CALLIMACHUS: THE HYMNS

with Introduction, Translation, and Commentary by Susan A. Stephens

OUP (2015) p/b 324pp £18.99 (ISBN 9780199783045)

Callimachus of Cyrene, a poet who worked in Alexandria and whose floruit was in the 3rd century BC, was also much more than a poet (Peter Parsons’s excellent article on him in The Oxford Classical Dictionary amply demonstrates his versatility). There have been full-scale commentaries on individual hymns, but this is the first anglophone effort in recent times to cover all six of them, and S. has performed a difficult task in an admirable way. The Introduction is followed by the text (with apparatus criticus) and translation—rather annoyingly following the text, rather than on facing pages—and commentary; there is also an introduction to each of the hymns, where, inter alia, each hymn’s relation to the Ptolemies (a highly important topic) is covered.

The Introduction includes a welcome section on the construction of the Callimachean hexameter, contrasted with, and so much more carefully contrived than that of Homer, though of course the nine ‘Laws’ or ‘Bridges’ which S. lists were not prescriptive, but described the poet’s actual practice; it would not be absurd to compare and contrast the Ennian with the Ovidian hexameter (of course, one of the hymns is in elegiacs, for reasons that are still debated). Again, S. shows in detail in tabular form how Callimachus used Doric and Epic-Aeolic forms, a feature which would be at least equally welcome in an edition of (for example) Theocritus. And there is a long, helpful, and detailed account of the manuscript and papyrus evidence for the hymns (of several lost codices, one seems simply to have vanished from its location in Madrid!), though S. tells us that her text is, in practice, largely based upon that of Pfeiffer, upon whose stemma codicum, set out here, S. relies. Despite a few annoying lacunae, the text is reasonably securely based (whether a bold suggestion by Lloyd-Jones in an obelised line of the Hymn to Artemis will eventually be accepted or regarded as an attempt to improve the poet remains to be seen).

Other important aspects of the Introduction include ‘Intertextuality’, i.e. what we used to call parallels (or deliberate contrasts) with Homer and other poets, where Callimachus’s virtuosity shines forth. However, 80% of his vocabulary appeared in Homer, who—in one way or another—is an ever-present influence. Not that that stops Callimachus from coining plentiful neologisms: indeed, in the Hymn to Delos alone, I noted nearly 30 cases of a neologism (often hapax) or new variant on a (typically) Homeric form. Again, in a useful section on the hymnic tradition and Callimachus’s hymns, S. rightly distinguishes between the ‘mimetic’ and the ‘non-mimetic’ hymns: in the latter, the speaker invokes the god by name and narrates his/her deeds, whereas in the ‘mimetic’ hymns the same parts are presented as an immediate event taking place. Here we have three of each.

The Introduction effectively dismisses the old tradition of the ‘quarrel’ between Callimachus and Apollonius Rhodius (it does not need Sherlock Holmes to see how the story could have arisen): S. merely refers to a ‘rich and very interactive poetic environment’. One could wish that S. did not feel a need to refer to ‘strategies of poetic exchange’ of which, as she rightly says, ‘we know so little’. There is, let it be added, much more in this long and satisfactory Introduction which repays careful attention.

However, the commentaries are a different matter. As S. says, in order to accomplish her goal of providing a convenient and accessible edition, accompanied by ‘notes sufficient for ease of reading,’ the result is that ‘constraints of space have required a certain amount of triage’. Of course, the individual commentaries on the Hymns benefit from the detailed studies which each of them, mainly in English, have received in recent years, and S. rightly refers readers to earlier work when necessary. Thus, while the commentaries are briskly unfussy, and are limited to the relevant, including explanations for neologisms, the overall level is much closer to that of a ‘red Macmillan’ than to a Cambridge ‘Green and Yellow’, and seems to be aimed at an undergraduate readership (so, for example, many less familiar verb forms are parsed, and even relatively straightforward points of grammar or accidence are explained). That said, the book provides a valuable introduction to the range of a distinguished author who is still perhaps been best known for his epigrams , but so much of whose output, despite excellent work by scholars on Hecale and Aitia, survives only in fragmentary form.

Callimachus became a ‘cultural monument in Roman poetry’ (B. Acosta-Hughes, 2009) and Propertius (3.1.1) sings, Callimachi Manes, et Coi sacra Philetae / In vestrum, quaeso, me sinite ire nemus. S. has now given us a welcome (and far from expensive) entry into a relatively unfamiliar part of the Parnassian grove occupied by Callimachus.

Colin Leach

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