BMCR 2004.07.11

Soliciting Darkness. Pindar, Obscurity, and the Classical Tradition. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 47

Hamilton, John T., Soliciting darkness : Pindar, obscurity, and the classical tradition. Harvard studies in comparative literature ; 47. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Department of Comparative Literature, 2003. 348 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0674012577 $27.59 (pb).

Once having earnestly started on Pindar, nobody would put the poems back on the shelf calmly; solving one question raises two new ones. For John T. Hamilton (H.), Assistant Professor of German and Comparative Literature at Harvard University, exactly this experience justifies his attempt to trace an entire tradition that has continually insisted on Pindar’s obscurity. As Voltaire formulated it, “no one understands” (“personne n’entend”) the poet whom Quintilian had characterized as “princeps lyricorum” (X 1.61). Other scholars have reacted against such a pessimistic view and proved that Pindar’s alleged incomprehensibility is in fact the result of the insufficient knowledge and poor methodology of the reader himself. In his book, which is a revised version of his dissertation, H. seeks less to mediate between these contradictory positions than to present the long tradition of two sets of readers, those who accused the lyric poet for his impenetrability and those for whom it was a starting point to enrich their own poetical principles.

Scrutinizing Pindar’s own statements and the various interpretations of his poetry, from Horace to European poetics and down to modern film adaptation, H. suggests that the reception of Pindar has been marked by fruitful consideration of the darkness that was deliberately intended by the poet himself. Moreover, this traditio obscura, initiated by Pindar and extending its influence beyond the limits of conventional philology, shows how tradition itself functions. For, according to H., by paying attention to the unclear, one becomes aware that an external system of comprehension is lacking and therefore has to mobilize inner forces of creative imagination to transfer the dark into the light of one’s own world. To explain the title of his book H., drawing on J. Derrida, argues that Pindar’s darkness is “soliciting” in a very literal sense, because it “shakes up” ( citare) the “whole” ( sollus) (10).

The study is divided into three parts which provide a general structure for the disparate but largely distinct topics.

Part one (“Poetry, Life and War: Pindar and Representations of Resistance”) investigates representations of Pindar as a figure who stands in contradiction to the times. Here, the first chapter “Untimely Citations” (15-35) initially focuses on ancient voices, especially Aristophanes’ parody of Pindar ( Birds 936ff.), which denied that the poet is in any way understandable or relevant to life. Thereafter H. extensively deals with German scholarship of the 18th and 19th century, when antiquity in general and Pindar in particular became in his view divorced from a broader audience through the far too specialized criticism of contemporary philologists like Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, whose monumental Pindaros (1922) was the fruit of a lifelong treatment of the sublime lyricist. In the debate of that time over how to treat antiquity, H. places the Prussian scholar in opposition to his notorious rival Nietzsche, who in The Birth of Tragedy practised and established a method of interpretation unknown to his contemporaries. While the latter was pleading for a creative appropriation of the classics, his adversary upheld the ideal of scholarly philology — first in his Zukunftphilologie!, published in 1872 in reaction to Nietzsche. Fifty years later in Pindaros, Wilamowitz affirmed the approach to antiquity that he had refined, by exposing an idealistic humanism that is aware of the tradition’s discontinuity and therefore endeavors to bridge it by conventional methods.

In the following chapter (“Beneath the Sign of Mars”, 36-55) H. directs his attention to Jean Renoir’s film La grande illusion (1937), in which a prisoner who is translating the epinicians during the First World War is enabled by Pindar’s loftiness to rise above his sad fate. The interpretation of the poet as engaging in a “certain type of resistance” is accompanied by bulk reflections on different authors, from the historian Arrian to Albert Camus, and not least Pindar himself (51-55), who in Pyth. 3 considers the eternal life achieved through the arts of the muses to be compensation for bodily death.

