BMCR 2021.02.27

The experience of poetry: from Homer’s listeners to Shakespeare’s readers

, The experience of poetry: from Homer's listeners to Shakespeare's readers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. Pp. xiii, 445. ISBN 9780198833154 £47.49.


Recent years have brought a shift in how classicists approach the poetry of antiquity. Rather than focusing solely on matters of genre, form and content, there has been an increased effort to recognise poetry as a ‘cultural practice’—manifesting itself over time in many different ways, and with which people from all social levels have engaged, whether creatively or in the role of audience, viewer or reader.[1] Poetry has been reshaped, infused and enriched by cultural developments across the centuries, so that questions of compositional modes, materiality, and reader or audience ‘experience’ all become intrinsic to the full understanding of a poetic work and its existence. The volume under review furthers this trajectory and is thus of significant value to classical scholarship, encouraging as it does a contextualising of ancient engagements with this literary form, and our own study of such engagements, within a much broader cultural history of poetry.

Focusing on Western society from Homeric Greece to early Jacobean Britain (the publication of Ben Jonson’s Works[1616] is the endpoint of this study), this book traces the different ways in which poetry was experienced and the extent to which ‘the peculiarly pleasurable experience’ of this ‘event of and in language’ transcends historical boundaries as a constant feature of this type of literature (p.2). Incorporating poetic traditions from other world cultures and periods would, of course, offer an even richer picture, and more could perhaps have been done in drawing such comparisons. But there are limits to all research, and Attridge is mindful to acknowledge ‘Western culture’ to be ‘a problematic concept’,[2] while emphasising this present study to be a ‘selective account’ (pp.3-4). He presents a broad chronological treatment of his topic, distilling a significant amount of meticulous research into a clear format, with an extensive and up-to-date bibliography. Using reasoned deduction and evidence gleaned from selected works, as well as historical and material sources where available (e.g. paratexts, anecdotal accounts and iconography) to establish suggested norms, this book identifies characteristic forms of engagement with poetry for each period, both of transmission and reception, revealing cultural contrasts but also common threads between them, despite the many different metrical, linguistic and material manifestations to be found. A large number of colour illustrations are included, in addition to several aids to comprehension, such as translations, metrical markings, demonstrations, and the glossing of difficult words for passages quoted in Middle English.

Several key issues and perspectives shape this study. One fundamental concept is signalled at the outset: ‘What is a poem’s mode of existence?’. Attridge highlights that speaking of a ‘poem’ at once signifies a series of words on a page, a vocalisation of those words and an ‘ideal existence that every visible or audible manifestation of these words alludes to’. Also emphasised, however, is the element of human ‘experience’ (p.1). Multiple conceptions in part stem from multiple experiences, and this is certainly reflected in Attridge’s analysis, regularly including less obvious but just as prevalent ways in which poetry has been encountered across these different periods (e.g. in the form of inscriptions and, in the fifteenth century, even invectives pinned to church doorways (p.253)). He offers insightful discussions on the materiality of language, as well as the reader’s engagement with a poem (and its presentation) on the page: a useful demonstration of text rendered in scriptio continua, and how alien this experience is for modern readers of English, is provided on p.64, for example. The differences that set apart the first poems in print from their manuscript equivalents (p.259-265) are detailed too, sustaining a sense of multi-dimensional poetic experience. There are also broader reflections on the impact of writing, leading to a modern-day text embodying ‘the poem’ in a way that an oral performance now does not, even if performance in some form still enables its full realization (p.55).

The question of performance—and the collective encounter versus that of the individual (often silent) experience—is naturally central, but Attridge is rightly careful to avoid any claims to sudden dramatic shifts in practice. Instead, he emphasises the gradual nature of any changes and the co-existence of several poetic modes at any one time. A clear distinction is maintained, as far as possible, from drama and song, but with considered acknowledgement of their close relationship and the important extent to which both have fed into poetry as an art form, whether literally or metaphorically. Finally, the social and often political functions of poetry emerge as crucial to the poetic experience of each period, with potency and ‘pleasure’—be that in form, presentation or content—as intended effects that bind together the range of poetry here presented.

The book progresses chronologically, divided into four parts by era. The opening section considers the oral culture of Homeric Greece, focusing on the Homeric epics and modes of performance encountered within their narratives (especially in the Odyssey), before comparing the works of Hesiod. Archaic Greece follows, covering the Homeric hymns, the emergence of lyric, and most notably, rhapsodic recitation. Increased literacy in the fifth century BC segues into the Hellenistic period, during which phenomena associated with the greater prominence of writing are explored, such as visual presentation, a new fear of physical loss or destruction, and even a sense of intimidation by the amassed works of poetic predecessors. Throughout, Attridge is careful in applying modern, ‘long-entrenched terminology’, interrogating terms such as ‘song’ and ‘poem’, and striving to label practices in the ‘least misleading way’ (p.13).

Part Two considers Ancient Rome, from the Republic through to Late Antiquity. Readers will be interested that poetic revision and receiving feedback (cf. Cic. De Off. 1.147) are singled out as particularly central to Roman poetic composition in contrast to that of Greece. In the analysis of the Augustan age, significant attention to the presentation of poetry is noted too, as suggested by surviving papyri from this period displaying a particular clarity of verbal and metrical structure. The investigation of the second century AD focuses on the cultural institution of the recitatio—an opportunity to receive direct criticism—though Attridge also indicates a shift in cultured interest towards declamation. Poetic and linguistic changes in Late Antique practice are then covered, including the gradual loss in both Latin and Greek of quantitative distinctions in pronunciation, leading to metre’s becoming more of a cognitively, rather than audibly, recognised pattern. Consideration of early Christian hymnody illustrates a continuing, intimate relationship between poetry and song, while the use of abecedarian verse and acrostics in certain compositions, which are clearly designed to be visually appreciated, further substantiates Attridge’s argument as to the manifold nature and experience of this art.

