BMCR 2021.12.32

Rollen in Relation: das poetische Ich in verschiedenen Gattungen bei Pindar

, Rollen in Relation: das poetische Ich in verschiedenen Gattungen bei Pindar. Zetemata, 156. München: Verlag C.H. Beck , 2020. Pp. 361. ISBN 9783406758355 €98,00.


The book under review, a lightly reworked version of the author’s Habilitationsschrift, promises a new perspective on the nature of the ‘poetic I’ (or, as it is more commonly called, the ‘lyric I’) in Pindar. This study is a conscious move away from Pindaric scholarship’s focus since the 1960s on the formal identification of the ‘poetic I’ with various figures or functions and from short case studies of individual poems or genres. Instead, the author offers a reading of the ‘poetic I’ as a social figure established through the network of relationships created in the poetic discourse based on a comprehensive examination of the surviving Pindaric corpus.

The primary argument is laid out clearly in the Introduction. In the first half, the author provides a clear and concise overview of Pindaric scholarship on the ‘poetic I’, with discussions of the views of Lefkowitz, D’Alessio, Calame, Stehle, and Lattmann. In this context, a ‘linear communication model’ is proposed, where the ‘poetic I’ is the linguistic surface level representation of the performer(s) and the poet who lie behind the ‘I’. It is therefore an amalgam of their voices rather than a single, stable ‘I’ or an ‘I’ that oscillates between poet- and chorus-functions. The second half of the Introduction discusses the difficulties of defining Pindaric genres (in Pindar, Alexandrian editions, and current scholarship) and of assigning individual poems or fragments of Pindar to specific genres. The main body of the book consists of three lengthy chapters (‘Verbundenheit und Abgrenzung’, ‘Vermittlung’, ‘Interaktion’), each treating a type of relationship in which the ‘poetic I’ engages. These central chapters begin with general observations on the relationship, followed by subchapters in which different manifestations of the relationship are detailed genre by genre through close readings of specific passages. The book closes with a conclusion and thoughts on further applications of the research (‘Fazit und Ausblick’).

The first – and by far the longest – of these chapters (‘Verbundenheit und Abgrenzung’) investigates the ways in which the ‘poetic I’ marks out its association and dissociation with various social actors (communities, individuals, families, gods, other poets and singers). To this end, the author examines the functions of gestures of association (Gesten der Verbundenheit, i.e., statements expressing a bond with others: e.g., ‘I pray that I may please the hospitable Tyndaridae and fair-tressed Helen as I honour renowned Acragas, having raised an Olympic victory hymn for Theron’, O. 3.1-3) and gestures of dissociation (Gesten der Abgrenzung, i.e., statements creating distance from others: e.g., ‘It is impossible for the deceitful citizen to utter an effective word amongst good men; but still by fawning on all, he weaves his complete ruin. I have no part in this insolence. Let me befriend a friend; but against an enemy, I shall, as an enemy, rush upon him like a wolf’, P. 2.81-4). In section 1.1, gestures of association with communities are found to be common throughout the Pindaric corpus, but the author sees a distinction between the ‘I’ that portrays itself directly as part of the community and the ‘I’ who is connected to the community but also at the same time not fully part of it. The latter is found to be by far the more common across genres, but the former is particularly common in paeans, a point that the author explains with reference to the paean’s focus on local communities and the concern for affirming communal identity outweighing other factors. Meanwhile, gestures of association with individuals and families (1.2) are found only in certain genres, most notably in epinicia, with singular examples in the encomia, hyporchemata, and parthenia; some genre-specific tendencies include the parallelism of victor and the ‘poetic I’ in epinicia, and the concreteness of bonds between the ‘poetic I’ and other individuals in encomia and partheneia through the setting of the symposium or ceremony (in comparison with epinicia). In 1.3, the ‘poetic I’ is shown as cultivating a close association with divinities related to poetry but less so with those unrelated to poetry; in passages with the Muses, there is a tendency for the ‘I’ to take on a strong identity and active poetic agency in epinicia, but a more subordinate role in paeans and dithyrambs, while the relationship with the Charites is more consistent across genres. Gestures of dissociation (1.4) appear to be genre-specific as they are found more often in genres with a personal (rather than purely communal) reference – i.e., most commonly in epinicia (and, to a lesser extent, encomia). Gestures of association and dissociation with other poets and singers (1.5) are analogously used by Pindar to situate the ‘poetic I’ in the poetic tradition but also to set the ‘I’ apart from it to highlight Pindar’s innovativeness and creativity.