Under the rubric “Ecce philologus” (56-73), which is an allusion to Nietzsche’s autobiographical work “Ecce homo”, H. returns to the German reception of Pindar. Unlike Wilamowitz, the “George-Kreis”, promoted by Norbert von Hellingrath’s first edition of Hölderlin’s translation of Pindar, discovered in the Theban poet the everlasting Dionysian enthusiasm that vitalized its own poetry. It was Nietzsche who had laid out this new approach in the realm of scholarship. Reconciling positivist “aestheticization” with sceptic rejection of antiquity, the Basel professor asserted throughout his writings the common value of the past, stressing that the student’s goal is not knowledge but rather by means of the past to understand his own age and himself. H. emphasizes that Nietzsche’s autobiography by its subtitle (“Wie man wird, was man ist”) hints at Pythian 2 (v. 72), whose passages on grace and gratitude are taken (66-73) as intertext for appreciating the general mood of “Ecce homo”, which is a grateful one.

The second part, “Arts of Digression”, consistently explores the issue of how Pindar, although a public singer, could be conceived as having such an uncommonly private voice.

In the chapter “Woven songs” (77-96)1 we find the book’s most detailed inquiry into the epinicians themselves (foremost Nem. 4.37-44; Pyth. 9.76-78; Ol. 1). H. adduces examples of Pindar’s concept of praise, which was determined by the ποικιλία (“variety”; Ol. 1.29 and passim) of the hymns; with diacritical logic Pindar wove the light of praise into the dark background of ever-threatening (human and divine) envy, in order to make the victor shine all the more. So poikilia“allows each poem to execute the impossible possibility and the possible impossibility of praising by not praising” (78) — to quote an example of H.’s proneness to paradoxical formulations that one must get a grip on. However, in the opinion of H., the two counterforces inherent in the poems caused the difficulties that readers have had throughout their reception. What W. Schadewaldt (1928) called “subjective and objective intention” was nothing but the reflection of that basic tension. And H. specifies that the subjective intention is a theological one, recognizable by Pindar’s constant revision of myth for the sake of praise.

The next chapter (“Horace’s Apiary”, 97-1292) analyzes at great length Horace’s dealing with the epinicians, which contributed to his own poetic self-image. What the Roman lyricist utters about his predecessor in the “Pindar-ode” (4.2.5-8 monte decurrens velut amnis, “from the mount descending like a river”) in its turn served in Germany’s “epoch of genius” as the premier cipher of poetic power. Among many other quotations here and in the subsequent chapters, H. records the famous ending of Goethe’s “Wandrers Sturmlied” (“Wenn die Räder rasselten …, glühte deine Seel’ Gefahren, Pindar, [Mut]”, 99), although he misinterprets it by omitting the direct object (“Mut”) of “glühte”. Goethe’s terse formulation says that Pindar’s soul “glowfully” instilled courage into (the hearts of the victors who were in) danger. As H. shows, Horace in some odes (1.6, 1.7, 1.38, 2.12, 4.15) explicitly refuses to imitate the sublime style and, in deference to Callimachus, wants less to portray the unrepeatable moments of historical time than the iterable situations of quotidian non-events. Programmatically Horace displayed that self-restraint in Ode 4.2, where by casting himself as a “failing Icarus” he dissociates himself from Pindar, whose unlimited genius was out of his reach. Yet, such a program, H. notes, was obviously inconsistent with the aim not only of this poem, which refers to Iullus Antonius’ public praise of Augustus, but of many other official odes, like the Roman odes. Indeed, Horace throughout rewrites Pindaric motifs. H. resolves the discrepancy by arguing that Horace in fact identifies with Pindar as a poet of poikilia, which he does not strictly imitate but uses as a frame in which his own poetic nature can develop.