Part Three examines the Middle Ages, beginning with the early medieval period and the rise of poetry in vernacular languages. From ninth century sources, such as Asser’s life of Alfred the Great, indications are gleaned of increasingly visual engagement with poetry. Other evidence from Old English (e.g. Beowulf and the Exeter Book collection) suggests aural experience continued, possibly through performers akin to the figures of the scop or gleoman found in this literature. The tenth century is likewise characterised by scribal activity yet shaped by oral poetic engagement, and the eleventh century witnesses the beginnings of poetic practices that flourished in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries—phenomena like the itinerant jongleur, chanson de geste and troubadour lyric, together with the French romance, courtly epic and sung love lyric of the Germanic languages. Discussion of Old Norse eddic and skaldic poetry is of particular interest, as well as that of Italian written lyric—a form strongly devoted to oral performance, yet also embedded in the manuscript culture of its time. As throughout, Attridge rightly advocates an awareness of creative licence when gathering evidence of poetic practice from the poetry itself: ‘just as the presence of appeals to an audience is not evidence that a poem was never read alone in private, so the absence of such appeals doesn’t imply the reverse’ (p.226). Attridge’s following consideration of Chaucer, together with his contemporaries and poetic successors, reveals innovative metrical and linguistic developments, with an increased appreciation for English poetry, at the outset of the fifteenth century. The slightly differing situation in Scotland at this time is also outlined, where public performance at court and among the nobility was embraced to a greater extent than in England.

Part Four is dedicated to the English Renaissance of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, but begins by setting the scene of continental developments, with emphasis on memorisation and aural experience like recitation or reading aloud, especially when engaging with Latin and Greek texts. The impact of printing forms the heart of this chapter, highlighting the effects of more widespread literacy and a ‘growing habit’ of solitary reading (p.263), often involving close textual annotation. Attridge also shows, however, that this could be a core element of collective experience too, since certain manuscripts from the later years of Henry VIII’s court contain amorous verses accompanied by marginal comments in different hands—potentially interpreted as intimate exchanges between courtiers. Shifting to the Late Elizabethan and Early Jacobean period, Attridge interrogates assumptions that reading or reciting poetry aloud to an audience characterised poetic practice of the time, demonstrating instead that various forms of engagement continued. Nonetheless, the ‘momentous changes’ brought by drama and the ever-growing sophistication of poetry (e.g. Shakespeare’s career and Ben Jonson’s poetic output) were undoubtedly a significant influence on verse culture (p.286). Perhaps most interesting for classicists familiar with the monumental claims of ancient poets are the architectural frontispieces often found in poetry volumes from this period, ‘inviting the reader to enter the book as into a fine building’, as Attridge aptly expresses it (p.306). The last chapter surveys the value attributed to poetry and its authors during this era, highlighting the writing of poetic treatises and the interest shown in the mechanics of verse, including the challenge of composing vernacular poetry using classical quantitative metres, which tells us something of how Latin had come to be viewed—a language ‘much-admired’ for its ‘certainty and complexity’ (pp.315-316). The representations of poets on stage, in professional and amateur productions alike, are then analysed.

An extended conclusion would have been a welcome end to this impressive survey of twenty-four centuries of poetic history, but Attridge nevertheless offers clear points of response to this wealth of material (p.336), emphasising a constant appreciation of different ways of manipulating language and parallels in practice spanning vast expanses of time and cultural space. That the poem is an experienced and enduring ‘human event’ is the overall message of the book (cf. p.1).

The question of ‘why should a classicist read this book?’ is the most pressing for any Bryn Mawr Classical Review contribution. Beyond stimulating exposure to other literary periods in an accessible form, this book offers an invaluable opportunity to consider the material with which we are most familiar as set within the wider evolution of poetry as a cultural phenomenon. But perhaps more significantly, we can become aware of how our perceptions of poetry by the ancient Greeks and Romans have likely been shaped by the different forms that poetry took in subsequent centuries. Indeed, many readers have come before us, and our experience of such poetry is mediated by their commentaries and apparatus criticus. The sheer range presented here, in its many different forms and modes of experience, encountered by different social sectors and genders, should also encourage us to approach any poetry belonging to antiquity as part of a broader cultural activity than is often acknowledged. Ultimately, this enjoyable book calls attention to the fact that ancient poetry is integral to a much bigger story, and one that is still ongoing: poems displayed on the Tube, featuring in television advertising, and becoming one of our lockdown activities (e.g. in the form of poetry ‘prompt’ challenges on social media, like escapril) confirm that, even now, the history of poetic experience is still very much in the making.


Kruschwitz, P., 2015. Undying Voices. The Poetry of Roman Britain. Reading (URL:


[1] For an example of important work in this vein, see that of Peter Kruschwitz on Roman verse inscriptions (e.g. Kruschwitz 2015), including MAPPOLA, a current ERC-funded project seeking ‘to democratise our understanding of Roman poetry’.

[2] Though also a ‘widely accepted story’, which could perhaps have been interrogated further.