The second chapter (‘Vermittlung’) investigates the bridging function of the ‘poetic I’, i.e., the ‘poetic I’ enabling connection of people or events in different times, places, or states. In 2.1, the author submits that the poet bridges time by announcing information from a different time (e.g., victory proclamations) only in epinicia (with a possible parallel in the witness role in Parth. 2); bridging time for the purpose of commemoration is attested in multiple genres but seems almost entirely restricted to genres with a strong personal reference; meanwhile, the clearest and most developed cases of bridging time for the purpose of imposing an interpretation occur in paeans and dithyrambs. Bridging space (2.2) is shown to be a well-documented function of the ‘poetic I’ across genres, though with some differences: movement and integration into performance contexts seem more pronounced and explicit in paeans, parthenia, and encomia. The ‘poetic I’ also bridges the boundaries between humans and gods and between the living and the dead (2.3); while there are no no significant differences between genres in attestations of the ‘I’ connecting the human and divine spheres, communication between the living and the dead seems to be found only in genres with a strong personal reference (epinicia, threnoi). The chapter ends with a look at the restrictions to the bridging function (2.4). In some cases, the ‘poetic I’ withholds information or claims silence (often through Abbruchsformeln), while the ‘poetic I’ at other times points out its own limitations of knowledge; the limited number of examples render conclusions about generic differences difficult.

Interaction (‘Interaktion’) between the ‘poetic I’ and others is the subject of the third chapter. In section 3.1, the author focuses on the presentation of the ‘poetic I’ as voluntary or obligated in its interactions with others, particularly regarding performance of song; a strong genre-specific distribution is found, where statements of voluntariness and obligation are found predominantly in genres with a personal reference (epinicia, encomia, parthenia). Reciprocity between the ‘poetic I’ and others is investigated in 3.2, where a generic differentiation is noted between epinicia and paeans/prosodia. Reciprocal relationships with humans (particularly the laudandus) feature prominently in epinicia, unlike in paeans and prosodia; reciprocal relationships with gods appear less often in epinicia, while paeans and prosodia appear more fully engaged in the world of the gods or with the community than epinicia. The final section (3.2) investigates instructions for action, which appear throughout the Pindaric corpus. Some generic differences are detected: the second-person imperatives, with which the ‘poetic I’ acts as a counsellor or teacher, are only (with one possible exception) found in genres with a personal reference (epinicia, encomia, hyporchemata), while instructions relating to the performance are found in many genres but particularly associated with genres where the actions of performers are thought to be of greater importance (paeans, hyporchemata, parthenia) and in traditional refrains. Third-person imperatives and impersonal expressions are less clearly bound to individual genres but appear to be used when the ‘poetic I’ needs to be in the background.

The book succeeds in providing a study of the ‘poetic I’ based on an examination of the entire surviving Pindaric corpus and in demonstrating the disadvantages of some of the current assumptions about Pindar’s ‘poetic I’. In addition, the work is thorough, the bibliography is current and extensive, and the analyses of individual examples are almost always sensible. However, I found myself asking: to what extent is it genre that is dictating the role of the ‘poetic I’? Time and again, the author notes exceptions to the generic distribution presented as well as overlaps or similarities between genres. These observations are explained with reference to the performance context, but when some of these observations are based on a couple of fragmentary passages and when the generic labels used often rely on and bring in matters of performance context, it made me wonder – even with the author’s careful acknowledgements of the scanty evidence – how useful a generic perspective is in each instance and how far it can take us.

The issue is compounded by cases of variance within our best attested genre, the epinicia. Therefore, although the connections that the author draws between genre and the ‘poetic I’ are persuasive in most cases, the implications of the different roles of the ‘poetic I’ may have been more consistently and convincingly explored by systematically applying a broader, performance-context frame (in contrast or in addition to a strict genre frame). For example, the author often uses the genre-centric phrase ‘genres with a personal reference’ to refer to genres where the ‘poetic I’ seems to have a stronger, unique identity. This label is effective in referring to the ad hoc grouping of some genres, but why these genres might share these particular features (e.g., similar demands of the performance context) is not fully explored and the significance of the similar behaviours of the ‘poetic I’ in these genres (and in the exceptional cases) is lost. Of course, the line between what is a generic feature and a performance feature is at times a matter of definition, but the lengthy genre section of the Introduction did not satisfactorily clarify these issues. My only other niggle is the Conclusion, most of which consists of short demonstrations of the book’s methodology beyond Pindar. These demonstrations are welcome and interesting, but it seems odd that the author treats the Rigveda, Bacchylides, Aristophanes, Callimachus, and Gregory of Nazianzus, but not archaic and classical Greek lyric poetry in general, the obvious corpus for the method’s further application; indeed, references to other Greek lyric poetry beside Bacchylides are scarce throughout the book.

Rollen in Relation is an important study of the ‘poetic I’ that will long be consulted by scholars of Greek lyric. While it does not answer the question of ‘Who speaks?’ that has preoccupied much scholarship, it provides a sound basis for further generically aware theorising of the ‘poetic I’ in Pindar and insightfully opens up a new approach by inviting us to ask what kind of relationships the ‘poetic I’ creates.