BMCR 2009.09.40

Calliope’s Classroom: Studies in Didactic Poetry from Antiquity to the Renaissance

, , , Calliope's Classroom: Studies in Didactic Poetry from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Leuven: Peeters, 2007. 324. ISBN 9789042918085. €60.00.

Calliope’s Classroom is a collection of thirteen essays whose origins were a research workshop organized by the editors in May 26-29, 2004. The volume presents a survey of didactic verse spanning nearly the entire history of Western literature, beginning with Sumerian poetry from the second millenium BCE and ending with early modern English poetry of the seventeenth century CE. The contributions cover a broad swath of subjects presented in the didactic mode, which allows a reader a much broader understanding of the range of poetry that incorporates didaxis produced over time. I cannot imagine a single reader familiar with all of the various literatures sampled in the volume, but a classicist is likely to uncover numerous unexpected points of contact with poems ordinarily far outside typical “reading lists”: Gillies’ statements from the Early Gaelic Audacht Morainn that a king can ward off plague and storms by ruling justly (178) is reminiscent of Hesiod’s advice to Perses regarding justice ( Works and Days 225-237); Ziolkowski comments that during the twelfth century there was an increased interest in versifying prose, including medical, legal, theological, and grammatical texts, a practice suggestive of the prose source-texts of Hellenistic poets (e.g. Aratus, Nicander); Galloway’s description of the narrator of Gower’s Confessio Amantis seems to mirror (and thereby invert) the role of the Ovidian praeceptor amoris. Despite the overall high quality of the individual contributions, and while I am certain that readers will find numerous instructive aspects, I offer two editorially-based criticisms, one based on the difficulty of defining didactic poetry, and the second based on the organization.

The editor’s decision to characterize didactic poetry as a literary mode rather than a genre is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest challenge. Noting that didactic verse is not generally “viewed as a genre in its own right, ” the editors adopt a stance consistent with the Horatian maxim that presents all poetry as didactic to some degree (vii) by asserting that the didactic mode is easily inserted into a wide range of literary genres. While such a view is consistent with Greek and Roman literary criticism, the collection is bounded neither by texts based on the Greek and Roman tradition nor by its criticism. Outside of this editorial stance, the contributors are left to establish their own theoretical frameworks, which they do with differing degrees of success. Harder’s discussion of two different strands within the didactic mode, Wilcox’s analysis of the power dynamics within the teacher/student roles, and Van Gelder’s discussion of different pedagogical approaches stand out for the clarity with which they present their individual theoretical frameworks. Those readers looking for a unified theory or history of didactic poetry will not find it in this collection:

While it is not claimed that there is any single line of development linking all the works discussed in a continous chain, the various contributions may nonetheless be seen as illustrating, in their respective ways, some of the significant forms which the didactic mode in poetry has assumed over the centuries. (vii)

The editors choose to avoid “the hair-splitting that bedevils much discussion of genre-theory” in favor of “amorphous inclusiveness.” (viii)

Hence, the editors’ decision to organize the collection chronologically and geographically is made at the expense of elucidating similarities in themes, poetic techniques, or methodological approaches. Despite the lack of any continuous evolution, the reader periodically encounters similar themes (e. g. the poetic instruction of grammar mentioned by Van Bekkum and Ziolkowski) or similar methodologies (e.g. Harder’s and Wilcox’s attention to the relationship between teacher and pupil). A reader interested in Callimachus’ Aetia may overlook an article on a seventeenth century English poem written by a woman, but Wilcox raises a number of questions concerning how a female poet establishes authority to instruct and how the readers of the poem become students. It would not be difficult, however, for the editors to guide readers to the relationships between the articles through a more judicious use of cross-references or by abandoning the chronological/geographic organization in preference of an alternative organization.

Ultimately, these are minor quibbles. And, given the editors’ introductory remarks, they seem to reflect what this reader was anticipating rather than what the editors and the contributors were offering. On the whole, the papers are insightful and informative. Classicists interested in literary didaxis will find numerous interesting parallels in even the articles seeming to be most tangential to their own field. Following are more specific summaries of the individual contributions.

Herman L. J. Vanstiphout, “Towards a Typology of Sumerian Didactic Poetry”

Vanstiphout argues that the poetry of Sumerian literature from the first half of the second millenium, due to its role in the educational system, was didactic. Following a brief description of the basic curriculum, beginning with the basic manipulation of stylus in clay through gradually increasing levels of complexity (first with lexical lists, next proverbs, then personal names), Vanstiphout observes that the scribal educational system depends on poetry, and ultimately concludes that scribes were exposed to so much poetry because as scribes they were not simply bureaucrats but “keepers and guarantors of knowledge and humanism”(18). According to Vanstiphout, to call Sumerian poetry didactic is pleonastic (1).

