BMCR 2007.01.05

Wissensvermittlung in dichterischer Gestalt (Palingenesia Vol. 85)

, , Wissensvermittlung in dichterischer Gestalt. Palingenesia, Bd. 85. Stuttgart: F. Steiner, 2005. 348 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.. ISBN 3515086986. €60.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, the product of a conference held in Rostock in February 2004, is the second in the series that began with Antike Fachschriftsteller: Literarischer Diskurs und sozialer Kontext (reviewed in this journal, BMCR 2004.02.18). The papers are in German (12, counting the introduction) and English (5), each prefaced by an abstract in the other language. It represents an attempt at understanding the position of didactic poetry between technical writing on one side and literature on the other, and at getting at “die Funktionsweisen der Literarisierung von Wissen”: what didactic poetry is for, why it exists. The moment we ask this question, inevitably we also raise the question of how we are to define didactic poetry itself, especially since antiquity does not recognize the genre. The volume begins with a brief introduction by the editors, and two theoretical papers follow. It then proceeds chronologically, from Hesiod through a thirteenth century poem about the duties of a bishop and royal advisor. There is, however, a notable gap, perhaps because conference participants have a way of frustrating the best intentions of organizers: Aratus receives attention only through his Latin reception, and Nicander is neglected.

I am not a specialist in any of the authors treated here except Hesiod, or in didactic poetry, but I offered to review the book in order to get an overview of the state of the field. Many of these papers are excellent; it is an area where good work is being done. From the outsider’s perspective, though, the topic seems undertheorized. Effe’s paper is largely a defense of his earlier typology.1 He restricts the term “Lehrgedicht” to poems that systematically treat a topic ordinarily handled in prose, and divides them into three ideal types: a didactic poem primarily either seeks to convey its subject matter or displays its author’s ability to give literary merit to the topic or uses its ostensible subject matter to convey a more general theme (it is “transparent”). If, with Effe, we assign these types on the basis of authorial intention, the reception of didactic poetry is full of misreading. Even those modern interpreters who do not believe in Effe’s Stoic Aratus are unlikely to think that Aratus wrote the poem in order to teach astronomy, but many ancient readers used him to learn it, and I am not willing to dismiss this practice as an abuse of the text. Again, especially given the influence of New Historicism, we are all likely now to treat didactic poems as “transparent,” whether they were composed that way intentionally or not—we are listening for the ideologies that inform them.

Many of the papers also show the influence of Volk’s definition,2 which sets four criteria: explicit didactic purpose, a teacher-student constellation, poetic self-consciousness, and poetic simultaneity (rhetorically, the poem is the teacher’s lecture as he says it). But there is no agreement about definition. The last paper, Haye’s “Schluss mit dem Jagd!-Die Lehrgedichte des Elias Corrigiarius an Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada,” assumes that the poems it discusses—advice to a bishop/royal official—are didactic, but most of the authors in the volume do not seem to include moral preaching in the genre, although it certainly fits under Volk’s definition. Formisano’s paper (p. 309) suggests that Palladius’ poem on grafting (a poetic insertion in the last book of a prose work) shows Volk’s characteristics and belongs to all three of Effe’s types. Yet the object of Effe’s typology, although there will be borderline and mixed cases, is to differentiate among didactic poems. The typology has been appropriated with a different function.

We cannot easily discuss a genre without defining it, but definitions tend to reify and to lead into debates about boundaries that are often completely sterile. This volume would have benefited from more debate about what the boundaries ought to be, and why. It seems to me that for this purpose we would do well to use a Wittgenstein’s “family resemblance.” That is, we start from a core group of texts: Aratus, Nicander, Lucretius, Virgil’s Georgics, Manilius. We can then consider how other texts look like these in some ways, even if they differ in others. That way, we could acknowledge that our boundaries would legitimately differ, depending on what we were asking. We could also stress much more the role of the reader. One of the most important effects of great didactic poems, at least for me, is missing from these papers—the way they can convey what it would be like to know or believe or practice that, whatever the topic is. Thinking about readers would also be helpful for understanding “didactic” passages in non-didactic poems. A non-didactic poem can take on didactic mannerisms, or start providing information (which may or may not be from a branch of knowledge typically handled in poetry), or both; we want to think about how a reader’s expectations operate in such passages.

Toohey’s paper compares Ovid’s Halieutika and Grattius’ Kynegetica in support of an argument that didactic poetry can be periodized on the basis on a shift from a poetry of action to one of affect. This is obviously a very brief presentation of an extended argument, and in its present form it can hardly convince—the examples are too short and the issue too broad. Toohey also connects this shift with a move from “outer-directedness in expression, based on a trust that words truly do represent things” to skepticism and “playful self-referentiality.” An interpreter, though, can in my view find this move to “playful self-referentiality” about as early as s/he chooses (it is a toujours déjà).

