, especially Simonides’ Plataea elegy. Fantuzzi convincingly advocates a recollection in Theocritus’ poetic self-fashioning of Simonides’ earlier positioning of his encomiastic poetry vis à vis Homeric epic. The reading is an important one for many reasons, not least for its evocation of generic Kreuzung in the models for Hellenistic poetry. Pursuing his analysis of the poet’s choice of mortal over divine subjects, Fantuzzi turns to the delineation of mortal/divine in the bucolic poems. Here he persuasively demonstrates that Theocritus, in his choice of rural deities and demarcation of nymphs/muses, is carefully marking his own distancing from the themes and figures of high epic. Hellenistic poetry’s relationship to archaic heroic culture is complicated by many factors, not the least of which is spatial and temporal distance: Fantuzzi’s study furthers our awareness of this complexity, and significantly contributes to our appreciation of Idd. 16 and 17, where an understanding of the role of the lyric model elucidates two works once seen as largely unsuccessful generic experiments.

The same dismissal of unsuccessful generic experimentation has often been cast on Lycophron’s Alexandra, a poem once cited as an example of obscure Alexandrianism, although lately it has enjoyed a renewed interest for its opposition of Greek and non-Greek and its poetry of colonization. The new BUR edition may be seen as indicative of this renewed interest.5 In her “Lycophron’s Alexandra: ‘Hindsight as Foresight Makes No Sense’?” Stephanie West treats the poem in terms of the problems it has posed for readers regarding historical and generic contextualization. West begins (156-57) with an informative, concise survey of the poem’s varied reception in several eras—this is an important reminder of the role of reception in determining a poem’s favor and accessibility. In her analysis of the poem’s generic origins, West posits a bi-fold generic lineage. The first is an evolution of tragic monologue as independent literary form (something similar may be at work with the Megara of ps.-Moschus). The second is a Greek verse rendition of the sort of apocalyptic literature pervasive throughout the Hellenistic World (e.g. Daniel), of which the most helpful paradigm here is the Oracle of the Potter. West’s paper raises many questions concerning the adaptation of popular (and non-Hellenic) forms in high literature at this period (the fable being another), and leaves the reader with a real concern regarding our own generic expectations. To what extent does a work’s falling outside of these inherently prejudice our own reception?

The title of Alessandro Barchiesi’s “Rituals in Ink: Horace on the Greek Lyric Tradition” elegantly encapsulates the two-directional movement at the center of his study. The Alexandrians catalogue the songs of one-time performances in book form, and these book forms in turn are the models for Horace’s lyric, a lyric that envisions (and in the case of e.g. the Carmen Saeculare instantiates) performance. Barchiesi, whose paper is the first on Latin poetry, opens by highlighting three areas that he sees as defining the generic problematics of Augustan poetry (areas to which he repeatedly returns): genre as productive theme (as opposed to controlling factor), a new and in some ways different conceptualization of poetic belatedness, and the politicization of poetic choice. Following a brief but very insightful treatment of Horace’s multiple lyric faces, Barchiesi turns to a fascinating discussion of the role Alexandrian ordering of archaic lyric in books came to have on the reception of individual poems. Sappho fr. 1, e.g., by its placement in turn has a programmatic resonance for later readers: the Alexandrian ordering itself “creates and teaches new effects of artistic design” (173). Barchiesi’s closing discussion of Horace 4.6 and the CS in terms of both instantiation of lyric performance and Pindaric model is a deeply intelligent reading of Horace’s lyric program, one that perceives this Roman rendition of Greek paean in terms of each of the categories outlined in the opening.

Ineke Sluiter and the late Don Fowler are both concerned with didactic: indeed Fowler in the opening of his paper comments on the unusual contemporaneous existence of prose and poetic didactic (205). Ineke Sluiter’s “The Dialectics of Genre: Some Aspects of Secondary Literature and Genre in Antiquity” takes a somewhat different central focus from the other articles in this collection in that the secondary literature Sluiter considers here, ancient scholarly commentaries on philosophical, medical and astronomical texts, is explicit about its direct dependency on another literature, its source-texts. For the study of genre in antiquity ancient commentaries are particularly valuable in that they both instantiate a new genre (although their authors would not recognize them as a separate genre as such) and contain some of the earliest reflections on genre. Sluiter opens with a survey of the early commentary (185-187), and then considers the ancient commentary in terms of four “dialectics of genre” (a concept to which she returns several times in the paper). 1. The commentator presumes the value of the source-text (and hence the choice for commentary) and at the same time some inadequacy, which may be redressed with commentary. 2. The commentator both values the source-text and keeps a dispassionate distance (to underline his efficacy as critic). 3. The commentator is at once colleague (qua philosopher, doctor etc.) and critic (qua philologist, grammarian) with an emphasis on the former. 4. The commentator partakes of a fluid (and often implicitly oral) critique of a written (and so stable) text. Sluiter goes on to show that commentators are aware of generic distinction and of their own distinct activity (commentary) but do not consider themselves participants in a separate genre as such. In this last regard Sluiter’s article may be well paired with D. Selden’s “Genre of Genre” on the generic categorization of the ancient novel.

