BMCR 2009.05.25

Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry. Corrected and with new material. First edition published in 1972

, Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry. Corrected and with new material. First edition published in 1972. Ann Arbor: Michigan Classical Press, 2007. ix, 336. ISBN 978-0-9799713-1-0. $65.00.

The reissue of Francis Cairns’ Generic Composition in Greek and Roman Poetry last year in a “revised edition” from Michigan Classical Press (on which, see below) offers a reminder of how the field of Classics has changed in the thirty- five years since the book first appeared.

Generic Composition is divided into two main sections, the first, “Genres and Topoi,” establishes the conceptual framework of Cairns’s thesis and the second, “The Constructive Principles of Genre,” explicates the mechanisms through which generic categories become actual poems. Cairns’s basic argument, set out with clarity in the book’s first chapter, is “that the whole of classical poetry is written in accordance with the sets of rules of the various genres, rules which can be discovered by a study of the surviving literature itself and of the ancient rhetorical handbooks dealing with this subject.” (p. 31) After a generally favorable initial reception, Generic Composition has been the object of a remarkable amount of criticism from numerous perspectives and with varying objectives. To better understand this criticism it is helpful, therefore, to delineate the three main areas of study which Cairns seeks to marry in his overarching thesis: rhetorical theory of the Imperial period (in particular Menander Rhetor), genre theory, and “the whole” of classical poetry.

It is in the last area, the collective assessment of more than one thousand years of Greek and Latin poetry from throughout the Mediterranean, that the earliest, and most persuasive, criticism of Cairns emerged. The extremity of Cairns’s disregard for diachronic change is best expressed by Cairns’s “now notorious claim” that “in a very real sense antiquity was in comparison with the nineteenth and twentieth centuries a time-free zone.” (p. 32).1 Cairns is happy to place Sappho and Horace in parallel analysis with almost no acknowledgement of the differing periods and contexts in which these poems were composed. Few of us share this view of the corpus of ancient literature as a group of homogenized, transposable texts, and rightly so. Indeed, in their introduction to the influential volume Matrices of Genre, Depew and Obbink identify one of their main aims, in direct response to Cairns, as an examination of “how the recognition and conceptualization of genres changed from Archaic Greece to Augustan Rome.”2

Cairns seems to have anticipated this objection to his historical flattening and he devotes a substantial amount of space to the idea of generic “development” in ch. 2, but his primary concern is to show that this “development” should not be understood in terms of increasing sophistication. Offering examples of the syntaktikon (a speech delivered on leaving a city) from Homer via Solon, Sophocles, Catullus, and Juvenal and ending with Rutilius Namatianus, Cairns’s only concession to extra-textual historical factors is the claim that the final example, though later than Menander, “is a pagan syntaktikon that does not contain material of the kind which entered the genre in the Christian period.” (p. 47) More significantly, in focusing so closely on the syntaktikon, he takes no account of the formal characteristics found in the text framing the various passages under consideration- such as the fact that Philoctetes’ speech is delivered within the wholly dialogic frame of tragedy while the Homeric speech is framed by narration. However, while the basic premise—that diachronic change in ancient poetry is relatively insignificant—is clearly untenable, there is more subtlety, and more truth, to Cairns’s position than is often conceded. That the texts under consideration all exhibit a striking structural similarity in formulating their syntaktika (whether or not one chooses to use this specific term) is undeniable and this similarity across such a wide historical and geographic range demands some explanation. By approaching the question in purely formal terms, Cairns nicely reflects how the same basic poetic tool-kit was employed by Greek and Latin poets throughout classical antiquity and avoids an artificial delimitation of the poetic horizon to our extant sources, as, for instance, the intertextual approach is prone to do.

The question of Cairns’s historical perspective cannot be fully addressed without an examination of just what he means by the term “genre,” and this takes us into what appears to be the most complex, yet is in fact the most straightforward, of the three areas implicated in Cairns’s thesis. In the years since Generic Composition first appeared, genre has become the order of the day in Classical literary criticism. Great developments in genre theory and the influence of performance studies have brought an increased sophistication to our understanding of the importance of genre in the ancient world. But even by the standards of 1972, the concept of genre presented in Generic Composition“flies in the face of modern usage,” to quote the time-traveling Alessandro Barchiesi.3 When Cairns speaks of “genre” and “generic composition” he is referring only to “classifications in terms of content,” not formal categories of poetry such as “epic, lyric, elegy, or epistle.” (p. 6) Cairns himself recognized the potential for confusion in his peculiar usage of the term genre, and confusion has indeed ensued. For what Generic Composition in fact presents is a Propp-like morphology of the ancient poem, categorizing the shared components out of which poems of diverse formal genres are constructed and analyzing the transformation and manipulation of these component parts in the hands of “generically sophisticated” poets. Cairns does not consider poetic works in their entirety, and thus, as noted above, he is uninterested in the text and context in which any instance of a “genre” is located. That is, he treats neither the essentializing, metadiscursive concept of genre nor the contextually rooted formulation of generic status embedded in individual poems. It is therefore unsurprising that so many scholars define their own understanding of ancient genre in opposition to Cairns, as his project is decidedly not about what most people think of when they think of genre, whatever one’s particular view of genre may be.