Blümer argues on the basis of allusions in the Works and Days‘to the Theogony that the latter must already have been a written text known to Hesiod’s audience in written form. I find some of the allusions discussed unlikely, although the reference back to the birth of Eris is certain. In any case they do not convince me that it is a written text: the statement in the abstract that “an orally transmitted poem doesn’t have a stable text” is true of some kinds of orally transmitted poem, but not of all.

Primavesi argues that Empedocles and Parmenides adapt allegorical techniques developed in the reception of archaic epic as a way of presenting both the separation and the connection between the divine world and that of imperfection.

Kässer examines Callimachus Aetia in relation to didactic (defined broadly, along Volk’s lines). K. discusses especially fr. 178, the conversation with the man from Icus at the symposium, to show how Callimachus inverts the established pattern in which the poet is the instructor in a symposiastic context (as Theognis is, for example). Throughout, Callimachus overturns the procedures by which an archaic didactic poet claims authority: he asks rather than informs; for however much of the poem takes place within the dream, he is young instead of old; and he speaks with his characters and sources instead of his audience. The paper ends by suggesting that these inversions are part of the renegotiation of the poet’s social role under Egyptian conditions and that the tradition of the speculum principum may also be in play.

Kruschwitz treats the earlier Roman didactic poetry. His definition is the most generous in the book, for he includes all instructive verses. He looks in particular at Volcacius Sedigitus’ iambic fragment about comic poets; the Epicharmus of Ennius, and Plautus’ Curculio 467-84, where the choragus describes where in Rome one may find men of various kinds. Since the passage includes a typically didactic address to the audience, the speaker intends to instruct, and the passage provides a catalogue of actual places and their presumed habitués, K. sees it as a parody of didactic poetry and argues that it proves that Greek didactic poetry, at least, was familiar. I am not so sure, since these features of most didactic poetry are also features of everyday didactic practice, and the humor may be based on real life rather than poetry.

Hübner provides an interesting survey of the rich influence of Aratus on Latin literature (not only in didactic poetry). The most interesting section of this paper was its detailed discussion of the Great and Little Bear and how later poets(including Seneca, Valerius Flaccus, Ovid, and Manilius) adapt the contrast Aratus draws between them (37-44)—the Little Bear, though not as bright, is more precise as a guide to navigation.

Volk argues that although didactic poetry is not a recognized ancient genre, the poets themselves reveal that they recognize a genre of “scientific” poetry. She traces allusions to such a genre from Orpheus’ song in Apollonius Rhodius (1.496-511), through the songs of Virgil’s Silenus ( Ec. 6.31-42) and Iopas ( Aen. 1.740-47), through G. 475-82 and 2.490-92, Ovid, Manilius, and the Aetna -poet. She fully convinces me that these passages recognize a distinct poetic form. I am not sure about identifying it with didactic, however, since some of these passages—Apollonius, Silenus’ song—seem to be scientific cosmogonic narratives (not unlike the beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, obviously akin to didactic poems but lacking both the communicative elements Volk has elsewhere used to define the genre and a systematic treatment. This category is real, but it cuts across modern genres.

Gale argues that Lucretius rewords the traditional position of authority of the didactic speaker. He sympathizes with the learner’s situation even while sometimes distancing himself, and Memmius is on the whole a positive model for the reader, who makes progress through the work. Gale then briefly surveys Lucretius’ relationship to his epic and didactic predecessors, arguing that he deliberately “re-epicizes” didactic.

Schindler takes up a very different question: why didactic is no longer written after the first century of our era. She presents four explanations: that Lucretius, Virgil, and Manilius were so impressive that later poets could not emulate them; that the conventional limits of subject-matter were so narrow that the possibilities had been exhausted; that technical prose had become literary so that it occupied the field; and that heroic epic merged with didactic. Schindler points out how few topics Roman didactic poetry handles: literary and linguistic matters; astronomy/astrology, Epicurean physics, volcanoes; agriculture, medicine, hunting, cosmetics; and, if we believe Ovid Tr. 2.471-490, games. (She does not list fancy food and erotics). It is indeed remarkable that Romans never write poetry about many topics that are the subjects of prose treatises: warfare, architecture, aqueducts. Lucretius’ poem is primarily about physics, although Epicurus considered his ethics the most important part of his philosophy (and, I would add, ethics seem to be what Lucretius most cares about). Didactic poetry concerns itself with the otium of the Roman elite, not with its most important business of politics and war.

I wonder, though, about the power of the first reasons she offers. She does not engage Horster’s paper in the same volume, which claims that didactic poetry is rarely quoted and its content is rarely discussed in the 2nd and 3rd centuries and that the Georgics, though they fare better than most, stand very far below the Aeneid in popularity and were not often read in schools. It makes me wonder if one reason the genre declines is the exactly opposite of the one she suggests, that its masters are not being read enough to inspire emulation. After all, the limits of the genre are limits because nobody happened to expand them. There is abundant ethnography in Latin poetry, but no systematic ethnographic poem.