Annette Harder, “To Teach or not to Teach?…Some Aspects of the Genre of Didactic Poetry in Antiquity”

Harder’s analysis of Callimachus’ Aetia illustrates the vitality of the didactic genre by demonstrating how a poet adapts the Hesiodic tradition to new circumstances. In an effort to avoid the circularity of defining a genre based on a set of texts assumed to be part of that genre, Harder presents a broader definition based on the presentation of an “abstract body of knowledge” as opposed to a “mimetic plot” (26). Poets can then employ features such as explicit didactic intent, a teacher-pupil situation, or the illusion that the poem represents a lesson in progress to draw the reader’s attention to the didactic mode. This broader definition of didactic poetry allows for a distinction between works that are meant to offer instruction (such as Hesiod’s Works and Days) and works that are meant to convey information (such as Hesiod’s Theogony). It is within this latter category that Harder argues that the Aetia falls. Harder notes, however, that despite Callimachus’ use of the didactic mode, his poem does not simply convey information. She demonstrates that Callimachus suggests that neither the Muses nor his poem are sufficient sources of information (39), that readers “who want to know everything about all the aitia will be disappointed if they rely on the Aetia (41), and finally that the poem does not actually teach, rather it encourages its readers to do their own research (45).

Piet H. Schrijvers, “Propagandistic Strategies in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura

Schrijvers explains the challenges that Lucretius encountered in attempting to introduce Romans to a philosophy that directly opposed the norms of their society. Through the use of terms adopted from the social sciences (Readiness, Willingness, and Ability) he carefully explains how Lucretius overcomes the cultural obstacles to Epicureanism. Schrijvers examines how Lucretius draws attention to key Roman values such as pietas and maiestas. Lucretius anticipates the charge of impiety and is concerned that his student will balk at embarking on a path that leads to unholy principles. He answers this charge by drawing attention to the fact that the traditional understanding of pietas assumes reciprocal duties in the relationships between parents and children and between citizens and state. In doing so, Lucretius is able to demonstrate that common misperceptions of pietas, whether expressed in terms of religious behavior or duty to state (i. e. political ambition) often result in transgressions against pietas : Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia violates the traditional notion of pietas regarding parents and children in preference to a misconstrued notion of pietas with respect to religion. Although this reader did not find the terms Readiness, Willingness, and Ability particularly instructive, Schrijvers convincingly demonstrates how Lucretius recasts Epicurean philosophy in acceptable Roman terms while at the same time suggesting to his readers that what passes for acceptable cultural behavior is, in fact, destructive.1

Richard F. Thomas, “Didaxis and Aesthetics in the Georgics Tradition”

Thomas’ contribution attempts to counteract the persistent use of “model-oriented criticism” that began to take hold in the late 19th century, with which the relationship between Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Virgil’s Georgics is studied. Thomas rejects the privileging of the model in the analysis of the interpretation and the “suppression of the independent status” of the alluding poet (76). Furthermore, he demonstrates that correspondences of language often pass as allusions which establish generic “plausibility” (79) or “validation” (81). The attention to the model often obscures the differences, which Thomas aptly points out by demonstrating that Virgil’s interests in methods of grafting illustrate his interest in distinguishing natural and technological methods, whereas Lucretius blurs such a distinction by asserting that nature revealed sowing and grafting to man.2 Rather than focusing on a single model, Thomas encourages reading Virgil with attention to his “references to his tradition in all its multiplicity” by demonstrating that Georgics 2 is not an extended allusion to Lucretius and that Theophrastus is the primary model (83). Thomas concludes that the interpretations of Servius, Quintilian, Aulus Gellius, and Macrobius indicate that Virgil is familiar with the language and style of Lucretius — which was never in question — but also that Virgil used Lucretius in the same way that he used his other models. Moreover, he notes that references to Virgil and Lucretius found in the poetry of Propertius, Ovid, Statius, and Martial also do not support the fact that the relationship between Virgil and Lucretius was any different from the relationship between Virgil and other Roman poets (100).