But if Cairns is not concerned with genre as the term is generally understood, neither is he wholly a historian of rhetoric, as his strong reliance on the theoretical works of Menander Rhetor might suggest. Turning to this last element of Cairns’s thesis, it is important to note from the outset that Cairns employs rhetorical theory in conjunction with other sources (genre is revealed through “a study of the surviving literature itself and of the ancient rhetorical handbooks”). Cairns readily acknowledges in his chapter on generic categories that not all genres are rhetorical, and even rhetorical genres are not always identified in the ancient theoretical treatises. Cairns draws his theory of genre from the Imperial rhetoricians, but he takes this structure to reflect a truth about all ancient poetry, a truth which is not qualified by the specific époque in which he finds it best articulated. His choice of Menander Rhetor as his guide is influenced by a certain longe-durée sensibility (a reaction to “the anachronistic applications of the out-of-date critical techniques of other fields” p. 31) but is not, strictly speaking, historical. This straddling stance has also landed Cairns in some hot water. Granting that one is willing to accept a metadiscursive articulation of ancient poesis, Cairns’s position satisfies neither those, such as Heath, who would seek the ancient interpretive model most proximate to their object of study, nor again those, like Feeney, who reject the idea that one should necessarily prefer ancient literary theory over modern. Once again, the historical premise on which the project is based, the near uniformity of “the whole of classical poetry,” leaves Cairns with few defenders.

The central position of Menander Rhetor in Cairns’s formulation of his theory of ancient genre has also brought Generic Composition into the purview of students of ancient rhetoric, although, as already noted, Cairns is not himself principally concerned with the history of rhetorical theory. In fact, when Generic Composition first appeared it was included in a thematic review of five books on ancient rhetoric in the 1974 Journal of the History of Ideas.4 But here too, Cairns’s repurposing of Imperial rhetorical theory to explain the poetry of the preceding thousand years has led critics of all stripes to object that Cairns misrepresents a text whose primary purpose is instruction in epideictic oratory, and which is conditioned by the cultural milieu in and for which it was composed.

With all of this theoretical tumult arising from Cairns’s articulation of his methodology, it is easy to forget that Generic Composition has a second part, devoted to close readings of Cairns’s ancient genres in action. Here Cairns explores the dynamics of “inversion,” “reaction,” “inclusion,” “speaker-variation,” and “addressee-variation,” the mechanisms through which Cairns’s genres of content are manipulated by skilled poets, in five respectively named chapters. Often the language of normative models and divergence therefrom can give the analysis a mechanical feel, as though it were literary analysis by-the-numbers, but Cairns’s real aim in this comparison with an imaginary normative exemplar is to expose, and thus enjoy, the artistry with which the genres are adapted and transformed in the poets’ hands, as when he shows how the multiple characters and variant speakers in Theocritus Idylls 6 and 7 exploit the standard scenario of a komos (the excluded lover’s song). Bracketing the question of whether Theocritus or his audience would have been aware of this “deviation” from the model, the reading points up much that is compelling in these sophisticated shepherds’ songs.

Finally, a note about the reissue by Michigan Classical Press. The volume is advertised as a “revised edition,” “corrected and with new material,” but differs little from the first edition, published by Edinburgh University Press in 1972. The pagination remains the same with typographical errors adjusted in the text and a handful of addenda listed on p. ix. In addition, Cairns has appended a postscript (p. 333-6) in which he briefly reappraises the book and offers a bibliography of his subsequent work on genre.

Despite the general similarity between the first and second edition, the appearance of the latter is to be welcomed not least as one of the maiden publications of the newly formed imprint. According to their press statement MCP is a private press based in Ann Arbor with an editorial board composed of senior faculty at the University of Michigan “undertaking to publish important scholarly research in the fields of classical antiquity, classical philology, and ancient history.” Until now the production consists of three second editions (including Generic Composition) and an English translation of Franco Ferrari’s Sappho’s Gift: The Poet and Her Community ( Una mitra per Kleis: Saffo e il suo pubblico), and more new titles are planned for the future. The foundation of a new publishing venture for scholarly work, one which seems to have found a viable business model, at a time when so many presses are drastically limiting production is indeed heartening. The quality of the Generic Composition volume, which I have been thumbing over for a few too many months, is excellent; a well made hardback, nicely printed on sturdy, acid-free paper with a sewn binding at a lower price than is charged for many print-on-demand paperbacks, and proceeds from sales are in part contributed to charitable funds under the direction of the APA. What’s not to love?


1. Feeney, D. “Criticism Ancient and Modern” in Ethics and Rhetoric D. Innes, H. Hine, and C. Pelling (eds.) Oxford 1995, p. 303.

2. Depew, M. and D. Obbink, (eds.) Matrices of Genre: Authors, Canons, and Society Cambridge 2000, p. 6.

3. Barchiesi, A. “The Crossing” in Texts, Ideas, and the Classics S. J. Harrison ed. Oxford 2001, p. 150.

4. North, H. F. “Ancient Salt: The New Rhetoric and the Old” Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 35, No. 2, (Apr. – Jun., 1974), pp. 349-356.