From that point of view H. thinks about the tension between myth and present, genus tenue and genus grande, ars and ingenium, private and public, subject addressee and object of language. Postulating for Horace an ” autotelic quality of language” (120), which means that the words not only signify an external referent but also refer to themselves on the level of letter and sound, H. claims to uncover the “subtle conflation of the two poets” by combining ops (conceived as “strength” of ability for Pindaric flight), os (hinting at Pindar’s profound mouth) and ros (dew), which leads to the ancient poetical image of mellification. Hence, especially on the phonetic level, H. treats the passage of Plato’s Ion, where the working of the poets ( τὰ μέλη) is compared with that of bees ( μέλιτται), and provides further evidence of this well-known allegory for poetic craft. But the interpretation (124f.) that Pindar’s Olympian 6 with its wordplay on Iamos (v. 30-63) is also an elaboration of the name of Socrates’ interlocutor Ion, seems somewhat too esoteric. Supplying us with Dionysius’ of Halicarnassus criticism on “austere tuning” ( αὐστηρὰ ἁρμονία) and Lucretius’ prologue in the third book of De rerum natura (v. 3-13; cf. 1.282-284), both concerned with atomization of language, H. points out that in the same sense Horace fragmented the overwhelming tradition to create his own originality.

In the chapter “Reforming the Epinicia” (130-148) the author offers a sketch of how the first scholars of modern times encountered Pindar’s difficult poems. After the first edition of the epinicia with scholia had been published in 1515, it was not the Erasmian humanists alone who turned to Pindar. The Lutherans too began to read and translate him, and interpreted his obscurity as a sign of mysterious profundity by applying the methods of biblical exegesis which the Italian humanists had already reflected upon. Accordingly, the poems were pedagogically processed both for moral education, by arranging their gnomic material, and for rhetorical instruction. E. Schmid pursued that kind of clarification in his scholarly edition of 1616, which remained authoritative for over two hundred years. H. clearly distinguishes between the German reception and that of the French Pléiade, e.g., P. de Ronsard, who did not see Pindar as a solomonic adviser but as a “guarantor of living poetry” (146).

In the third part, “Poetica obscura”, H. discusses key texts related to Pindar, which also reveal the general attitude of their authors to antiquity. Beginning with the 17th century (“Between Ancients and Moderns”, 151-184), H. presents the French controversy between Boileau, who appreciated Pindar’s fiery enthusiasm in the beau désordre, and Perrault, who found Pindar’s verse insipid and vacuous. In Germany Gottsched implanted the French classicism of the sublime in his Critical Poetry and gave teachable rules of how Pindar is to be imitated, while A. Gryphius and M. Opitz wrote Pindaric odes in which, H. believes, even Pindar’s obscurity itself is taken into consideration.3 Next follows a thorough section about Cowley, whose Pindarique Odes introduced the irregular ode-form to English poetry, and whose enthusiastic poetry H. demonstrates to be closely influenced by Horace’s poetics.

In “Voices from Within and Without” (185-211) several eighteenth-century poets are briefly discussed: F. Klopstock (arguing theologically), the Progress Poets W. Collins and Th. Cray (relying on Pindar’s concept of time in Ol. 2 and 74), and Écouchard-Lebrun (converting Pindar’s imagery, which was mocked by La Motte), each in different ways, turned to a poetics of moderate inspiration, as defined in Plato’s Ion, to react against the rigid Classicism and Rationalism that continued to dominate their century.

The ninth chapter “Poetics of Obscurity” (212-236)5 investigates how Pindar’s obscurity was integrated as a sign of otherness in the different notions of “Bildung” (self-formation) like that of Lessing,6 and how it could guarantee originality to its imitators. While J. G. Hamann, who himself was called magus, favoured an elitist concept, in which poetical darkness ranked as the highest degree of knowledge, J. G. Herder, who first recommended Pindar to Goethe, regarded the dark sensations of the soul as preceding the enlightenment of the intellect.

Consequently, in “The Wanderer’s Song” (237-265) H. offers detailed interpretations of the famous letter, in which the young Goethe tells that he was “living in Pindar” and of “Wanderer’s Sturmlied”, where the poet’s idea of the connection between genius and tradition is implied.