Wout J. van Bekkum, “The Question of Didacticism in Medieval Hebrew Poetry”

Van Bekkum’s article on medieval Hebrew poetry describes degrees of didacticism. Van Bekkum argues that since synagogues in general and scriptural texts in particular were central to the Jewish educational system, and since poems (particularly hymns) incorporated scriptural texts, there is a link between the liturgical and pedagogical purposes of medieval Hebrew poetry. In the course of demonstrating this, however, Van Bekkum often only implicitly explicates the didactic element found in the poet/translator’s interpretation of scripture. To take but one example, his analysis of an anonymous alphabetic hymn that retells the moment before the Israelites cross the Red Sea ( Exodus 14:15-16) in poetic form: Van Bekkum notes the emphasis of divine intervention, describes the poetic structure and use of dialogue, but never directly addresses the didactic element (105-108). Such is the case with the other (didactic) poems Van Bekkum presents. The reader is left to assume that Van Bekkum is following the Horatian dictum, that all poetry is to some extent didactic; but his argument that medieval Hebrew poetry relies so heavily on the translating and popularizing of a “core curriculum” of scriptural texts only leads to the conclusion which he himself characterizes as “unsatisfying,” that is, that “some didactic poems in Jewish [sic] poetic tradition are more didactic than others.” (119)

Gerrit J. Reinink, “Man as Microcosm: A Syriac Didactic Poem and its Prose Background”

Relying on a recently published poem by George Warda, Reinink argues that the distinction made between liturgical hymns and didactic poetry in Nestorian poetry of the 13th century is overstated, noting that the “instructive character” of liturgical poems did not differ much in content or purpose from other didactic poems of the age (124). The theme of the poem, man as microcosm, provides the opportunity for Warda to transmit a wide range of information, incorporating Aristotelian philosophy as well as medical information derived from Hippocrates and Galen. The poem would have been chanted during the church service (126). Reinink also discusses the sixth-century sources behind Warda’s poem. In particular, he is interested in the relationship between Warda’s text and that of Michael Badoqa. While Warda frequently summarizes and simplifies Michael’s accounts (135), the inclusion of medical information represents Warda’s own additions. Reinink accounts for this simplification by considering the different contexts and audiences for the texts.

Geert Jan van Gelder, “The Antithesis of Urjuza and Badi’iyya : Two Forms of Arabic Versified Stylistics”

Van Gelder’s contribution presents two types of medieval Arabic poems used to impart knowledge, urjuza and badi’yya. He explains that urjuza“wholly abandon any literary pretensions”, “compress knowledge in mnemotechnically practical form,” and are meant to serve as an aide-mémoire” (154). Van Gelder is particularly interested in the use of urjuza to versify textbooks on rhetoric and stylistics, noting the paradoxical nature of writing verse teaching the rules of stylistics in a form “devoid of stylistic elegance and poetic beauty.”(156) The term badi’yya, based on the technical term for figures of speech, tropes, and poetic sound effects that characterize high literary style, refers to poems written on a particular theme in which each line illustrates a different figure of speech (157). Van Gelder explains the difference between the two types of poems in terms of a difference in pedagogical method. The urjuza simply list the figures of speech whereas the badi’yya demonstrate the use of those figures of speech.

William Gillies, “Geography and Didaxis in Early Gaelic Poetry”

Gillies sets out to demonstrate that the didactic mode is embedded in Gaelic literature, and so, in a way similar to van Bekkum’s contribution, presents a survey. Although he does not mention parallels with Greek poetry, classicists will recognize that Audact Morainn (Morann’s Bequest) and Tecosca Cormaic (The Teachings of Cormac) resonate with the Hesiodic brand of wisdom literature. In Audact Morainn, for example, the king instructs his son that a ruler’s justice can avert plagues, enhance agricultural abundance, and promote peace and prosperity (178). The interest in geography, which often seems to be an interest in the antiquarian, might also pique the curiosity of those familiar with Hellenistic literature. In closing, he poses a number of topics that would productively elucidate the relationship between the didactic mode and the texts’ receptions. (199)

Karin E. Olsen, “Shining Swords and Heavenly Walls: In Search of Wisdom in Solomon and Saturn II

Olsen’s contribution examines the didactic function of the myth of the weallende wulf in the Old English poem in which Solomon and Saturn II, a Chaldean nobleman, engage in a wisdom contest. Olsen argues that Saturn’s questions and riddles place Solomon in the role of the teacher. Through a close reading of the poem, Olsen demonstrates the limitations of Saturn’s wisdom by focusing on the questions that he asks. As the contest continues, Saturn’s “preoccupation with earthly glory, mutability and death” yields as he recognizes the depth of Solomon’s spiritual wisdom (217). In sum, Olsen’s article offers an alternative reading of the riddling questions and answers, interpreting Saturn’s willing acceptance of the power of Solomon’s spiritual wisdom over his own earthly knowledge.