Reitz looks at Horace’s Ars Poetica. The opening of the paper gives the impression that she discusses it mostly because it is so problematic that it needs to be included in a discussion of the genre. She emphasizes how much critics disagree about the structure of the poem, which shares some characteristics of the didactic genre but not its typical systematic organization. She therefore reads it as a generic experiment. In the last section of the paper, she compares 202-19, on music, with Lucretius 5.1379-1415, and tentatively suggests that Horace here imitates Lucretius’ “disorder.”

Mayer’s contribution first treats the rise of Latin prose technical writing with literary claims: in Varro’s res rusticae, in Vitruvius, and in Celsus. This section concludes with a brief but amusing expression of disdain for Pliny the Elder. He then surveys the didactic excurses in non-didactic poetry of the principate, again amusingly noting irrelevant displays of learning in Silius Italicus and Lucan.

Sharrock’s paper too is lively, pointing out that Ovid in the Ars Amatoria bases some of his authority to teach on his failures as a lover (failures sometimes “documented” in the Amores). Philosophical writers admit to earlier mistakes and sometimes to imperfection, and Horace’s self-presentation includes flaws, but nobody uses quite the method of Ovid.

I have already mentioned Horster’s paper on the reception of didactic in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. There is a great deal of information in this paper, and I find it hard to get the most important points amid the details. She argues that in the 2nd century and early 3rd centuries, despite the impression one might get from Athenaeus, much literary culture was superficial, with authors often read only in extracts. Only a few authors of didactic are often mentioned (Hesiod, Empedocles, Lucretius, and Virgil).

Formisano looks at two late antique prose treatises, Palladius’ on agriculture and Marcellus Empiricus’ De medicamentis, which conclude with poems that repeat material already covered in the prose text. Marcellus explains that the verses are intended both to give pleasure and to introduce some originality into a work that otherwise epitomizes both written and oral sources. The paper ends with some very brief comments on the problems facing these authors, who are both trying to write works genuinely useful to real users (many of whom would be illiterate) but who cannot escape the control of the literary system.

Finally, Haye studies two previously unedited poems from a late 14th C. codex, now in Brussels. The first begins with a polemic against hunting by the clergy and continues with advice to the addressee for his role as royal advisor and chancellor; it then announces that he is about to become a bishop, and continues with reflections about the meaning of the bishop’s clothing, ring, and staff and about his duties. The second, which fortunately has an incipit naming the author as “Elias Corrigiarius” and the addressee as a former student of his in Paris, now a regal chancellor in Spain. Haye argues that the addressee is Rodrigo Jiménez de Rada, while the author cannot be identified. The most interesting aspect of these texts is the difficult negotiation of the much higher social position of the addressee.

These are good papers. Those interested in the central question the volume poses can skip Blümer, Haye, and Hübner, which do not really address it. Yet the essays that in various ways address the generic question are often as interesting for the gaps between them as for their explicit relations to each other: we have not yet agreed what we are talking about when we talk about didactic poetry.

Contributors: P. Toohey, “Periodization and Didactic Poetry”; B. Effe, “Typologie und literarhistorischer Kontext: Zur Gattungsgeschichte des griechischen Lehrgedichts”; W. Blümer, “Hesiods Gedichte. Schriftlichkeit und Mündlichkeit in der archaischen griechischen Lehrdichtung”; O. Primavesi, “Theologische Allegorie: Zue philosophischen Funktion einer poetischen Form bei Parmedides und Empedokles”; C. Kässer, “The poet and the ‘Polis’. The Aetia as Didactic Poem”; P. Kruschwitz, “Lehre oder Dichtung? Die archaische didaktische Poesie der Römer”; W. Hübner, “Die Rezeption der Phainomena Arats in der lateinischen Literatur; K. Volk, “Lehrgedicht oder ‘Naturgedicht’? Naturwissenschaft und Naturphilosophie in der Lehrdichtung von Hesiod bis zur Aetna“; M. Gale, ” Avia Pieridum loca : Tradition and Innovation in Lucretius”; C. Schindler, “Vom Kochrezept zu den Sternen: Aspeckte der Gattungsgenese und Gattungsentwicklung im römischen Lehrgedicht”; C. Reitz, “Horaz’ Literaturbriefe und die Lehrdichtung”; R. Mayer, “Creating a literature of information in Rome”; A. Sharrock, “Those who can, teach: Ovid’s Ars Amatoria and contemporary instructional writing”; M. Horster, “Was bleibt von Vergils Georgica ? Zure Rezeption von Lehrdichtung in 2 und 3 Jh. n. Chr.”; M. Formisano, “Veredelte Bäume und kultivierte Texte. Lehrgedichte in technischen Prosawerken der Spätantike”; T. Haye, “Schluss mit dem Jagd! Die Lehrgedichte des Elias Corrigiarius an Rodrigo Jiménez de Rade (Erzbischof von Toledo 1209-1247)”.


1. B. Effe. Dichtung und Lehre. Untersuchungen zur Typologie des antiken Lehrgedichts. Munich 1977.

2. K. Volk, The Poetics of Latin Didactic. Oxford 2002. On problems with this definition, see E. J. Kenny’s BMCR review, 2003.01.26.