The following chapter “Foreign Rhythms” (266-281) concentrates on the all-round scholar W. v. Humboldt, for whom one’s creative energies were formed by translating the foreign without remaining foreign. Within the framework of that concept of self-formation he supposed that in Pindar’s poems there was to be found a metrical pattern that later on was wholly uncovered by A. Böckh.

In the last section (“Remnants Gone Over”, 282-306) H. gives his attention to F. Hölderlin, whose steady engagement with Pindar led to the most powerful German translation of the lyricist’s work. H. explains the idealist’s specific view of poetics, made up of three poetic tones, the natural, the heroic and the ideal. Pointing to the Hyperion, where the apian similes throughout disclose the author’s self-awareness as a translator-poet, and analysing the complete and fragmentary renderings of the epinicians, H. tries to show in what way Hölderlin’s art of translation is a poetics of the “in-between” which opens a space for poetry to come. The long tradition of all such “untimely poets”, as H. in the epilogue concludes, had modelled itself on Pindar, whose entire poetical concept was condensed in the programmatic metaphor of ποικιλία in the Ninth Pythian (v. 77f).

An index of names (343-348) makes accessible the wide-ranging material of the book.

As this summary illustrates, H.’s study touches upon various themes, which surely would have deserved more particular observation on the reviewer’s part. It may be concluded, however, that H. has fully accomplished his aim of providing an overview of the entire history of European thought relating to Pindar. One may observe, however, that it is not in every case apt to press the recipient’s view about poetry into a peculiar conception of obscurity, given that obscurity is usually not at issue.

There are some misprints in Greek and German quotations. The metrical analysis of German poems (276f.; 292f.) is often beyond me, just like the explorations of wordplay. Why, e.g., should Hölderlin, when he writes ” wohl… duftend” (sweet-smelling) allude to the French word vol (in the sense of “flight”), which, according to H., can also be heard in its meaning “Raub” (theft) within the preceding word “T raub e” (287)?

For the (conventional) classical philologist H.’s approach to Pindar and Horace provides many ideas, though it would have benefited from greater attention to the extensive research on these texts. Likewise H.’s assumption of “ancient conceptions of obscurity” (4) is not proved by the two quotations from Cicero ( De officiis 1.19) and Tacitus ( Agricola 30.3), which pertain to a completely different matter, while on the other hand the rhetorical term of ἐνάργεια (clarity) is insufficiently elucidated.7

The study will be of interest to scholars concerned with the literary reception of antiquity and to those who pursue literary studies in general. The latter will be stimulated to further reflection on wether a poetical concept of darkness might be defined by more precise terminology.


1. A revision of an essay that appeared in Helios 28, 2001, 119-140.

2. Schmidt (1985) (n. 169), omitted from the bibliography, refers to Die Geschichte des Geniegedankens in der deutschen Literatur Philosophie und Politik, Bd. I Von der Aufklärung bis zum Idealismus, Darmstadt 1985, 179-192, 202-223, 238-242, 247-253.

3. Cf. also Wilhelm Koch, Das Fortleben Pindars in der deutschen Literatur von den Anfängen bis Andreas Gryphius, in: Euphorion. Zeitschrift für Literaturgeschichte 28, Stuttgart 1927, 195-218.

4. Cf. in general Michael Theunissen, Pindar. Menschenlos und Wende der Zeit, München, 2000.

5. An earlier version of the chapter was published in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 34, 2000, 93-115.

6. Unfortunately Lessing’s important interpretation of Pindar’s Ol. 2 ( Hamburgische Dramaturgie, 34. Stück) is not considered.

7. The ancient manifestation of that term, however, began much earlier, cf. Plato Politicus 277C3; Aristotle De anima 418b21; Agatharchides of Cnidus, FgrHist 86, F 19, 333ff; Ps- Demetr. De elocutione 208ff.