Jan M. Ziolkowski, “From Didactic Poetry to Bestselling Textbooks in the Long Twelfth Century”

Ziolkowski explores the intellectual forces at work from 1075 to 1225 and the influences that they had on didactic poetry of the period. He argues that Servius’ description of didactic ( didascalici) in his commentary on Virgil’s Georgics lays the foundation for acknowledging the give-and-take necessary for the learning process (223). He finds that Bernardus Silvestris’ commentary that formulates this idea opposes the classical model of didactic which relied on a monologic framework and a singular authorial voice. The increased interest in presenting technical information on topics including medicine, law, and grammar which Ziolkowski notes is reminiscent of anecdotes about Hellenistic didactic as well as the interest that van Gelder notes in similar topics found in medieval Arabic literature. It is such a point of contact between poems of strikingly different historical and cultural milieux that the diachronic and diatopic method of this volume should capitalize on, but it remains the reader’s task to make such connections.

Andrew Galloway, “Gower’s Quarrel with Chaucer, and the Origins of Bourgeois Didacticism in Fourteenth-Century London Poetry”

Galloway argues that Gower’s Confessio Amantis addresses the role of secular self-interest in an urban setting. He notes that Gower’s contemporaries also explored the challenges of governance arising from mercantilism and self-interest in terms of “common profit” (246). In Gower’s text, a priest of Venus instructs his addressee, named simply Amans, through exemplary tales in economic terms. The lover’s unrequited love is described as a failed investment. Galloway uses a close reading of the biblical tale of Jephtha and his daughter, found both in the Confessio Amantis and Chaucer’s Physician’s Tale, to demonstrate a literary debate concerning the arising culture of self-interest.

Alasdair A. MacDonald, “Political and Religious Instruction in an Eschatological Perspective: The Contemplacioun of Synnaris of William of Touris”

MacDonald offers a close examination of didacticism within William of Touris’ late 15th century poem, Contemplacioun of Synnaris, the earliest printed work of Scottish poetry (270). He demonstrates how in the later edition (1499) of the poem a work originally written for the instruction of one particular reader (James IV) was revised in an English and Latin form, thus allowing a wider, “more general reading public” access to its moral and religious instruction. A number of the formal aspects of the poem will be familiar to classicists. The poem, which MacDonald describes as “insistently didactic” (270), includes a section of advice to princes explaining the ruler’s duty to maintain justice; the frequent use of imperatives directed to a king is reminiscent of Hesiod’s attention to the basileis at WD 202-273; the double audience which MacDonald describes is the direct outgrowth of a didactic situation framed by a teacher addressing an individual student typical of Greek and Latin didactic. Therefore, this reader wonders whether MacDonald’s claim that the Scottish version of the poem was for the benefit of the one reader whereas the expanded version in English and Latin was intended for a more general audience is overstated.

Helen Wilcox, “‘As from a Learned Booke’: Aemilia Lanyer’s ‘Eves Apologie’ and the Gendered Transmission of Knowledge”

Wilcox’s contribution examines the question of didactic authority by introducing the issue of gender, both on the part of the pupils (as well as readers/listeners) and on the part of the instructor (poet). Not only is “Eve’s Apologie” a poem within the first collection of verse in English “written and claimed by a woman” (300), but it operates in the didactic mode despite contemporary attitudes opposing women as instructors (301). Wilcox explains that Lanyer claims that God has granted her the authority to write (and thus to teach) through a dream. Additionally, Wilcox argues that the Lanyer assumes a female audience, dedicating the collection of poems to women and relying on their patronage. Wilcox concludes that Lanyer’s authority is derived from four sources: “Gods powre”, an alliance with Nature rather than Art, an intuitive knowledge linked to dreams, and the support of prominent women of early 17th-century England. Wilcox argues that the gender of the didactic poet will determine the audience to whom the teaching is directed based in part on the fact that all of these sources of authority are specific to Lanyer’s gender.


1. These sociological terms are replaced in the conclusion with terms that are more descriptive: accessible, acceptable and attractive. (67)

2. Georgics 2.9-34; DRN 5.1361-2.