Don Fowler in his “The Didactic Plot” treats a different didactic stance, that of didactic poetry, with its primary elements of didactic poetic voice, implied or explicit didactic audience, and body of material through which the poet leads his addressee. The central focus of Fowler’s study, however, is what he defines as secondary elements, “features frequently found in didactic and associated with it but neither necessary nor sufficient to mark a text as didactic”, particularly story patterns or plots in didactic. These patterns are frequently signaled, as Fowler shows, by structural metaphors of e.g. the path from ignorance to knowledge or from darkness to light, and by implicit myth (e.g., of Odysseus’ journey and return). Indeed among the highlights of Fowler’s article is his thoughtful study of the metaphors of traveled path and initiation in didactic, and some of the inherent expectations these draw upon in the poem’s audience: the discussion of the problematic nature of “rereading” a didactic work (211-12) is also excellent. Fowler concludes (217-19) with an acute and thought-provoking discussion of the malleable nature of genre, of the natural instability of genre as a cultural category, and what this can mean for a discussion of, e.g., didactic.

The final paper in the volume is Stephen Hinds’ “Essential Epic: Genre and Gender from Macer to Statius”. Hinds opens his analysis of the repeated problematic placing of women and erotic themes in Roman epic with an insightful study of the way generically innovative Roman poets appeal continually to essentialized generic forms. One of the questions that arises here is whether it is the need to assume an innovative, even transgressive stance that itself necessitates appealing to, even on some level creating categories (essentialized generic forms) to transgress. Hinds follows his initial survey of the treatment of epic’s gender boundaries in elegy (Hinds is very good on this) with an in-depth reading of Statius’ elaborate play with genre and gender roles in the first book of his Achilleid. Hinds’ reading of the Achilleid builds a scintillating argument for seeing the dynamics of genre (and gender) crossing as an on-going, dynamic evolution in Latin poetry.

Conference volumes are inherently themselves memorializing acts, and as such are synecdochal: they offer the papers presented, but not the interactions of these papers with one another. In the case of the present volume this necessary reality is particularly to be regretted: both the texts and the notes to individual papers make frequent reference to the other authors present, their papers, their reactions, as well as to those of the invited respondents. In a volume as large in scope as Matrices of Genre this dialogue would do much to inform, clarify and challenge. Yet Matrices of Genre is itself a memorialization of another dialogue, a dialogue with W. Kroll’s Kreuzung der Gattungen : the work, its title and the metaphor it encodes appear repeatedly throughout Matrices of Genre. The reader of the latter volume will want to re-read the earlier work: it is very much the metatext of the present collection.

Matrices of Genre is well produced, with very few typographical errors in the texts or in the notes: a few words that should have been transcribed into Greek on p. 183 remain in English. Two word-processing errors in the Introduction: p. 2, para. 2 final sentence read “Hellenic” for “Hellenistic”, p. 9 para. 2 the opening sentence is repeated toward the end of the page.


1. M.A. Harder, R.F. Regtuit and G.C. Wakker (eds.), Genre in Hellenistic Poetry. Hellenistica Groningana 3. Groningen: Egbert Forsten, 1998.

2.D. Selden, “Genre of Genre,” in The Search for the Ancient Novel. J. Tatum, ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Pp. 39-64. G. Nagy, Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of the Epic Past. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990. C. Segal in G.B. Conte, The Rhetoric of Imitation: Genre and Poetic Memory in Virgil and Other Latin Poets. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1986.

3.Forthcoming in Hellenistica Groningana 4: Epigram.

4. “Sappho Schoolmistress.” TAPA 123 309-51 (1993). Reprinted in E. Greene (ed.), Re-reading Sappho: Reception and Transmission. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Pp. 146-183.

5. Licofrone, Alessandra. Introduzione, traduzione e note di Valeria Gigante Lanzara. Milan: BUR, 2000.